Bakwa staff writer, Uzoma Ihejirika, got into conversation with Roy Udeh-Ubaka, whose first short story “A Certain Kind of Longing” was published in Bakwa Magazine. Uzoma and Roy discuss the inspiration behind “A Certain Kind of Longing”, love, identity and power.
Uzoma Ihejirika: Your story, “A Certain Kind of Longing”, is an affectionate tale of love and its complexities—of its capacity to incite hate and fear, to shut the eyes to misdoings, and yet, in all these, its ability to create a path to redemption. What inspired it?
Roy Udeh-Ubaka: I like to think of “A Certain Kind of Longing” as a little more than a story of love and its complexities. I also like to think of it as a meditation on self-invention, a journey about the ways in which we become different versions of ourselves. This inspired the story greatly. There is a part of the people I meet in my characters. I watch people closely and, more importantly, I listen. I find myself inventing their lives, imagining what it would feel like to experience the world in their eyes, and being surprised by how much people can be unpredictable. I am totally surprised by the reception my story has gotten, and I feel a kind of accomplishment when people, girls especially, say the relationship between Kemdi and Jindu reminded them of their own stories. It goes a step further—reminding one of the humanity of mankind, irrespective of sexuality and societal differences.
UI: Identity is one of the themes your story touches upon, from the narrator Kemdi lamenting the indignity meted out to him for being Igbo, to Aunty striping off parts of herself so as to fit into a perceived class of acceptability, and to Jindu’s obsessive need for Kemdi to stifle his sexuality, a sexuality that he too shares. Is there a fascination that identity holds for you personally?
RUU: In Nigeria, class is a concious and present means of self-identification. Kemdi discovers in Lagos that he is Igbo, and that this identity carries along with it a negative assumption. He also finds, through Fanasi, that this assumption is widely accepted by some of the Igbos living in Lagos, and that it defines them as something of a lower class. Identity holds a personal meaning for me. There is the penchant to be identified with or for something, and class plays a major role in this. People subconsciously try to fit in, and this goes a long way to give a forehanded introduction about one to the public. We have, in so many ways, been taught to devalue ourselves, our culture, our languages, and, quite frankly, it is necessary to be reminded that identity is an essential factor in our lives. The Igbos have a long history of exclusion, and I wanted to touch on this a bit.We still hear people say, “The Igbos are just money-driven,” and these are things that are very subliminal, that we’ve been taught from our early days. People shy away from certain labels because they do not want to be confined to a particular stereotype. And this is how most people live their lives: don’t call me this, call me that instead. I want to live in a world in which labels don’t matter, a world where a person can embrace his sexuality and not be reprimanded for it, a Nigeria where people can be described as Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba without a sneer in the voice. But we don’t. At least, not yet.
UI: It would be foolhardy to ignore the fact that the two main characters in the story (set in Nigeria, for emphasis), Kemdi and Jindu, are gay. We know of the situation queer people are in in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, but you go a step further to show us, through Jindu and Kemdi, the tensions that militate against queer people, which surprisingly turn out to be from within their community. What informed this observation?
RUU: I am very interested in exploring the many double standards in the laws that apply to gay and straight (I wonder how this word came about) relationships in Nigeria, the dangers that square one based on who he or she chooses to love, and the privileges afforded to the straight counterpart. But what I was more interested in questioning, while writing this, was how much “abuse” —however physical, psychological or emotional— members of the gay community themselves are accomplices to, how much they are willing to accept and agree with. And why. I wanted to write a story with characters that are flawed, characters that are human. And there are times when I think of some of Kemdi’s actions and wonder if I would do the same faced with a similar circumstance.
UI: Power is also another vital theme in your story—how much power we earn from loving, how much power over ourselves we give to our loved ones. This is shown, most especially through Aunty and her riotous relationship with Ejiro. Do you think power, even though harmful, is a necessary ingredient for love?
RUU: Power in a relationship can be healthy. For it to be healthy, it requires a balance. I like to think of power as give and take. I give you power over a certain part of my life, and I earn power over a part of yours. It, in some ways, breeds respect between the two parties. An ingredient for love? If well balanced, yes.
UI: When did you start writing?
RUU: I started writing towards the end of 2015. I remember thinking, “Oh, I’ve read a few books; I think I can do this.” That certainly did not work out as I hoped. “A Certain Kind of Longing” is officially my first story. And, quite frankly, it wasn’t an easy task.
UI: This is your first published story and, when you shared the news on Facebook, you wrote: “Reading it now, I can find things I should have written better.” Do you think satisfaction in his work will ever be the writer’s lot?
RUU: I doubt very much if satisfaction in a writer’s work can entirely be achieved. I am a bit of a perfectionist; I cannot read my story without finding a few things I feel I should have written better. And I like to think this relates to other writers as well—that this somehow makes us better writers. The auspicious poet, Anne Bradstreet, once referred to her 1540 words poem as an “ill-formed offspring of her feeble brain.” She said that we churn out these loads to the critical public who take over to do justice to it. And I believe that it is in their critiques, and, in a better way, reviews that we, as writers, find satisfaction.
UI: What book or writer would you say has had the most influence on your writing?
RUU: Adichie’s Americanah was one of the two books that gave me permission to write stories of things that are familiar. Her characters are relatable, and that was what I aimed to achieve in writing this story.
UI: Would you be kind enough to let us in on future plans for your writing?
RUU: Oh, I intend to write some more. A lot more. Writing is a continual process; we get better every day. I’d very much like to see what it holds in store for me.