Meet an author: Obinna Udenwe
Obinna Udenwe is one of the most published young short story writers in Southern Nigeria. He was shortlisted for the 2012 Nigeria Literary Star Search and long listed for the 2013 Naija Stories Best Short Contest. Despite his hectic schedule, he was able to grant The BookdealerNG an interview and here is the transcript.
1. When did you start writing and why?
Just few days ago, my siblings reminded me that when I was in junior secondary school – I think it was around 2001, 2002 – that I had a drawing book where I made funny drawings with stories weaved around them. I couldn’t remember this but they helped me to. They tried to argue that that was when I first wrote stories. But I remember vividly, around the year 2000 or 2001 when my uncle had just returned from Kano after an ‘intifada’ and he lost all his property and goods in the crisis. He was jobless, and then he discovered that I talked too much and was a storyteller. So, he came up with the idea of writing down the stories so that he could take them to a printer and get them printed, that way he would make money and start a new business. I was thrilled; we both hung all our hopes on the idea. So he bought me an exercise book and I wrote some folktales in Igbo language. He died before he could print the stories. Then in 2005, I began writing my first full-length novel.
2. At what point do you know that a story/book is complete?
I believe the point of closure defer from short story to novel. While writing a short story, I try everything possible to make sure that all the elements that make for a good traditional story is confined within that short story, sometimes – depending on the theme/plot of the story – the story could stretch longer than I’d intended but I try to make the ending abrupt—I believe that a good short story shouldn’t be conclusive, that it should leave the reader with an itch, a craving – it’s like the feeling you get when you find a good ice-cream cafe and after devouring a cup, you wish you can have more, but hold yourself – I think that a good short story should end that way, leave the reader craving for either a conclusion but it doesn’t happen.
Then the ending of a novel should completely satisfy the reader, else they’d feel short-changed, unless it’s part of a series. I believe that a novel is complete when after reading it I close the book and think about life – about love, crime, hate, death, evil, terror, whatever.
I just finished reading Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me and found closure at the end. I felt it was a complete book, same happened when I read London, Cape Town, Jo’burg by Zukiswa Wanner but you know Ms Wanner is a clever writer and the ending of that book pulled the rug off our feet. You should read it. If you’ve read Lee Child, the Jack Reacher stories, you find completeness at the end of each one, but can’t wait to read the next because you know that Jack would be involved in one thrill or another. But it’s different from what happens when you read Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. Before the last book in the series, I think Breaking Dawn, you find that every of the other books leaves you with this itch, like what I had described happens when you read a good short story, like when you read Junot Diaz or E.C Osondu or Lesley Nneka Arimah. So closure and completeness for stories and books differ. Read Donald Baltheme and Haruki Murakami and you find that their stories come with some closure like the kind you find in novels and I wonder why Mr. Baltheme never wrote any novels, or did he?
3. What’s the hardest/easiest thing about writing?
The easiest thing about writing is that it’s not a job with a supervisor and rules that say you must report to work at so and so time and leave only for so and so length of time for lunch. You are your own boss, unless when you are working with your publishers’ editors and they’ve given you a deadline. Writing is hard in all its forms – you have to concentrate, cherish and adore solitude, understand what ritual works for you and adhere to it (like what time of day works better for you to write).
The re-reading part is the most difficult for me. Imagine writing over 80,000 words and having to read it all again and again, sometimes you get mad re-reading because you already know what’s happening in all the lines and pages. It can be so damn boring. Recently, I had to delete over 70, 000 words from an 80, 000 words novel and re-write the entire book. It wasn’t funny. That for me is the hardest part of writing.
I believe that a good short story shouldn’t be conclusive... Click To Tweet
4. What books would you say shaped your writing?
I was inducted into the world of books quite early in life. So I’ve had the privilege of reading many. One of the books that made an impression on me early was Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks, perhaps that’s why I write some erotic stories. Then my dad didn’t want me to read The Sorrows of Satan by Maria Corelli and I wondered why, I still wonder why. So one day I found the book in his library and read it – it’s still one of my best, helped me learn how to introduce philosophical rhythm to my writing.
Then I fell in love with writers like Cyprian Ekwensi and the maturity of his words, Junot Diaz and Gabriel Marquez for the lushness of their writings. Writers like P. D James, Helon Habila, Leila Abouleila and Ahdaf Souif helped me work harder – showed me how to build energy in the kind of writings I’d wanted to do. So in general, it’s difficult for me to point at one book and say this or that book did it for me – a consortium of many books, over time, did the magic.
5. Are you working on anything at the moment?
If you’ve been following my career, you’d notice that between 2012 and 2015, I published a lot of short stories, including the controversial and widely read Holy Sex series. Then between 2016 till date I’ve published, perhaps only none. I have been researching and reading stories from a few writers that I admire their style.
Between 2016 and now I have written about four stories that I consider quite strong, and different from the kind of stories I used to do and they are currently with my editors. So I wouldn’t know if they are interesting until they are published and you read them. I mentioned about deleting a huge chunk from my novel manuscript, the manuscript is currently in the process of consideration and I hope it goes well.
6. How do you feel about bad reviews?
I was asked this question at the 2016 Lagos Books and Art Festival and I recall saying that reviews are good, they help keep the literary tradition alive but as far as I am concerned, they add nothing to the overall development of the work that has been reviewed, aside, of course the reviews done when the author is still working on the book say by an editor but one could argue that those are not reviews.
If I have written Satans and Shaitans and you write a review to say how the book didn’t achieve this and that, or how it achieved this and that, it’s good because it keeps conversation going around the book, get more people to know about it and to read the book but it adds nothing to the evolution of that book per se. So I don’t believe authors should allow reviews give them headache, like how Chigozie Obioma allowed reviews give him serious headache when his book came out.
7. If you could be a character in a novel you’ve read, who would you be and why?
I’d be Amir, in Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Amir had the kind of childhood my brother and I had growing up. He was charismatic and enthusiastic. He was playful and played pranks and had fears. He did things that he regretted till his adult life, I too did.
8. If your life was a book, what would the title be?
Ah! This is hard. The Ridiculous Life of One Obinna Udenwe!
9. Tell us something about yourself that your readers probably don’t know.
That I am probably not good in bed. After Holy Sex, A Temporary Affair and Fool, girls chat me up on Facebook Messenger – they think I am good in bed. I don’t think I am as good as those characters in those stories.