Hope is central to Okechi Okeke’s The Joy of Meeting a Helper: hope cultivated, deferred, salvaged, and ultimately denied, always with devastating consequences for the young women involved. With dreams of Europe, Okeke’s narrator survives one calamity after another til even the hope of escape from her captivity in a Middle East home seems impossible. The Joy of Meeting a Helper has been longlisted for The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story! (2018)
What was the germination of your story?
The urge to show any one what I was feeling about the ignoble news concerning the actions of certain men of God, and how they affected people who believe them.
In what way would you say your writing is political?
Writing is a threat to tyrants and concealers of truth who see certain writings that discuss issues around politics and society in general as nothing but threatening. But we’ve dirtied the word politics, as Toni Morrison reminded us, and made it sound like it’s unpatriotic. For me, what they call political writing is any piece that is daring and transformative.
But where’s the place of art? To see a creative work as political first, is to look down on its aesthetic potentials. When I was working on my story, I wanted to talk about the ruthless Python Dance of the military in southeastern part of Nigeria, I wanted to talk about the deceitful and nefarious devices of men of God. I wanted to tell all these stories, but they didn’t form a definitive narrative for me because I was more interested in how those stories would be told, how they affected people’s lives, and how those stories mirrored the society. The ‘how’ mattered more to me than the ‘what’ because literature (creative writing) is first an art that seeks to humanize us while calling for transformation or the need to evolve in progressive ways.
So, I’d like to say my writing is both artistic, daring and transformative.
What are your opinions on religion, especially regarding how it is talked about in African literature?
Religion is an integral part of our society. In Nigeria, for instance, people are polarised more along religious lines. We believe and respect the words and powers of our religious leaders more. But the way religion is being portrayed is lopsided. We say it’s spiritual and should leave it to God or Allah.
I remember when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was on a national television for an interview and her interviewer – a dark, religious-looking man – asked her why she created a romantic relationship between Father Amadi, a priest and Kambili. And in her witty and audacious response, she said that such relationships exist, but we’ve chosen not to talk about them. This brings up the fact that we talk about religion with feigned sacredness. We are afraid to question certain religious beliefs. For me, religion has been used to colonize us, and it has also been used to demonize us. It has snatched away part of our humanity. Or else how would we explain a group of people who eat grass because their pastor asked them to? Is that what faith is? We seem not to talk much about all this in our narratives. I think, however, that religion should be the focus of fearless writings.
We believe and respect the words and powers of our religious leaders more.Okechi Okeke
What lesson are you hoping readers will take from your story?
It’s difficult to tell a reader what to take from any story. Whatever sits well in the mind of a reader, that is what the reader will remember, that is certainly what s/he will take.
What advice would you give to beginning writers?
Talent alone is frustrating; imitation is deceptive. Writing is a ritual of so many discoveries and givings. You have to embark on this ritual to own that unique voice with which to tell your stories. And please, never think of ‘perfect writing’ because there’s nothing like that. Perfection stifles creativity.