ESTHER IFESINACHI OKONKWO’S NOTE ON CRAFT

ESTHER IFESINACHI OKONKWO’S NOTE ON CRAFT

close up view of an old typewriter

Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo’s Note on Craft

As part of the Notes On Craft series, I (Olakunle Ologunro) reached out to a number of writers and asked them to share a piece of work that is most significant to them, and what they think other writers can learn from it.

Here’s Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo’s pick: “The Writer and His Community” from the collection of essays, Hopes and Impediments by Chinua Achebe.

There is something I like to call the writer’s darkness. It is that moment when a writer, hungry for literary prowess, shaken by utter humiliation at the artlessness of their work, descends, for days and weeks, into the darkness, looking for secrets. The precipitating event is different for everyone: a reader gives haunting feedback, or the writer stumbles on a perfectly executed short story of a colleague, which heightens the lack of skill in theirs, or the writer receives, in a space of four months, sixteen rejections from sixteen different literary magazines. The plunge into the darkness is similar: racing thoughts about failure, an inability to look people in the eye, want for too much or too little food, and long moments spent in a state of stillness thinking about the precipitating event, dissecting the minute details, what was said and how it was said, everything so thoroughly painful. And then come the moments of slight clarity, when the writer asks, what must I do to stop feeling this way, and the answer, for writers for whom writing is a calling, is simply to write better. 

At this point, the writing darkness becomes a personal song, pieced together by the writer’s own instincts and eccentricities. Some writers bathe in craft books, interviews of renowned writers, lectures and talks, anything which might hold the possibility of an elixir guaranteed to unlock the dormant literary genius in them. Some read fiction, copy out whole paragraphs and chapters from admired books, attempting to figure out tricks and patterns. Some go straight to the desk and implement trial and error until they emerge with peculiar writing rituals.

The writing darkness is necessary, but like many harrowing experiences, it wounds you. You come out brutalized and blistered. And what I fear the most is that sometimes you come out having lost your chaotic, glowingly weird self. 

Mine happened in my first year in an MFA program. I had been sick with imposter syndrome before then, certain that my work was subpar, and in my first workshop had submitted a story from my application packet because at least it had been blessed by an MFA acceptance. For my second workshop though, I had to turn in a new story, one anxiously strung together. The workshop was immensely kind, but I could feel the lack of enthusiasm as they spoke. The story did not stir or inspire. It was not a good story. I knew it.

After the agonizing and self-pity associated with the darkness, I began to read and write in a way that I’d never before, carefully, rigorously, and with aim. I began to read like a writer. I got better. I learnt the dos and don’ts. I learnt to write better sentences, to construct a cohesive short story, balancing scene and narration, quickening the pace when necessary, zooming into moments, wrenching from a scene every drop of emotion it can afford me. This was enough for a while until it wasn’t. I wanted more. But I did not know what more was. Then I read Chinua Achebe’s collection of essays titled Hopes and Impediments, specifically the essay titled “The Writer and His Community.”

 

workplace with laptop and opened diary

In the essay, Achebe makes an argument for writing as spiritual congruence with the other, and writers as being responsible to a community. He contrasts Western individualism with Igbo communality and smartly evades dichotomies by adding that none of these societies hold a monopoly on either. But the difference, he states, is in how individualism is balanced out in these societies. He argues that the Igbos have balanced “this extraordinary specialness, this unsurpassed individuality, by setting limits to its expression.” 

The argument solidifies into one about craft when Achebe inserts a quote from a letter he received from John Updike about Arrow of God.

Here is what Updike had to say: 

“The final developments of Arrow of God proved unexpected and, as I think about them, beautifully resonant, tragic and theological. That Ezeulu, whom we had seen stand so invincibly to both Nwaka and Clarke, should be so suddenly vanquished by his own god Ulu and by something harsh and vengeful within himself, and his defeat in a page or two be the fulcrum of a Christian lever upon his people, is an ending few Western novelists would have contrived; having created a hero they would not let him crumble, nor are they, by and large, as truthful as you in their witness to the cruel reality of process.”

Achebe responds, with delicious sarcasm: 

“Of course a Westerner would be most reluctant to destroy “in a page or two” the very angel and paragon of creation—the individual hero. If indeed he has to be destroyed, it must be done expansively with detailed explanations and justifications, not to talk of lamentations. And he must be given the final limelight in which to speak a grand valedictory soliloquy.”

After reading this, I began to wonder about the many other possibilities of craft creation. If societies influence craft decisions, and how much of what we think of craft, of the structure of fiction, is inherited from Western literature, and in turn, the arrangement of Western societies, what about my own society and its rules can make my fiction truer?

What I bathed in while in the darkness were craft books written by White people, and the novels I read were, you guessed right, novels written by White people, and the people I looked to for constructive criticism were writers fluent only in Western literature. I came out of the darkness, armed with these tools, anxious in my implementation of them, and I fear, a tad bit soulless, having lost my own way of seeing the world. 

And I did have my own way of seeing the world. I have always written. For as long as I can remember, I have strung words together in my imagination, on paper, and whether I knew it then or not, these stories were shaped by my immediate intimacies, what I was seeing around me, how that was absorbed and defined by the bewildering chemicals in my brain. It was, and I hope can still someday be, me, my soul, and what I was seeing, my world—nature and nurture. 

So while you go through your own darkness, if you haven’t already, I want you to fiercely hold on to your own nature and nurture, and when you come out to the other side, I want you to still be as chaotic, as fearless, as raw (this word gets a bad rap and I would never understand why) as you were when you were free, unencumbered by the rules of the craft. I want you to see that, too, as craft, those decisions that come to you naturally. Maybe you don’t want to use dialogue in your stories because it messes with the natural flow of the world you are trying to create. Maybe like Achebe, you want to say f**k you to the idea of an individual hero because it doesn’t read true to your sensibility, to the world as you know it. Maybe you want the middle of the story at the beginning and the beginning at the end. Do what feels true to you. Then come tell us about it. Show us other ways of seeing the world. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in Isele Magazine, Ake Review, and Catapult. She currently teaches creative writing as an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa.

LIFE IS A PROPER FRACTION by Damilola Omotoyinbo

LIFE IS A PROPER FRACTION by Damilola Omotoyinbo

green wooden chair on white surface

LIFE IS A PROPER FRACTION 

by Damilola Omotoyinbo

i am neck-deep in a quagmire, my mind is a 

gallery holding the dire portraits of my life

 

on my flesh, pain has made scars and 

incisions that even time cannot heal

 

here my shadow keeps opening doors i 

have shut, my mind keeps playing a saudade

 

call my body a home ransacked by storm, abode

of a stranger birthed on the christening of death

 

i have tried to live under broken roofs, build 

my shelter in the heart of a homeless man 

 

i have tried to fold into myself, make

home out of the cleft of my mouth 

 

i took a trip from pain but was trailed by 

pain and its companion, grief 

 

is pain not the after-taste of pleasure 

when life itself is fighting to strike a balance 

 

a little dose of pain and a pint of happiness, life

is a  proper fraction, but i try to tweak the figures

 

today, i am the woman building a home 

with scars and stories, call me the seer 

 

tomorrow, i will build another 

with songs and the wings of butterflies

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Damilola Omotoyinbo believes in the power of the pen and the positive difference it can make in our world. She has work/interview published at Afritondo, Kalahari Review, Konya Shamsrumi, Praxis, Hack writers, The Nigerian Tribune News Paper and elsewhere. Damilola is a fellow of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency. 

She is Damilola Omotoyinbo on Facebook & Instagram, she blogs at damilolaomotoyinbo.wordpress.com.

CHUKWUEBUKA IBEH’S NOTE ON CRAFT

CHUKWUEBUKA IBEH’S NOTE ON CRAFT

coffee notebook pen writing

Chukwuebuka Ibeh’s Note on Craft

As part of the Notes On Craft series, I (Olakunle Ologunro) reached out to a number of writers and asked them to share a piece of work that is most significant to them, and what they think other writers can learn from it.

Here’s Chukwuebuka Ibeh’s pick: ‘Sexy’ from the collection Interpreter of Maladies by Jhuma Lahiri

It was a boy’s greatest find, like finally striking gold just on the verge of giving up after endlessly digging. I discovered Jhumpa Lahiri through her short story ‘Sexy’ from the collection ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ on one of those languid weekday evenings at my campus hostel in first year. At the time, to combat boredom, I had been on a mission to read any available short stories online. Some of them were good, some not so much, but very few struck me like ‘Sexy’, which I had ironically dismissed in my mind as vain erotica. “It was a woman’s worst nightmare…,” the first line read, and thus began a moving and intimate portrayal of a woman’s contention with unnamed yearnings, while in an entanglement with a married man. It is Jhumpa’s unwillingness to (subtly) establish opinions, her ability to create real and realistic dialogue, and her compassionate and tender storytelling that elevates the narrative to a level of art.

I think what readers and writers alike can take away from ‘Sexy’, and from Ms. Lahiri’s writing in general, is the lightness of her touch in crafting the story, but most importantly the full dignity she ascribes to each character, even the most insignificant of them. It is also her ability to make a mountain out of a molehill, in this sense, utilizing something otherwise irrelevant and making such a grand gesture from it. In ‘Sexy,’ for instance, a little boy whom Miranda, the lead character, was babysitting, tells her ‘Sexy means loving someone you don’t know’. On the surface, and stripped of context, the statement appears meaningless, but it ultimately forms the rock of the whole story, and Miranda’s latter decision to take the reins of her own life.

The ingenuity embedded in ‘Sexy’ is replicated in all of Jhumpa’s work. Since ‘Sexy’, I have long become a fan, reading everything of hers I could find, and coming off each read with the same sense of wonder and admiration at her craft. I like to think that I discovered Ms. Lahiri in 2017, and my life never remained the same.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chukwuebuka Ibeh is a Nigerian writer. His short stories have appeared in McSweeneys, Clarion Review, Charles River Journal and The New England Review of Books.

THIS THING CALLED DEATH by Blessing Anaso

THIS THING CALLED DEATH by Blessing Anaso

dried leaves on a concrete pavement

THIS THING CALLED DEATH

by Blessing Anaso

I was twelve when I first saw it,

Cells fat and pink, the colour of cancer,

I saw its fingers in Ma’s falling hair and in her brave smile.

Like the sharp scent of disinfectant—angry and relentless.

 

I smelled death on Pa’s clothes,

In his anti-depression pills and on his thinning hair.

Later, I smelled it in Pa’s study, hanging from the ceiling,

Fists clenched in rigor mortis—blind and bloated.

 

I heard it in Bebe’s blood pressure,

In the rheumatic pop of her aged knees,

I heard it in the tired sigh of a year too many,

It came in her sleep—ripe but sudden.

 

This thing called death, I feel it now,

In my husband’s tight grip and midnight sobs,

I see it in my left breast and in my daughter’s uncertain eyes,

I smell it in the rustle of hospital sheets,

And taste it in my bloody vomit.

 

Small but enough

Like the soft hiss at the end of a kiss.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Blessing Anaso is a student and creative writer living in Nigeria, occasionally known to dabble in dark poetry.

Her work ‘Halima’ was selected for the AU_CIEFFA’s girl-child education campaign, published on their website.

Her poem ‘The Demons You Name’ also placed fourth place in the Kito Diaries ‘#QueerLivesMatter’ competition.

She writes short stories in her spare time.

MELODY OF ANARCHY by Ajani Samuel

MELODY OF ANARCHY by Ajani Samuel

Soldiers on queue ready to board an airplane with a glistening sunset in the horizon

MELODY OF ANARCHY

by Ajani Samuel

Shortlist (Top Seven) of the 2020 Kreative Diadem Annual Creative Writing Contest (Poetry Category)

Our land is Atacama desert for

The past two weeks

Yesterday, I met my brother praying

For rain under our stairs

So last night, it rained.

It rained bullets and gunpowder

On a swarm of youths who wore

The national anthem on their lips.

 

Death robed in the green of military men

It sat with a long fork in a toll

In the throats, lungs

And bowels of men and women who drew

Peace on their jaws.

 

My dinner was served on a plate of

Bloodbathed national flag

So I ate my tears with a sandwich of

Carnage on mat last night.

Thanks to God, Satan woke me

And others with the

Melody of guns at 5:30 am.

 

News at 10 is a song of the dead

Our Government is crashing cymbals

Of anarchy on the streets

The sun refused to glitter today

Perhaps it went to petition our

President to address the nation.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ajani Samuel Victor is a creative writer, (performance) poet and political enthusiast. He was a Semi-finalist at the 2020 Jack Grapes Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the 2020 Kreative Diadem Annual Writing contest. He is a writer at the Invincible Quill Magazine, his works are/forthcoming on FeralLit Journal, Ethelzine, Eboquills Mag, MadnessMuse Press, Praxis mag, The Hellebore lit mag, FEED litmag and everywhere else. Say hi to him on Twitter @solvic16

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