Words, Poetry and Ijeoma

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The Internet can be a distraction, there are countless websites we all indulge in to distract ourselves or bide time where necessary. Whether it is social media, cooking or car sites or gossip blogs, most of the world is addicted to this technology. Conversely, the Internet can be a great source of inspiration, a tool to learn about other cultures, technology, art, languages and everything that can be imagined. Through one of my procrastinating sessions on social media (instagram to be exact), I came across Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s poetry. I instantly became an admirer of her writing. Her writing reflects freedom of thought, fearlessness and a deep social consciousness to her environment. She grew up in Nigeria and is now based in the United States. Though she in no longer resident in Nigeria, her roots are firm to her antecedence. She writes about the experience of being an immigrant but also the experience of being a Nigerian woman. She is unafraid to write about elements and experiences of femininity that most women in Nigeria are afraid to discuss such as abuse and rape. Her work can be dark but also gravitates to light as she rights about love and self-empowerment as well. There is a universality in her writing that all can relate to regardless of where you are from.

My admiration started with her writing style; literal, clear and vivid. My admiration then extended to the innovative way she shares her work, through instagram, tumblr and twitter. There is a generation of talented writers who share their work through such mediums. Writers such as Nayirah Waheed, Rupi Kaur and Nigeria’s very own Ijeoma Umebinyuo did not wait for the validation of getting an agent or a publishing deal before they shared their work. It is their self-belief and conviction in their talent that lead them to share their work. Over time Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s popularity increased so much so that her work has been translated to French, Spanish, Russian and more. As of 2015 she became a published author, her first book is titled ‘Questions for Ada’. Popular e-commerce site Amazon described her book as ‘a flower that will blossom in the spirit of every reader as she shares her heart with raw candour.’ This book has been well received, furthermore on social media; you will find several retweets and reposts of her work across twitter, instagram and tumblr.

The state of affairs on gender equality in Nigeria is not anywhere near where it should be as reflected in the recent rejection of the recent gender equality bill.  Nigerian women are not yet regarded, as equal or else the bill would have been passed. Ijeoma Umenbinyuo is not waiting for the senate to regard her as equal she is demanding it with every word she writes. She writes of her experiences, immigration, about Nigerian women, honouring them, as they deserve to be. This sentiment is reflected in one of her most circulated quotes ‘I am too full of life to be half-loved. ‘ If that is the case, then there is something, man or woman, that we can all learn from Ijeoma.

Why did you choose writing?
I would say I did not choose writing, writing chose me. I was in primary five when my family friend whose nickname was Adede called me aside and showed me his poems. I was about ten years old and I believe he must have been between about thirteen or fifteen years old. I actually disliked poetry at first. My school in Lagos had this amazing library and we would all walk in a perfect line every Thursday to go borrow a book. At ten, I fell in love with books and writing. In secondary school, I would create short stories my friends borrowed and passed amongst themselves. Writing did choose me. I chose to keep writing because it sustains me, storytelling was something my grandfather loved to do and he was an amazing oral storyteller. Writing is important; it reminds you of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Writing is powerful, nobody can erase your words, I chose to keep writing because I believe our stories are important and should be documented. I also grew up encouraged to write and to keep writing

Why poetry as opposed to fiction?
Funny enough, I wanted to be introduced into the world of literature with fiction and not poetry. My very good friend Dr Ovo Adagha encouraged me to publish “Questions for Ada.” first. I make use of both literary genres. In my book, I also make use of prose.

What was your first ever poem about?
I was ten years old although my father would say I was seven. He believes I was seven years old when I wrote my first poem. I think my poem was about the condition of Nigeria. I remember asking Adede if I could use his poem for inspiration. I was ten and I borrowed from his own voice and style. Some terrible poem I suppose as I tried mimicking him with big words about issues I did not fully understand at that age.

What has the positive response of your book “Questions for Ada” affected you?
To see people connect with my words, to know I make others feel less alone, to know my writings has been into places that deal with the health of individuals across the world, to know just last week my book was being studied in a women’s library in Scotland is empowering.

You are passionate about Women’s empowerment and equality. Are there any specific gender related issues that you are passionate about? What inspires you about women?
Yes, I am a feminist. I believe in the education of girls. Ending deadly cultural practices like Female Genital Mutilation and child bride. Creating safe centres that will protect women and children in cases of domestic violence. I am passionate about laws that should be passed for gender equality. I believe in women being in positions of power to make these changes happen. It is not enough to say these things, it is important women are seen and heard when such laws are being implemented. Visibility is important.
I am passionate about these issues but most importantly; women need to be protected regardless of class. As a society, if your idea of empowerment is confined only to women of certain class, I am not interested in such ideas of women empowerment. It should protect all women, educated and uneducated, both born rich and poor women. All women. I believe in the importance of women being treated fairly in our various institutions. I believe no nation can claim to be great or work towards greatness when half their population are left behind. I believe in the protection of the girl-child, in working towards protecting girls against cultural practices that destroy their health and frankly, the importance of empowering women through education and economics. A woman who is given tools to grow and be the best she can be will never be a liability. My father raised me to never apologize for these ideas and being vocal about women’s right. My grandmother inspires me and women like her whose stories are never told; whose histories are never known. I grew up surrounded by strong women, from my own mother to my grandmothers. It is normal for me.

You have a really powerful poem on being an immigrant ‘So here you are, too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both’ what are your own personal experiences on living in two cultures?
Thank you for your kind words. When I visit Nigeria, I am called an “American.” However, when I am outside Nigeria, I am constantly being asked where I am from because of my accent. Nigeria is home and I have such nostalgia for Lagos. I was raised in Nigeria. I spent my holidays in my ancestral home back in Imo State; we lived so close to my grandmother’s village in Anambra I would place one foot in Uga and one foot in my village in Imo. Nigeria is always home and home welcomes you no matter how far away we go.

What are your future plans? Another book?
My book ‘Questions for Ada’ will be available in Nigeria sometime in August. That is all I can say for now because as an Igbo woman, I was raised by my father never to comment on future plans. Thank you.