by Adeleke Adeyemi
Speaking Up for Women and Children: An Interview with Award-winning Nigerian author Ndidi Chiazor-Enenmor
Award-winning author Ndidi Chiazor-Enenmor is a prolific African writer. Born and raised in the southeastern part of the continent’s most populous country, Nigeria, in West Africa, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Library Science and English Language from one of Nigeria’s foremost colleges, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), and earned a Master of Arts in English from the University of Lagos. She has engaged in writing and allied literary activities for over two decades, even while working at places such as the British Council in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, among others.
If They Tell the Story is her first novel in a genre other than the one in which she first made her mark: Writing for Children and Young Adults. It recently won the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for Fiction. It is the story of “a woman who dares to question beliefs and the price she pays” for doing so. It is on the complex and pain-filled issue of domestic violence among married and cohabiting couples. Following her most recent award, the book is being celebrated by many readers and critics. Recently, a feminist blogger described her as an “enthralling” writer and her book “an exciting read for autumn.”
Ndidi (as she is fondly known) burst on the African literary scene back in 2009 when her picture book, One Little Mosquito, won the ANA Prize for Children’s Literature. However, it is her book for teenagers, A Hero’s Welcome, that she is mostly known for. It was shortlisted for Africa’s biggest literary prize, The Nigeria Prize for Literature, in 2019. An adventure novel, it takes on the alarming problem of vanishing indigenous languages, especially in her native Africa.
Adeleke Adeyemi: Congratulations on your recent award. You are a writer who is also actively involved in allied literary engagements in your country. In what ways have the social and environmental challenges influenced your works?
Ndidi Chiazor-Enenmor: Thank you! The poor state of Africa’s health sector, especially as it affects children, has been a pain that motivates my writing greatly. Large numbers of children are malnourished; hunger and poor feeding habits constitute the glaring reality many have to contend with daily. Hygiene conditions are poor. Malaria is a totally preventable disease but it continues to ravage the lives and livelihoods of millions.
My first published work of children’s literature, I Will Always Eat My Food, is a picture book. It gave birth to my Health is Wealth children’s book series and an annual book festival celebrated by schools in Nigeria.
My aim is to make a difference in children’s learning experience by crafting fascinating stories around nitty-gritty aspects of their lives. My books both educate and entertain. Children get to enjoy them while imbibing lessons on salutary habits. In my country, primary healthcare delivery infrastructure is practically insufficient. Not a few parents and teachers have told me that my books—One Little Mosquito, I Will Always Eat My Food, and My Fruits, My Alphabet—help them better communicate with their children about good health.
AA: As the author of quite a few books for children, do you have a favorite title?
NC: Each book has a special place in my heart. One Little Mosquito is special to me. The negative effects of malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa is a well-worn tale of woes. The disease deals with children in a drastic way, resulting in truncated schooling and many needless deaths. Just the thought of children reading One Little Mosquito and getting motivated like the protagonist of the book to do something about the scourge gives me immense joy.
So it is with A Hero’s Welcome. Scores of African local languages are going extinct, literally by the day. It is quite alarming. A Hero's Welcome is written to inspire parents and children and teachers to work at keeping local languages alive.
AA: Your novel If They Tell the Story is on the subject of domestic violence. It has been called the first of its kind from your part of the world. Tell me about your writing for adults.
NC: I originally began by writing for adults, especially poems and short stories. My short story “Oso Ochu” got featured in Wings of Dawn, an anthology of works by the Women Writers Association of Nigeria (WRITA), published in conjunction with the British Council in 2005. The title is an Igbo phrase for taking flight from one’s dwelling as a result of manslaughter or homicide. It is reminiscent of the city of refuge motif from the Torah. The subject of domestic violence is a gravely serious one, yet I was inspired to write If They Tell the Story by a hilarious incident. Perhaps that’s as a result of the bittersweet nature of life.
AA: From experience, do you agree that writing changes the writer?
NC: Writing certainly does change the writer, in more ways than one! For one, it makes you more empathic. You get to become better connected to humanity. You are made keenly aware of the fact that you are a throbbing part of a larger body.
The writer distils situations from their environment. It’s impossible to do so without having real feelings, an authentic connection with the state of things. I wept as I wrote a certain section of If They Tell the Story. I was crafting from my imagination, a cerebral activity, yet experiencing a reaction that’s as visceral as can be! That sobbing spree was quite dramatic and draining.
AA: What kinds of books did you read growing up? Which ones would you say contributed the most to honing your craft as a writer?
NC: Where do I start? (Laughter.) Growing up, I read lots and lots of books. I even read ahead of my grade! There are books I can never forget, such as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, A Woman’s Temptation by Bertha M. Clay, among others. I also feasted on African classics like Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, both by Chinua Achebe, who has been described as the continent’s foremost storyteller and the father of modern African literature. In the nonfiction category, my favorite remains One Child, by Torey Hayden. It is a book I’m convinced everyone should make a point of getting to read. Sadly, books just aren’t available and deemed fashionable by young and old today. Given my training as a librarian, I have been working on initiatives to reverse the trend.
AA: What would you say are some unique and inimitable features of your writing? How have they manifested in your works?
NC: In If They Tell the Story, I used a lot of adages, proverbs, and anecdotes. That’s something I admire in Chinua Achebe’s books. I grew up local, so I am quite comfortable handling Igbo proverbs and traditions.
AA: The unconscious mind is said to be a writer’s best friend. Do you agree? If yes, how has it helped you become a better writer?
NC: I agree. Creativity is an intercourse between the conscious and the unconscious. Writers unconsciously pick up scraps and fragments as they mold their stories. Events of the past, buried deep in the mind, often find their way to the surface as the writer engages in the act of writing. These can be personal experiences or things that happened to other people, even historical facts and dreams and aspirations. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis theory explains it well. Memories exist as disconnected ideas, even when we remain unaware of them.
AA: Considering the themes of your books, would you agree you are an activist writer?
NC: I may not be as vocal as others on many platforms, yet I can say that activism is glaring in my books. In A Hero’s Welcome, you can hear my voice blaring through a bullhorn as the protagonist’s mother, declaring that household chores are not for females only. In One Little Mosquito, I’m Alero who initiates a cleanliness campaign to stem the breeding of mosquitoes in the neighbourhood. In If They Tell the Story, there is a subtle but strong counter to the antagonist who thinks female children are less desirable to have than male ones.
AA: Tell me about your collection of folktales from every region of Nigeria.
NC: Nigeria has a rich and diverse cultural heritage, distinguished with its tapestry of oral traditions. Each of Nigeria’s 450 nationalities has its own folktales. For many of us, folktales made our childhood unforgettable. There were no electronic gadgets or computer games to play with. Instead, we listened to folktales from parents and other elderly relatives, especially under the moonlight! We even narrated folktales to ourselves while carrying out tasks, which made them easier! It is beyond saddening to see the sad reality of children today not getting to enjoy folktales. That’s part of my motivation. Even adults, mostly in the cities, have either forgotten them or never heard any growing up.
Adeleke Adeyemi earned an MA at Spalding University’s Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing. His poetry has appeared in an anthology of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA); also book reviews and articles in leading newspapers in Nigeria. He worked in science communication, in the areas of science reporting and malaria research, in East Africa. His children's book, Banji and the Missing Clock, was awarded The Nigeria Prize for Literature.