The fourth installment of this interview series looks into the intricacies of writing from a complex multilingual background for a global audience. Multi-award nominated writer and editor Oghenechovwe Ekpeki from Lagos, Nigeria, was generous enough to talk to me. His stories like “O2 Arena” visit a futuristic Nigeria, and his anthologies highlight the work African and African diaspora writers.
SH: Please tell me about your multilingual background. How did you end up writing for the anglophone world?
OE: The very way in which I think about multilingualism is different from how it’s normally meant, in cases where someone speaks the language they are born with and learns others. I speak two languages, none of which I can really call my own. My native language is Urhobo, as a member of the Urhobo tribe. Nigeria was colonized long before I was born and its culture altered in ways that made it impossible for things to return to the way they were before. The Urhobo tribe is one of several hundreds in the country, with about five hundred languages spoken. English is thus the official language of the “unified” tribes. In a country of a couple hundred million people, broken into a couple hundred fractions of languages and dialects. The only way we communicate in the official settings that require interaction with the diverse groups is in English, the language of the colonizer which we were forced to speak. So while I was born an Urhobo speaker, I was not allowed to speak it by a culture and situation of colonialism we found ourselves in. Barely 3 million people speak the Urhobo language and spread out in Africa’s most populous nation. So it was impossible to claim or hone my skills in a language I had to stop speaking everytime I left the home.
English on the other hand, while the official language and taught in schools and institutions, is not as deeply rooted as you would think. Being the poverty capital of the world for the last three years, and generally impoverished before and after that, few people can afford formal education, so fall to a default of pidgin English and their native language. So there’s also a lack of fluent English speakers in the way you would find in a nation that had English as their language without being colonized to it.
This is what I meant when I said that none of the languages I claim are really my own. I had formal education up to university level and obtained a Law degree, have won awards and been published in 3 continents, have had my works translated to other languages. Still, I have found readers complain about my language. Something I suspect is due to a disconnect that happens when people consume work in a language they speak, but written by someone from a culture that’s unfamiliar to them. Ultimately, your culture, your identity is in your language. Your clime, experiences, colour your tongue, give it a myriad flavourings beyond the typical red. So invariably you could term what I and other writers here even observing the norms of English grammar are speaking, as Nigerian English. Between all these, my native language, Urhobo, pidgin English, and Nigerian English, I sometimes wonder if I qualify as multilingual or just not really any lingual. Lol.
The way you are located between and among those languages, what exactly is going on when you write? Are words and phrases from all your languages popping up in your mind?
I generally consider scenerios as they are in my culture, as they happen to me and simultaneously as they will be recieved by my readers. What it means to someone in my immediate cultural space, someone further removed, being in the same country but a different tribe or cultural space and then people ultimately removed from the Nigerian and African culture and setting altogether. I am trying to center all these groups and communicate in a way that speaks to them all but is yet true to myself and the story I want to tell. A balance that can be elusive.
That sounds like a lot of mental work but also language work to keep a story on that thin line. Do you have an example or a general process how you accommodate to a removed audience, but still grasp something that is at its heart true for the time and place your story inhabits?
It’s a process that happens in daily communication, and not just in fiction. But in fiction also. I handle it the same way. Ironically, Twitter and short fiction writing have helped with this. Twitter which restricts the number of words you can use per post. It subconsciously conditions you towards brevity, saying the most with the least. In other words to be understood, you learn to provide enough context, within the limit of word usage allowed. Short fiction is that way too. Conditions you to tell your stories in the least amount of words you can. You learn when keeping to these that small words, a line here, a phrase there, a reference or the other can convey a lot of meaning. Sometimes it involves finding cultural touchstones that don’t totally alter the meaning of what you are conveying. And then sometimes you have to just put your foot down and trust the reader to do the work of piecing or figuring things out.
Your stories are usually set in a (futuristic) Nigeria. Do you include bits and pieces or even chunks from the languages surrounding you? And if so, is it accepted by international editors and readers?
Well, there’s a bit of truth telling to my writing. Chunks of my reality mixed in with it. Set in Nigeria as you observed, my themes usually touch on issues that are relevant here, and this is also reflected in my language. The dialogue of my characters shifts between pidgin English and regular English as a speaker in my position would. The subject matter, humour, delivery of the conversation also aims to reflect the way we communicate. It’s as I said, your culture and identity are reflected in your language. So it does come across as unfamiliar or odd to Western or other readers removed from that culture and identity. It’s definitely created a difficulty in publishing sometimes, it’s led to odd and overediting requests and an inability to connect or be properly appreciated by readers and reviewers who are not open to these diverse tongues and see everything different as inferior. But I suppose that is the price for speaking my truth with the tongue in my mouth in a world that sees the other as inferior. So yea.
How do you handle language as an editor when you work with other writers with a comparable background?
I have a very loose editing style. I tend to allow the writers I work with to flow in the style that’s most comfortable to them. It requires a lot of trust to do that. But understanding the nuances and intricacies of language, esp in the context of African colonialism, has helped me take a stance that doesn’t chip away at the beauty of their own individual forms of expression. The effects have been interesting.
You talked about a possible disconnect when readers are consuming works from unfamiliar cultures. Does it go deeper than language? Do you feel you’re able to tell the stories you’re interested in writing, regarding narrative structures and trajectories?
In a way it’s deeper than language. But in a way it’s not. You see, language is a vehicle for all these other things. Culture, setting, beliefs, all these little bits that make up a person, your language is littered with them. When the reader has no desire to or is lazy about consuming or imbibing all those bits of you scattered around your work, that’s where there’s a disconnect. Like I said, it creates limitations sometimes. But we keep trying and there is some success. But all this is part of why decolonization on a literary level has to be vocal. We cannot untether our language in silence.
I love the notion of untethering language, leaving behind what holds it back and giving it room to exist, especially on an international stage. If you take an optimist stance and assume a lot of readers engage with works removed further from them and get over the disconnect - what do you think an untethered language would mean for the stories we are yet so see?
Were readers to do the work that they needed and writers didn’t have to do a lot more shimmying away from their cultural and native expressions, the readers would get the true shape of the stories with all the richness and meaning those stories are meant to convey, without a layer or level of the stories shaved off as invariably happens. The reading experience would be all the richer for it.
When you decided to publish on the international/US market, were there obstacles? I know that actually getting paid can be a devastating issue, and maybe the biggest one. Or are there additional barriers you had or have to face?
There have been a lot of barriers. Language barriers, currency barriers, payment systems, racist policies, racist people and trolls, review bombings and troll farms, inaccessible publishing platforms. You name it. That’s its own story, which is covered some here. It’s definitely been a vicious battle to get my words out there.
Is there a piece of wisdom you’d like to share with writers who are considering writing for the international market?
I’d ask them to pay attention to the world, the industry. And see it for what it is, not the one they want it to be or imagine that it should be.
Is there a favorite word (or concept) in Urhobo or Nigerian English you’d like to use more in your stories?
Just pidgin. Nigerian pidgin English. I’d wish more people were familiar with it. Cuz it renders things in the most amusing and interesting ways sometimes.
Do you have a story readers could pick up to see it in action and experience it in a way you enjoyed to write or read?
I’d recommend the Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology, a finalist in the 2022 Locus award and in the Hugo award with me, for best editor, short form. It has a myriad stories by Black and African writers on it and a lot of those stories are richly flavoured in the cultural and linguistic identities of the writers. It’s currently free to download in all formats here.
If you like non-fiction, you can check out my anthology, Bridging Worlds: Global Conversations On Creating Pan-African Speculative Fiction In A Pandemic. It’s a 2022 anthology I edited and published in Jembefola Press. It’s also free to read and download here.
Thank you so much for talking to me about the flavors of language and the possible rewards for readers who choose to trust in stories that tell the truth!