Professor Ngozi Chuma-Udeh is the author of thirteen creative works, some of which include Teachers on Strike, Dreams of Childhood, Echoes of New Dawn, The Presidential Handshake, The Thing between Your Legs and Chants of Despair. Recently, she presented her latest work of fiction, Forlon Fate, to the public, witnessed by HENRY AKUBUIRO, who, thereafter, interviewed her on her writings, feminism and scholarship in Awka, Anambra State. Chuma-Udeh, a professor of English at Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Igbariam, is the proponent of the new feminism school called Beside Feminism. She told The Sun Literary Review that her own brand of feminism emphasises on developing the girl child alongside the boy child, as against the dominant view that behind every successful man is a woman.
You started your writing career as a schoolgirl, who did you set out?
In the years of growing up, you had a lot of dreams; you saw the world through the eyes of a kid. You wanted to be a great writer like Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and other literary greats, and you read novels like Dennis Robbins, and you wanted to write and be like them. That was the inspiration. You also read Mills and Boons series, and wished to write such romantic novels.
Which period are you talking about?
When I was about 12, 13 years… in the 1980s. (laughs) So you had this concept that life was all about “they lived happily ever after”. After reading Dennis Robbins, you wanted to configure life through your writing. Those were the formative years. Then, as you grew up, you were sold into the harsh realities of life. You now grew up from that romantic foundation and move into more political issues. Now, you feel the pangs of life. You begin to see the wrongs in your contemporary society, and you want to participate in addressing them. It will now change your focus from that child growing up who thought that life was a bed of roses, and now begin to see certain things going wrong in the society, which you could correct through arts. So you now find yourself writing about life, hardship, pains. It is no longer that happy, jolly life –in fact, you shift as reality sets in into a contemporary writer. You now begin to feel the burden of the society. That also shapes your writing.
From those formative years of innocence, how did your first literary work emerge?
I was in secondary school then, and teachers were on strike. I witnessed, firsthand, the hardship that followed (during the time of Jim Nwobodo as the Anambra State governor). But I am not saying Teachers on Strike, my first book, was about Nwobodo. It is a work of fiction. My mother was at the forefront of events –she was among the primary and secondary school teachers at loggerheads with the government. Things were hard. I had to come back from school, for the hardship couldn’t sustain me. Again, there was a debilitating teachers’ strike when I was a secondary school teacher. The two strikes teamed up to form my plot in Teachers’ on Strike. I believe it x-rays the ills in the society.
From that debut fiction to the latest, how has your orientation changed as a writer?
I don’t think my orientation has changed. I am still a contemporary writer. Sometimes, I veer into feminism –the concern of women and children, not really feminism, because I have a brand of feminism I call Beside Feminism.
What do you mean by that?
In our contemporary society, we say behind a very successful man there is a woman, but I don’t think it is right to place your wife or woman behind you. How many men know what goes on behind them? If you want to give something to somebody behind you, first, you have to twist your hand, after which you have to take it backwards. But, if your wife is beside you, she will be looking at you and you will be looking at her, and, side by side, you match on in progressivism. So Beside Feminism is all about: the girl children should be developed along their male counterparts.
How is it different from Womanism?
Well, Womanism takes in a lot of things, like pride for women. Womanism may say: let the woman be superior to the man to some extent; it is a kind of struggle for supremacy. But Beside Feminism is not a struggle for supremacy; it is not a fight for power; it is not a struggle. It is just about you bringing up the girl child alongside her male counterpart so that, together, they will match on side by side in progressivism. If you bring both sexes up, give them equal opportunities to develop; it will not only create a progressive outlook, it will also increase the life expectancy of our men. So Beside Feminism targets increasing the life expectancy of men by reducing the stress factors in their lives.
So what’s your take on Chimamanda’s brand of feminism?
As I told you before, there are many brands, and I can’t say her own is wrong because I don’t agree with it; and she cannot equally say mine is wrong because she may not agree with me. Just as there are so many people, so are there so many ideas. So it depends on the one you adopt. Hers may work in some areas; mine may also work in some areas. So it depends on who is adopting it.
Except for some feeble noises in some literary circles, feminism appears to be going downhill, unlike in the days of Buchi Emecheta. Do you agree?
There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to feminism. People tend to twist, bend and squeeze feminism into their own corner to suit their purposes thereby making a bogus claim, like somebody who is lazy and can’t sweep his house; somebody who cannot cook for his family; somebody who cannot wash her clothes will tell you she is a feminist, and feminists don’t wash clothes. Feminists are the women who even wash clothes and clean the floors. That’s the idea of feminism: that you should allow the woman; give her the chance to develop, let her contribute to the development of not just her nuclear family but the society at large. So feminism means work to maintain a good family; live for your family; live for your husband; let your ideas match that of your husband; move beside your husband and be one in decision and in unison. Any other thing is not feminism.
You have just presented your latest work of fiction, Forlorn Fate. What inspired this book?
The Niger Delta issue inspired this book. I have looked at the Niger Delta as a sordid affair. The oil in Niger Delta has done more harm than good to the average Niger Deltan character. Look at this way: while we are there pursuing petty militant, who would have taught that it was the white man who engineered the militancy? That’s what Forlorn Fate says. This novel lays the blame not on the militants but on the Whiteman.
Does the novel has element of verisimilitude, or is a product of imagination?
It should have. Every work of art that lacks verisimilitude is useless. So I think, at certain level, the book is true to life.
The work has a broader canvas, I guess?
The work looks at man’s injustice to man. It looks at the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. It also looks at the distablisation of people –that ancestral distablisation of carrying off people –the horrors of transatlantic slave trade; the evils of slavery and, now, the tracing of roots of these people, because Colonel Nina Sortorne, a major character in the book, came to the Niger Delta as an American soldier on a rescue mission and then discovered she came home to her roots. She now discovered there was a myth around her family, her great-grand father being carried away to slavery, and her coming back; because, if not for that timely intervention, the community road would have been destroyed by the Whiteman. The Whiteman wanted them to vacate, because he wanted to build an empire at all cost, so he wanted to drive them away. He wanted to send the entire community into extinction. He tried chemicals on them, and they did not move. If you read the first paragraph, you will see where I said that no child of nature, no matter how minute, leaves his home easily. That was just the message.
You an Igbo woman raised in the eastern part of Nigeria. Locating the setting your novel in Niger Delta, a different region, how difficult or easy was it for you to achieve a symmetry?
I grew up in the creeks of the River Niger, and I knew when we were growing up, my grandmother would tell you not to cry too much, because Ijaw people were walking about. There was this belief that Ijaw people were headhunters (laughs).
In the last few years, you have been engaged in departmental and faculty administration in the university where you teach. How were you able to combine writing, motherhood, scholarship and varsity administration?
When you are given these positions, if you don’t take time, they will send you into academic obituary: you cannot write, because you are a HOD or a dean; you find yourself grappling between your academic work and the post you are holding. I am a professor now, so you cannot but write. Being a professor is not as difficult as holding an office. The up-and-coming ones should hold the offices now.
ANA convention holds this month, from October 31st to November 3rd, 2019. I learn you are a running mate to one of the presidential aspirants. This is the second time you are gunning for that position. Why are you coming back?
I believe I have something to offer to ANA. I have a great contribution to make to ANA. It doesn’t matter how many times I will be contesting; the most important thing is that there is something I want to give to ANA, and that I really want to achieve.
What makes Barrister Ahmed Maiwada a better alternative?
I believe in him. I believe in his art as a leader. He is a wonderful lawyer, a benign soul, and I have this belief he will move ANA to a greater height. Some people are talking about zoning. In ANA, we are not talking about zoning; we talk about the individual. If you, because you came from the zone where the presidency has been zoned, decide to elect a look warm person who will not work, it will be tragic. I am not saying any of the contenders is look warm (laughs). I am only trying to say we should give everybody equal opportunity to contest; let ANA decide who among them will handle the affairs better. This is not a do-or-die affair; we all have our lives to spend in ANA as writers. If you don’t win this year, next year, you contest again. That’s the way I see it.