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Last Modified: June 13, 2023
Feature Image with the messaging: Casual Conversations. Olajide Salawu Speaks with Uchechukwu Umezurike.
Olajide Salawu Speaks with Uchechukwu Umezurike

Casual Conversations is where we host a series of interviews with Alberta writers. In this instalment, Olajide Salawu speaks with Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike, a versatile Calgary-based Nigerian writer and academic. In 2022, Uche published a collection of short stories titled Double Wahala. He is also the author of a children’s book, Wish Maker. Uche’s poems have appeared in Brittle Paper, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Yaba Left Review, and Prism International. Uche is also an alumnus of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Olajide spoke to Uche about his latest collection of poetry, there’s more, a collection that has received praise for its unique rehashing of migration experiences and atrocious politics of border.

Olajide: Let me say again, it is great being your friend and sharing the creative space with you as a writer. Barely two years ago, you published your collection of stories titled Double Wahala and complemented that with children’s literature inspired by your own life. And now, there’s more from the stable of University of Alberta Press. Congratulations! I feel a quest, I feel some thirst, I feel a certain hunger reading that title. What is “more”? How has it served your collection as an organizing paradigm?

Uche: Thanks, Olajide, for this conversation. Thanks for the many conversations we have been having on critical and creative texts. Now, don’t we all just hunger and thirst for more? The notion of “more” indeed organizes my latest poetry book, there’s more. I am drawn to how we seek the “more” out of life, love, fame, family, relationships, intimacy, community, or even from the nation. This desire or quest for more orients much of the personal and social life, so I tried to present this in my collection.

Olajide: The poem “there’s more” was first published as an individual poem in Isele Magazine, which is run by Ukamaka Olisakwe. Did the idea of a collection emerge after the poem was published in the magazine, or did it fit into your thematic intention of a new corpus of works?

Uche: The title poem, “there’s more,” was the first poem I wrote in a series of poems depicting the precariousness of migrant lives, especially Africans travelling across the Sahara, the Mediterranean, or the US-Canada border in search of a better life in Europe or North America. The moment I completed this poem, I knew I had to write similar poems highlighting the misfortunes of African migrants, despite the celebratory stories we sometimes hear at home or in the diaspora.

Olajide: When and where was the inspiration for the body of poems conceived?

Uche: The book there’s more is inspired mainly by stories in the news. Between 2016 and 2018, I kept reading about the hundreds of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea and couldn’t focus much on my Ph.D. then. I was haunted by these deaths, which are still happening and incensed by how many African nations handled this recurrent tragedy. I remember seeing photos of how the Italian government had retrieved and buried the corpses of eleven Nigerian women and girls. At this point, I decided to write those poems to further bring attention to migrant precarity.

Olajide: I find the idea of private memory intersecting with the public one in the eponymous collection. For example, we are brought into your personal space at the beginning of the poem; we have a kiss exchange and then a writer tapping the keyboard. It seems like an opening glimpse into your world and that of the sufferings of others (migrants, if you wish). Is that your original goal with this collection?

Uche: You are right, Olajide. In my writing, I try to think about the other, or what Chielozona Eze, the Nigerian American literary critic, poet, novelist, and scholar, would call “the pain of another.” The eponymous poem, “there’s more,” works to bring the personal and public pain in dialogue so that the reader, hopefully, will imagine the suffering of the other. As you already noted, I began the poem with an ordinary image, quite banal, and then the images grow grim and funereal to portray myriad crossings and drownings.

Olajide: Your work enters a disturbing zone of African migration experience in which the image of Lampedusa looms large, reminding me of the Ivorian poet Josue Guebo’s serial poem, Songe à Lampedusa (Think of Lampedusa), which concerns the death of 366 migrants who attempted to reach Italy’s southernmost island. Many works, including yours, continue to address the irregular migration experiences and the continuous atrocities against Black migrants in Libya, Algeria, and other coastal countries. You write, “Lampedusa is a path of bones.” But you also register prophecy personified in the priest. Do you think prophecy has a considerable role to play in the African migration experience?

Uche: That’s quite a tough question. First, it’s outrageous that fellow Africans, even if of Arab descent, are re-enacting slavery in their countries. Meanwhile, the priest in the poem figures as a poet, too, bemoaning the deaths on the sea. Some people will argue that poets are priests, and that’s fair. I like to think that poetry functions as a kind of prophecy because, to a reasonable degree, the poet’s vision is to illuminate, to reveal what is possible and desirable. If we fail to listen to the poet’s prophecy, we may continue the despoliation of the world.

Olajide: What is home?

Uche: One may define home literally or figuratively or think more deeply about its affective and relational dimensions. It all depends on what is at stake, perhaps. In my poem “Seagulls,” I envision home as “anywhere we find something to love,” but then I add a paradox, “home is no more than concrete and earth.” What I was trying to do was to resist essentialist and nativist notions of home that might foster a condition where natives or nationals deny gestures of hospitality to those who are seen to be from not “here” but “elsewhere.” Of course, we each have our own sense of what home is, but I identify with a more capacious definition of home, how we can make a home on someone else’s land, say, the Indigenous peoples’, and what this might mean for thinking about community and kinship.

Olajide: Your work conjures tragic scenes and generational memories of Biafra. How have your new lines opened faith and hope? I ask because you intone: “no repair is large enough/for my flammable land.” Do you see your work as part of the Afro-pessimism project?

Uche: My father fought as a Biafran soldier, and when I think of how Nigeria remains conflicted and polarized today, I feel saddened that we have learnt nothing from the war decades later. So, the line you referenced evokes images of the plunder of the Niger Delta, which I read as a metaphor or synecdoche for Nigeria. However, I don’t see myself as a pessimist, which is not to say that Afro-pessimism is an invalid mode of being in the world. That said, my poetry offers a means to think about possibilities only if we mobilize to address the pain of the other.

Olajide: I can’t remember now, but I have learnt elsewhere that the hubris of being a migrant and writer is that you can’t escape speaking back to home and exploring mobility. The displacement theme has been a significant trend and trope of recent African writings. We may speak of Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie, and even more recently, your short fiction publisher Bibi Ukonu released another title, Leave My Bones in Saskatchewan, by Michael Afenfia. What do you think is the future of African Canadian literature?

Uche: There is nothing hubristic about a writer writing back to their homeland, at least to me. Belonging to two nations does not prevent one from being invested in advocating for the common good of either nation. Now, talking about African Canadian writing, I can only see a bright future for African writers living in Canada. The support, the resources, and the community are massive, so the prospects and opportunities are available to any African writer in Canada.

Olajide: I see Nina Simone getting her share in your new collection. How has music influenced your creative process? Mention some of the artists in your court and tell us how they have influenced your craft.

Uche: I love listening to music, especially while editing, since it helps me think about rhythm and assonance. My favourites include Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill, Asa, Erik Satie, Thompson Egbo-Egbo, Sinachi, Andre Rieu, and nature music.

Olajide: Finally, how much has Alberta influenced your creative writing and academic scholarship?

Uche: I appreciate the space, resources, and community I have found in Alberta. I enjoyed studying at the University of Alberta, and I am enjoying working at the University of Calgary. It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Olajide. I am thankful for such thoughtful conversations.

Headshot: Uchechukwu Peter UmezurikeUche Umezurike is an assistant professor of English at the University of Calgary. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Umezurike is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems. He is the author of Wish Maker (Masobe Books, 2021) and Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge Publishing, 2021).

 

there’s more

Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike

Published: Mar 06, 2023 by University of Alberta Press
ISBN: 9781772126808

Olajide Salawu headshot. Olajide Salawu is a PhD student at the University of Alberta. He has published his own creative writing in the Literary Review of Canada, CBC, This Magazine, and is a regular contributor to Olongo Africa. Along with Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, he edited the Olongo Multilingual Anthology.