INTERVIEW: Cheluchi Onyemelukwe, Winner, Nigeria Prize For Literature

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe functions as a writer, lawyer, law lecturer at Babcock University and gender advocate, but it’s her literary genius that is making waves at the moment. Early this November, she was announced as the winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by Nigeria LNG, with her novel, The Son of the House. Also the winner of the 2019 Sharjah International Book Fair prize, and the SprinNG Women Authors Prize, her novel was equally nominated for the Giller Prize in 2021. HENRY AKUBUIRO chatted with her on her latest feat and her flourishing writing career.

It has been a wave of validations, rave reviews and publishing contracts from across the globe for your book, The Son of the House. Did you see all this coming?

(laughs) How can anybody see this coming, especially when you had experienced years of rejections? You probably hoped there would be people who would read the book and enjoy it. But the kind of back-to-back good things that have happened to this book, I wouldn’t say I was expecting them, though I had a feeling it was a good book. Maybe if it had been published when I wrote it, it wouldn’t have attracted the same attention.

When did you write it?

I wrote the first draft in 2013. I sent it out for four years before it was accepted for publication. But it wasn’t until in 2019 that it came out, followed with rave reviews and other good things back to back. It has been very exciting.

What encounters —physical, spiritual or scribal —that aided your journey as a writer?

I was raised in an environment where books and stories surrounded me. Those were my first encounters. My parents —my dad in particular —really enjoyed books. He would give me books. We had a lot of books to read. So that made me think I could be a writer. Then I would write short stories when I was in secondary school, and people would enjoy them. But when I went to study law, it kind of diverted me, though I knew I would always come back.

In those early days you were penning short stories, did you ever think you were going to be a consummate creative writer? When did you start taking writing seriously?

I have always taken writing seriously. I have now written a law text, articles, and all that, but my primary goal of being a writer was writing fiction. I have always written fiction. I wrote some poems in university, but my main genre has always been prose.

How close to reality is your award winning novel, The Son of the House, in the Igbo and Nigerian societies? Are there specific social contexts that inspired this novel?

I wanted the novel to be a realistic depiction of the context in which I grew up, whether you are looking at people having health issues in their homes, sometimes not being treated well; whether you are looking in terms of the different plot lines I have in my book, which are imaginatively created from a genuine background. Igbo communities are different in terms of how they approach certain things. But what I describe in my book I have heard people say to me was what happened to somebody that they knew, and things like that. I wanted it to be deliberately rooted. It was very brave for it to be rooted in the cultures of certain communities in Igboland and their understanding of the dynamics of living in those areas.

Which of the characters in the novel gave you the most challenge, and at what time did you finally say, “Yes, this is it? I got it.”

(laughs) I honestly think I have different challenges with different challenges with different characters. With Nwabulu, for example, having lived the life she did, one of challenges I had was depicting her realistically without making her too much of a pitiful character, realising she still has elements of urgency. So finding that balance of not being so melodramatic while still invoking feelings in the reader that I wanted was something I had to find. I remember sending the manuscript to an agent who said he felt that sense of place and really wanted to feel more of that character, and I understood what he was saying, because that was a struggle that I had to present to her in a full-fledged form. You see her and you see a human being who’s struggling but still has some power.

With Julie, it was more of getting away from Nwabulu really. I had to take a little break to put on my thinking cap. Her character is interesting and in a sense rootless. She invokes some kind of sympathy in the reader. She makes some choices, and you look at her and say, “How do we look at her? Maybe if I were in her shoes, I would have done the same.”

Did you at any point feel like stopping the story out of frustration or distraction?

I didn’t at any time feel like stopping the book. The reason was that I already had books that I stopped before then (laughs). So I was determined to get till the end, even if it never went anywhere. There were parts of the story that were easy and other parts that were difficult, but I was determined to get till the very end. And when I did, I was very happy. It still had to undergo a lot of changes from the first draft till the time it finished.

How long cumulatively did it take you to write the book?

It took me maybe 18 months to write. Initially, it took me about a year to write and I took some time off and did some significant rewriting over a period of six months.

What was at the back of your mind the night before the Nigeria Prize for Literature?

(laughs) As a person of faith, I had prayed about it. I was also well aware that the other competitors that I was up against were good, and it could go either way. So I needed to come to a place of peace where, regardless of how it went, life would go on and my writing would go on. I exercise every evening, so the night before, I exercised and did a bit of what we call prayer walk. I actually felt good. Incidentally, the following day, the day of the announcement, one of the first alerts I saw on my phone was the Sharjah prize that I won some time ago. I strongly felt it was an omen, for it was given exactly the same day two years ago — you know how Google Photos brings up your memories, and I said, “Wow, this is going to be interesting!” (laughs).

You have won the Nigeria Prize for Literature, joining a long list of winners, and we all know 100,000 dollars doesn’t come cheap anywhere in the world. What do you consider the most important thing NLNG has done with this annual prize?

One of the most important things it has done is providing support for writers. I know people like to talk figuratively, but maybe because I am a lawyer, I say it as it is. Practically, many of us have made little or nothing from writing in terms of money. So giving that support, even if one never gets anything, is something to be appreciative of. Beyond that, the validation the prize gives is something to relish, because other good writers have submitted their entries, and you have been chosen as a winner, there is a certain validation that it gives to you. I don’t know any writer who writes primarily for a prize, for it can go anywhere. You may even keep coming second each year without winning it, and everybody knows you are good. I can see the prize even doing more for writers if we continue to push it.

Are you thinking of giving back to society? How do you intend to spend this money? Hope it’s not going to be the case of winner-takes-all?

(laughs) How does one answer that question? I have mentioned it before, but I will repeat it for this audience: I am really thinking of doing something for younger writers from 18 to early 30s. At that age bracket, you would like to encourage people and tell them that there is a place to go. I haven’t fleshed out the ideas, but, in the coming months, I will do that, whether it is a small grant, something that encourages one to keep thriving.

In your writings, are you always guided by feminism, because there is a criticism which has gained currency over time that many female Nigerian writers always write from that perspective, even with the passage of time? If you look at the trials of Nwabulu and Julie in the hands of a wicked, male controlled society, we get a déjà vu.

(laughs) I can imagine while many people say that —that female writers tend to write from that perspective. I think there is still a lot that needs to improve in the crusade for gender equality in Nigeria. So you can’t leave your constituency and start talking about every other thing. From many female writers, they come from personal experiences —what they see around them. When I was younger, I was thinking I was going to succeed from the same platform as boys. I think I have tried to do that in my various fields. But we can’t get out of the fact that there are some things we need to address from the experiences you have had as a woman in Nigeria. So that comes out in your writings.

So which brand of feminism do you subscribe to —we have those who believe in womanism, motherism, complementary, gender equality, and what not? Where do you fall?

I try not to attach a label to myself. All of them, however you look at them, whether you are coming from a feminist perspective or womanism perspective or humanist perspective, bring something to the conversation that’s ongoing, regardless of people’s aversion to different strands of it —all kinds of things have been written about social media feminism and feminism that doesnt actually do anything, and things like that. What we are all saying is that there is an issue we need to create an environment that is much more equal, that recognises the humanity in all of us: men and women. That’s what all of that is all about.

As a writer setting out, which writers inspired you? Which one do you have the best connection with?

I really enjoyed Chinua Achebe’s novels as did most people. I enjoyed them on a different level. I found him, and which was even when he was here, to be like a forefather, especially for Igbo people: you can actually translate everything you are reading into Igbo. I think it takes you to a whole level of kinship: the way he infused his politics into his writings, and his politics not being what you consider as government. So there is definitely that bond. Beyond that, I enjoyed reading all the early female writers, including Buchi Emecheta whom I read as a young person, which shaped my thinking. But I read very widely, all over the world. But these are people you look at and consider them almost like people you know from your family, as it were.

Buchi Emecheta, especially, has been lampooned by many critics for demonising his male characters. Do you have a different view from hers, because the male characters in her novels come across as useless, wicked husbands?

(laughs) Sometimes those people make good fictional characters; you don’t have a character that’s good all round, and you will sense it’s easier to write about them. But I can understand why people may feel about how those characters can be caricatures of real men. For me, I want to portray everything, both the good man and the bad man, and I think I do that in my book. There are terrible men and there are terrible women, and I think we are all capable of growth, but privilege gives men more opportunities than women.

Post-Chimamanda’s debut as a novelist in 2003/4 and an award winning writer, so many women have found their voices, hogging the limelight as writers. Is there anything her personality did for female writers like you?

I think Chimamanda Adichie and her success did what successful people do. It’s like what Venus and Theresa Williams did for tennis. It just tells you what’s possible — that this is possible —It inspires you. If you ever have a drive, it tells you, “This can be me”. We can look at it as small, but this is not small. You can tell yourself and say, “This is doable.”

How did you handle the time flux in the novel, because the narrative spans across four decades as regards Nwabulu and Julie?

It wasn’t really difficult for me, because that was what I set out to do. I tried to sort of imagine the story,, when we think about some of the stories we tell each other —about maybe we see a family that’s not doing well, and we say maybe somebody died during the war, and actually that’s when their troubles began, and then something else happened, and so on. By the time you talk about this, you have gone through a period of time. That was how I conceived this book— that people would read it and find themselves in different chunks of time without feeling, at any point, nothing changed. So I let the story drive the time.

What’s your connection with Nwabulu, because she seems to be your most favourite character?

(laughs) I wouldn’t say that. It’s funny, because people have asked me if I am Julie, which could be interesting. However, I would say Nwabulu was a character I have been dreaming of writing about since I was a child. The questions I created around her have always been questions I have always asked: how do we manage poverty? How much harder is it for women to live in society?

How do you feel as a writer an idea suddenly comes to you and there is no time to put it together?

As a writer, that can be tough. I have learnt that, if you don’t take hold of it, you’ll lose it. You wake up the next day and remember that you had an idea, but the idea is gone. It hurts. My phone has been of good help in that aspect. I always text things to myself, email and Whatsapp things to myself (laughs). That’s what I do. If I don’t have my phone handy, I try to continue thinking of that idea so that my brain registers it.

You are a lawyer and a writer, how do you combine these endeavours without letting one suffer?

It’s very hard. I haven’t mastered it all. Right now, my writing suffers from my legal profession, because I devote more time to law and teaching than I do to writing. I am trying to feel at peace with that, because these are things I think, at this time in life, I must do.

Winning the Nigeria Prize for Literature comes with high expectations, where do you go from here?

We all have different callings in life. As a lawyer, there is a kind of law you would practise and you would make more money than you would get with any prize. But that’s beside it. I am working on another book already. Writing is something I desired to do before ever before I became a lawyer. I imagined that, one way or another, it would take time, but a new book must surely surface.

Now you are writing another novel, do you want your book to stand on its own or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

That’s an interesting question. But I think, by inclination, I would like to write books that would stand on their own. But you find that, if you have themes that resonate deeply with you, they are most likely to come out in other books.

Professor Akachi Ezeigbo, for instance, did it with her Umuga trilogy, are you not thinking along that line?

I want my next book to be totally different. People have asked me about a sequel, and I said, well, I won’t like to shut the door on it; but it’s not what I am thinking at this moment.

If you could tell your younger writing self something, what would that be?

I would say, “Keep pushing; please, create time for writing as you push for other things.”

What have you learnt from this novel, especially the writing process?

I have learnt you need to be patient. Sometimes you need to be patient with the writing process itself. Sometimes you need to be patient with the story. Sometimes you need to be patient with the publishing process. Every aspect of writing requires patience —I don’t necessarily mean 10 or 12 years. Sometimes you need to spend more time thinking more deeply about your story and come back to it with a different perspective. With all that I went through with this book, I would say patience is a virtue every writer must cultivate.

There is so much importance attached to having a son in the Igbo, and when it happens to be the only son, the importance grows. How do we rewrite this story in our society?

I would even think we are rewriting it as we speak. But we have a long way to go. Honestly, I don’t know how we can solve it, because it’s one that is connected to our history and culture. When we think of the Umunna system, it’s all part of it. If we are talking about changing it, we must talk about individuals, about women and what we want, who have three or four girls, should that be the end of the world?

What does literary success look like to you?

Literary success is people reading you, finding resonance in your story, being able to reflect on different issues and find something to take away. As a reader myself, that’s what we consider a successful writer. Then you think of people who have done that all over the years —that’s what we all want.

Finally, how would this prize shape your craft? Is it going to make you a more cautious writer, a fearful writer or a prolific scribbler?

(laughs) This is the question of the hour. I am trying very hard for it not to be any of those things. As I am working on my new book, I just tell myself, “Just focus on the story”. If you don’t do so, it puts pressure on you and you begin to ask yourself, “What did I do with the other story that works?” It’s normal human behaviour. But I think one has to remember that this is one’s passion, whether it wins a prize or not, whether people love it or not.

-----------------------SUN NEWS INTERVIEW