Conversations: Jennifer Chinenye Emelife and Lidudumalingani

4/7/16 – Oxford The Caine Prize For African Writing Winner of the 2016 Caine Prize, Lidudumalingani.

Lidudumalingani describes himself as a village child who now lives in the city. When he was younger he thought he would be a radio DJ, but a few years later he got bored and quit his job at the radio station. Then he began writing and soon enrolled in a film school. He continued with writing, beginning first with poetry, then magazines and three years after he ventured into fiction. He has always loved images; so when he could afford a smartphone he used it to make images which is how he came to be called a photographer. He’s never stepped into a literature class nor does he have a burning desire to, at least not in the capacity in which he will have to stick to some curriculum.

In 2016, Lidudumalingani won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing with his short story, Memories We Lost. We corresponded via email throughout August, closing up the distance with a discussion on the distinctiveness of style in writing, socializing writing through festivals and workshops and, just how much reading makes a writer? By the end of the conversations, we‘d become richer and older, having marked our birthdays same month. Sweet coincidence.

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-Jennifer C. Emelife

Jennifer C. Emelife: Belated birthday wishes, Lidudumalingani! How does it feel to be 31? I’m 24 on 21st 🙂 Leos! *high-five.*

Lidudumalingani: High five indeed. Thank you and happy birthday to you too. Being 31, I suppose, is cool though I feel now like I was when I was 30 – old. I am not sure at what moment of our lives we age. It is so gradual that it is almost unnoticeable and often it is missed. I was 30 and then a second later, I am 31. Sigh.

JCE: Ha ha. Reminds me of the line, “what is dead may never die”. Well, congratulations on winning the Caine Prize! What has changed since then? You know the feeling of winning prizes back then in school and then you get home and after all the cheers and celebrations, you begin to think, ‘okay, so what’s next now?’ I’d like to know if this win has affected your writing and how you think of it.

L: Thank you, you are very kind. Well, everything has changed, at least I think in terms of time; but largely my life and my idea of what I want to write has remained the same and this is important to me; that the world and its pressures do not strip me of the reason why I write. I cannot say I am familiar with the feeling of winning prizes in school. I was an average student, not too bright and not too stupid, stuck in the middle, in that forgettable place. I was only really interested in playing soccer. Which I was quite good at when I was younger. I still play it anyway but I think is a bad idea because now I suffer body aches days after each game. I suppose that is what it means to turn 31.

I am quite stubborn about my art and I insist on saying what I want to say and not compromising to please certain interests. And so to answer your question, winning the Caine Prize has not affected my writing nor has it altered my focus. Long before the win, I had begun to think of what I was going to write next and had made the decision that Memories We Lost is the last short story for me; and around that same time I dove into what I am working on now. It has taken longer to get into, a process I appreciate, but I am writing now.

JCE: Some of us spent our childhood winning prizes in school and now that we’re adults, there’s no single award coming our way, however hard we try! Ha ha! It’s interesting to see that the win didn’t change how you feel about your writing, especially because your bio says you have neither a background in writing nor the ‘burning desire’ to write. Grabbing the Caine prize, I thought, might be some sort of crown that exalts your thoughts concerning your writing.

L: Mhmh, not sure that is what I said, regarding the burning desire for a literary career or for writing. I do find it an interesting misunderstanding though. To make my point clear, I was saying that I have no burning desire to study writing unless it works in a different way than by sitting through an old curriculum that insists on writing rules and reading texts that I have no interest in.

JCE: What do you think of literary prizes, though? Is Memories We‎ Lost your first entry to the Caine Prize? Have you won any literary awards in the past? And if given the chance, would you enter for a prize you’d won before? Because I see writers entering repeatedly for prizes they’d won in the past and I’m curious: is it for the money? Fame?

L: It is always easy to make decisions about things that are in the distant future and one is living at a different time than it is when the event arrives and one is now in that moment. This is why it would appear that people always speak in absolutes about future events. I am afraid, though I am aware this does not inspire confidence, I do not speak in absolutes. I am comfortable with this idea that I have not completely figured out things and that I feel differently about them at different times in my life. And so I do not know if I will ever say no to a prize I have won before because I do not know what my life would be like then and I do not want to betray an accession I made many years ago. Right now I can tell you that I won’t do it because I have to move on and write about other things as I had originally planned before the prize was given to me.

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I am not sure that Memories We Lost was my first entry to the Caine Prize. I think there was another story before it but as you might or might not know, it is important to point out that the writer does not personally apply to the Caine Prize and so in both times, I had nothing to do with it and with Memories We Lost, I am not sure I even knew that this was happening.

I love literary prizes; I think they give a writer attention and money that can be used to buy time to write. What I am absolutely against is writing for them. I find that revolting.

JCE: I like your stand on literary prizes, even though I think sometimes, it becomes difficult for writers to write however they wish with focus on a particular prize and what is demanded of their stories. I also know about the Caine Prize rule, though I thought that the publishers do contact the writers before sending in their stories?

So, yes. Memories We Lost. ‎When I read all shortlisted stories, I thought, ‘ah, these are naked, emotive stories.’ I enjoyed them all actually and one would think there was a theme to this year’s prize with the way they dealt mainly with emotions. But then with yours, what stood out for me was the simplicity of language and style. The story starts from the beginning and ends at the end, the reader’s grasp is not lost from the narrator’s recollections.

Since you mentioned that you have no interest in writing rules, I’d like to know if it is a practiced thing, this choice for the simple and chronological plot. Do you often write that way? ‎I’m asking because Memories We Lost has a completely different structure from The Sack, last year’s winning story.

L: Writing is hard enough. I cannot imagine writing for any other reason but from deep within, about something that demands me to write about it. I think my publisher did ask me but honestly I do not remember.

Different elements of writing appeal to different writers and for me the appeal is poetry and not structure and so I do not obsess over plot. I am interested in making the writing as poetic as it can be and listening to where the narrative wants to go. This is not to say the two cannot work together and that someday in another work I will not ditch the chronological plot but that time has not come. This is true too for the kind of writing I like to read; I love my poetry.

JCE: I’m going to get back to style, but I should mention that Memories We Lost is really as profound as it can be. It dealt with themes we are all familiar with, especially as Africans, which we do not, I think, pay enough attention to. Superstitions are everywhere: in our homes, schools and religion.

While reading your story, I recalled an incident in my secondary school. I had this classmate who would in the middle of a lesson, cry out and throw tantrums. We never got to know what was wrong, but her close friends (and even teachers!) always said it had to do with an evil spirit that ‎possessed Muslim girls who do not wear their scarves. At home, we hear of people losing their lives to mental health for lack of care. In churches, they call it deliverance from demons.

Were you trying to challenge these beliefs through your story? What inspired Memories We Lost?

L: I am less concerned about correcting other people’s beliefs and would rather invest time in writing the complexities that make up people. I am also careful about comparing people’s beliefs and then, based on my own conclusions, choose between them the one I am comfortable with and therefore speak of that as civilized and the other as barbaric.

Memories We Lost was not inspired by a single event. It was a succession of event, spanning four years, in which I was obsessed with mental illness and wanted to say something about it. The short story was written as an attempt to speak about mental illness and how two different generations deal with it.

JCE: I’m tempted now to talk about the African literature debate and poverty porn and all that. Though I believe writers should write what they want to, however they feel like. But do you, as a writer who is African, feel obliged to tell the African story? (And of course, that opens up another topic: what is the African story?)

L: Poverty porn is such a crude hand in writing that one can taste it from only reading a few lines of a piece of writing. One can see the deliberate weaving of details to create poverty porn as they read the story. At the hands of a writer not writing poverty porn, the same story can read differently, it can be profound, and this is a distinction we need to make.

This I suppose is not answering your question about the ‘African story’. On numerous occasions, I have wanted not to answer that question and have always not done so. I will do that here too, decline to answer that question, under the illusion that it is only the two of us and not an entire audience reading this conversation, and that you do not think of me as a bad person, attempting to make my point with all the unnecessary attention seeking and hubris that have come to define conversations. That question exists, I feel, only to occupy its own place in the universe and not to be answered by me.

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JCE: The universe is big and there are stories everywhere. What may be one person’s poverty porn is another person’s reality, yearning to be told. So I think writers should be able tap into any experience and make stories out of them: war, love, poverty, sex, violence, politics, terrorism, etc. And these things are not peculiar to Africa, they happen everywhere! But then how does one ensure that these issues do not become distasteful when they are overly written about by a group of writers in one continent? Maybe that is where style comes to play. That people stop bothering about poverty porn and instead, devise ways of telling stories that are delightful. So I’m reading about hungry children, epileptic power supply and Boko Haram in Nigeria and I’m not irritated, because there is also romance in the same story. ‎And a bit of surrealism, maybe.‎

L: I was thinking about this last night. Someone triggered it by announcing, as we do on social media, that they love experimental writing and I thought about that statement for a long time and have arrived at the thought that it would appear to me that people are far more in love with the classification that a writing is experimental and not what the story is trying to do. And also I get the sense that once a story is viewed as experimental the conversations ends, at least most of the time, and does not get to what the story is about, which is far more important and relevant than the concept that the story is experimental. And so I think the conversations around experimental writing should be better than the sheer awe that a story is experimental and therefore that is all the merit it should have.

JCE: I know a Nigerian writer and critic who’d read a story and say, ‘the writer is a good storyteller, but not a stylist.’ I’m still grappling with the subject, but what is this distinction between style and content? How can a story be good and yet devoid of style? And is it okay to say that yours is a poetic style? (I noticed that you did not name your characters in Memories We Lost, except Nkunzi the sangoma. Style?)

L: Let me answer your last question and then work my way backwards to the questions that precedes it. The way I write short stories is organic, though they are times that I might insist on including elements I feel strongly about, much of what readers read is the story writing itself. And so naming characters was not a deliberate decision on my part. It only happened that it never occurred to me that they should have names. A few days ago a radio host told me that she had given the two girls names and she went on to say that the names fit perfectly. I would like to think, though I was not fully aware of it at the time, that this is perhaps what I was trying to do—allow a sort of collaboration and ownership between the reader and the writer.

And now the other question. I do not make a distinction between poetry and story. I write on the basis that I need to tell a story. The story can be slow and even uneventful but it is a story nonetheless. Also, I am not concerned about these things. I read stories that I like and I leave writers to write the stories that they want to write. The idea that we tell writers what to write or that we tell readers what to read is not something I want to do or care about. What I deeply care about is that the writing has to be amazing and not undermine me as a reader.

JCE: You know for a long time I didn’t think I could write but my first workshop experience changed that perception. What do you think of literary festivals, writing groups and workshops? Are you fond of literary festivals?  Do you belong to writing groups? What are your thoughts about them?

L: Literary festivals are, for any reader, an exciting time. This is where one would like to think they are among kindred souls and as such it can only be a positive experience. As a writer, literary festivals always had a strange feeling for me. Though one is ecstatic that people have gathered to see them, there is, at least with me, the feeling that I am part of some elitist ploy in which only a certain people are allowed to speak, at least for the majority of the time and as such I am far happier at festivals when the audience is afforded ample time to contribute to the discussion and not necessarily instructed to ask me questions.

JCE: I think literary festivals are ways of socializing the writing art which is otherwise viewed as boring and solitary. More than the planned conversations, readers get the opportunity to meet and engage their favourite authors on personal grounds, get autographs et al; and it is also a good thing for writers who make money off book sales. I’m in Kampala for the Writivism festival and I’m excited to see how it turns out.

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Jennifer welcoming a guest during the Writivism festival

Noticed you missed the question on writing workshops and groups. What do you make of them? Do you belong to any writing groups, have you attended writing workshops? Are they really necessary for a writer’s growth?

L: I have seldom set foot in writing workshops. I went to one which was a complete waste of my time, not that it did anything wrong, it simply did not benefit me in any profound way. Writing workshops are favourable for writers who can in any way write in public, which requires writing quickly, and something that can be read and people can have views about it, right there and then. These are not aspects I’m good at. I do not write quickly and I think that my writing is better taken in if one reads it for themselves. Writing workshops are only useful to me to run through an idea but certainly not for writing. There is a possibility that I might be part of a Caine Prize workshop in 2017 and that should be interesting and painful but hopefully also rewarding.

I do not belong to any writing group. This is not to say that I do not have people I can send things I write to and have them have a look. Yet it is very different from writing groups, as I get to work on my own time. For groups, there is a feeling that I am on someone else’s time or a collective time which may suit everyone, but not me as an individual. I was part of one in 2015 and it was only useful to a certain degree but did not serve the agenda that I was seeking at the time. It is not always the fault of the writing group or workshop. Their structure is just not in sync with my own soul.

JCE: Hmm. That’s a whole new perspective for me. I read somewhere that you’re also into literary criticism. It doesn’t seem to affect how you write.  Do you sometimes find yourself restrained while writing?

L: It does not affect me, because reviewing someone else’s work has nothing to do with my own writing process. I am not a writer at that moment but a reader engaging the work. And so when I write I am also not concerned about critics. Critics will read what I present to them and not what I think they want me to present to them. It is also telling that people seem to know what critics like to read because one cannot in fact view every single work with the same lens. The work should be viewed for what it is and not what the critic has read before and prefers.

JCE: Also, photography and writing; which enables which? And if at gunpoint you’re forced to pick one, which would it be? Remember you still got your filmmaking to live for. So choose one.

L: The two for me are inseparable and making a choice would be impossible. I like to think of photography as a form of writing and writing as a form of photography. They differ perhaps in insignificant details, at least to me, but my framing of sentences and images is the same. I try to write sentences that are as perfect as photographs. This is true for the images as well; that one looks at them, and finds something literal and poetic.

JCE: ‘I try to write sentences that are as perfect as photographs.’ I love that line. When we started this, you mentioned you were working on some writing. Should we be expecting a book soon?

L:  The one thing I am sure of is that I am, for now, done with short stories. They have, for me, functioned as an experiment into fiction and as a way to a novel. This I suppose is true for my non-fiction writing too; that it has, to some degree, functioned as a way into a non-fiction book. So I am writing something which I intend to make into a novel but we will see what it looks like in the coming months and perhaps even years.

And for you, what is your involvement in literature and ultimate attempt at or a path towards?

JCE: I feel like I’ve just been dropped on a hot seat! Okay… I love literature, I want to write books, but I get the feeling I haven’t read enough to become an author. Right now, I’m trying to equip myself by reading and then see where that leads me. I write poems and short stories, a bit of nonfiction, but I discovered lately that I may never be an Adichie (an idea I nursed as a teenager), but I may be curious (and confident!) enough to talk to many Adichies and write about them and their works.

Writing is a struggle but I find now that I’m more inclined to literary journalism…

L: That is interesting, that you do not think you have read enough books, not so much the reading itself – it is good to read more books – but the idea that one needs to read a lot of books to be a writer. Though I think writers should read, I am not of the opinion that one is guaranteed to be a good writer if they read books or that one will be a bad writer if they have not read enough books. What is even the math to conclude that one has read enough books? The reality of it is that one can never read all the books in the world; it is simply an impossible task. I only began to read in my twenties; one, because there were no books in the villages and secondly, I did not care for books. And so my reading is a game of playing catch up. I have not read much of what people have read but I have also realized that even some of the so-called voracious readers have not read some of the few books I have read and hold dear.

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I think this is one of the myths in literature, along with the one about people who read a book in a few hours or a day. I do not find that interesting or even worth a debate. Surely reading is not a game of numbers but of the stories told, and understanding them. It is one thing to be completely enthralled by a story and reading it in a few hours and another thing to completely understand that story and all it is trying to do. A compliment that I relish is someone telling me that they struggled through my writing instead of being told that they read it in a few hours. Of course, let it not be an Infinite Jest or The Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man kind of struggle. Ha ha. I want the reading of my work to be an intense process that lasts for a long while and thereafter haunts the reader for many months.

I am more inclined to read an author that cares for every sentence and one that is thinking things anew and not so much writers who are writing and thinking to other books.

JCE: Maybe someday I can get to be confident as a reader and then as a writer. I grew up in Sokoto where many people didn’t care so much about literature or writing. Fast forward to 2014 and aside my school prescribed texts there were only a few other books I had read. I graduated in 2012, moved to Lagos in 2013 and discovered the literary world here. So like you, I’m also playing catch up. But sometimes it hurts, being with other writers and they casually mention all these books, and you haven’t read them and you just want to question your stand in this space you’d thought was home.


I like to think I’m in an abusive relationship with literature. You?

L: My writing has been one of chance. It began with poetry then magazines and now fiction. The progression was nothing else but the need to challenge my own writing. I agree voracious readers are inspiring and I am always keen to hear what people are reading but this should not become an obstacle in my own path. And so I am comfortable with playing catch up and do not necessarily find it restrictive. One should be concerned with being able to form their own arguments and their style of writing and stand by them; and this one can do without reading the books that everyone has read. I cannot remember who said this, and I am probably going to paraphrase, “No two people can read the same book”. This is important to remember when thinking about books: that the books that mean something to other people, even millions of people, might mean nothing to us and when a text does not mean anything to us, even if people think of it as seminal, we should be comfortable saying so.

Literature, art in fact, is a precarious thing and the phases change. And so I completely understand your relationship with it, but like Elon Musk said, “If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it.” So do it, Jennifer.

JCE:  Thank you, Lidudumalingani. And what are you currently reading? I know you’re busy writing, but do you accompany it with some reading?

L: Reading nothing at the moment; well, that is not the entire truth. I was not, and then at a book sale, I picked up The Girl in the Picture: The Kim Phúc Story, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War by Denise Chong. This is what I am reading now, in moderation, as my time is going towards writing. The image Kim has always captured me. Everything about war is captured in it. One does not need to write long texts against war; they can simply show this image and make an eloquent point that no one speaking against war has yet achieved.

JCE: Have you heard of Andrea Stultiens? She did this fine thing with a book, a collection of photographs, titled Duc in Altum. Do you think you will someday publish a book of photos?

L: I have not heard of the book. I should look it up. Definitely that is something I am considering. Not sure yet as to what format and shape it will be. I know that the images will dictate the narrative and that I want it to look nothing like the conventional photography table books that are often the way in which images are published. I would like it to be light, to be taken on a train journey as one does a novel, to be discussed as a form of literature and yet be equally at home at a gallery or in a printing shop.

Jennifer Chinenye Emelife is a teacher who writes and enjoys talking to writers. Click here for more interviews.

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