Interviewed by Sommer Schafer

Read Nzube Ifediba’s fiction piece, The Dragon Slayer

Sommer: I love how you create such a well-developed protagonist, Elo, by simply focusing on one arguably small part of her life. Your crafting the scene of her labor does a remarkable job at showing us her complexity, without going into pages of backstory or otherwise unnecessary character development. How did Elo first come to you, and how did you decide what to leave off the page when developing her?

Nzube: In 2019, during my internship at my university’s teaching hospital, I did a three-month rotation in the obstetrics and gynecology department. In the labor room, I met women who saw labor and vaginal delivery as a bittersweet “rite of passage” into motherhood. It’s a cultural thing for Nigerian women, and even now there are women who would rather die than do a cesarean section when they have to, or take an epidural. Because of this relationship with pain, most labor rooms in Nigeria are very animated and dramatic. At a point I started asking, what will happen if a woman shows up and doesn’t give the usual response to pain? What will the labor room look like? What will the health team do?

This story was first a 300-word flash fiction, because I wanted to capture a particular moment in the labor room. After series of rejections, I decided to expand the story a bit, but not on the plot itself. I added depth to Elo by capturing different angles of her experience. I knew I was never going to give a detailed “why” for her high threshold for pain.

And on that note, what is your method for crafting characters that live on the page? Do you first write extensive outlines of your characters, or do they naturally assume bodies and personalities as your story develops? Which writers do you turn to for inspiration in character development?

I think it’s more of the second. I let my characters sort of like “brew and mature” in my head. When I start writing they are quite formed. And since this story was a redraft, I already had an intent.

I wouldn’t say I have a favourite writer. But I’ve been reading the Best American Short Stories since 2019. It was a bit daunting to get into, but now I read and review two stories a day. When I was writing this story I was reading and re-reading BASS 2017.

One aspect I love about this beautiful story is how you give space and attention to the visceral reality of labor itself. I love how you name all its real and essential parts, from “vagina” to “perineum” to “poop.” Sadly, it’s hard to find stories that treat labor and, by association, women, with this level of respect and honesty. Elo does indeed become a mighty and multi-layered “slayer” by the end of this story, as do the other minor female characters. As you crafted this story, did you find it uncomfortable using some of this terminology? Or did it just come smoothly and naturally?

I’m a medical doctor so it came naturally and I’ve never been a writer to demur.

What are you working on these days, and where can we read more of your work?

I’m reading short story anthologies, and in the coming months I’ll be done with BASS and will be moving over to the O. Henry Prize Stories.

I have a couple of published stories. In retrospect, I’m not proud of them. LOL. They are mostly plot based and I wasn’t impressed with the style. In 2019 I was fortunate to attend a writing masterclass hosted by Teju Cole, Emmanuel Iduma, and Ayobami Adebayo. The workshop opened my eyes to the discipline of close reading. After a year of practicing, I started working on characterization, language, and texture. So these days I’m restructuring stories rejected by literary journals and sending them out to different journals. This story is the first success. The second success will be out next year in Midnight and Indigo.

Do you have any advice for writers on finding inspiration and handling rejection?

I’ll tell them not to self-publish their stories in a blog. They should write and send out to editors. They should also read a lot of stories written by authors who have gained mastery, and read works published in the journals they want to be published in, especially if their stories were rejected by the journal’s editor.

Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations! 

Thanks a lot, Sommer.