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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Etisalat Flash Fiction Top 20 Writer, Uche Okonkwo, Speaks

This is the last in the interview series and on anything Etisalat Flash Fiction Prize from me. It all started HERE. Go read past posts to follow how it began. 

I came across Uche Okonkwo’s story on the Top 20 list and I just liked it. You can’t read the “Neverland” and not be hooked. No wonder she’s made it thus far. She has less than 800 friends on facebook and as she said, in this interview, she did little or no campaigning at all. And that makes you wonder that maybe, maybe not all stories on the Top 20 had the strength of massive votes. Maybe some thin few were really picked for their artistry. Maybe. Or perhaps her prayers worked. :)

Read, share and savor! This is the last of the interview series.

TrueTalk: Tell us about yourself, your life in and outside writing. Let us meet Uche Okonkwo.

Uche Okonkwo: I always find this a hard question to answer. Thankfully this isn’t a job interview, so I’ll just throw in a bunch of random stuff: I’m the third of five children. I’ve never ridden a bicycle; I don’t know how. I was born and raised in Nigeria. I’ve worked as an editor, freelance and within a company. I like cats and ice cream, though the latter might be bad for me. One of my favourite books is Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow. I’m female (one can’t always tell by my name).

I only write short stories (ranging from flash fiction to much longer short stories), and have no plans to write a novel yet. I’ve had two short stories published in anthologies: in 2012, Of Tears and Kisses, Heroes and Villains, and The Manchester Anthology 2012/2013, from my MA class. I write simply (or at least I try to), and with every piece my primary goal is to not bore the reader – everything else comes after.

My biggest challenge with writing is a combination of laziness and procrastination. I blog partly to help keep myself accountable.

TT: How do you think the internet is helping our writing?

UO: It helps to spread the word, for one; to get writing out there, especially from unpublished writers. It’s free to set up a blog, and many writers now have them and can build a fan base from them. And having a fan-base means there’s a ready-made audience if you publish a book; no publisher would complain about that.

I think the internet can also fuel creativity by giving us new material, or at least a new context or culture within which to write. The internet – and the world – is very different than it was say ten years ago, and as technology changes it affects how we live, what and how we write; how we see the world.

The internet is also invaluable for research, as I’m sure most people would agree. How did we ever do it before?

TT: I like the “Neverland”, it’s one of my favourites on the list. But I just couldn’t relate that title to the story. How does the title relate to the story?

Uche Okonkwo

UO: For me, the story is about nostalgia; it’s like a small slice of my childhood. The events in the story aren’t completely real, but I did have a close friend in primary school that was male, and his family and mine used to tease us about being a couple. ‘Neverland’ is the home of the fictional Peter Pan (along with Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys) who refuses to grow up, so I guess I chose that title because of a sense of longing for that time in my life. I don’t know that I would want to go back to being a child, but I certainly look back a lot. I’m not sure why.

TT: Looking at the large number of entries for the Etisalat Flash Fiction Prize at the initial stage, how strong was your hope? (I assume) Something must have been nudging you to have held faith all through the voting period. Let’s talk about it.

UO: I’d say I was reasonably optimistic. What I tried to do once voting started was fix my mind on other things, not think about the prize too much; and thankfully, I was well occupied for most of the voting period. I knew I had sent in a good enough entry, and I was satisfied to wait and see what would happen.

TT: So many things have been written on the Etisalat Flash Fiction prize in recent weeks. What do you think of the commentaries?

UO: I read only a few and I was mostly amused by them, especially the more fiery ones. I understand the distaste many people felt at having a writing contest where the public voted, and I certainly understand the concern that it might turn into nothing more than a popularity contest. I’m not sure why some of the commentaries were so aggressive, though; I didn’t think that was necessary. But people are (mostly) free to express their opinions how they wish, and so they did.

TT: How do you think this prize has helped our literature and growing unpublished writers especially?

UO: Writing is a relatively difficult thing to make a living from, and so I’m a fan of writers’ prizes in general. Anything that makes it easier for a writer to do his or her work, and be sustained by it – even if it’s a thousand pounds – can’t be so bad. As for how else this prize helps growing unpublished writers, perhaps through exposure. I think it’s too early to say more at this point.

TT: Do you think the prize will give anyone who wins the bragging right even when some said the Top 20 is fraught with many poor entries due to the voting method employed?

UO: I don’t know about bragging rights, and I doubt there’s ever any sense in bragging. I think the winner(s) would do well to take their prize(s) with gratitude and continue improving themselves however they can.

TT: Reading through some of the entries, one realizes that some do not know what a flash fiction is before submitting. What is your own idea of the flash fiction genre?

UO: The way I see it, flash fiction is about capturing one core thing. Some people make the mistake of trying to tell a big story with flash fiction, and then instead of a story they end up writing the summary of a story. When I write very short fiction I focus on the micro – that elementary narrative arc that can be whole in itself even with so few words, without frills. And I’m minimalist about it; I decide what the core of the story is, and whatever isn’t absolutely necessary for that core to be exposed I take out. I don’t see flash fiction as the medium for extensive character portraits or detailed descriptions of place, though it is very possible to present character and place using very few, carefully selected words.

Also, I think there’s a way to read very short fiction, and it might be something of an acquired taste. Before I got to understand the short story I used to come away from them feeling cheated, like they were incomplete. But reading short stories – to a larger extent than novels, I think – is kind of like chewing cud; there’s room for the reader to digest and add to the story long after they’re done.

TT: About the Etisalat Flash Fiction prize, some popularly put this way: ‘it is a prize that has turned writers to hustling marketers, where only the best marketer wins’. How far do you agree with that comment?

UO: It didn’t turn me into a ‘hustling marketer’, so I don’t agree very much. But I only speak for myself.

TT: Your story reads well and still made the Top 20. Many pieces read well but couldn’t gather enough votes to make it to the Top 20. What campaign strategy did you employ? Tell us about your campaign period.

UO: When I first read about the contest and saw that the winner would be determined partly by votes, my heart sank and I considered not entering. I thought, with good reason and like many others, that it would all come down to who was most popular and who could make the most noise. I don’t consider myself popular, not in the least. I’m only moderately active on social media (and that’s being generous), and I’m almost religious about keeping my business my business. But I decided I would enter anyway. The prize(s) was attractive enough, and I already had a good number of stories that would fit the word count. I knew it wouldn’t take much.

That decided, there were things I wasn’t going to do for votes. I wasn’t going to beg – vote for my story if you like it enough. I wasn’t going to harass anyone – no tagging friends or followers on Facebook or Twitter, no repeated messages. I shared my entry a few times on Facebook and Twitter, once on my blog. I sent personal messages, and never more than one per friend, to some friends on BBM and Whatsapp who I thought might miss it on Facebook and Twitter. I told my family about it. I prayed. I set my mind on other things.

My family and friends were great; they did much more than I did in spreading the word. They tweeted several times, shared and liked and commented on Facebook, they BBMed about it, sent emails and got their friends and colleagues to vote and share as well, and they did all of it without me having to ask. They’re my friends and family so they were partial to me, of course; but I think they were also glad to do it because they genuinely loved the story and could see something of themselves in it. I’m very thankful to them; I had them, so I didn’t need a ‘strategy’. However it turns out, it felt really good to have had their support.

TT: Thank you, Uche. *hi-five*

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