At fifteen, Njideka is caught in the the deep political turmoil beleaguering Nigeria. When the government arrests and tortures her father following a peaceful protest, he return home a shadow of himself: a changed man. Njideka's family begins to break apart under the yoke of a reckless regime. It is a story of hardship, abuse, and the resilient spirit of those desperate to breathe the air of freedom.
I got the chance to read this novel before the interview and the original intention was to do a review of the book and then interview the author but I was just simply amazed at the story and the guts the author has to write this part of the new African story.
This is a story of love, loss, goddesses, and how everything has an almost symbiotic relationship. The protagonist in this novel seems almost like a victim but after reading the novel and taking a deep breath, you are simply reminded about our unbreakable spirits as humans. This books gets 5 stars and you can pick it up from Barnes and Nobles. Enjoy the interview with Ms. Ukamaka Olisakwe.
Who is Ukamaka?
I am a mother of two young girls (10, and 8 years old) and a boy (5 years old). I was born in 1982 in Kano, Nigeria. Today, I work in a regional bank in Eastern Nigeria, where I also reside with my husband.
When did you start writing?
Well, unlike some other writers, writing didn't come easily to me. I wish it did. I wish that I was inspired by powerful, mind-blowing stories I read as a child. Mine came from pain, from trying to live and understand why people change. I had a devastating experience at the age of nine, during the bloody Kano riot of 1991. My dad threw caution to the wind and went in search of my cousins, who were stuck in the belly of Kano. I remember that choking fear that came every minute bearing down on me as I sat in front of our gate waiting for Dad. I willed for Dad to be safe. I remember too how hard Mum had cried and prayed for his safety. It was thoroughly devastating. And even hours later after Dad returned with my cousins, (they were rescued by soldiers), the fear did not go. I think that was when I began to pay attention to details, details that would groom my writing. That fear stayed for years. They became demons that haunted me, made me afraid of the beautiful city. These demons stayed still, blurred my memories of my existence until I put down my first word after the birth of my first child. I was exorcised of those demons. I found that I could actually exorcise with my pen, that I could recreate history, could raise the dead and give them life again, that I could make Dad a super hero and he would be safe. It was a kind of victory. Though I never took this new form of freedom seriously by writing a full book about my characters; they were mainly bits and pieces of words written in my diary. But it all changed after I began my work in the bank and a colleague read one of my stories and made it his duty to force me into full-time writing. That was in 2010.
What were the challenges that you faced putting this story together and publishing it?
The major challenge was putting down the story. You see, I had this fabulous bestseller up in my head. I slept and dreamt of it. I did that a lot. I made a lot of plans, designed my plot, but they ended up not being used. The characters would not come to life. Then I found it wasn't to be that way. The plots would not work. The bestseller idea fizzled out. Then I started all over with the name ‘Njideka’. And she came. The story finally came.
Another challenge was losing my sleep. That was tortuous because at a point, I was so exhausted that I wished to sleep for days. Really, it is difficult combining work and writing. You get to the point of exhaustion and this story is begging to be written. You are so tired, and there are these forlorn voices begging, whispering, “Please, please, please, free us,”, you just wish to shut them up, to rest, but you have no option but to write their words else you risk insanity. And at the end, you are so wasted, your nerves beg for rest and when you close your eyes, to sleep, the alarm goes off. Grrr! That, I must say, is very annoying.
The final challenge is getting published. That is a long tale for another day. However, my encounter with the publisher of Piraeus Books (Williamstown, Massachusetts) was a game changer for me. It’s the most supportive experience I have ever had as a writer. I am very thankful to Piraeus Books.
The major victory is in giving voices to the spirits of my characters. And then the satisfaction and slight pride, and maybe a tinge of smugness that comes with being listened to; when you are allowed to tell your own story.
What author inspires your writing?
I have no favorite author. I have read a lot of authors, both African and American. Well, I should say that I was drawn by Buchi Emecheta’s ,The Joys of Motherhood. That story of Nnu Ego touched my being and made me appreciate African works. Another whose strong voice resounds is Lola Shoneyin. There is this handsome and mannish way, this strength that reverberates through her characters. I see her as a very strong person with the same voice naturally. I read Ken Saro-Wiwa's, A forest of Flowers and I loved Dukana through his eyes. And then there is Elnathan John. His short stories are always of pain and loss, reminds you to appreciate the little you have, and to seek for a way to deal with the harsh realities of our environment. The greatest to me remains, unarguably, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. So, I have no particular author whose works alone inspires me.
My inspiration mostly comes from the little things that live with us; issues that we turn a blind eye to; one that accumulates until the point when it bursts out and everyone is like, “Oh, God! When did this begin?”
Most of the life changing experiences we have emanates from the things we ignore. Just like a child who you do not pay attention to as she sulked or as she suffered. This child begins to feel that she is hated by you . But you do not pay any attention to her until you find out that she has been raped and abused and as such has become mentally twisted. This overwhelms and haunts you and you start to believe that you are being haunted by someone from the village. That’s the kind of story that inspires me. Those little things, incidences that would end up sinking a whole community. Those are what matter.
What informed this need to tell this story or how did this story come to you?
As a child, I had always wanted, wished, that I posses extraordinary powers. It started with my interests in cartoons, of girls having superman powers, saving their cities. I think the turning point came after my experience of the Kano riot. The images of pain I saw, experienced, stayed with me. That memory stuck with me. To me, Dad was my superhero. I wanted to be like him, fearless. And this reflected in my story, helped in forming the character of Njideka. I felt she should become a kind of Messiah, like I had wished for, like dad was.
Then something happened along the story. I couldn't stop the tribulations that came Njideka’s way. I had wanted her to truly become the superwoman, to save her world, to be above pain. But other characters, spirits, objected. I realized it was time for people to stop yearning for a Messiah. Truly, people do not know their true power. We blamed colonialism and the Biafran war aftermath for our deplorable state - which in truth was, but our leaders, those who lived and survived the depressing times became Lords unto themselves and subjected their own people to a more tortuous experience. It is absurd that the same people who are quick to point a finger, to blame the past, are the same people who jump into the bandwagon of corruption and run over their own kin. It was time for people to stop whining for help. We are equipped, naturally, with all it takes to rule our world. This is reminiscent of the happenings in our country, Nigeria. We are more religious than most people at the surface, I think. A typical Nigerian will meet a wall and you would expect him to find a ladder and climb over that wall or punch a hole through it, to even realize that it is made of loose sand. But he would kneel down, hands up in heavens, or towards a pastor, seeking for help for a problem whose solution lies within his reach. We are all guilty of that offence. It is time we realize that we are equipped already. So, the people in my book stood up and stayed up until change came.
Are there any aspects of this story that is from the familiar (people you know/stories that you heard as a child)?
I just write stories. There are no plot, no drawing board. My characters come alive as I whip my pen, like spirits. They whisper their stories to me. The familiar comes from the setting; you are able to flow freely if you are in a familiar place, a place of memories.
Your story mixes mysticism with other aspects of daily life - what is your take on African mysticism?
African mysticism focuses on the communion, divinity, and interaction with gods – those that have lived before, those whose exemplary lives are remembered and worshiped. When you open your mind, listen to the stories of how these gods, men, lived their pure lives, you would begin to get angry about why they were demonized in the first place. The problem was the conflict between African mysticism and that of Christianity or Islam. There was no middle ground; a room to understand what the people – Africans – believed in and why. If “they” had thoroughly studied the African approach, there would have been a common ground. But this was a colonialist decision.
I believe in Mysticism, in something that reminds me of a greater being out there watching me; my actions, the one who frowns when I do the wrong thing. I want to believe in something that reminds me of a moral boundary.. There is an underlying intricacy in life, even for those who choose to believe that there are no moral boundaries - that line we shouldn't cross. But there are boundaries. There is a superior being. There is more than meets the eyes. I refuse to believe anything that lets me have it all, that let me live life like one on a roller coaster. And African spirituality intrigues me. It is sad that we were brought up to hate our customs. I intend to give credence to my Africanness through my works. It makes us appreciate where we came from.
These goddesses that you mention in your book like -Isele, are they really from Igbo culture or were they created for this story?
They were created for my book, but they were inspired by real life characters, those who have impacted my life in one way or the other. Isele is the alias of my late grandmother. She was the ideal woman, a lovable home maker and peacemaker. Back in the past, women like these were remembered. Even in Christendom, those who had lived such exemplary lives are made Saints. The others – Nma and Omalicha – meaning 'beauty' came from the Igbo saying of “Agwa bu nma nwanyi”, true beauty is in the character of a woman. These goddesses are who we are, who we aspire to be.
Your book is quite thematic and dark in certain areas dealing with issues of hatred within families, incest, spiritual warfare (ogbanje) and the concept of reincarnation - what do you want us as readers to take away from this book?
These are series of life truths, those things that are above normal comprehension, or those that we choose to pretend do not exist. They will not disappear or cease to exist if we don’t talk about them. These anomalies in life intrigue me. I wanted to look at them, to understand how they make or break a person. Perhaps, we would begin to understand; to pay attention to their importance.
In your own words - if someone who has never read the book asks you to describe this book in a few sentences - how will you?
The book emphasizes the decisions we take. Most times, we play gods with people’s lives, and these decisions we take shape their lives, disrupt or transform the balance of nature. That is what Eyes of a goddess is about: a story told through the eyes of “one” and ruminating through the minds of “many”.
How will you describe the lead character Njideka?
Njideka is a complex character. She plays two roles: A normal girl who faces the difficulties of life; who struggles to grow up in harsh conditions of both family and society. And then as a girl who lives life unsure of where she belongs, of how to comprehend the different choices life presents her with. Her strength lies in her ability to withstand harrowing circumstances; how she was able to let love overshadow pain and hatred. There ought to be a part of Njideka in everyone.
You story swiftly moves to different elements that occurred and affected the Igbo people - did you have to research these elements?
The setting was Anambra State, Nigeria, just after the military handed power to a democratic government. It was a rule that went bad in Anambra State. I have cousins, relatives, whose experiences are still as fresh as yesterday, though it is over ten years now. Schools were shutdown for months, civil servants were not paid salaries and it went from bad to worse. I remember visiting home and watching as my cousins, who attended the public schools, loitered around, lost touch with the already poor academic standard. Most of them sold recharge phone cards; while some joined the motor park business. It was a time in Nigerian history when you saw the light dim on ordinary people, who are also us. I wrote this book not only because I had watched circumstances shape people’s lives , but because people’s voices and cries for a savior were silenced by the clutter of corruption. And it is our job as writers to give a voice to the silenced spirits.
What is your story?
Last Updated ( Monday, 16 April 2012 03:09 )