Interviewed by Valerie Waterhouse
Read Kay Ugwuede’s nonfiction piece, Red Wine Pasta
Valerie: As a piece of CNF, Red Wine Pasta stands out for its honesty and bravery. You do not flinch from recounting difficult personal subject matter, whether that be an embarrassing urine infection or a story of undeclared love. The question that springs to mind is: what would happen if D., the man who is the focus here, ever read this piece?
Kay: I wouldn’t call it an infection. Sleep enuresis, maybe. Which can just simply be stress-induced or an indication of a bigger problem but which in adults is still super-embarrassing and difficult to talk about. But D. hasn’t read it. I hope he does. Because I’d like to find him and, possibly, catch up. After that birthday cake, he seemingly fell off the surface of the earth. On the other hand, he wasn’t very keen on social media, so the chances that he would read this are slim. But if he does read it, I hope that we reconnect. I hope that I have portrayed our relationship the way it really was as genuinely and as accurately as I believe I have.
How do you deal with the ethical, moral and emotional issues that arise from writing truthfully about the intensely personal?
Ethics and morality continue to spring up when a story is written from true-life events because, for me, it takes on a whole different significance. And so it is important that the events being presented did indeed happen as they are laid out on paper and that clauses are in place to indicate where parts of the story may differ from real life. But much of memoir is about memory and to what degree a writer remembers events they are recounting. And there can be some trepidation arising from being the person to recall and retell these events because the labour of accuracy rests with you.
But memory is a powerful thing. Here I am recounting a time in my life circa 2014, five years after the events happened, and I can remember in succinct detail the Family House I describe in Red Wine Pasta. A lot of it is about trusting in the power of memory but also realising that it can be warped by time — and by even more powerful moments that come later in life.
When these memories are intertwined in the lives of others, which they often are, there is another layer of complexity added. You are preoccupied with how well or poorly the other characters may perceive themselves to be portrayed in your story; whether this is accurate; what the story might do to your relationship, if there is one.
I like to write from very intimate spaces because this is how I process residual emotions. And to do this well, it is important for me to do it as truthfully as possible, or not at all. Ultimately, whose story is it to tell? And how truthfully or wholesomely am I going to go about it?
In general, I am not a fan of the second person POV in fiction or CNF, but find that ‘you’ works wonderfully here as a substitute for the first person ‘I’. What were the advantages in writing about yourself from a second person POV?
Writing from the second person POV was what made completing this story possible. It is deeply personal and at various points along the way, I thought about retracting it from the few places I had dared to submit — after that first rush of trying to find a home for a piece you’ve poured yourself into wore off. I started out in the first person and got stuck because I couldn’t keep going further. The enuresis part was impossible to write in the first person.
‘You’ took me outside of my body, outside of those moments, and gave me the ability to not only point my lens back into this period in my life but to also hold the camera long enough to fish out all the details I wanted to find.
How wide is the gap between the ‘you’ of real life and the ‘you’ on the page? How do you decide what to leave in and what to take out when portraying yourself in words?
Not very wide. The distancing of ‘you’ on the page somehow makes pouring myself out seem easy. It’s not something I always do in my personal essays, however. I don’t think there is a conscious decision to leave in A or take out B. I just write as I am burdened and then edit for what conveys the story best.
What is it that draws you to CNF as a form?
It comes from why and how I started out writing. I started writing quite early. Around nine or ten. Writing was a tool to express myself and have conversations that would normally happen in my head. I was a painfully timid and quiet kid. I’ve always written about reality and tried to make sense of it through writing. And that thread continues today in my work. Also having worked in journalism — and still currently doing so, adds to that need and desire to document and reflect the times and my environment in my work.
These days, however, the lines seem blurry. You read about Nigeria’s post-independence history accurately portrayed in Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me for instance. Or about the realities of homosexuality in Nigeria in Chinelo Oparanta’s Under The Udala Trees. So, the lines are blurry because these are real events and real places with fictional characters.
The focus of Red Wine Pasta is firmly on your colleagues at the Nigerian upcountry school you were teaching at, and the pupils are mentioned in a single line. (You found them ‘constantly exasperating’, apparently!) Do you have plans to write about your pupils separately? Why did they exasperate you so much?
Maybe I will. It does speak to a very pertinent problem with Nigeria’s educational system. My exasperation was not completely directed at the students but also at the scheme. The Youth Service Scheme uproots you from a geographic zone you’ve called home for decades and plummets you into another, with a three-week camping period to assimilate the new culture and language you are being thrown into. Yet this three-week camping period is held in closed camping grounds and your only interactions are with your colleagues, military officers and camp administrators. The founding ideology of the scheme was noble — to help young Nigerians immerse themselves in cultures that aren’t native to them as a means to appreciate the cultural diversity of the country. But it has largely become a means to staff under-funded government schools across the country with a staggered supply of corps members as ad hoc teachers.
What got to me the most, though, was the students’ unwillingness to learn. It seemed to me a mixture of the fact that they did not value the free education they had access to and that there were not many aspirational figures to look up to. The state government had made learning free up until secondary school level, which is rare for many state governments in Nigeria, and also given them free school uniforms, books and learning tablets that supposedly had learning materials installed on them and had no internet connectivity to keep from distracting the students. But they have their ways around these things so it was counter-productive.
There were one or two students I won’t forget, though, who were ambitious and willing to put in the work to improve. They made some days worth the trouble.
Nigeria seems to be the crucible of writing on the African continent. What, if anything, is currently being done to foster new writing talent in Nigeria? Do you feel yourself to be part of the scene?
There is a growing number of literary-focused workshops now happening although, sadly, often concentrated in Lagos. Last year, the writing workshop organised by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came back on the scene. We’ve seen accomplished writers like Teju Cole come back to hold one this year together with Emmanuel Iduma and Ayobami Adebayo organised by BookArtArea. And there’s the Ebedi Writers Residency in Southwestern Nigeria. Although there’s certainly room for more.
In my microcosm of the Nigerian literary scene, I am doing the work of bettering my craft and finding usefulness in it and in that sense I feel a part of a lineage and community of writers who understand the functionality of literature and have gone to great lengths to keep creating.
What other upcoming (or established) Nigerian writers would you recommend?
My friend Yinka Elujoba, because he is such a beautiful writer. My colleague, Ope Adedeji; Kemi Falodun, Uche Okonkwo, Lucia Edafioka. The established ones? I’ve mentioned a number of them already.
Your piece reads like ‘literature in action’. Or a ‘message in a bottle’! Thanks for the informative interview and I hope you are able to reconnect with D.