Ukamaka Olisakwe, the author of Ogadinma, was born in Kano, Nigeria, and now lives in Vermillion, SD. A UNESCO-World Book Capital “Africa 39” honoree and a University of Iowa’s International Writing Program Fellow, she is a winner of the VCFA Emerging Writer Scholarship and the Prince Claus Fund Grant, and a finalist for the Miles Morland Scholarship, among other honors. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Granta, Longreads, The Rumpus, Catapult, Rattle, Waxwing, Jalada, Hunger Mountain, Sampsonia Way, and more. She is currently pursuing her PhD in English at the University of South Dakota—Vermillion. Ukamaka’s novel, Ogadinma, won the SprinNG Women Authors Prize in 2021. In this interview, she discusses feminism and related themes in Ogadinma.
What exactly did you set out to achieve with Ogadinma?
UKAMAKA: I wanted to tell an important story and stir a necessary conversation. I guess I was successful, because here we are, talking about it.
You have also spoken strongly about your feminism in several interviews. Did you set out to become a ‘feminist voice’ as suggested by Tin House magazine’s Rob Spillman who described your book as an “unflinching novel that cements Olisakwe as an important feminist voice”? In answering this, how would you address the idea that feminism is a ‘fight’ against men or merely a combative movement against patriarchy, instead of a method through which a woman tries to resolve the conflict between her and society?
UKAMAKA: I set out to tell a story and my readers interpreted it. I am grateful for all the kind responses and support I have received since the publication of Ogadinma.
Regarding your second question, Feminism is advocacy for equality. The idea that it is a battle against a certain gender is disingenuous at this point because we all can look up the meaning and the multiple talks and papers that have addressed this deliberate misinterpretation. I’ll also like to add that people who hold onto these ideas, who underpin feminism with such harmful connotations, do not want to have an honest conversation.
Feminism is advocacy for equality. The idea that it is a battle against a certain gender is disingenuous at this point because we all can look up the meaning and the multiple talks and papers that have addressed this deliberate misinterpretation.— Ukamaka Olisakwe
You once said in your interview with Shallow Tales Review that ‘Ogadinma’ is a “love letter to the women… married off to much older men… when they were only teenagers.” This comes as a culture shock for many, like me, who believed that teenage marriage was only a Northern Nigerian problem. When such conversations arise, such people will think of Aisha or Amina, not necessarily Ogadinma. How pervasive is this culture in southeastern Nigeria? And how close did it get to you as a woman?
UKAMAKA: This culture was endemic in Nigeria, and still is. You only have to look or ask. A lot, though, is changing; my immediate community now actively rejects early marriage, and my catholic church in Aba will not marry a person until she has reached adulthood. These changes happen because of conversations like this.
A common theme in our society is the celebration of mothers who stayed in very difficult marriages as heroes by patriarchy supporters. Many believe that long-suffering is coded into the feminine DNA and genes of “good women”. Ogadinma successfully discredits this. How does that make you feel? Is this a personal victory?
UKAMAKA: Oh, yes, it is. This novel is set in the early 80s, a radically different time in our history. Ogadinma endured situations I would never tolerate. At the time of writing the novel, I wanted her to fight back, and viciously too.
I wanted her to stand up against her family and to perform certain heroics I expect of today’s women. But such heroics will not be true of her, her time, and her cultural/financial situation. She is the sum of the women I know, and I wanted the story to reflect reality. When she eventually stood up for herself, I sighed with relief. So, yes, her story, in the end, despite all the ugliness, is a personal victory.
Ogadinma does a good job addressing the burden of patriarchy and how it easily blames women for everything. Interestingly, ‘ogadinmna’ loosely translates to “e go better” in pidgin, which aptly captures the societal realities of many women who live as purveyors of evasive hope while dealing with numerous gender-related challenges. What can women who are currently under the weight of patriarchy do to triumph like Ogadinma?
UKAMAKA: They are telling their stories. We find them on social media, on radio stations, at town meetings, calling out oppression. The other day, I was listening to an FM station and a woman called in to expose her abuser. My relatives have shared stories of women in our community who put their foot down and refused further abuse. This is how we turn the tide: by telling our stories. I am glad that more of this is happening in my time.
I immediately liked the character Nnanna. From his first appearance in the novel, he gave off what I like to call the “Sweet Boy” vibes. I initially thought his demeanour was just a charade—I mean, characters shock us every now and then. However, as Ogadinma’s challenges ascended the steep curves of misfortune, he continued to identify with her, and he won my heart completely. Did you worry about Nnanna coming off as the type of man that would be described as “docile”, “effeminate”, or what some might call a “simp”, in social media lingo?
UKAMAKA: I think I am warier about people who use such terms to describe supportive people. It says more about them. And I don’t engage them because discourse with them is a waste of time.
When Ekene calls out Tobe over his ill-treatment of Ogadinma and says, “You have behaved like a mad man, and it is the family that bears the shame because the mad man does not comprehend the concept of shame,” I see you likening domestic violence to madness. Please, something about this, as it doesn’t seem like an accidental allegory.
UKAMAKA: I didn’t really liken domestic violence to the broad definition of madness. The proverb you quoted is a popular one in my community: madness, in this context, (not mental illness), is a catch-all for all forms of bad behaviours and crimes, and the speaker here makes it clear that it is the family that bears the brunt; it is the family that suffers shame when their relative misbehaves. This is why they called out Tobe’s bad behaviour and admonished him.
Until those hard lashes came and left their welts on Ogadinma, I enjoyed the beautiful bond she shared with her father. I am a little uncomfortable with how that bond did not create a safe space for her to speak up about Barrister Chima’s predatory advances until, like the proverbial dried fish, it became difficult to bend without breaking. This is a typical Nigerian girl’s experience. Is there a message hidden here?
UKAMAKA: This novel is a letter to my people because Ogadinma is a composite of the women I know. Her story, though set in the early 80s, remains true today. And I am grateful for the conversation this book stirred in my immediate community. We have a saying where I come from that aptly captures the importance of history, the reason I wrote Ogadinma: a people who do not know where the rain began beating them will not know where it stopped. A lot is changing in my community, and it is thanks to the people who insist on having this conversation. It is only when we have interrogated our complicated past, that we will be able to avoid repeating our past mistakes and forge a better future for ourselves.
It is refreshing how you aptly captured how some women put wind under the wings of patriarchy through characters like Aunty Ngozi and Mama Iyabo, and also gave a perfect example of “Women Supporting Women” through Ejiro. Was this female character range deliberate, and necessary? Why didn’t you, for example, make a man—”a knight in shining armour”—come to Ogadinma’s rescue?
UKAMAKA: I was only interested in telling a human story. We have Nnanna, who, for example, is just perfect. He supported Ogadinma when everyone in her family turned their backs on her. We also have Ejiro, who offered Ogadinma support. However, we also have complicated characters like Aunty Ngozi, Ifeoma, and Uncle Nnanna, who, at different points, were the community Ogadinma needed until they weren’t. These people are complicated and I enjoy exploring complex characters. Take Ifeoma, for example: at the beginning, she appeared to be our feminist champion, until she faltered, just as we falter as a people.
Talking about “Women Supporting Women”, how do you feel about winning the SprinNG Women Authors Prize, an initiative by women for women in the literary space? Do we need such interventions that are gender-selective, or have women fully come to their own in the Nigerian and global literary industry that is clearly male-dominated?
UKAMAKA: I am grateful to the team at SprinNG for the work they are doing in uplifting our women. It’s always a joy when organisations support communities and groups where such support is lacking. SWAP focuses on works by women. LAMBDA in the United States focuses on work that uplifts the LGBTQ+ communities. All over the world, there are focus groups that do this important work. And it is such a joy to witness, especially in a field that used to privilege men. So, yes, this should be applauded.
You wrote in your essay, Being a Woman in Nigeria, which was featured in the International Writing Program, that you are saddened to “read about women who reject the idea of feminism but thoroughly enjoy the proceeds from feminist struggles.” How do you think such women can be enlightened? Should they even be enlightened or just left alone?
UKAMAKA: Enlightenment is constant. There were ideals I held a few years ago that I no longer believe in. There were also some that I resisted, as early as two years ago, that I obsessively advocate for today. I grew and continue to grow because of the conversations around me and the human stories that underpin them, which opened my eyes to things I never took seriously. The same can be said for anyone. But what matters is one’s willingness to grow. If they are willing, they will learn. If they wish not to, earth (at least, for now) will not stop revolving around the sun.
What next should your fans expect?
UKAMAKA: Hopefully, a long work of nonfiction? I am not sure yet, but I look forward to sharing more as I work on my current works-in-progress.
That’s great. Thank you for your time.