Diane Awerbuck would live happily in a world in which Akwaeke Emezi was president, so when we asked Diane to kick off our new Writer Wednesday series, Writer to Writer, A Game of Writer Tag, she leapt at the chance to interview Akwaeke.
Diane and Akwaeke first met in Elmina, Ghana where they were held against their will by the private beach cradling the beautiful sea, fresh tilapia and The Caine Prize Writers Workshop last summer.
DIANE: Where or what is ‘home’ for you?
AKWAEKE: Ah, I love this question. I’m always wondering the same thing. My first piece for Commonwealth Writers (‘Who Will Claim You’) was about this in a lot of ways, and by the time I finished writing it, I’d decided that home was something I would have to carry in me, instead of looking for it in places or people. It used to be places in which I was always welcome—my mother’s house, my father’s house, my grandmother’s house—but I’ve realized that I am not always seen where I am welcome, and with the work I’m doing, being seen has become more and more important to me.
So right now, home has become wherever I can be alone and write and potter around in a perfectly stocked kitchen, with reliable Internet and no winter. And plants. Somewhere I won’t have to leave.
DIANE: How does your family react to your work?
AKWAEKE: I’ve been writing since I was five and my family heavily encouraged it from the start, so by the time I left my other career tracks to write full time, we’d skipped the whole ‘I can’t believe you want to be a writer’ bit.
They also keep me grounded because they’re never surprised by anything I accomplish. In the past year alone, I’ve signed with The Wylie Agency, won a Morland Scholarship, and gotten a book deal with Grove Atlantic, and each time, my family’s proud but then they’re quickly over it because it’s what they expect from me anyway. I like that they have that standard for me and it also helps me stay focused on making the work and not getting caught up in everything else around it.
As for the work itself, my father rarely reads it because he doesn’t go online, so only when we get hard copies to him. My siblings are supportive, particularly my sister Yagazie, who takes it personally if she’s not a first reader of my novel manuscripts. My mother loves my work but gets a bit nervous when I do memoir and start telling family stories. I think that’s an expected anxiety when you have a writer in your family and I’ve been warning her that there’s an entire book coming out (my debut novel FRESHWATER is autobiographical), so hopefully she won’t be too upset when she finally reads it!
I don’t look back on my early writing precisely because I know how horrified I’ll be by it. But I also don’t think that can be helped.
DIANE: Do you ever look back on your early writing and shudder? Why or why not?
AKWAEKE: I don’t look back on my early writing precisely because I know how horrified I’ll be by it. But I also don’t think that can be helped. Ten years from now, I’ll probably look back at what I’m writing now and be equally horrified, just because it’s my belief that we become better writers the more we write. So, understandably, our future work is likely to be better than the early work, unless you peak and then decline from there. Either way, I remind myself that all I can do is write to the best of my current ability, and I try to be gentle with my early work because my ability then was not the same as my ability now.
I don’t try to scrub away those stories that are still online because I do think it’s important to be transparent about my writing progress, even if it does make me shudder. A lot of the time, we see writers as if they emerged fully formed with all their honed skills, never having written a crap story in their lives, and in my case, I want it to be clear that that would be blatantly untrue.
DIANE: If you could, what would you change about the world of publishing?
AKWAEKE: Let me park well and pass on this question for now. I'm not sure what 'the world of publishing' means because there are so many of them. Are we talking publishing in African countries? In Southeast Asia? In South or Central America? The world is a big place. I see conversations on Twitter alone about the state of publishing in different fields, from children's literature to speculative fiction, from other writers who critique their respective publishing industries with far more eloquence than I can currently muster.
African writers and readers are constantly having conversations about which narratives we keep seeing from our writers (which really comes down to which narratives are being selected by publishers), racism in various publishing industries is constantly being called out, there's a lot happening in the worlds of publishing. I'm currently (and very deliberately) immersed in making my work so I can't afford to engage as much in these conversations as I might otherwise.
DIANE: What are you working on at the moment, and where can we find it?
AKWAEKE: I just got my editorial letter for Freshwater so I’m busy working on that, as well as on my second novel, The Death of Vivek Oji. I’ve created a newsletter where people can get updates and stalk me with ease (you can sign up for that slice of awesomeness here) and the rest of my work is accessible on my website at www.akwaeke.com.
DIANE: Thanks so much for chatting with me! This was such a pleasure.
On Akwaeke’s Bedside Table
I'm about to start Marlon James' The Book Of Night Women, which I've been meaning to read for ages but only recently snagged from a friend's library. I've heard so many lovely things about his use of language in this work, so I'm quite excited to finally experience it myself.
Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo/Tamil writer and video artist based in liminal spaces. Born in Umuahia and raised in Aba, Nigeria, Akwaeke holds two degrees, including an MPA from New York University. The Miles Morland Foundation recently awarded her a 2015 Morland Writing Scholarship for her second novel The Death of Vivek Oji, currently in progress. Her debut novel, Freshwater, is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic in the winter of 2018.
On Diane’s Bedside Table
I've just finished Koors ('Fever') by Deon Meyer - his first foray into spec/fic, and I'm almost sorry I read it: the book is brilliant and it fills me with envy and regret. It may just be the Great South African Novel - and not just because it's about the end of the world. He gets everything right, and the reason I know this is because I've just written two of these things myself (with Alex Latimer: South, out now, and North, out in 2017). Next on my list: The Yearning by Mohale Mashigo (Black Porcelain). What a woman!
Diane Awerbuck wrote Gardening at Night, awarded the Commonwealth Best First Book Award (Africa and the Caribbean). Awerbuck’s prizewinning short stories are collected in Cabin Fever and her latest thriller is Home Remedies, set in Fish Hoek. Her work is translated into Mandarin, German, Russian, French and Swedish. Poetry and interviews are at Aerodrome. The first novel, South, in her frontier-fiction series (with Alex Latimer, writing as Frank Owen) is out now.
Read Diane's recent #WriterWednesday interview here.
Interview by Diane Awerbuck a.k.a @FrankOwenAuthor