A Konnect Africa Interview with Uche Okonkwo: Writer & Winner of the Etisalat Inaugural Flash Fiction Prize

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Thank God it’s Monday! Welcome to a new week, welcome to a new day!

Fresh off the press, Konnect Africa presents an interview with short story maestro and award-winning writer, Uche Okonkwo. A lover of words, Uche won the inaugural edition of the Etisalat Flash Fiction Prize and writes amazing short pieces on her blog, Truth and Fiction  http://yourstruly-uche.blogspot.co.uk/.

A self-described pen-for-hire, Uche Okonkwo is definitely a new-generation writer to watch out for!

We hope you enjoy learning from her story of purpose, growth and focus.

Uche Okonkwo

KA: Let’s get up, close and personal; Give us a bit of history and ethnicity.

I am from Delta State, I was born in Calabar, Cross Rivers State, and my family moved to Lagos State when I was maybe three or four. I’ve lived there most of my life.

KA: Family…

I’m the third of five girls.

KA: Are there any experiences in your growing years that stand out? For good or bad?

I’d say my childhood was fairly ordinary, in a good way. I can’t say I’ve had any really ‘bad’ childhood experiences.

KA: Education; Where and what did you study? Did you have to take any additional classes to hone your writing?

My first degree was in Education, with English Language, and I studied at University of Port-Harcourt. The first time I ever took any kind of course in creative writing was in my final year, but I’d been writing for several years by that time. I studied for my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.

I can’t say I’ve had to take any additional writing classes, but in 2011 I had the opportunity to attend the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie. Getting in, in the first place helped to build my confidence, and the workshop itself was a huge learning experience. I also made a few great friends who I have remained close with over the years.

KA: Did you or your folks ever imagine you would become a writer?

I feel like writing came almost by default for me, so it wasn’t a case of me deciding I was going to be a writer. I started writing when I was in primary school, before I even knew that writing could be a job. There was a time I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but that was only because when we were kids every kid wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or banker or engineer.

I got to know myself better and by senior secondary I knew I didn’t want to be anywhere besides arts, and so I went there. The writing has always been a constant; editing, which I also do, was borne out of it and also comes naturally. So now, regardless of what day job I do, I’m determined that writing has to be a major part of it, and that I cannot neglect my own personal work as a writer, outside of the job. I currently work part time for Arthouse Contemporary, Nigeria’s foremost art auction house, as a writer/editor and social media manager, and I write and edit freelance as well. Whatever else I do, writing will always be a priority for me; my first calling, so to speak. My parents never really tried to force me in any particular direction, thankfully.

KA: You are this multi-talented writer, and I am curious, do you think you were born with all this innate talent and drive?

I believe I was born with it, but I also think that my environment made it possible for the writing to be expressed. I grew up surrounded by a lot books (both my parents studied English at the university), which helped feed my imagination and made me want to tell stories, like these writers.

KA: What are your influences as a writer? How do you utilise your experiences outside Nigeria’s shores to influence your writing?

I consider the whole of my life experience my influence: my faith, my personality, family, history, nationality, gender, the writers I read, the movies I see, conversations I overhear, foods, people, places, everything. I don’t know if any one thing plays a bigger role than the other, and I don’t think it matters.

Schooling outside Nigeria has made me more aware of an international audience. So now, while I still write in a way that comes naturally to me as a Nigerian I’m more aware of my reader who might have been born and bred in Liverpool, for instance, and so I try to help him or her along a little. It’s a fine balance, though.

KA: Your specialty seems to be Short Stories; what’s the pull?

Short stories because it usually takes less time to get a first draft of a story done, as opposed to a novel. Also, I think writing short stories comes easier to me because of my quiet personality. I read and enjoy both novels and short stories, but short stories are my preference for now, even though I realize they are usually harder to sell. If an idea for a novel that I absolutely must write comes to me, then I’ll write a novel.

Uche Okonkwo

KA: Have you considered publishing a collection?

I’m currently working on putting a short story collection together.

KA: Do you see yourself as a ‘genre specific’ writer?

I don’t really think of my writing in terms of genre, but if I had to I’d say I write mostly literary fiction.

KA: Who are your favourite authors and what books have made the most impact on you?

I enjoy Chimamanda Adichie’s work and will probably buy anything she writes. Ngugu wa Thiong’s Wizard of the Crow is a favourite. More recently I read and loved The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson. I also like Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Remainder by Tom McCarthy.

KA: How did winning the inaugural Etisalat Flash fiction prize impact your confidence as a writer?

It’s always a good thing to have your work recognized, so I would say it has helped my confidence. It’s also something good to look back on for encouragement.

KA: How do you prod yourself to write on those awful days when it just seems so hard?

Sometimes I don’t prod myself; I just choose not to write. Other days, instead of doing any new writing I edit or re-read already written stories. Sometimes I go through story ideas I’ve previously written down, to see if they spark anything. Other times, when I have nothing else to write, I ask myself how I’m feeling and I write that, and why I feel the way I feel at the time. Sometimes I just write anyway, write whatever, taking comfort in the fact that nobody gets to see it if I don’t show it. I believe there’s some benefit to just writing, even though you know it’s not something you could ever use, maybe because it’s not good enough. At the very least it’s a kind of exercise, like working a muscle.

KA: You are at a Writers Workshop; what do you tell the eager listeners who seek to better their skills?

Read more, especially the kinds of things you want to write. And write. And read about writing. Build a relationship of trust with people whose opinions you respect and who know good writing and will be honest with you. Show them your work; listen to what they say.

KA: What’s the best perk of being a writer?

The writing itself, particularly the ‘finished’ work.

KA: Has Social Media been of any benefit to you?

Definitely. Blogging, Twitter, Facebook have helped to give me some exposure and to connect with and discover other writers.

KA: Owning and running a blog; the highs and lows.

Every positive comment is a high. It’s also quite exciting when you meet someone you don’t know and they tell you they read and like your blog.

I don’t think I’ve had any lows with blogging.

KA: Do you believe that writers can change the world?

They probably can. Words are a powerful medium.

KA: 5 life lessons you will not forget in a hurry…

  • Don’t dwell too much on the past or live perpetually in the future

  • It’s okay to admit you don’t know everything

  • It’s okay to be introverted

  • Drink lots of water

  • Trust God

KA: Inspire an aspiring African writer in one sentence…

Write!

© 2014 – 2017, Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya. All rights reserved.

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