Professor Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia of Babcock University was announced winner of the 2021 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature on Saturday, October 31 for her novel The Son of the House.
In this interview with Kelvin Okoroji, the law lecturer talks about the inspiration for her book, racism, sexism and the impact of modern storytelling on African Women.
How did you discover your passion for writing?
Literature has always been my first love. I started writing at the age of seven. My father became my inspiration. I had a great upbringing and that has really been my foundation. I also have a strong faith in God. I am thankful that I am able to bring my writing to the world.
What inspired you to write Son of the House?
The inspirations are many. Some of them are maybe a little more direct than others but the environment and the people described in the book, place and people that I’m very familiar with, that I grew up around. The more direct inspiration was a story my mum told me about a young boy that once lived with us who was taken from his mother which made me think that we need to have a conversation about the place of women in society and to specifically write about it. For me, it was not just a story; it was a resignation that this is the way it is and that’s what I tried to question in this book. Could it be different, could we be better people?
How has the narrative about women changed since publishing the book?
I would say that things are changing. I mean this is a book that spans 40 years thereabout from 1972 to about 2011 and even then I’ll say things have changed a lot. With the increasing use of social media, people can see that it is possible to make a difference. So things are changing, whether they are changing at the space we want to see them is a whole other question.
It is quite interesting that we have had stories about women’s struggles by writers like Chimamanda Adichie and Chinelo Okparanta. What makes The Son of the House stand out from others we have read?
It is interesting that you asked that. I would say my book hasn’t been compared at all with Chimamanda or Chinelo as much as it has been compared with Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa so I am sort of different. My story is about gender but it is also about class, about how we deal with different kinds of abuses and the constraints we place on ourselves. I think there will likely be some similarities because we all come from the same society.
Was any of the characters or their story inspired by your own personal experience?
I would say that there is not one story that is directly around me, my family and all the rest. This is a composite; the different experiences and different characters that I grew up around. So I wouldn’t say there is a specific autobiographical intent but yes the content is quite similar to what I grew up seeing.
Has racism or sexism determined or affected some of the choices you’ve had to make in your career?
I would say in Nigeria there is still quite a bit of sexism. There are still many rooms where I found myself in and I am the only female. I am a lawyer and I have experienced things that have made me realise that we need to keep having conversations about the fact that women are human and can be just as powerful as anybody else. I once went to a police station a few years ago in relation to a matter concerning my dad. Of course, at that point, I had already started running my law firm. He was requested to come to the station and he came and he was very happy that I had come to visit him so we went together. At every point, the DPO just tried to ignore me. This was not years ago. This was recent and this was in the east and this officer was from the south-south. He just kept trying to talk to all the other people who were not lawyers but I was and I pinched myself because it was so blatant. Like I said before, I have been in rooms where I am the only female and people talk over my head, but this was a clear out-and-out ignoring to the point that my dad had to say “my daughter is trying to get you to see this point or that point.” So, it is not as emphasised as before but it is still there. When you look at things like political participation you can tell we still have a lot to do. We haven’t quite made our peace with women as humans.
As for racism I used to live in Canada. I would say I have had great experiences and most of the people I have worked with were amazing. That said, you can’t escape the fact that there is still work to be done. There are some assumptions that people make. I know people close to me who experience direct racism. When I first moved to Canada, I didn’t know I was black. I think I went and tried to say with that confidence that I’m just as good as anybody else and for the most part, that worked.
Have you ever put cancel culture into consideration when writing a book?
It is already hard enough to write. As I said, there is a place for all kinds of stories. I don’t really ever doubt that there will be an audience for my story. The question for me is always “is my craft good enough, strong enough for me to carry what I am trying to say?” If I am able to write those things, there will always be someone who wants to listen to it. Of course, that’s how I felt when I started writing my book but when I started getting all kinds of rejection I had to think about that a little bit because thoroughly I didn’t feel that pressure. I would not be human if I don’t admit to saying “I hope this one turns out well” but because I am human there must be something there that is not going to sit well with some people.
How has modern storytelling impacted African women?
With books about feminism and women empowerment, I think African women now have a voice to an extent, what I did with my book is a clear example of that and we need more. It is not over. Women should start seeing themselves beyond the ‘wife’ title. You can be anything you want to be.