Perhaps it’s her career in advertising that makes Suzanne a professional. I mean the practiced ease with which she responded to my questions, which although we corresponded via email, I could feel. And I am humbled by how someone with so much talent can be undemanding, moderately ambitious, as though the estimate of the literary world counts less than her estimate of her craft. There are a handful of Suzanne’s stories out there, but each story differs in range of vision, in outlook. Easily, we find a writer in search of something other than fame, something deeper, more human. Please ensure to click the links on the page this conversation appears.
Suzanne was born on August 28, 1984 in Calabar, Nigeria. She studied English and Literary Studies at the University of Calabar. Her short stories have appeared in print and online publications like African Writer, Sentinel Nigeria, New Black Magazine, Overtime and Open Wide Magazine. She participated in the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop in 2008 and British Council/Pan African University’s Creative Lives in 2009. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.
She says, “When I’m not writing I’m either pretending to write, reading, daydreaming, tweeting or watching a movie.”
Her short story, The Ghost of Joy, resonated so truly with me that I was moved to tears.
EMMANUEL IDUMA: What fascinates you about the writing process?
SUZANNE USHIE: The inexplicable thrill that comes with finding a potential good story. I go about with a notebook where I write down ideas as they come. It helps me assemble my thoughts. Writing itself, the actual act of filling a blank Microsoft Word page, doesn’t really fascinate me.
EI: I get the sense from your story “Dissembling” that history is happening now; history is not past. What we see every day in Lagos is what will be collated eventually. Aren’t we tired of all the class stratification?
SU: “Dissembling” wasn’t born out of a need to establish a link between the past and the present. I didn’t think of it in terms of history. I wanted to write a story about a wedding, but then again, whoever first said that fiction bears a multiplicity of meaning had a good reason for saying so.
I find human stratification alluring—the amusing arrogance with which people often dictate roles they have no business dictating and the sometimes-unconscious acceptance of those roles by other people. There are traces of this allure in my stories “Dissembling” and “Aunty Rose.”
EI: With stratification comes dangerous complicity. In "Dissembling," using the story of Faith and Nenka, you seem to agree with this. This complicity, I believe, arises when those less fortunate agree to be made inferior by those better placed—a constant form of needfulness that surpasses self-esteem.
SU: When "Dissembling" was published in Sentinel Nigeria a lot of people had opinions—they hated Nenka, Faith was a wimp, Faith had an inferiority complex, etc. There were some demands for a sequel. Alternative endings were offered. I became forced to provide intelligent answers to all kinds of questions. I hope no one recorded those conversations because I can’t defend those answers. I think Faith is a much more difficult character to understand than Nenka. Her motives aren’t entirely driven by low self-esteem. It just never strikes her that she can say “no” to Nenka and survive. Faith gives, Nenka takes. It’s an imbalance of roles. But those are the only roles they’ve played, or even understood.
EI: I first got published online in African Writer, yet I can’t bear to reread those early stories. What effect do you suppose this will have on the emerging writer, given the absence of a proper editorial process? We need these platforms, yes, but what must we sacrifice? Of course, this is not to undermine the efforts of African Writer, Naija Stories, etc.
SU: The Internet has made life easier for me and tons of other emerging writers. Good editing is still a challenge, but some of these online publications are cash-strapped and short staffed. They may not have money to pay contributors or staff, who works part-time and pro bono, even if they wanted. The first time I received an acceptance, I was pleased that I was going to be published. Editing was the last thing on my mind in that joyous moment. I know some writers who pay close attention to technique in the absence of good editors. I hear stories of writers who, after achieving some success, attempt to have their early stories taken off the Internet. However, some publications try to adhere to certain standards. That being said, no matter how reputable a publication is, I never read any of my stories after they publish them.
EI: While working on your story “The Ghost of Joy,” did you play with the idea of working on a story from Ayomide’s perspective? I wonder if this is something you could try out next. Benjy, Faulkner’s protagonist in The Sound and the Fury, is a good example. Just wondering.
SU: The "Ghost of Joy" came to me in the second person. I didn’t consider the possibility of telling the story any other way. It’s a complete story, so there won’t be a sequel.
EI: My idea is that writers can play with alternative approaches to the same story. Maybe this doesn’t work for you?
SU: Sometimes it works. Most times it doesn’t. The first approach I use usually ends up in the final draft.
EI: Do you suppose that as a newer generation of Nigerian writers we have the task of Nigerianizing the English language? We are aware of how important Soyinka is in this regard, maybe Saro-Wiwa with Sozaboy and Uzodinma Iweala with Beasts of No Nation. And of course, Roy’s God of Small Things set a useful postcolonial antecedent for the indigenization of the English language. In Nigeria, we have a rich tapestry of accents, Pidgin English, ethnocentric mannerisms, etc., we could work with.
SU: My characters sometimes say sha, now, sé/shey, na wa, or abeg—common Nigerian speak. But that’s as far as it goes. Pidgin isn’t my forte. Neither are ethnocentric mannerisms. I leave that to those who do it well.
EI: Have you considered that your stories could prepare you for motherhood, child-raising? I thought of this while reading “The Ghost of Joy,” recalling something John Irving said about writing stories because he didn’t want to experience the tragedy he described. And I know, being a writer of fiction myself, that often we try to purge ourselves of our nightmares.
SU: I doubt that my stories can prepare me for anything. I wrote a story about a mother raising a son with Down syndrome because I had never read a story like that in a Nigerian setting. Toni Morrison’s quote about writing the book you’ve always wanted to read is an old favorite of mine, which is ironic seeing as I won’t read the book after writing it. A friend said she couldn’t read “The Ghost of Joy” to the end because it was sad. Later, she admitted to being frightened that an incident in the story could happen to her.
EI: The emerging writer could become carried away by the possibility of renown. If you consider this problematic, can we argue that the need to speak to one’s times, the need to emphasize scholarship and not fame, transcends every other aspiration?
SU: At some point every writer reflects on the possibility of success. It’s important for writers to be published and read. A wide readership may give way to validation. With validation comes fame. This is not to say that scholarship isn’t important. MFA programs and writing workshops abound for those who choose the formal route. A less structured way for any writer to improve is to keep reading and writing. You learn without even knowing that way.
EI: Which books of the 21st century have influenced your writing most? How?
SU: From Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus I learned that humanity thrives even in villainy. Eugene made me develop a love-hate relationship with flawed characters. I hope it has influenced my writing.
EI: Do you suppose more writers of fiction should pay attention to creative nonfiction? Are there possible advantages? Possible dangers?
SU: Some writers write fiction and creative nonfiction with equal grace and proficiency. Not every writer is able to achieve this balance, though. A writer friend said she stopped writing creative nonfiction because it had damaged her ability to write fiction. I respect One Day I Will Write About This Place for its inventiveness of language and lush prose. It’s so beautifully written that I forgot it was nonfiction while reading it.
EI: Joan Didion likens working on fiction to working on a painting, and nonfiction to sculpting. Her thinking revolved around what I consider the difference between static details and malleable ones; in fiction we use details that we mold to suit our characterization, but in nonfiction we essentially work our writing into inflexible details. Is this similar to your creative process?
SU: I don’t really write nonfiction. There are times when I feel a story isn’t going anywhere, so I back away, read a novel or a Jhumpa Lahiri short story—I love all the stories in Unaccustomed Earth—in hopes that I’ll find my way back to my own story. I may write non-fiction to help me clear my head in those moments. I don’t have a defined creative process for each genre. I just write, or pretend to.
EI: I return to “The Ghost of Joy.” I return to your fine story because it reminds me so much of struggles I have experienced, witnessed. For instance, the complexities surrounding an inter-tribal union. Yet you’re also aware that there are ramifications of intra-tribal unions. Often, we might consider ourselves progressives to argue for the nullification of such borders, but have you considered the case for tribal pride? That intra-tribal unions could perpetuate indigenous languages?
SU: I suppose questions about inter-ethnic unions and culture and language will always come up when people read “The Ghost of Joy.” Ayomide’s mother, like me, is from Obudu in Cross River state. I like the name Lekan—I’m a bit obsessed with names—so I named Ayomide’s father Lekan, and of course he had to be Yoruba for the story to work. There are complexities in every union, be it inter-ethnic or intra-ethnic. My fiction is either set in Calabar, where I grew up, or Lagos, where I live. I’ve never tried to make a case for ethnic pride. The characters come and I tell their stories.
To my undiscerning writer’s eyes, "The Ghost of Joy" is a simple story about a mother’s love for her mentally challenged son. I’ve been told that that love is a reluctant one, borne more out of an absence of alternatives than free will. But I leave critics to do their job and readers, hopefully, to read and find meaning.
EI: Who is closer to your heart, the reader or the critic? Whose opinion weighs more?
SU: The reader.
EI: There’s a sense of non-finality in your stories, more or less like you are presenting a showcase of endless possibilities. Is this deliberate?
SU: I’ve been told that my endings are too abrupt, that I leave stories hanging, that it’s frustrating. I wish I could provide one of those profound literary reasons for doing so—endless possibilities and all, like you say. But it isn’t deliberate. The story just ends there.
EI: Ama Ata Aidoo makes the point that no one has conveniently defined what it means to be Third World, and I argue that equally no one has sufficiently defined what it means to be second class. Your work suggests that classes exist within the same space, and it sparks the contemplation that the world belongs to all of us, after all. Not the one percent. Not even the 99 percent.
SU: Classes do exist within the same space. I see that every day in Lagos. The world is large enough for everyone to find their place. But what that place is, and how to own it, that’s where the challenge lies.
EI: Is there an element of your creative process you are afraid of losing?
SU: I don’t have a defined creative process, but I love researching. Making character notes, asking question after question gleefully because the people I pester are too polite to tell me to get lost. My sister christens my characters with beautiful, unusual names. Last year, I harassed her for yet another name so intensely that she finally went, “Okay, okay just name her after me.” That story, “From an Empty Place," is in Fiction Fix. I’m quite the pest when I get hold of an idea. I wouldn’t want to lose that zeal.
EI: The question that comes to me after reading your essay "The Serious Guide to Becoming a Seriously Unfashionable Writer" is whether pop culture conflicts with literary life. Should we escape glamour for the sake of retaining our creative sanity?
SU: I won’t offer a decisive solution. It’s possible to exist in both worlds. It piques me, though, that female writers of African descent are often stereotyped: angry feminist, Ankara-loving, hair weave despising, and all that jazz. I wrote that piece as a reminder to never take myself seriously, no matter what.
EI: Do you make a distinction, then, between taking yourself seriously and taking your work seriously? I know the answer might be obvious, but in my thinking, the person is never disjointed from the work.
SU: The perception that every writer leaves a piece of themselves in their work has always been there. I’m not sure if it’s true—or always true. I take my writing seriously anyway. But myself? That’s a story for another day.
EI: Could you describe your living quarters? How does being there every day expand your capacities as a writer?
SU: I live in a one-bedroom apartment. My bedroom has the most soothing pastel green walls. I imagine that the ambience calms me while I write, preferably at night into the early hours of the morning, or at dawn into noon. I write on the couch in my living room, too. I don’t know if my small apartment has improved my writing, but I enjoy the solitude it brings. If a sentence looks odd, I read it aloud to know for sure. I laugh when a character amuses me. I frown when a character upsets me. People might be alarmed by this, which is why I prefer to write when I’m alone.
EI: If you ask me, we should call this character-intrusion, this possibility of being enraged by a character. I am always concerned that reality is trivialized as fiction. Do you share this concern?
SU: Not exactly. Perhaps because fiction that closely mirrors reality resonates with me more than any other kind of fiction. I find it very profound. That being said, I love a good book so when I stumble on one, I read and enjoy without trying to analyze its depth or lack of depth. And if the story is particularly haunting, it stays with me for days, months even, afterward. I felt that way after reading The Color Purple and A Thousand Splendid Suns.
EI: What event or experience do you consider most prominent and most useful in your writing career?
SU: Enid Blyton was the idol of my childhood—an all too familiar tale. I grew up longing to taste ginger beer, dreading to make a face in case the wind suddenly changed, and hoping the dining chair would develop wings and whisk me away to a faraway land. I also read Achebe’s Chike and the River, Saro-Wiwa’s Tambari, L. Solaru’s Time for Adventure,and many other books, but none of them held the magical allure of Blyton’s world.
So one morning, during general assembly in my primary school, I read a story called ”The Bird Egg Adventure,” which I had written for an English assignment. Like my previous stories and the novel I was writing then, it was very Blytonish, with a secret garden, a kind fairy, a mischievous elf, a bird egg that didn’t want to be found, and a precocious bird egg hunter that looked suspiciously like me. The students oohed and aahed as I read. Naturally this pleased me. Then the principal looked at me sternly and said that I didn’t write the story, that I must have stolen it from a book. We argued back and forth until I was asked to leave the stage. Now that I’m older, I understand why she found it implausible that a seven-year-old girl in Calabar could write about a foreign world with such sureness. After a few horrific attempts to write about unfamiliar worlds, I’ve now learned to write about what I really know.
EI: How do you juggle your writing with money-making? As I guess you are not full-time. I like when the writer Novuyo Tshuma refers to something of this sort as the nuisance of living. Is anything a nuisance for you when it has no bearing on your artistic work?
SU: Because I love writing fiction, I always make time for it no matter how hectic my full-time job as a copywriter gets. I don’t try to compartmentalize or equalize my experiences as a fiction writer and a copywriter, even though my experiences as an ad woman occasionally show in my work. ”Above the Line and Unforced Errors,” an early unpublished story, is set in advertising agencies. It’s a fun, laidback, half-glamorous world, and I’ve met the most intriguing and talented people there. Unsurprisingly, they inspire some characters in my fiction.
EI: Will you be famous for long fiction or for shorter work?
SU: I don’t know if I’ll be famous for anything. Nonetheless, I hope my long fiction will be read someday.
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Africa, Gambit, Nigeria, Suzanne Ushie