Tom Conaghan

‘Let Go of Your Mother Tongue’: An Interview with Vanessa Onwuemezi

Is it possible to describe your creative process as you write such innovative stories?   

Now I’m a more practised writer, it tends to work as: I know what feeling I have for a story, and I know where this story begins and ends. Usually if I don’t know where it ends it won’t work out – I need to know the direction I’m writing towards.

But, the middle part of all my stories end up going off on a tangent. Stories never match where I think they will go. You just have to let go of that. Then, when I let go, things just tend to happen; I write things I didn’t think I could. 

When things come out you didn’t know were possible, what lights are you following? What criteria do you use to accept or reject ideas?

I think that there is definitely an intuitive guide that says yes or no. I found ‘Bad Neighbourhood’ [the title story from the new collection] very difficult to write, to get the right tone. There wasn’t necessarily a decision process that said to me these sentences are wrong, but when I read them through, I stumbled over them: there was something that didn’t flow.

It’s like if you’re listening to a melody you know well and then you hear it out of key. You know this is wrong even if you don’t necessarily know what the names of the notes are – you have to fiddle around with it until it hits the melody you want to hear. 

I found a poem that really helped me find the right tone. A poem by Christopher Okigbo, a Nigerian poet who died in the Biafran war. I copied it into my notebook and kept reading it over and used it to guide me to what I wanted. I often use other pieces of writing to help me strike the right balance.

You talk about the ‘right tone.’ Can you describe what makes your writing seem ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?

Rightness or wrongness depends on each story. All stories have their own internal tone; they tell you rhythmically what tone they need.

Once I’ve kicked off, I find the story seems to exist already, and I’m just trying to find it, like with a head torch, feeling around for it. I know when I hit upon it.

Does your writing go through different stages before it’s finished?

It takes me quite a long time to get to a first draft. Then I’ll ask my friends to feedback on it. I’m quite lucky that I have a group of friends who read each others’ work. Then I will do a few more drafts.

Another author who also writes very inventively is Irenosen Okojie. She talks about gaining permission to write so freely. Is this something that is an issue for you? Is there a sense of overcoming to be this innovative?

I read that interview – it reminds me of a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez who said on first reading Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ that he didn’t know you were allowed to do that. I think we’ve all had those moments. Orlando by Virginia Woolf set off my literary imagination: I didn’t realise books could be like that. Before that point I didn’t have a handle on literature. And then afterwards, I went on to read authors like Kakfa and Cortàzar. 

Before this, there was a point when I wrote more conventionally. I didn’t know I was waiting for someone to tell me I could do this and now I try to consciously recognise when I’m holding myself back, and allow myself to experiment. The worst that can happen is that someone says they don’t understand it.   

The writing uses some very innovative techniques. Why do you sometimes use a gap in the text? And sometimes ‘state’ the punctuation marks? 

I’d read Eley Willliams’ Attrib. and other stories. My story ‘Heartbreak in the Super 8’ is very directly inspired by her: the typography in that is more loose, more stylised. It was from there I fell into my own thing.

Initially I was trying out the gaps – I wanted a pause that was longer than a normal comma. The gaps seemed the best way of getting the rhythm I wanted to achieve. Initially I was throwing them in and then, after a few stories, I thought to myself, is this necessary? What are they doing? And I experimented with using commas again because, as we said, I hadn’t yet given myself permission. But now commas looked messy and distracting so I decided to keep using the gaps. 

From an aural perspective they do mete out the rhythm of the text. In places I want a word to appear on its own, but I also want a pause. It’s a rhythmic thing. I saw a production of A View from the Bridge where the actors left an inordinate amount of time between speaking, just a second longer than is natural. So it sounded very unnatural – also very exciting and effective – about breaking up dialogue in that way: that had a really big effect on how I see the rhythm of a text. 

The written punctuation was the definition of experimental. I couldn’t defend it in a court of law. Even up until the last draft, I was asking Tamara, my editor, whether I should take them out because I didn’t want to have an experiment in there for its own sake. But it fitted well – it was in part a comment about duration and waiting – in a couple of stories in the book, characters have strange experiences of punctuation. I was reading Dante’s Inferno at the time – there’s some academic writing about it that says: [The] eternity of Hell signifies duration, while eternity of Paradise signifies an eternal present’. The emphasis on punctuation shows us how writing in itself creates linear time. 

Your phrases, and the syntax especially, are rich and various. What, for you, makes a good sentence? 

I have read a bit of Gordon Lish and his thing was the poetics of the sentence. A lot of writers hold the sentence up as the unit of a work of any prose. For me the real obsession is language and how to break it open, how to introduce a new way of seeing for yourself and for the reader. 

I think a lot of it was when I learnt to speak French. In that, if you want to speak well you have to let go of your mother tongue, the grammar and syntax of English, in order to adopt something new. I realised there are many ways a sentence can be formed. The way English has evolved isn’t the only way the sentence can be put together. It broke my attachment to any one language and made me realise English can be made more vital if you break it up. With a sentence that’s the aim. You want the experience of the thing to impact someone, you don’t want something for their intellect to chew over; which means you don’t want to write something that they’ve read before in various guises, like when you’re describing something I suppose. That’s why I have a compulsion to drop words  denoting the subject of the sentence such as ‘the’ and ‘she’ and tend to leave things out, so it’s more like the thing I’m describing. It has more of an impact before the reader has a chance to think about it, to intellectualise it and the rhythm also comes into that. 

Dark Neighbourhood finishes with: ‘And I look around at the other people, at the backs and sides of their heads, while they are staring straight ahead only ahead.’ Why did you go out on this?

The last two words I took from a story called the ‘The Southern Thruway’ by Julio Cortázar. It was just the perfect ending for me, it encompassed a profound realisation, a heartbreak and loneliness that sums up the feelings of the character at that point. 

It is a similar sentiment to Dark Neighbourhood. The protagonist has suddenly realised he’s spent so much time waiting for something he hoped he would achieve in the end. And suddenly he’s woken up to the realisation that he didn’t have to wait, although everyone else is still under that spell. It’s the realisation that makes a kind of profound loneliness. 

It’s annoying because I tried for ages to write something that captured a similar sentiment to Cortázar’s story but I couldn’t write anything better, so I decided instead to use the “only ahead” from his ending. 

I’d say this ending is also a beginning because the character has realised something that will change the trajectory of their life. And so it’s really a kind of awakening, it’s kind of optimistic in a way. The ending is as much as I could do to capture the sentiment at that moment rather than going into what will happen next.

What, if anything, did you learn about craft as you wrote? 

What did I learn? Have I learnt anything? Not rushing was the biggest lesson I learnt. Now the book has finished and I’ve had a bit of time, I think maybe if I’d had another six months I might have been able to figure out the ending a little bit better. 

With that title story, I needed a month to hit on the right tone; that first version was about four or five years ago and at that point I don’t think I could have written it any better. It needed that three-year wait to become a better story. It is about respecting time a little bit in the process. I’ve learnt a lot in general from just letting it be and seeing what comes into your life in the intervening time, usually you’ll read something or discover a poem or whatever that really helps your writing style. 

Sometimes just sitting at a screen trying to hammer away at it isn’t always the most effective solution. I’ve found that generally in artistic work. Not doing anything in our productivity culture feels like a cardinal sin, when you’re not getting paid to do nothing. 

I’ve definitely struggled with this ‘doing nothing’ thing, but it is really fruitful to just let it be.

Dark Neighbourhood by Vanessa Onwuemezi is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Find more information here.

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