Mary Ononokpono

Mary Ononokpono won this year’s edition of The Short Story is Dead, Long Live The Short Story! for her story Firewater. Disrupted trajectories characterize the multiplex world of her story, a firm study of social relationships as queuing networks, birth and death do not go hand in hand so smoothly, and complicated answers are ever provoked by softened questions. We run an interview that was conducted by Black Letter Media where Mary talks about the many passions that brought “Firewater” into being.

Black Letter Media: It’s intoxicating how subtly you weave in and out of genres in Firewater, sampling aspects of mythology, travel writing, epos, mystery, folktales; because of this you do complicate the very idea of historical fiction specific to Africa as unreservedly burdened with questions of authenticity and being faithful to the recorded historical account. Could this have been a conscious ploy on your part, to deemphasize the need for didacticism in your narrative, as is so tragically foisted on African works by the likes of Achebe?

Mary Ononokpono: I set out to write a story that chronicles aspects of a very specific imagined past. It is a past clearly informed by mythology, by folktale, by epos, by information excavated from the historical record, which more often than not, serves as a house for all of the above. I didn’t set out to sample different genres as you put it. I was interested in unveiling life specific to a locality and moment in time, through the lens of a character who first appeared in another piece. What emerged, perhaps reveals more about my own past, in that my literary roots are steeped in orality, in epic poetry, in various mythologies, in theology – particularly in biblical scholarship – so the fact that my work blends a variety of techniques is a given to large extent. I am, after all, the sum total of my parts. My aim when embarking upon the creative process, is to enter that space where the work takes over and authors itself. In writing a narrative, I transform from being a holding cell of sorts into being a conduit. When I’m at my best, even when having plotted rigorously beforehand, I’m not entirely sure what is going to emerge. Was I consciously de-emphasising the need for didacticism? Not at all. Do I even agree that Achebe’s work tragically foists didacticism upon African works? No. Certainly, his work may be read by some as being didactic, but to claim that he foists such upon subsequent African works is a stretch. Rather, his being an elder statesmen means that Achebe has been used as a starting point for exploration of themes, modes and techniques which, due to his expansive reach, have since been normalised. And that is not necessarily through any deliberate attempt at imposition on his part. I understand it as more of an organic (and somewhat deliberate) process; by which I mean that his happened to be a voice that was amplified due to a variety of factors. In all honesty, I wasn’t thinking about Achebe or any other writer for that matter. When I sit down to write – it’s because I just want to write – or I feel I have something pressing to say. Other authors are never a factor.

BLM: I’m not one to overestimate terms like historical fiction etc, mainly because this binary thinking has hurt our works far worse than we seem aware; but in talking about the “historical novel”, I’m of the mind that it works best when it can show us how the modern world is governed by ancient forces?

MO: In his posthumously published text, On Reason: Rationality in a World of Cultural Conflict and Racism, late Nigerian-American philosopher Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, writes:

“… the works of modern African writers do not necessarily justify the past: it is a past whose own reliability the writers are themselves often the first to put into serious doubt. But the questions do allow one to estimate the value —metaphysical, epistemological, moral, and aesthetic—of writing itself as an act of mending not only an individual’s memory, but also the historical self-understanding of a people, a culture, or a tradition.”

I’m not quite sure how the category of historical fiction constitutes, as you say, ‘binary thinking,’ but I do know that literature – be that literature specifically referencing an earlier period or literature archiving a moment which will come to be known at a future date as belonging to the past – draws upon memory and projection in a bid to consolidate one’s understanding of the world and one’s place in it. African literatures are not dissimilar from other literatures in that regard.

Considering the continent’s recent histories involving the erasure of African memories, the act of chronicling or recovering histories through fiction can be considered a radical act. Africans are not supposed to have pasts, particularly pasts with a precolonial reach. In an era where history can be so easily expunged from the Nigerian curriculum, I feel a duty to speak directly to the pasts that have forged me as both an act of memorialisation and correction. Failure to contextualise contemporary issues within the current of historicised pasts, negates any serious attempts at problem solving, no matter how earnest. The past informs the present day. With regards to literature, all literatures reference a specific time period, whether authors are aware of that or not.

There are those who might argue that what I have written does not constitute historical fiction at all, due to the inclusion of elements which challenge perceptions of what constitutes reality or normalcy in a post-enlightenment world. I would argue that since the reader is observing my imagined world directly through the lens of my protagonist, encountering the preternatural is to be expected. In imagining this specific past, I guess I am engaging in what Eze refers to as the “process of imaginative recovery and affirmation of the very idea of history as a form of existence.”

BLM: Your protagonist goes without a name, which is not to say your story does not speak on the complexities, even benefits, of anonymity – how do you think you were able to balance her namelessness and yet still imagine her so strongly within a society in which names (as we see with the gods) carry so much power?

MO: This narrative initially formed a part of an early novel draft, but following a deeply disturbing incident with an unscrupulous charlatan, I decided to combine select chapters from those early drafts into a compilation of short stories. Firewater is taken from that body of work. In many respects it was easy to imagine the protagonist as her offspring was already fully realised. Regarding the namelessness of my protagonist, yes, within African societies, names carry a great deal of power, moreover the opposite is also true. Oftentimes more so. Particularly in relation to memories and histories of trauma. Many of us have at least one traumatic memory that we are too afraid to name for fear of it wreaking havoc in carefully constructed lives. Such memories carry a great deal of power. Perhaps too much power.

I’m interested in the entanglement between silence and speech. There is an art to knowing when to keep silent and knowing when to speak. There are those who attempt to silence others as a means of perpetrating psychological violence. It’s a thing I’ve encountered many many times. At present, I’m reflecting upon how both silence and speech, namelessness and naming can be utilised as tools for inflicting violence or for the reclamation of agency by the same actors in different contexts. I am of the opinion that when you name a thing, it loses power over you; so I am interested in the often complex interplay between namelessness, naming, power and powerlessness. The relationships between silence and namelessness to empowered and disempowered states are themes that are expressing themselves quite readily in my creative and academic work at present – and have been for some time.

BLM: Someone will say you’re “folktaling” here, that yours is a tall tale, of returning without having ever left, writing about an absent mother at a time when it could still be said the African village mothered every child. An epic of youth and its fragilities, sure, but you do more than merely document a character’s complicated metamorphosis, if anything you undo somewhat the damage of ethnography?

MO: Is not all fiction by nature a tall tale? All stories have a blueprint and seek their designated end. The trick is to allow those ends to unfurl of their own accord. The act of writing sees me attempting to gain mastery of allowing stories to do their own unwinding because I believe that in doing so, I enter the realm of the timeless. Storytellers who possess the ability to conceal the end in the beginning and the beginning within the end, have, in my opinion, tapped the heart of creation itself. When writing, there ought to be an ease to it, or that’s what I’m looking for at any rate. Moreover I only stumble upon that ease when I have created the space beforehand.

It is no secret that colonial ethnographers left poisonous legacies for African peoples. I have mixed feelings towards anthropology as an academic discipline precisely due to the legacies of othering it has generated. Moreover, ethnographic studies also have their uses. They often form the basis for the construction of complex historiographies. The way to counter othering and the pernicious legacies left by colonial ethnographers is to tell your own stories. I am not sure that I have managed to ‘undo’ such legacies in this piece, rather, it is something that I hope to contribute to throughout the course of my career.

BLM: You emigrated to the UK with your family when you were very young and only returned when? Knowing the entanglements of relocation and how returning to one’s birth country isn’t an innocent process of locating your old neighbourhood and building anew. There is always the question of home as envisioned in the diaspora vs the moment of rewriting that must happen for the returnee in responding to their new perceptions of the homeland. Was there ever a moment, as Naben Ruthnum would say of emigrants, of longing “for the truths of the past and a pure homeland”, particularly when we link this question to your story?

MO: I was born in Calabar and left at the age of seven months to join my father who was studying Pharmacy at King’s College London. We comprised part of a wave of immigrants who left the African continent in order to continue tertiary education abroad. My parents were part of what I guess can now be termed the ‘brain drain.’ I returned to Nigeria for the first time when I was sixteen. England is a home of sorts, but here, I have always experienced the rootlessness that accompanies living life in the liminal. I would say that as a result of that, I am most comfortable navigating thresholds, which is ideal for an artist. There is much that you observe that might otherwise be overlooked when relegated to the margins. When I returned to Nigeria, I had literally just completed my GCSEs. I wasn’t at all sure what to expect.

We moved to Manchester from London when I was still very young so that my father could complete his doctorate. We lived briefly on the top floor of a two-story maisonette. There was a block of high rise flats opposite our home which we affectionately named ‘Lagos’ because it reminded my mother of Lagos in the seventies. For many years, that was my image of Nigeria – or of Lagos. A block of high rise council flats hued in shades of beige and grey. Receiving correspondence from Nigeria was an event. I still recall my siblings and I gathered around my mother’s skirts, in order to hear personalised messages from my now late grandfather which had been dispatched by aerogramme.

I had a conflicted relationship with home. In many ways, I have never been at home anywhere. Not in this country, not in Nigeria, not in this world. My images of the African continent during the eighties and nineties were informed by mass media, by pernicious narratives centred around famine-ravaged Ethiopia and Bob Geldof’s Live Aid; by Eddie Murphy’s deeply problematic Coming to America. My siblings and I, along with an entire generation of African children, were tormented relentlessly by Caribbean children who resembled us because we were African. When I came of age ‘Africa’ was a dirty word. So I wasn’t at all sure of what to make of that first return trip home. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love. With the rouged earth. With the flora. With the scents, colours and rhythms of Nigeria. With the people. My people. But I was under no illusions that life back at home was easy, that Nigeria wasn’t grappling with a plethora of deeply entrenched socio-political and economic issues.

It was following a more recent trip back home that I began to delve into the historical record. Overnight my trajectory changed. What began as informal and clumsy attempts at research, has since been formalised. I looked into my ancestral past and I saw life. But I also saw death. Too much death. I am not sure that I would agree that I have been longing for the truths of the past and a pure homeland. Some pasts are easier to forget. But the ghosts of them still speak, and oftentimes loudly, within the present. In many ways my current work is an attempt at exorcism of those ghosts, of healing. Personal healing, ancestral healing. I’m not sure that there is such a thing as a pure homeland. Not in this world/realm at least, not for me at any rate.

BLM: Now, in talking about a novel like Kintu, for instance – alert, of course, to the danger of having African books preambled by Americans – we have Aaron Bady suggesting that stories can be a way to update the past; that is, “the old pasts are [updated] so that new pasts can be remembered into existence”. Were you in any way concerned with such when writing Firewater?

MO: Yes and no. There is a dearth of fictional African literature dealing with West and Central Africa in the seventeenth century, primarily due to the fact that the period is defined historically by the transatlantic slave trade. The stories I am writing set during this period do not fit a particular globally exported enslavement narrative with roots in the antebellum south. Any narrative that disrupts general understanding about topics as sensitive as that of enslavement and race, is not welcomed as a general rule, for multiple reasons which I shan’t go into here. Moreover I am of the opinion that such narratives still ought to be told, irrespective of whether they are accepted immediately or not.

Many Africans – particularly diaspora Africans – are not interested in anything to do with the precolonial beyond engaging mythical ‘kings and queens,’ irrespective of the fact that the period actually holds the key to understanding the process of racialisation. I think the nature of generally accepted enslavement narratives has much to do with that. Personally, I am intrigued by the links between the mass commodification of black bodies and the subsequent emergence of a debt based global economic system which allows for a global Euro-American hegemony. I am compelled to write what I write because I am invested in change. The kind of change that necessitates deep, and oftentimes uncomfortable, digging.

BLM: Of course your story speaks on love. Communal love, sister love, circumstantial love, love by men who only know one way to love, love that goes against what is socially permitted. We don’t often give narratives of interracial relationships in the context of European colonialism a chance because most of the time we see the position of the African as always prejudiced to lower status, always provoking a questioning of the double standards that predetermine the giving and receiving of that love. I raise this point because I am conflicted about the mostly favourable inclusion of white characters when narrativizing African life in the course of undergoing European contact, even as seen in Firewater?

MO: When you write about “interracial relationships in the context of European colonialism,” it is evident to me that we are discussing two entirely different things. In a South African context, the onset of the late seventeenth century – the period defined in this narrative – saw the initiation of white settler colonialism. Moreover, in a West African context, white settler colonialism never occurred. Broadly speaking, the onset of European colonialism is widely understood by scholars of Africa to coincide with partition. There were of course exceptions to that rule. Your question has conflated not only different geographical locations, but different centuries and different forms of colonialism. It automatically poses problems. My story is situated within the bight of Biafra, in the place now referred to as Calabar. This narrative concerns precolonial West Africa.

The assumption that the narrative is dealing with European colonialism perfectly encapsulates nonchalant attitudes with regards to the African past that happen to be fostered by both Africans and non-Africans alike. This is why it is imperative that African histories are taught in African schools. The choice of phrasing incidentally goes some way towards explaining precisely why casually dismissed categories such as ‘historical fiction’ are in fact useful. As a reader, you need to understand what it is you are actually looking at. It is important not to conflate these things.

I’m not of the opinion that the inclusion of a white character in this instance is favourable. My protagonist is ostracised, named prostitute and left to fend for herself. I don’t see what is favourable about that. There is so much happening within this brief narrative; ritual slavery, the killing of an albino, induction into a war cult, a glimpse into the Ibibio and Efik fattening room culture, the interracial relationship forms only a tiny portion of the narrative, yet you chose to focus on that element. Let’s say the encounter is ultimately favourable – which it isn’t necessarily – does that invalidate the story? Does that invalidate this particular perspective? When writing about first contact with Europeans, I have found that African writers give mostly unfavourable inclusions to white characters. You mentioned Achebe earlier, Things Fall Apart is a classic example in which unfavourable inclusions during first contact are illustrated in a way that has since become prescriptive.

This narrative and others linked to it, are born out of a period of research that I undertook during which I was exploring Luso African populations in a transatlantic context. The entire African coastline has been creolised over the course of time. Much of the creolisation is several centuries deep. In both historical and contemporary contexts, dual heritage Africans exist. I don’t see why the existence of such Africans is problematised. The fact is, Sub-Saharan Africans have been copulating with non Africans – which includes European and Asiatic peoples – for as long as there has been contact. Interracial mixing not only happens, it’s been happening for a very very long time. Undoubtedly, in many of these situations, particularly historically, violence and inequalities are present, but there also exists varying degrees of agency and deep feelings equating to love.

If the perception is that I’m trying to privilege westerners in my work – that was never a factor. I merely wished to illustrate something of the evolution in African attitudes towards such liaisons. In a transatlantic West African context the historical record is rich with evidence alluding to the fact that such relations have always been marked by complexity. There is only so much that can be illustrated in just shy of six thousand words. The reader is essentially getting a snapshot of a broader arc. It’s very difficult when writing about the African past, not to impose twenty first century sensibilities onto the work, but I try my utmost not to do so. I would like it if my readers attempted to refrain from doing the same, although I am aware it’s a big ask.

Mary Ononokpono is a Nigerian-British writer and artist. Winner of the 2014 Golden Baobab Prize for Early Chapter Books, Mary is a two-time shortlistee of the Morland Writing Scholarship. Her work can be found in the last three Short Story Day Africa anthologies: Terra Incognita, Water and Migrations. Drawing upon the rich cultural legacies of the African continent, Mary reconstructs narratives rooted in the African past as a basis for examining present and future. Central to Mary’s writing and research is an exploration of the complexities of supernatural syncretism, predominantly within Ibibio and Efik contexts. Recently, she has been working on a debut novel for adults, in addition to completing a collection of short stories themed around the transatlantic era, provisionally entitled ‘And There Was No More Sea.’ Mary graduated with a BA in History from SOAS University of London in July 2016. Presently, she is reading for an MPhil in African Studies at the University of Cambridge as a pathway to a doctoral research degree. Mary lives with her eleven year old daughter, also an avid reader and writer. Copies of “The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story!” can be preordered here and here; we recently announced the winners for the third volume.