Ukamaka Olisakwe grew up in Nigeria and now lives in the United States. She is a UNESCO Africa39 honoree, a fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and a Gerald Kraak Prize runner-up. Her works have appeared in the New York Times, Granta, Guernica, Longreads, The Rumpus, Catapult, Google Arts & Culture, and elsewhere. She is the author of Ogadinma (2020) and Don’t Answer When They Call Your Name (2023). She is currently writing a TV series, Agoodjie, for Canal+ and StudioCanal.
Haneefah: Welcome to LITVO Journal. Congratulations on the release of your new novel ‘Don’t Answer When They Call Your Name’. The novel is a marriage of myth and magic where you took us through the human world, the world of the dead, and that of the ancestors. How did you come up with the idea of the story and what was the writing process like for you?
Ukamaka : Thank you so much, Haneefah. After Ogadinma, I wanted to write something playful, a work that would reflect the rebelliousness of pre-teen years and this new novel turned out to be that project.
It took me less than a year to write DAWTCYN. And I had a lot of fun working on it, even though it was quite challenging building this world, researching our mythologies and divinity system, asking family questions about our past. I was doing that while teaching undergraduate students and taking my own classes. At a point, it was exhausting, but I am happy that I did it, despite the tediousness of life.
Haneefah: What purpose do you envision your book, Don’t Answer When They Call to serve?
Ukamaka: It hopefully joins the list of books that enrich our archives, books that explore the mythical and the fantastical, especially in how women and girls are centered in these worlds.
Haneefah: I really love writers who are unpredictable. Your first novel, ‘Ogadinma’, although, very creative and intriguing, was about ordinary humans and a woman trying to survive, in fact, I was carrying it everywhere, even to the kitchen whenever I have to cook until I finished reading it. I was expecting your new book to be something like that but when I read the prologue which introduced us to Big Father and Mother and then the first chapter which introduced the readers to the AJA, I was like, “this is different and also beautiful!” How unpredictable do you intend to be as a Writer?
Ukamaka: I want all my works to stir different emotions in my readers, for each new work to be quite different from the one preceding it, even if I address similar themes. In the landscape of my creative mind, I am preparing a buffet filled with an assortment of food and drinks, in hopes that the reader, when they walk into this room (my catalogue), will be happy that they did. I am a foodie anyway. With DAWTCYN, what I wanted to do was to move away, even if briefly, from my usual thematic preoccupation and the heaviness you would find in, say, Ogadinma. The genre and the audience for the YA are different, and this means that the tone changes. I love that it moved people in a different and stirred different kinds of emotions and conversations about my writing.
Haneefah: Your first book titled ‘Ogadinma’ is a full-blown feminist novel. ‘Don’t Answer When They Call Your Name’ also has a feminist touch, especially in the character of ‘Mother’ who isn’t satisfied with farming the female crops but wanted to farm the male crops. Considering the fact that there are so many strands of Feminism. Which strand of feminism do you stand for? What is your limitation as a feminist and how does one identify toxic feminism?
Ukamaka : When you say, ‘toxic feminism’, what exactly do you mean? I ask because this framing of feminism as toxic is often peddled by people who feel threatened by the idea of equality. They feel threatened when the feminist demands to be seen and heard; they call the feminist hysterical or say that they are doing too much or being too aggressive when the feminist vehemently refuses oppression. This framing has also been used to demean women, especially black women; we see that with the phrase “angry black woman,” where the black woman’s voice is sutured to senseless rage. So, I am always wary when I come across that phrase. My response is always this: Were the feminists too passionate for you? Did they refuse to back down until they are heard, seen? Does their voice offend you? Why does it offend you? Do you fear that acknowledging their voice will result in the obliteration of your existence? Do you fear that they will snatch the spotlight and the microphone you’ve held on to all this time? And so on and so forth. When you delve deeper into these anxieties, you realize that it is always about power; the fear of losing power when the feminist is allowed equal footing in society.
Haneefah: Is there a possibility that Big Father can be regretful of his actions towards Mother?
Ukamaka : DAWTCYN will have a sequel. I guess we must wait for it, yes?
Haneefah: I sense Eze Nwanyi of Ani Nke Ozo ‘s loyalty to Big Father is blind even though she is a good ghost which is a behavior reflective of political leaders and some of their followers. How would you relate the Nigerian political situation to ‘Don’t Answer When They Call Your Name’?
Ukamaka : I wouldn’t use the Nigerian political landscape as a lens to interpret this work; it’s too complicated and brutal and ugly. I also don’t think that Eze Nwanyi was blind. What she didn’t know was the truth at the heart of the conflict between Big Father and Mother.
As an adherent, she read the legends, followed the teachings, and believed the stories that were handed to her. The stories became the only truth she knew, and so there was no way to question it, to see from the other side. There was no counter-story to the one about their origin, no story that explored the depth of Mother’s disappointment after she was betrayed, and the pain she felt, the youth she lost, and why she felt the rage she felt. The story, told to them, simply was of the disobedient woman who committed an unforgivable sin, and it was for this reason that the world is being punished. We see this with the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, too. I love disobedient women; they are interesting. They force us to ask questions, to not be complacent and docile in the face of oppression. Mother is rebellious and selfish and full of rage, and justifiably so. And she wants you to feel that rage, to understand that rage, to join her in her mission to exterminate the man who messed with her. Isn’t that interesting? I can’t wait to start working on the sequel. We will explore Eze Nwanyi further in Book 2. I can’t wait to see how she would unfold when she finally has a conversation with Mother.
Haneefah: Do you believe in the existence of a world where dead people are stuck which is portrayed in the character of Adanne’s father? Why?
Ukamaka: I am Igbo. We believe in reincarnation and that life is a circle. We go and come back.
Haneefah: Do you ever worry that people might misunderstand your type of feminism?
Ukamaka: I do not worry about them at all.
Haneefah: In your first book, ‘Ogadinma’, you portrayed the dominant attitude of men (except her cousin) towards the main character, Ogadinma. You also portrayed Big Father to have directly and deceitfully dominated Mother thus breaking his promise to Mother of letting her have male crops. Do you think the issue of male dominance can ever be solved in Africa especially?
Ukamaka: That’s our hope, isn’t it, to bring an end to the oppression? Ogadinma is set in the early eighties, while DAWTCYN straddles the real and the beyond. Yet, these issues persist across time and space. Ogadinma’s plight, forty years later, is still the plight of the Nigerian woman in contemporary times. Writing these stories, documenting these experiences, and demonstrating the insidiousness of the patriarchy, is an attempt at bringing down the patriarchy.
Haneefah: Although the main character of ‘Don’t Answer When They Call Your Name’ is Adanne, her dog Obi plays a very significant role in the book, being by her side from the first till the very last page. The cover of the book portrayed only Adanne. Is Obi’s absence on the cover a symbol? What exactly does the absence mean? I have tried to figure it out and I arrived at many interpretations. I would love to hear from you.
Ukamaka: Masobe Books must answer this question, ha! The cover is stunning; I love it so much, and although I would have loved to have Obi featured prominently on it and must say here that no one deliberately set out to erase the work Obi did in this story, I like the fact that the girl is centered as a preface to this work and this important world.
Haneefah: Why did you decide to use a thirteen-year-old girl as your main character? Why did you decide to use children as the ones who are sacrificed to go to Orimili to save the people of Ani Mmadu?
Ukamaka: The book is a young adult novel and so it made sense that the story follows someone within that age bracket. Also, I didn’t really “decide” to sacrifice children to the forest; the dynamics of that world are set such in a way that young children are burdened with that responsibility of communal redemption because they are somehow innocent and uncorrupted by adulthood. You can also find such in other mythologies and legends, including Abrahamic religions, in which young children are used as pawns in the hands of jealous gods.
Haneefah: Adanne’s only friends are boys whom she plays football with. Can it be said her courage is also as a result of hanging out with boys?
Ukamaka : Oh, no. Her strength comes from her mother and the women before her. She plays with boys as a normal kid would do. She is interested in games like football, which other girls don’t find impressive. The boys she plays, like her friend Eche, are bumbling kids who don’t know their left from their right, who panic easily, and who depend on her for emotional support, as we see with Eche. Her courage comes from her mothers.
Haneefah: ‘Don’t Answer When They Call Your Name’ reminds me of Nigerian Legend and Mythical Stories like Oduduwa, Queen Amina, King Jaja of Opobo, Ogun and others especially in the characters of Big Father and Mother, your use of Igbo Language in the book is also impeccable and even somehow, relatable to readers who are not Igbo. I consider these myths and legends as a way of preserving culture and heritage. What do Culture and Heritage mean to you and how do you intend to keep preserving them as a writer?
Ukamaka : It means everything. Preservation, for me, means narrativizing these stories, especially how motherhood plays a role in our worlds. And my work is framed by questions like, what can they teach us about the shape of a family, the relationship between individuals and their larger community? How are culture and history formed by these experiences? What can they show us about the relationship between the family and the country? How are communal values and national policies impacted by these experiences? Etc.
Haneefah: If your recent book is to be adapted into a film, would you prefer Nollywood or Hollywood to handle the project? Why?
Ukamaka : I would prefer a producer who understands my world, my culture, and our mythologies; a producer who will fight for this project by getting all the funding needed to illustrate the brilliance of this world.
Haneefah: Could you remember the first work of Art you put out there? What was the experience like?
Ukamaka : “Girl to Woman.” It was edited by Richard Ali and published in Sentinel Nigeria. That validation was so affirming that I began to believe in myself.
Haneefah: You are the founder of Isele Magazine and The Body Conversation, what inspired you to create these platforms? So far, are you achieving what you wish to achieve with them?
Ukamaka : Isele Magazine is a tribute to my late grandmother, whose alias was also Isele. She was a performance poet and lived a full life. I have always loved performance art, and so when the idea came to start a literary magazine, I immediately returned to my greatest inspiration. The Body Conversation, on the other hand, is a project I set up in 2020, a platform where people who have had children could hold conversations about pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum bodies.
Isele Magazine continues to flourish; we’ve published writers from across the world. We are immensely grateful to our contributors and readers for their support. The Body Conversation is currently on pause; we will resume the conversation in the future.
Haneefah: What are you currently working? Tell us a bit about it.
Ukamaka : I am working on too many projects now—the Best of Isele Anthology, which publishes at the end of the year, my dissertation, the regular and quarterly issues of Isele Magazine, where I serve as editor-in-chief, and my own secret work. It’s a surprise I am still standing despite tediousness.
Haneefah Abdulrahman is a writer, interviewer, spoken poetry artiste and podcaster from Nigeria whose work has appeared in Nigerian Review, Wisprout Project, Arts MuseFair, and elsewhere. She is a 2021 fellow of Ebedi International Writers Residency, a Pioneer fellow of Imodoye Writers’ Residency, and she was a Columnist at DailyTrust Newspaper. She is the Author of Shades of Becoming. She is the 2021 Winner of The Arewa Rising Literary Star. Born in Kaduna, Haneefah is an indigene of Kogi State. She is a student of English Literature at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. She is the Chairperson of the Kaduna Branch, Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation, the 2021/ 2022 Chairperson of the Creative Writers Club, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria – Nigeria, the Editor-in-Chief of Literature Voices (LITVO) and the Editorial Assistant of the Moveee Magazine.