The first of a series of Q&As with the three most recent alumni of Ebedi International Writers Residency.
Ebedi Writers Residency founded by Wale Okediran (Tenants of the House) is, perhaps, the best kept secret in the African literary community. Tucked away in Iseyin, a small town in the western parts of Nigeria, Ebedi gives resident writers six weeks of peace and quiet in a beautiful and comfortable work/living space. Past residents include the likes of Doreen Baingana (Tropical Fish) and Yewande Omotoso (Bomboy).
Gertrude Uzoh is one of the three most recent residents. In the interview, the multi-talented writer talks about her time at Ebedi, her work as a musician, her social activism, and why love features strongly in her work. Enjoy!
What’s the best part of living and writing at the Ebedi Writer’s Residence?
It’s the solitude it offers. Ebedi International Writers’ Residency offers some serenity and concentration away from the distractions of a regular everyday life. No serious author (or any artist at all) would want to miss on that opportunity of a six-week dedication to writing. And on a more personal level, my blast moments at Ebedi was my weekly interactions with the students of IDGS where I went with my co-residents to coach/mentor the students on creativity and the cultivation of their innate talents.
We hear that you’re working on a second novel? Is it about love, like your first novel?
Yes! Love is still a strong theme in my second novel. I actually had two works while at Ebedi; first is my second novel, and the other a short compilation of my original inspirations into what I call “Nuggets of Life”
Your first novel, One Love Many Tears: It Takes two to Tango!, came out in 2012. How has its reception been so far? What do people like about it? What criticisms, if any, has it received?
One Love, Many Tears: It Takes Two to Tango! has had a warm reception. People often comment that they like my choice of language, its simplicity. They also talk positively about the strong imageries the story creates in the mind as one flips through the pages. The cover design has a young woman’s face, supposedly a pretty woman, but with a face and eyes stained with tears. People always say that this is a captivating cover to perfectly depict the book’s title. So, alongside many newspaper reviews in the past and one TV review on AIT’s Kaakaki morning show, One Love, Many Tears has so far received good commendations as well as few critiques. Maybe with a stronger critique, the flaws of the book (like in all books and works of art) will come to light more but so far the only flaws mentioned has been few typos in a number of pages – but another re-submission will soon take care of all that. Some people also complained of the tensing – that is the use of tenses in the book. They feel I dabble between present and past tense—sounding as if I might be confused as the author, or that I do not know how to use the tenses well. But the truth is that my choice of using present tenses in most part of the book is a style.
Your description of Cynthia’s dejection in the first few pages of One Love Many Tears is striking. How are you able to depict suffering so powerfully? Are you drawing from any personal experience of tragedy?
Personal experience? That has always been a similar reaction from people after handling the book. No doubt I have had experiences of crying, laughing, sadness, joys and more, but these are normal human emotions. My ability to put them in writing or “depict them so powerfully” like you said is just my creative vibe or strength. This “power” also reflects my personality because I have very strong imaginations and emotions too, plus the fact that I like being as emphatic as possible while expressing myself. The point was to create something moving and a story that “feels” so real when my readers flip through the pages. The book after all catches glimpses of what is possible in our everyday society, so if it is real enough in the readers’ mind and feelings, then it might make them begin to think deeper or possibly do something positive about such vices or virtues so-themed in the book. That’s one of the aims of the book anyway.
“Uche Love” is an awesome for a nick name. Why did your friends call you that during your university days?
Hmmm. The name “Uche Love” came in my 300 level and stuck through my final year in the university and even up to this day among some of my classmates. I remember it came during the time I first acted on my strong motivation to talk to my class about love. *lol* I have always been a very shy person. When I say shy, I mean terribly shy, extremely reserved, and afraid. I would never volunteer to walk through a crowd or stand before an audience even if they were my peers. Sometime in my second or third year, I came across motivational books that helped me break free of fear and shyness. It’s funny, but it came upon me one morning that I fearfully but boldly walked to the podium and demanded for audience from my class. I was afraid, shy and almost falling into the pit— if only the floor boards would open up for me. *lol* Everyone as it appears was surprised and wondered aloud at what “this one” had come to do out and up here; but I did it. I went to the black chalkboard and wrote “Love 101” as the course code/title. *lol*. I was taking it so playfully at the time (may be just to hide my inner fears and nervousness), but I was so serious nevertheless. I continued repeating my “lectures” on love to my class (as well as other topics I know of like “Knowing yourself and your temperaments”, but usually the summary of my “talks” still boiled down to Love) every other day we get a free time in-between lectures. Now, my native name is Uchenna, so my classmates simply dubbed me “Uche Love”. It’s funny though, and not quite anything serious to recount with so much enthusiasm, you know, but to me breaking out of my self-inhibiting fear of crowd/people and shyness has been a major milestone in my self-growth and personal advancement. That’s how the nick-name came about.
You mentioned in an interview that writing is not your 9-5. What do you do for a living? Is it tough to juggle writing and a full time job?
I was once in a full time job, but I left it not too long ago because it doesn’t’ allow for my fulfillment and did not even give me the desired job satisfaction I needed. So now, I am free to pursue my desires—which are music and writing—with full commitment. I’ve also been spending time on my organization, Green Titans. It needs all the love, attention and support it can get. Green Titans is a platform to encourage positive lifestyle in everybody, especially among young adults and teenagers. We accomplish this by advocating through entertainment, public sensitization and philanthropy. Currently, I am working on a Talent Mentorship/Coaching Program for young people of senior secondary school ages.
Many readers and writers see Chimamanda Adichie as an inspiring figure. Would you say that your work is in any way informed by the aspiration of writing like Adichie?
You know something? Honestly, I started hearing Chimamanda Adichie’s name for the first time only in 2010 when I started the first editing of One Love, Many Tears: It Takes Two to Tango! I came to know about her through one or two persons I contacted to help me proofread my manuscript for the book. When I came back to pick their outputs of the manuscript, they went like “maybe you’ll be our next Chimamanda Adichie” or “It seems you want to write like Chimamanda Adichie.” Now, it naturally got me curious when I kept hearing her name like that. Then in 2012, I came across her book for the first time—Half of a Yellow Sun. Unfortunately, I couldn’t read it as I was busy with work on One Love, Many Tears. But early last year, I finally bought her first book alongside Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, around the time of Achebe’s burial preparations. That was when I had the opportunity of reading her for the first time. I read Purple Hibiscus. A very interesting book I must say, but it was not the inspiration for my own writing. I have been writing long before I came to read Adichie’s book, so all I can do is really appreciate her work. As you may have read somewhere in a previous interview, I penned down the first lines of the book that later became One Love, Many Tears in 1998, about twelve years before hearing Adichie’s name for the first time. I never heard of her in my childhood inspirations and aspirations, and this makes me believe that she must be a new even though very strong wave in the literary world compared to some of the old folks I read before. Still, she is surely a force to reckon with, if I must say.
What do you like about being part of the ANA?
ANA is a strong and well-organized body of Nigerian writers/authors. No doubt, since I joined ANA few years ago it has been very informative and helpful to me as a new author.
I absolutely love that you are a singer. Is your stage name different from your pen name?
No. My name everywhere around my work remains Gertrude U. UzohB, be it a book, a poem or a song.
How would you compare novels and songs as forms of self expression?
To me, my songs are more personal. Music to me is more immediate and satisfying to the soul whereas a novel can take you days to finish reading. Music is concise in its own unique melodies and messages. Novels are long and detailed in their messages. But both can be quite sweet and thought-provoking to create, in my own experience. I love creating fine and even deep lyrics for my songs, and I enjoy it when I eventually make some sweet melodies out of the lines. It’s awesome to experience such creativity on a very personal level. But if I am writing a novel, I often need deeper concentration and sometimes have to be on the alert to take note of sudden inspirations for the book anytime and anywhere it comes. But I’m grateful to God for both gifts. To me, the two are beautiful and go like a brother and a sister united by one string of passionate love. Both are fulfilling to me.
What’s your favorite Nollywood movie? And why?
Living in Bondage! It’s an old film by Kenneth Nnebue, starring Kenneth Okonwor (Andy) and other veterans. There are more sophisticated and very compelling Nollywood movies today, but that’s the one that just came to my mind now. Many see it as the début of what we have today as Nollywood. The film was and still is the pace-setter.
Is Wole Soyinka better as a novelist or as a poet?
Honestly, I can’t compare. But I think he is good at both. He is a renowned and well-respected veteran in what he does, be it novels or poems.
Do you have a pet? If you do, why that particular animal? If you don’t, why?
No, I don’t; because I have not thought about having one. *lol*
List five Nigerian novels that blew your mind to bits when you first read them?
The Secrets of Nothing by Jude Ogu
In The Hearts of the Hereafter by Mezie Nwikwu
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
Man of the Moment by Emmanuel C. Ojukwu
One Love, Many Tears: It Takes Two to Tango! : I am my own number one fan. I can tell you honestly that I have read my début novel for a countless number of times. I keep re-reading it, and each time it refreshes me as new. I keep reading it without getting bored of it, and I can tell you that I am yet to read this book many more times again in the future. The stories continue to move me in a way that you might begin to wonder: but you are the one that wrote the book, so why feel so strongly about it? Well, maybe because it is my first book, you know, with all the excitement of one’s first book; but I doubt if that’s just the reason. The truth is that I like reading myself too.
If you had to choose between a novelist or poet as a lover, which would you pick and why?
*lol* I’ll choose a poet, if that will be an only criterion. Reason: at least he will be writing me sweet poems and he can also appreciate my poems when I write him sweet ones too, plus the fact that I am at least sure that we share a similar spirit by having something in common as co-poets. *lol*