Frances Ogamba has made history, appearing on both Writivism shortlists in the same year (No one has ever done this, before now). Frances is on the Writivism Short Story Prize shortlist for her short fiction Ghana Boy, and on the Koffi Addo Creative Nonfiction Prize for The Valley of Memories. Her stories appear in Afridiaspora and Writivism digital mini-anthology, Dwartonline and Ynaija websites, and on Enkare Review. She is a workshop alumnus of Writivism 2016, Ake fiction 2016, and Winter Tangerine 2016. She lives in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
Lakwena is excited to have this conversation with you! Even before we get to know who goes home with what prize, you’ve already made history as the first author to be on shortlisted for both the Writivism Short Story Prize and the Koffi Addo Prize. How does this feel for you?
I feel really validated! The story I gave more attention was ‘Ghana Boy’ and did not have much enthusiasm for ‘The Valley of memories’ until with the help of my mentor Beatrice Lamwaka, I worked on the nonfiction story some more. Eventually, I released all the things I had held onto and wrote ‘The Valley of Memories’ as the true story it is as it happened to me, and when both stories out of hundreds of other entries actually made it to both lists, it was very emotional for me. Ghana Boy too is crafted from a real life story in a town I grew up in. After trying four times and making long list three times, I finally got to both short lists!
Ghana Boy is a deeply moving story with a host of unforgettable names for characters. I am curious to know how you arrive at those.
When I was choosing names for the characters in Ghana Boy, I tried to imagine which names local street boys and teenage criminals would choose. At first, I thought of ‘Black Glass’ as a suitable name for the character Ghana Boy, but I later thought it to be too sophisticated for a street boy like him because usually, his kind simplify their street names to names of countries or cities they’ve never been to but admire and I thought for a Nigerian character, Ghana Boy would work well. Tear Drop, another character, is named with the dramatic sense fit for a street boy because well, he makes people cry.
It appears that there is quite a lot of work one has to do to bring out a story as well as you do yours. How do you work to flesh out your stories well? Any research in particular for Ghana Boy and The Valley of Memories?
Ghana Boy, for example has been in my head since 2016. There wasn’t much research to do on street violence because the experience is common enough. I however had to do some research on when SAS was in operation in Nigeria and whether mobile phones were in use then. Recently, I wrote about a man whose being wakes up to find his body in the mortuary. I had to then do research on different stages of decomposition of the human body upon death, the science of embalming. The Valley Of Memories had me doing research on coal mining in Nigeria. A lot of the history there was edited out but I can’t stress enough how important it is for even a story of fiction to reflect the reality.
Talking of The Valley of Memories, the book spells a rare form of surrealism that is made better (worse) by the fact that you have lived this story. In it, I read challenging of established norm, but what really inspired you to capture this supernatural part of your life for us to experience?
I think that for a society that is predominantly religious with Christianity and Islam as dominant religions, acknowledging and writing about mysticism as seen in The Valley Of Memories is considered a taboo. I told my mum that our biggest problem today as Africans is that we have left the known and embraced the unknown. The medicinal knowledge we had, the way we valued our environment and worshipped trees, the soil and the sky as our gods. But if it is true as most religions that God (with the capital G) is everywhere, can he not be in our trees too? Today, we ostracize others about Christianity more strongly than the people who brought the Christianity. Those with the gift of vision and traditional medicine are now discouraged by all the ostracisation and they end up dropping this knowledge for the western one. I think we should acknowledge what is ours and not shun it.
Like how Ghana Boy’s family still accommodated him regardless of his trying character?
Exactly! No matter how terrible Ghana Boy was and how tumultuous their relationship was, his father never gave up on him. Whenever he need to eat, he would go back home and nobody stopped him.
The finesse with which you write and shape your stories is to be greatly admired. How have you practiced to get here? You can trust us with the secret ingredient.
I think that firstly, I want for someone to see my work and think, ‘This is good!’ I have written for years and gotten many rejections. Part of my preparation routine is to read works of similar style to what I wish to write, as many times as possible until it is internalized for me to sound similar when I start to write that specific piece. I reread and rewrote the two stories over and over because I was determined to get onto that short list, and I did. I have been writing consistently since September 2018, with about four short stories every month. In June, I had over 5 short stories written and ended up feeling exhausted and out of ideas and had to pause and refresh. I think the consistency of reading and writing is key. I make a list of literary competitions that I keep submitting to, and this time, I was validated!
Speaking of validation, I feel like you work brilliantly with hope as a theme from the salvation you lend Ghana Boy through a humane face, and how you keep writing on continuity of life after death. Tell us more about this.
I think we all would like to feel like life is endless. The reincarnation in The Valley Of Memories has a character that lives a second life through the body of his 23 year old niece; and although Ghana Boy in the concluding part dies, I lend hope to Oslo, his beloved little brother with a final meeting with Ghana Boy. I thought that this was an opportunity for Oslo to say a proper goodbye, but also for him to part with encouraging words of hope for Oslo. This ending was also meant to show Oslo, a bad boy from the street cry, as opposed to how society keeps reinforcing the belief that men do not cry or break down.
I was telling a friend, What if we are all dead and we are just spirits roaming here? In many ways, I prefer to look at the deep side of life and death to bring out the aspect of survival that we all seek above all else. I have no idea what exists beyond here, but I imagine that there is more than we know. But yes, we prefer the idea of us living on through our children, through our works, and that there is hope.
You leave us with so much to think about! Any special message to womxn reading this?
I would want womxn in societies out there to read more. We need more womxn reading, more womxn who are consuming literature from womxn like us. Even better, we need more women writing and most of them doing both.
As for aspiring writers, reading is mandatory- but always write more than you read. Remember, you first are a writer and you need to constantly prove that.