From her bedroom in Onitsha, Ada Chioma Ezeano sends out an email of questions to Chimee Adioha, who has written a children’s book called AMARA. She asks about his venture into writing, about the feminist undertones in the book, about his choice for writing for children. Chimee answers from his house in Mainland Lagos, close to Nigeria’s International airport, the same house that inspired the character – AMARA
1. When did you know that writing is what you want to do?
I have been writing since I was in primary 2 or 3. My mother has some of what I have written at that time. They are in very rough 20 leaves exercise books; excess books that had no subject name on them- turned to spaces that were accommodating my very terrible stories about Obi and Ada that lived in the same compound with me and attended the same school. She was teaching Fine and Applied Arts and there was her colleague named Mrs. Roseline who found interest in me and who helped me edit those stories so they would look good in the eyes. They never got to be published though.
Then after secondary school and after reading Chimamanda’s Purple Hibiscus for the general exams, I wrote two more terrible novels that my parents helped me print at the business centre around us so I could send it to publishers I liked. I have been writing since then.
2. Why are you writing for children? Is this something you will be doing or is this something you just did?
I read a lot of African children’s stories while growing up, and I think that had a greater influence on me. In 2013, there was a call for entries for children’s stories in Lagos. I saw the post on Facebook and borrowed my brother’s computer to write. I was selected and got my story illustrated and published. That also helped my writing in a good way. I have written 2 other children’s stories since then.
I feel more comfortable writing for children too because I always feel children need more to read. They need to grow with a lot of stories that will shape their future, and not too many writers are exploring that genre. Most times, the child needs to read a children-related material to metamorphose into reading a bigger book, a novel.
Asides trying to get a novel soon, I shall be doing a lot of children’s and young adult writing more.
3. What influenced the story and the writing of “Amara?”
Amara came from a place of wanting to write about girls as I felt there were too much representation of the boy child than the girl. I wanted to create a kind of childhood feminism that includes the power of all genders, both boys and girls, in a story that children should relate to. I was also interested in infusing into children, a kind of feminism- the one that keeps them aware so they do not find it as a big deal or a new ideology when they become adults. I want them to understand that the norm is what they see in AMARA. I wanted a story where I would put a girl as the major character who would represent not just the Nigerian girl, but the Nigerian child. I wanted to say something differently or rather be loud about something that is already there but still hiding. I was interested in making Amara’s father a better parent, and Amara’s brother, the boy that we do not usually see in children’s writing. My target is to change clichés around children writing in Nigeria. I am sure I did that with AMARA.
4. What guides your writing: is there a particular thing that must be in your room?
No. I just like some silence and concentration; anywhere I am. I also think I write better when I am in our village in Imo state or I might not have discovered other best writing spots yet. I like to write when I am comfortable and in a comfortable place, like in the house. I dare not try to write in public spaces, it does not work for me at all. I also do not like to write in jotters. I prefer to be in the bed, with a computer, with fluorescent or yellow bulbs from the wall or ceiling; and probably the ceiling fan dwindling. I feel so homely. I said ceiling fan, not “a.c”.
5. What is the writing routine?
No routine at all. I just write when I think I need to, especially on weekends or very late at night. I don’t stay at home. I go to work and return in the evenings, so I obviously do not write when I am out of the house.
6. Do you plot your writing, or do you let the characters emerge as you write?
They just come most time and I flow. But for Amara, I just knew what I wanted to create. The characters were few. I just figured it out before starting. I knew I was going to write a story of a girl with dreadlocks, living close to the airport, strong and bold, not the usual female, and whose story would inspire more girls and boys.
7. What is your general view of the Nigerian children’s literature?
I feel that genre is under-explored or under-appreciated, but that is what we need to raise a society that would read books in future. We are shaped by what we read- and I feel what children read play a huge part in the shape their future takes.
8. Gender wars and feminist memes are thriving today. How do you think Literature contributed to this?
I do not think literature has contributed a lot in that area. If literature did, then it might have been in a very small quarter. I feel social media has done so much. People are beginning to question and understand the concept of things they had no idea of in the past.
Literature as it is today does not reach the multitude that social media reaches. For example, most Nigerians do not read Literature. They read it except it comes as a post or a snippet from social media. They are more likely to debate based on a twitter post than based on a big novel by a feminist icon.
9. Amara has been called a rewrite of the Cinderella story without the rescuing prince charming. As a matter of fact, Amara climbs trees and prefers this to domestic chores. Amara wants to become a pilot. Is this an intentionally calculated attempt to fight gender wars or are there other underlying themes?
Yes. That was basically my plan; to deconstruct or destabilize traditional or cliché gender roles that have been stuck into people’s heads. Those experiences are what children would tag as what boys do, but I want them to now start seeing it as what ANYONE can do. I want them to grow with that notion of –what anyone can do.
10. Amara is a female character with an Igbo name, and she has a younger brother, Fisayo. Fisayo is a Yoruba name. Is this a conscious consolidation of tribalism, a message of oneness?
Thank you. Like I said, AMARA was coming to change a lot of things, and tribalism was one of them.
11. What are you currently reading? And how are you coping in this time of the pandemic?
I am not reading any book at this time. My reading has been random short stories or fiction materials I usually come across on social media.
Since the pandemic and the lockdown in Lagos, I have stopped going to work and doing a part of my tasks from home. Also a time to spend time at home with family , create, make meals, rest. I am also using some of the time to think deeply about life; how what we never imagined has come to embrace us without notice; and how many things are going to change whenever the pandemic ends.
Adachioma Ezeano works with First Bank of Nigeria during the day, writes at night. She is an alumnus of the 2018 Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie. Her works have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, FlashBack Fictions, Deyu African, Brittle Paper.
About Amara: It is a new story of boldness by a little girl called Amara, who lives in a place in Lagos that is close to the airport. She wants to fly an aeroplane, but she gets a toy aeroplane. She flies in an aeroplane for the first time, and realizes she can become a pilot, regardless. Many years later, she begins to fly a helicopter. Filled with dreams and adventure, challenges and victories, Amara is a new story written to challenge assumptions concerning the girl child.