Always a pleasure.
Author Interview: Chikodili Emelumadu
2015-09-24 · by sub-Q
Chikodili Emelumadu is a writer, journalist and broadcaster living in London. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apex, Eclectica, Omenana, One Throne and Luna Station Quarterly. She can be found ranting about life, Igboness, and whatever else seizes her fancy on Igbophilia.wordpress.com. She is the author of this week’s story, “The Fixer.”
This interview was conducted by instant message and email in September 2015.
Tory Hoke: Considering how isolating and divorced from the audience writing is, I was surprised to read about your lifelong desire to be on stage! How do you deal with the absence of audience?
Chikodili Emelumadu: Who says I have no audience? Right now there’s a parrot called Percy perched on my shoulder. Seriously though, um . . . I don’t know. I think writing is the same as broadcasting in the sense that, you don’t think of a multitude of people. You think of telling the story to one person, one person who doesn’t judge you and loves to listen and thinks you’re great. One person whom you want to captivate and educate. In broadcasting, this personification makes your voice warm and homey and intimate. If you think of the multitudes, you freeze up. Your throat becomes tight because ALL THOSE PEOPLE are hanging on your every word.
In writing, if you focus on audience, you start trying to please them, to tweak and bend the story—”Please don’t hate me, she’s gay but she dies and there are no non-Nigerians in my work”—kind of thing. Instead of trusting the story. Instead of trusting the story to unravel itself and just be.
Tory: Interesting. A very intimate performance. How do you compare the emotional reward? To writing versus being on stage?
Chikodili: Writing is such a bitch, man. I love it, but I’m very much an instant gratification kind of person. The stage, if you’re dying, you know it. People cough. Or go to wee (I’m talking about all my amateur theatre performances way back when in school). But when you’re carrying them, ooh, it is so good. You can hear when they collectively hold their breath, when they gasp. You can tell when people are about to cry, and when they laugh you feel like God.
With writing, the gratification is very delayed. You write. Edit, edit, edit. Rewrite. Send it to beta readers. They give you notes. You either take or leave them. Then you submit and wait for an editor to tell you they like it but just not enough to publish. You drink gin or rum. Or sherry. Whatever is in the pantry really. And then you do it all over again until someone loves it. Then you get your fix. Maybe that’s why I write short stories a lot. The turnaround is shorter than with novels. And with blogging it’s instantaneous! Woo-hoo! “They love me! They really love me!” or “They hate me. I have no comments. I want to die.”
I’m not sure why people do this gig. It’s brutal. Love it though.
Tory: It sounds like, in both cases, the brutality is part of the allure.
Chikodili: Yes, I think so. Because when it works, it really works. But speaking of allure, does it not mean that I had a choice? Like, you know, I was attracted to the life. I don’t think I did have a choice. All the things I have ever done have involved telling stories: journalism, broadcasting, writing, acting. Stories and characters. The brutality is in-built. You take the good and the downright deadly. I was born to tell stories. It’s what I’m here for.
In my next life, I am coming back as a surgeon. Or an accountant. Something steady and creative in a way that I don’t currently grasp (numbers and anatomy). Well, I’m good with anatomy, but I mean the creative parts of fixing the human body.
Tory: Speaking of bodies . . . A lot of your work melds sex, horror, and humor. What about that intersection speaks to you . . . or compels you to speak?
Chikodili: Um . . . hmm. I’ve never really given it much thought. Let me think on it one by one. First of sex because why not? I was raised in Nigeria where sex is very much a hidden ‘something’ (as we say in Nigeria). So what happens when people are not so much deprived of sex (Nigeria is the most populous African country, seventh most populous in the world), as restricted in talking about, thinking about or even feeling sex(y)? They think about sex some more. I think about it all the time—as I’m sure do a lot of people. “How do I get more of it?”
At the same time, I am irreverent with regards to sex because my father is a surgeon and my mother a doctor. I grew up in a hospital compound; at one point we lived in the topmost two flats in a four storey building which served as the hospital. You see people when they are at their most broken down. All that ‘sme-sme’ or ‘gra-gra’, as we say in Nigeria—that swagger, that sashay for women—in hospitals, that is all stripped away. People are reduced to parts—diseased ailing parts. They don’t care if their breasts are hanging out or their penises are short; they just want you to make them feel better. They want you to tell them it is going to be alright.
My sisters and I all worked for my father during the holidays at different posts, from receptionist to the equivalent of candy striper. It’s hard to have any sort of respect for sex after seeing that. So I joke about it.
At the end of the day, we are all dust, and I suppose having access to such things—that insight from an early age—shows in my work. People just interpret it as ‘horror’. To me, it’s life.
Tory: That dovetailing—that makes so much sense. You’ve blogged about feeling pressure from your parents to follow in their career footsteps. But growing up in that situation, how could they expect you not to write?
Chikodili: Man, I don’t even know what they were thinking. I would have been a nightmare doctor. Just making up monsters from discarded tissue and body parts. I would have been more interested in chasing death. I think I still am.
Tory: But in pleasing and thoughtful ways . . .
Chikodili: “Yes, Mrs Nsobundu, this here is Igor. He will follow you now and look after you since your husband is dead and your kids live so far away. Don’t worry about feeding him. Just keep him outside when it rains so that he can recharge with lightning.”
Chikodili: Very thoughtful when Igor mauls the poor old woman.
Tory: Well, they’d have some good times first.
Chikodili: Hmm. . . I smell story.
Tory: I do, too.
Seems like a successful doctor needs a certain detachment–an ability to push people away. But between your wiring and your experience, it seems like you’re driven to connect.
Chikodili: Yes. I think the desire to understand people, to understand things drives all writers. But at the same time, a certain apartness means that you’ll never really be comfortable enough to stop writing or seeking. The desire to connect is driven by a suspicion that you aren’t really connecting. So you push harder. And sometimes you have to push people away too—go into your hidey-hole because that empathy can get you in trouble. You find yourself sometimes completely immersed in a situation that’s not yours or a life that’s not yours, and you have to step back out of it. You have to push people away and recharge.
I don’t even think that doctors are successful at the detachment thing. They get a bad rep. I’ve seen my dad shattered at losing a patient.
Tory: Very true. That detachment breaking point comes for everyone.
Chikodili: Except for a lot of writers, it’s the other way round, right? ‘The attachment breaking point comes for everyone’.
Tory: Ha ha, yes. The magic is in the middle.
Chikodili: And the middle is a tightrope.
Tory: True. One of many, it seems, in Nigeria especially. For instance, tracking down music for “The Fixer,” I got a glimpse of how intensely personal business is in Nigeria. How do you compare that business style to that of the UK? Does experience with one enhance your skill set in the other?
Chikodili: What do you mean when you say ‘business style’?
Tory: Well, let’s see . . . in the US there’s this very “here’s cash on the barrel, take it or leave it.”
Chikodili: No haggling?!
Tory: Haggling gives Americans a light burning sensation. I guess what I’m asking is, if my limited experience and some Googling is the tip of the iceberg of doing business in Nigeria, what is the real rest of the iceberg? How does understanding such disparate ways of doing business (Nigeria and UK) equip you? I should guess your son has no prayer of pulling one over on you.
Chikodili: NOPE! He can try but ‘Naija no dey carry last’. This means literally, in a class, Nigerians don’t come last, i.e. we’re not dumbasses.
I haven’t done a lot of business here in the UK, but for a while I worked for a broadcaster, and part of my job meant trying to get guests for shows from the continent (Africa) and so on. We also had to make sure we paid for any music we used, but we never got any trouble. You bang in the length that you used plus the record company, artists, etc and voila, they get paid. Maybe being a big, well-known body helped.
Perhaps some people might have thought they could take you for a fool or get some more out of you because [sub-Q is] smaller? But it can be frustrating, yes. And as I was saying, Oliver de Coque [the first choice for “The Fixer”] is quite big so his rights must be a nightmare. Prince Chijioke [the second choice] is smaller, so less nightmarish.
It’s usually easier when their record labels are well known at home or are European.
If they’ve gone defunct, it might mean that family members are handling things sometimes, and everyone would want a cut. But that’s just an assumption.
Tory: You prepared me well to know I was effectively walking up to a stranger and asking for the rights to “Thriller.”
Tory: I was ready to be treated as oddly as I was behaving.
Chikodili: That’s the equivalent. Nobody knows what ‘odd’ behaviour is in Nigeria, not unless you’re talking to yourself on the street.
Tory: Would that not go over?
Chikodili: Not at all, it so would not go over. We do a lot of things that other people in the world may consider odd. And vice versa. When I first came to this country I thought it was DISGUSTING the way people sniffed their food before they ate it.
Chikodili: You WOULD NOT do that back home, no way! It’s so disrespectful! People will ask you, “Are you a dog?”
Tory: But that’s what you have to do when you’re eating bland food! Otherwise your body doesn’t get ready to digest.
Chikodili: [Laughs.] Don’t do that in Nigeria, seriously. You will get looks! But I find myself doing it now, you know. A little sniff before I eat.
Tory: Did it feel transgressive?
Chikodili: No. I actually caught myself doing it and laughed. Eleven years here and now I sniff food. My mother would be appalled.
Tory: It had to come for you in time. Your kid—what side of the sniff fence does he fall on?
Chikodili: He doesn’t sniff, no. He’s a foodie so he will look at the presentation, and then taste. It’s all very serious.
Tory: I wonder where he gets his food appreciation from.
Chikodili: I know. I have to force myself not to write about food. It’s as if I understand the world through eating and writing. I’m like a child. Was it Freud who said tasting via mouth denotes an immature sensibility or something like that? Freud might be a dick but I do wonder.
Tory: Even a stopped dick is right twice a day.
Chikodili: Exactly! [Laughs] I go to a new country and the first thing I do is ‘Where are the local foods, I must eat your culture, nom nom.’
Tory: What was the last non-Nigeria, non-UK country you visited, and what did you eat?
Chikodili: Ooh. I think that was Amsterdam, last year. Where I ate mostly Japanese food because the hotel we stayed in was a Japanese chain. But when we hit the town, it was a lot of pancakes, sweet and savoury. I might have to check my notebooks to see what notes I made, but I was mostly doing my Homer food-intoxication face-with-drool. “Garrrgrrrrrllll.” It was disgusting.
But that was probably where I found out that I loved duck pink. And my steak medium rare. Pink and bleeding. No decent Nigerian would eat it like that.
Tory: Oh no?
Chikodili: We don’t eat things with blood in them. No self-respecting Nigerian. If you ask for steak in Nigeria, you would probably be able to drive home on it. Replacement tyres.
Tory: You’ve dipped your toe into writing interactive fiction. How’s it treating you?
Chikodili: Oh, I don’t know yet. It depends on the reception my story receives doesn’t it? I will say as a reader though, I LOOOOOVE IF. It harks back to the era of those ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books for me. I’m just rubbish in non-linear tales in that I keep going back to take paths I previously did not take. I have to know everything. It’s ridiculous. A five-minute story takes me twenty minutes. All the possible permutations, all the universes in the story—I MUST explore every one!
Tory: What can be done to bring more authors of traditional fiction to the IF fold?
Chikodili: I think whenever anything new comes on the scene, there is always that mistrust and/or snobbery about it. First self-pub, then ebooks, online magazines, and so on. Nobody will need to get more ‘traditional’ authors to do anything. Why all this chasing authors? No. Authors will go where the readers are. If your audience prefers IF, then as a writer (assuming you’re not adventurous like yours truly already) you will try something new. Anything to reach your loyal group AND a newer demographic. All we want after all is for our stories to be read. In the case of IF, experienced. Surely that’s a good thing? We’ll just have to keep doing a good job with IF. If we make it right, they will come.
By the way, ‘traditional authors’ is cracking me up because, let’s face it: if things didn’t change at all through the years, you’d be talking about cavemen painting on cave walls with berries and crushed flowers. Or leaves. Or their own excrement/blood.
Tory: Some would say trying new things is about as pleasant, but you jumped right in. Is that drive to connect really more powerful than fear?
Chikodili: I think so. Writers cherish the thought of being snowflakes, unique and different, but I think we would rather choose to hold ourselves apart—not because we are Johnny No-Mates. We still want that connection. We still seek that universality in all of the differences. In my culture (the Igbo of Nigeria) we have a saying: ‘Nkem di iche bu ajo afa’—’My own is different, is a bad name to bear’. So by all means be an individual, but not so individual that you stick out too much and can no longer fit in with people. I think that’s the real fear. Not being got, at all, by anyone.
Besides, writing for me is not new. I’ve been doing it since I could write words. And before I could write, I was telling stories. Before I could tell them, I thought them and dreamt them and felt them and was them. It sounds like a douchey thing to say (hello Americanism!), but it’s true. Fear’s just part of the gig.
Tory: What would you say to an author of traditional fiction who was considering trying out IF for the first time?
Chikodili: Adapt or die.
I say that, but the real challenge would be getting some of us to think in a non-linear manner. If done correctly, IF can help you do more in traditional fiction. IF demands that you hear and see and feel and even taste. It’s intense. It means you’re always thinking of how to bring the atmosphere into the work, so that by the time all the SFX and EFX are in, it’s awesome. It’s like being in your very own film. I think it’s the first step to a Surrogates-type situation.
Tory: What would you like to see more of in contemporary F/SF?
Chikodili: Ooh. I want to say more diversity but it’s not quite that. I do want that, don’t get me wrong. It’s just . . . look, the continent of Asia makes up 60% of the world and Africa makes up 15%. Europe 11%, and North America 7.6%. Based on these figures alone, the non-white ‘minority’ are actually the ‘majority’. So why do we not see a lot more PUBLISHED stuff from this group?
I would like more inclusivity and acceptance of diversity. Not merely to fill a quota. Not as novelty characters. But because not having people of colour in a work in 2015 is just damn weird. It boggles the mind frankly.
I mean, unless your stuff is set in a place where everybody has always been white forever and ever, and no visitors have ever come in, and nobody has ever travelled outside . . . I mean some real Haven stuff. (I can’t remember, were they PoC in Haven?)
Tory: This is where I admit the first “Haven” I think of is in Dragon Age: Inquisition. And the second one is the Syfy show.
Chikodili: I mean Haven the Syfy series, yes.
Tory: What’s next for you?
Chikodili: I’m writing a novel, which is making me happy. I have been ‘writing’ it all year, but I only just truly started writing it this month (I missed a whole weekend but since made up the word count). Before that it was a lot of planning and plotting and tentative writing. I’d done about six or seven versions, stopping at chapter six each time (so many words!), and I couldn’t figure out why.
Now I know it’s because something I did not plan needed to happen, and once I got over that bit, the rest of it started flowing. I’m doing the NaNoWriMo thing of at least 1667 words a day, for a total of 50,000 a month, but what I find is that I can double or triple that easily. If you haven’t, guys, try it. It’s dead easy. The finished book will be way over that number, but I’ll still have 50,000 words in the bag.
I also have a few stories doing the submission rounds, and I’m hoping to compile some of them into a collection as soon as the novel is done and dusted. And I have a stack of reading to tackle. I made furniture out of them. At night, the books hiss and curse at me. They don’t like not being read. Hopefully I can get 50% of the way with the reading before the year is over.
Tory: Thank you so much for this. This was so fun I nearly died.
Chikodili: You too. And thank you!