Beyond the Essay - Okwudili Nebeolisa
“Okwudili Nebeolisa is a Nigerian writer who just graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop where he was a Provost Fellow and won the Prairie Lights John Leggetts Prize for Fiction. His poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Image Journal, Salamander Magazine, The Sewanee Review, and The Threepenny Review, while his nonfiction has appeared in Commonwealth Writers and Catapult. He’s received support for his writing from The Elizabeth George Foundation and the Granum Foundation.”
Tolu Daniel: Of the many things I loved and admired about your essay Held Just Enough, it was your meditation towards the end on the idea of exile that spoke to me the most. In the essay you write “the comfort of exile is more cloying.” It is one of the things I left the essay with that I could not stop thinking about. Not that I do not understand what you meant by it, but because that choice of the word itself has become rebranded in a way, especially in new everyday speak as something else entirely. Someone with whom I was in conversation recently told me that to claim exile as I have often, is to erase the possibility of a return entirely. But I don’t believe this to be true, although I never really queried the person’s assertion. So I am wondering, what does exile mean to you, knowing fully well, that when you left Nigeria, it wasn’t exactly because your political thoughts or ideas were under any form of attack - or perhaps they were and I am just ignorant. Could you shed more light on what this idea of exile means to you as of this moment in your life?
Okwudili Nebeolisa: Exile basically means voluntary absence from your home country. At this point in my life, exile can appear as the sacrifice I’m making for my career. So to say that exile is cloying, I think I meant two things, one of which was already addressed in the essay: How drawn I am to the way things are run here efficiently, and the desire to still pursue a career in writing. But I don’t believe that to claim exile is to erase the possibility of return. That would sound too final. I think it could simply mean to claim a different place as home. It’s more of a thing of new acceptance or rejection, than a thing of complete erasure.
TD: I appreciate that response because it does represent what I believe exile to mean. In one of the responses to your essay that I found interesting, the person advised you not to consider the possibility of return. It was an advice so poignant in its formation that it reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad who shared a similar sentiment with me when I discussed the possibility with him. This advice that is supposed to come from a good place but turns out not so great in its entirety. You also explore this idea in the very opening of the essay as well, I guess my question to you then is, what you think makes people give these advices, why is there an assumption that life, beyond whatever it is that one sets out to do in the diaspora, is supposed to be better than whatever it is we left back home.
ON: I think this is the opposite of ‘the devil you know is better than the angel you don't know’. It definitely comes from a good place. We are very much aware of the inflation going on in the country. My brother tells me how the cash scarcity is making his work too expensive. Even people who seem to have made it still experience some kind of difficulty you wouldn't experience someone who has made it in the US to experience. That's not to say the US doesn't have its problems. Of course it does. It's majorly what I would call, First World Problems. But imagine being held from doing your work because of power failure and fuel scarcity at the same time. So I do think that's where it comes from. The supposed idea of comfort, which when you open a novel written by a Nigerian where a character moves from continent to the other, the needs of the characters change, for example, in Adichie’s Americanah the challenges Ifemelu and Obinna faced in Nigeria are completely different from the ones they faced in the West. In Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names the challenges Darling and her friends experience in Zimbabwe is different from the ones Darling will experience in the US. And of course there are misconceptions on both sides, Africa and the West. I think my idea of Nigeria by just the sheer virtue of not having been there in the past two years, is not, cannot be completely correct.
TD: My final question would seem a tad generic. I am interested in whether you have been able to see, perhaps, an intersection between the different diasporic experiences since you arrived in America. For instance, do you think that your experiences have been similar to the experiences of say someone from Pakistan or India who is also navigating the American diaspora.
ON: No. It isn't. I think the experience of someone who even has a relative in the US and someone who doesn't have a relative in the US is different. We may be experiencing a few same things like loneliness, culture shocks etc but even these things are different for different people and change as you continue to stay here. Even the loneliness that one experiences in a foreign place evolves. First, from having no one, to not having a specific kind of person around now that you have friends, to an even stranger kind of loneliness. Which is why, for example, the Chimamanda Adichie who wrote the story The Thing Around Your Neck is not the same as the one who wrote Americanah. I also do not think that an African and an Asian are perceived the same way. We each come with our own baggage from our respective motherlands. In fact, my experience in Iowa might even be completely different from another Nigerian's experience in Iowa. We may find the place deplorable and enjoyable in completely different ways. That alone is cause for a variation.
TD: Thank you very much for joining us on Beyond the Essay and more importantly for being so generous with your answers and contributing to Ellipsis. I can’t wait to read more of your work and see what you do next.
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