About this writer
Sometimes, words are just those: words. At other times, they leap off a page and take you places that you never dreamed possible. The latter is what Forever There For You, the debut novel by Chioma Nnani, does to you. Amongst other things, she confronts the issue of domestic violence head-on, both in this book and out of it. To quote her a bit: “My debut novel is a cocktail of love, friendship, sisterhood, cultural clashes, domestic violence and religion. Being able to replicate people’s experiences in a poignant way is as empowering as it is humbling.”
She calls herself a storyteller as is evident in her repertoire -author/ghost-writer/radio presenter/producer. She is also slightly obsessed with relationships, Swarovski crystals, good food and pent-houses.
AuthorsinAfrica had a chat with the award-winning author to talk about her book and some of the things that make her tick …”
AiA: Tell us a bit about yourself
C.N: I’m a Blood-washed, God-chasing storyteller. I hold a Law (LLB) degree from the University of Kent, Canterbury and a Postgraduate Certificate in Food Law from the De Montfort University, Leicester. I’ve been told that I can get under people’s skin, into their heads and put down on paper, exactly what they’re feeling – I like that … even when it gets me in ‘trouble’.
AiA: What influences your writing?
C.N: I am inspired by God, people and events. Sometimes, I’ll see or hear something and just ‘know’ that I will write about it – even if I don’t know when.
At other times, an idea drops into my mind and I terrify the heck out of my friends by sending them weird text messages. Let me explain – say, I’m working on a storyline in which a woman is friends with her brother’s girlfriend who has no womb, and the said brother who wants children has no idea of his girlfriend’s predicament. I’d want to know exactly what the sister would do. So, I’d send a text round saying “What would YOU do if you knew your brother’s girlfriend had no womb, your brother wants children and wants to marry this lady?” Because I’ve made it personal by using the pronoun ‘you’, I find that I get the unvarnished truth … there’s no gloss, even from those who would advocate “mind your business” when they know it’s a hypothetical situation. I find that when I act like, or make it personal, even people who have no brothers of marriageable age start panicking. I tell real stories – I want real reactions from real situations.
AiA: Do you ever experience writer’s block?
C.N: Yes. I don’t know any writer who doesn’t. It is … horrible.
AiA: Was it your childhood ambition, to become a writer?
C.N: No. Like many children, I wanted to be many different things. There was a time I wanted to be a doctor – but I don’t do as well with pain as a doctor should be able to manage. I really hate medication and hospitals kinda make me a bit … queasy. And let’s just say that my bedside manner left a lot to be desired. Then, I became older and more practical and thought I wanted to be a lawyer – that’s supposed to explain the LLB from Kent (smiles). I wanted to specialise in Family Law … because (among other things and to cut a long story short), I thought my father’s lawyer was an idiot. I figured there were more like him – meaning there were many people suffering because of idiocy. In my mind, it was only logical.
Then, I did a mini-pupillage with a set of Family Law chambers, in my first year at university. In a nutshell, the clients were soooo mean to each other; the sheer commitment that some of them had, to destroying each other – these were people who had been married to each other – was scary. I started to question whether I wanted to be around that for the rest of my life. Then, I decided that I wanted to be Corporate Law’s answer to Fiona Shackleton. I loved business and entrepreneurship and have an understanding of how the corporate world works. I’d also figured out by then, that money was really important. (laughs)
Writing, working on productions and drama were things I did because I was bored and needed to pass time. I also needed a creative outlet to work out some stuff. That was it for me. I never took any of it seriously. I’d written from about the age of 8, but if someone had told me a decade ago that I would be a ‘proper writer’, I would have laughed in their face(s).
AiA: What’s the best thing about being a writer?
C.N: Being able to reproduce words and emotions on paper, in a way that people can relate to them.
AiA: Are there any disadvantages to being a writer?
C.N: There are. People’s ignorance. Some people still think it’s not a real job – so have the nerve to demand free copies of work you’ve put your heart and soul into. From what I gather, people have this attitude to movie producers and fashion designers, too. They think it’s OK for them to get paid weekly or monthly when they work in 9-5 (or 8-4) jobs, but that it’s not OK for you to get paid as a creative. So, they think nothing of demanding free books, clothes and movie première tickets. I view it as a calculated insult, when people think that any writer (or other creative) enjoys that “struggling artiste” thing.
AiA: Tell us more about your novel Forever There For You
C.N: I like to refer to it as a cocktail of love, sisterhood, religion, domestic violence, cultural clashes and friendship. I feel that there’s never been a more apt time to discuss and tackle domestic violence. One of the reasons I wrote Forever There For You was to begin a conversation. I found it aggravating that people refused to talk about domestic violence – like pretending about it, would make the reality of it go away.
There has also been some attention for the book (and by extension, me) from ‘church folk’ – who are very uncomfortable with the realities exposed in the book. It’s almost like “It’s OK for domestic violence to happen in church (of all places), but it’s not OK for people to talk about it.” I believe this is at the core of the mindset that led to the demise of Titi Arowolo. It is the same mindset that will lead to the unnecessary deaths of many women. One of the truly mind-blowing, utterly ridiculous premises that some people operate under is “My God is a big God and He will not allow my abusive husband kill me.” I find that to be arrogant and mind-numbingly stupid – an abuse of faith, if you like. It has nothing to do with God. If a man has already landed you in hospital with a broken jaw, or ribs – surely you would know that he can kill you and it’s not going to change the size or power of God? And you will not be receiving brownie points in Heaven, for choosing to die at the hands of an abusive man; that is, if you do make it to Heaven.
I grew up in church. Yet, regardless of the pseudo-spiritual excuses that women (in Women’s Fellowships all over the world) give for abusive men, I think it’s very clear-cut. An abuser abuses because they want to; and they believe they will get away with it. It’s not a spiritual problem from which you (the abused woman) are meant to save the guy. His mother’s prayers should have done that already. Besides, who made you the assistant Holy Ghost who’s supposed to ‘change an abusive man’; or the incarnation of Jesus Christ who died to save people from sin? One of the things I have come up against is the misused, hard-worn line of “God hates divorce” that’s been taken out of context, to the point where it is now a separate, ridiculous doctrine.
AiA: What challenges did you encounter from writing through publishing?
C.N: One of the challenges I faced was getting a publishing deal. I got so many rejections from literary agents and publishers, that I lost count. I started to think “Maybe, this isn’t for me.” Then, someone that I had made the mistake of trusting (so I’d let them see my material) jetted off to Nigeria, claiming they wrote my material.
C.N: Oh yes. We’re talking five different pieces of material – stage production, TV, movie scripts and the original manuscript for Forever There For You. The ones they weren’t claiming they wrote, they were demanding that I sign over the rights to them. It was a traumatic experience during which I lost weight that I did not need to lose – I kept having nightmares that I would find out that my material had published and/or produced in the name of the thief.
It took the intervention of a childhood friend, to stop that from happening. My friend made the thief promise in writing that they would never use my material in any of their endeavours. It would have been easy for the thief to get away with it, at first – because they attended the New York Film Academy. I say ‘at first’ because people would have eventually noticed what I did: the thief had technical ability (because they had been to Film School), but the rest was hype. Despite this ‘education’, they couldn’t write to save their life – hence their ‘need’ to steal.
AiA: Then what happened next?
C.N: After this, someone told me, “I know you think you want to become a lawyer, but if someone is willing to fake a friendship with you just so that they can steal from you and return to Nigeria; God might be trying to tell you something about the writing.” I still wasn’t sure, so I contacted two friends – Carmen Rose and Keely Augustus – who used to run an artiste management company. One of the things their company did was hold open nights to expose the talent. The problem was they didn’t know what to do with me, because the only creatives on their books were singers, instrumentalists, singer-songwriters and poets. They had never worked with a writer before. But I told them, “You know how people get really surprised when they’re told on X-Factor that they really cannot sing, because their friends and families have been lying to them? I need to know how people who are not connected to me, in any way, will react to my writing.” They gave me a 10-minute slot at their next open evening … and the reaction (from total strangers) was good enough for me to keep searching for the right publishing deal.
Even after I found the right publisher, it tasked me. I’m fine with carrying out painstaking research; that’s easy-peasy. But with this novel, I had to go to places that I had never been, places I didn’t want to go. I had to have pictures in my head that I definitely did not want in my head … or anywhere near me, for that matter. Some of the material that I had to research was so harrowing, I had trouble sleeping. There are some things that are so far beyond the boundaries of your reality that it absolutely blows your mind to even try to imagine how any human being can do certain things to another person. There were times when I was so far out of my comfort zone that I kept asking myself, “Why are you doing this?” But I kept on, because I felt like I had something to prove to myself. The fact that I’m a bit of a perfectionist didn’t really help because I re-wrote the entire manuscript seven times. I kept thinking, “Something is missing.” I remember that my birthday fell during the week that I was supposed to submit the manuscript to the editor – so, I spent that birthday in the library, writing. Taking the day off was not an option. At the end of the week, I knew I had met when the editor’s deadline and mine, and I felt a release. I just sat in a quiet corner of the library, covered my face with hands and just wept till I couldn’t cry anymore. Then, I got up, had the manuscript bound and went home. That night, I went to bed hungry because I couldn’t feed myself. I couldn’t even get into bed – I was that exhausted. And I was in physical pain that I just didn’t understand – because I knew for a fact that I hadn’t injured myself. I just lay on my rug, hungry and worn out, tears rolling into my ears – I couldn’t lift my hands to wipe them – till I slept off.
AiA: So about this book Forever There For You , which of the characters is your favourite and why?
C.N: Erm … there are aspects of every character in Forever There For You that I … appreciate. I don’t write about perfect people. They are boring and non-dimensional. I literally cannot do anything with a perfect character. The characters that I create are real; and they live in the real world. I think there’s a lot to learn from people – in fact the more flawed or even twisted they are, the more you can learn. That’s part of what I tried to do with Forever There For You. Some of them are based on people that I know and some of them are totally fictional. Every character is in there for a reason. For instance, the character named Stella (who is the best friend to the protagonist, Nadine) is very loosely based on two of my friends – Helen and Sabina. Basically, Stella is what/who I think would happen if you got Helen and Sabina’s best and kinda wild parts, exaggerated them and mixed them. Another thing to note is that Stella is Caucasian and Nadine is black. Helen is from Akwa Ibom State in Nigeria and Sabina is from Baku in Azerbaijan. One of the reasons for the existence of Stella’s character was to show that friendship and sisterhood can and does transcend colour.
AiA: Do you see yourself as specialising in any particular genre?
C.N: Not really. I like to say that I write Afro-centric material, which does have global appeal. But I am obsessed with relationships. What makes them work? What makes them not work? What is it about the make-up of A and B that makes them work well together; whereas B and C would be a disaster? I’m going to stop now and move onto the next question, because I’m starting to sound like a mad psychologist on a constant search for human guinea pigs (laughs).
AiA: (laughs) I prefer the word eccentric to describe you ´creative types´. So, does Forever There For You fall into a particular genre?
C.N: I don’t think it does. But there are people who would say differently. For instance, I know it’s been listed as ‘romance’ in some quarters …
AiA: Who are your favourite authors?
C.N: (whew!) I don’t think I actually have a favourite. But there are some whose books I love, either because I ‘get’ them or they are the opposite of what I would write. I found out about J. D. Robb last year and started working my way through her “In Death” series. I think I’ve read almost every book in that series now. Cecilia Ahern is amazing – I couldn’t put down “P. S. I Love You”, even if it made me look like an unstable banshee. I cried from about page 30 till the end. Barbara Taylor Bradford’s “A Woman of Substance” is incredible. Francine Rivers does this thing with words, where she draws analogies that make the Bible ‘make sense’. There’s also John Grisham, Lynda La Plante and Martina Cole. Ms Cole’s writing is raw, eye-opening and fearless. When I read it, it reminds me of Peggy Mitchell (in Eastenders) saying, “I’m East End proper!” Chinua Achebe is an icon and I think Chimamanda Adichie is a total legend.
AiA: What’s next for you as a writer?
C.N: One of the things that’s come out of Forever There For You is a myriad of opportunities – related to writing, as well as other things. I went into a radio station to promote it and didn’t realise a former BBC correspondent was listening. I was later told that he asked the interviewer to call me back into the station and listen to my voice. They did and offered me a radio presenting role. We completed co-presenting a series on domestic violence in April. I’d wanted the series to be a bit more holistic than just talking about the incidence of domestic violence. So, we had incredible guests, including individuals like Muzvare Betty Makoni and organisations like “Men Against Violence”. My own radio show will be starting soon and there’ll be more information on it, closer to the time.
Another thing is that publishing Forever There For You has proven to some people that I can write, so much so that I actually also work as a ghost-writer. So, where people who want to write books have no time or expertise to do so, they are able to contact me. The market is amazing as it includes people are from various walks of life – from the pastor who wants to transcribe and collate his messages, to the battle-scarred CEO who wants to record their memoirs, to the war veterans who want a legacy for the sake of posterity, to the radio/TV presenter who wants to author a ‘How To’ book. At the moment, I’m ghost-writing someone’s autobiography and it’s … humbling.
I’m also working on releasing the first trilogy of a series aimed at teenagers this year. And there’s a TV series in the works that has completely shot my concept of a ‘comfort zone’ to smithereens. (laughing)
AiA: You recently won a literary award; tell us about it.
C.N: Yeah (laughing). I got a call in April, informing me that my writing had had won an award being given by the Literary Appreciation Society in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. I was … shocked, especially when I was told that my name was submitted twice. I think when that happened, they took a look at the list of names and wondered, “Why has this name shown up, more than once?” especially as both submissions weren’t made by the same person. From what I gathered, they (the submissions) were made by different people who didn’t know or speak to each other beforehand.
My mom had to pick up the award for me (as I wasn’t in town). I don’t know any writer who actually writes for awards and accolades, but it was a real boost to see some of the names (of the prize-givers) on the programme. As far as I’m concerned, if you are a writer of African origin and your name shows up on the same piece of paper as ‘Gabriel Okara’ in any capacity; you are somebody! (laughs)
AiA: What advice would you give to upcoming writers?
C.N: Read. Read. Do some more reading. Write. Then read some more. Not everyone will get your writing; don’t take it personally.
AiA: Where can one purchase your book?
C.N: It’s available in hard copy on all amazon sites (UK, US, EU) and on www.word2print.com
Readers in Nigeria and Ghana can purchase it from www.walahi.com and it should be in specific bookshops soon. It will also be available on Kindle very soon (laughs) and that has been a long time coming.
AiA: How can people reach you?
C.N: I’m quite active on social media, so I can be reached on LinkedIn or Twitter. I also blog at www.chiomannani.blogspot.co.uk
AiA thanks and commends Chioma for being so candid and easy to work with.