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‘Africa is the real roots of magical realism’

 

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Molara Wood

Molara Wood is the author of ‘Indigo’, a collection of short stories recently published by Parresia. Also a journalist, essayist and critic, she has won awards for her short stories. A former arts columnist for the Sunday Guardian, and later Arts and Culture editor of the now defunct NEXT newspaper, she is currently Special Assistant to the President on Documentation. ‘Indigo’ is her first book.

 

Your short story collection Indigo is finally out. It was a long journey to publication. What exactly happened?

I guess it was the usual story of trying to find publishers whose ideas for the book tallied with my own. I had some glitches along the way which aren’t really worth going into now. Every book has its own story, its own journey and it’s the long run that matters. I have found that as a writer, it’s important to exercise patience and to not rush into print.

 

How long was Indigo in the making?

The bulk of the stories were written over several years up to 2008. The last was added in 2010. Many of the stories went through a long process of editing and adjustments, as I tinkered with them every now and then until I could tinker no more. It was important to get the stories right first, and to have some of them curated by other literary editors for publication in journals and anthologies.

 

I like the blend of immigrant experience in some of the stories and the strong cultural nuances in others. Was this a blend you deliberately worked at or was it something that just came off in the end?

I’m glad you like the blend. I just wrote as the muse moved me and without any particular design. Eventually I had twenty-something stories and figured I had more than enough for a collection. The seventeen in Indigo are the ones we felt could co-exist thematically in one book.

Some of the stories like the title story and ‘Night Market’ have mystical themes or concerns without being out-rightly magical realist. Do you think Magical Realism still has a future in literature?

Magical Realism has a past, a present and a future in literature. The great Latin American authors, especially Alejo Carpentier who first articulated the concept of “lo real maravilloso” (the marvellous real), saw Magical Realism as an expression of the reality of their world, where life was and remains magically real. They were writing about New World societies that had a lot of African influences through slavery for example, in their language, myths, ways of seeing, religious beliefs and so on. So I’m saying of course that Africa is the original “lo real maravilloso”. Look at newspaper pages and tell me whether some things reported even in this day and age are not magically real. You have news items that ask you to believe that a thief turned into a goat; goats get arrested as do masquerades; or that some woman gave birth to a horse. I find it interesting that many people recount these with straight faces and listeners often take them as so. You can dismiss it all as absurd, or you can recognise that conceding to the magical element, or the fantastical, is one of the ways in which people add layers of meaning to their lives. It’s another way of making sense of the outlandishness of their world. For as long as there are societies where the magical exists side-by-side with the supposedly real world, Magical Realism has a place in literature. And as long as there are artists whose imaginative universe allows them to see wonder and magic in everyday life, Magical Realism has a future.

Seventeen stories in your collection. Why did you think it was necessary to have that huge a number in your collection?

I don’t find 17 short stories to be such a huge number in a collection, especially when you consider that about five stories in ‘Indigo’ are very short pieces of flash fiction that take up no more than two pages at a time.

Indeed some of them are incredibly short, like ‘Free Rice’ a deeply disturbing story, which is interconnected with ‘The Scarcity of Common Goods’. How did it occur to you to link up the two?

Let me share something about the creative process pertaining to these two stories. You see, ‘The Scarcity of Common Goods’ is one of those stories that did not start in my head as any one specific idea. It began with the title, which I liked when it dropped into my head – the paradox of “common” goods conflated with “scarcity” in one line, fascinated me; and I decided to write a story around the antithetical notion. I started with a sentence, not knowing where it would lead – it’s an approach I recommend. Then I added another sentence, and another; and soon I had the beginnings of a story about a widow grieving for her husband. Then I suffered writer’s block and the story got stuck. So, I abandoned it for a while and decided to write a separate story about this husband she was grieving for, and that’s how ‘Free Rice’ came into being. It’s based on a true story I heard when I was young, by the way. When I was done with ‘Free Rice’, I returned, reenergised, to ‘The Scarcity of Common Goods’ and churned it out.

A number of the stories address the immigrant experience, some of them were set in London where you lived for a while. How much of your personal experiences are in these stories?

Well, I have now lived a greater part of my life in Nigeria than in Britain. Yet I don’t get people asking if the larger number of my stories set in Nigeria are based on personal experience. Why is that? And when I’m asked if the London portraits are based on myself, I am tempted to ask, “which one?” – since they are such wildly divergent characters with different backgrounds, personalities, experiences and fates. They are many and, complex though I like to think I am, I am not legion. Every day I spent in the UK was legally accounted for; I would never have anything to do with a fake passport; arranged marriages for visa purposes were astonishing to me; and I most certainly never wished to move from London to America. As I told you, most of these stories were forged over a long period of time in the furnace of my imagination. I took time to make these people as real as possible, to get every nuance of character: background, appearance, quirks, insecurities and so on. They are based on life in London as seen around me. I am a student of human nature, I observe and psychoanalyse people, I see more than they intend me to see. I thought it was important in these stories to explore the reality of the immigrant condition as experienced by our people in the UK, rather than the fable of ‘life abroad’ that drives Nigerians to seek greener pastures that often don’t exist. It was also important to attempt to write these lives with empathy, without judgement – but that should not be taken to mean I lived these specific scenarios. I think it is what these stories say about Nigerian life in London that should concern people, rather than whether or not the author experienced such-and-such. My characters are me only to the extent that I created them. I like to say that they are children of my brain.

Indeed, it is clear that the characters are quite different from Molara Wood as a person, and I suppose readers always want to know how much of the writer’s experiences are invested in the story. But why do you think stories of displacement and identity have remained relevant decades after ‘The Lonely Londoners’?

Before ever reading ‘The Lonely Londoners’, I had watched a film titled ‘Black Joy’. It was a West Indian ‘hard-knock-life’ kind of story, showing Caribbean immigrants suffering and smiling in the UK. The film remains indelible, though I’ve not viewed it again since the late 80s – so that probably says something about the power of immigrant stories. Many years later I watched ‘Dirty Pretty Things’; I was a Londoner, but the film showed me an underbelly of immigrant London that was unknown to me. So, maybe one answer to your question is that immigrant stories are a window to hidden lives – often hidden from the new world they’re in as well as the old one from which they came. New lands raise new questions about identity, while redefining and renegotiating the individual’s dreams, aspirations and ways of being in the world. An exploration of that existential struggle will throw up new insights into the human condition.

Some of the stories deal with typical women issues, like questions about fertility such as in Indigo, or the challenges of living with a co-wife such as in Gani’s Fall among others. What are your thoughts on women’s literature as a subgenre of literature?

The first thing I would say is that women’s writing is in no way a sub-genre of literature. From George Elliot and Jane Austen to Zora Neale Hurston and Zulu Sofola to my sisters making strides in this generation – women’s writing is part of the literature of humankind in all its richness. It’s just that the canon is patriarchal, and has privileged the male gaze and narratives about the exploits of men. Female writers therefore help to open up the spaces, to bring women’s voices and experiences to the fore.

In broad terms I was referring to the classification of women-centred stories or books, which has been termed “women’s fiction”. The gender of the author is immaterial in this instance. Khaled Hosseini’s  ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ will qualify as such whereas Adaobi Nwaubani’s ‘I Do Not Come To You By Chance’, though written by a woman, doesn’t. It is quite distinct from “women’s writing”.

I’ve not read Hosseini’s book, but I gather it’s a novel about women, much like ‘Madame Bovary’ or ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ – female characters visualised through the psychology of male authors. If they are to be categorised as ‘women’s writing’, then what on earth was Virginia Woolf talking about? Nwaubani’s Cash Daddy, on the other hand, is a male character in a piece of writing by a woman. Some of my protagonists or narrators in ‘Indigo’ are male – do those stories not qualify as ‘women’s writing’? It would seem to me therefore that the author’s gender does matter. Here’s a simple test: would Hosseini’s book qualify for entry into the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction? I should think not.

Why do you think the short story is always looked at as inferior to the novel such that when someone like Alice Munro, a notable short story writer, wins the Nobel it is considered a departure from the norm?

I think the short story has always enjoyed a solid reputation, and is the closest to the old idea of a skilled storyteller with enough tales to keep you coming back. What the short story may lack is the glamour of the novel, which is seen as more ambitious in scope – it says: ‘I’ll give you a whole world, complete, in a big volume’. And publishers find that irresistible. Even now it’s difficult to get a literary agent on the strength of your short stories alone, unless you have a big prize under your belt. We look forward to the day a short story writer winning the Nobel would not be seen as remarkable.

And of course we know that short stories are quite a challenge to pull off successfully, not many writers are adept at it. How does one succeed as a short story writer?

If by success you mean how well it is written, then I suppose it’s a matter of just honing the craft, ensuring that all the elements of the story are there. Beginnings are crucial, endings are important and the middle must not sag.

How do you conceive your stories? Do they occur to you as flashes of inspiration or do you set out deliberately to write about a particular theme or concern?

Mostly as flashes of inspiration to which I then supply a backbone and flesh out as I work to connect the dots. I very rarely set out to write about a particular theme or concern, but my preoccupations find their way into the story as I go along.

How did you fall in love with literature? What made you decide to become a writer?

It’s like the ‘Goodfellas’ syndrome of Ray Liotta who always knew he wanted to be a gangster. I always knew in some way that I wanted to be a writer. It was about making the meandering journey to a point in one’s life when the realisation dawns that enough time has been wasted, you might as well just knuckle down and write.

I understand you are working on a novel now. What is about? When should we expect this novel to hit the shelf?

It’s too early to go into it. Ask me again in about a year’s time.

Well, I will. It is always a pleasure to talk to you, Molara. And good luck with the novel.

Thank you. I enjoy your work and I appreciate all you’re doing to promote writers.

Thank you.

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