To mark this year’s Black History Month, Spread the Word asked four writers from the Spread the Word community to contribute to this feature honouring this year’s theme Saluting our Sisters which celebrates the contributions and achievements of Black women in the UK and around the world. Writer Melatu Uche Okorie tells us about her journey as a writer and three Black women authors she loves, and shares advice for Black women writers who are on, or starting out on, their writing journey.
Tell us about your journey as a writer
I’ve always enjoyed stories. I, love a good story. I often tell people that an instruction can be easily forgotten but if you wrap it in a story, it stays.
I would call myself a storyteller. Even as a young person I knew I had the knack for telling stories well; but it wasn’t until about seventeen years ago that I turned the joy that I get from telling stories to writing stories.
Tell us about some Black women writers you admire and why
1. Mariama Bã, So Long a Letter
“Every night when he went out, he would unfold and try on several of his suits before settling on one. The others, impatiently rejected, would slip to the floor. I would have to fold them again and put them back in their places; and this extra work, I discovered, I was doing only to help him in his effort to be elegant in his seduction of another woman.”
The above quote from Bã’s So Long A Letter depicts why I loved the novel. As the first Senegalese female author to achieve prominence as a writer, Mariama’s novels explored themes of polygamy, religion, classism and women’s rights. The novel is written in the form of a letter by the protagonist to her friend about the indignation of sharing the mourning of her late husband with his young bride who was half his age.
2. Nawal El-Sadaawi, Woman at Point Zero
This novel by Egyptian writer, Nawal, centres around the character of Firdaus, who was in a Cairo prison awaiting execution for murder. Born to a poor family, Firdaus suffered cruelty and abuse at every turn. At 19, Firdaus was married to a 60 year’ old man who became abusive. The next man she met and fell in love with also abused her. Eventually, Firdaus found herself roaming the streets where she met an older woman who introduced her to prostitution. Firdaus’ story makes for a harrowing read, but it will leave you questioning life as you may know it, and what exactly justice is.
3. Flora Nwapa, Efuru
Nigerian born Nwapa completes the third of the female writers that inspired me as a young English literature student. I’m happy that I found this line from Efuru which always made me smile when I read it. “When trouble comes to you, everything goes wrong, even your fire does not kindle.”
In Efuru, Nwapa tells the story of a beautiful, enviable female character who both married and was abandoned by her two very nondescript husbands.
4. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Half of a Yellow Sun, and NoViolet Bulawayo We Need New Names.
I decided to add these two inspiring female black authors (Nigerian and Zimbabwean, respectively) to the list as they are trailblazers in appropriating English language in forms that are suitable to the characters in their works. Skilled in the use of interplay with languages, both authors create dialogues where characters have individual styles of ‘speaking,’ so to say. This attribute is rarely mentioned in reviews nor given any credit; perhaps because most reviewers are native English speakers and thus don’t notice these little nuggets of wonder.
Do you have any advice for aspiring and emerging Black women writers?
Believe in yourself.
Believe in your style/voice as a writer. Liken yourself to a rapper who has a particular style or nuance (Snoop Dogg, Kanye West and Drake are all known for their rapping styles) and work to better yourself in your chosen form.
Find a community of writers so you have people to call on for support. Your struggles or challenges are more common than you may think.
I don’t think Writer’s Block occurs existentially. Distractions are the killer for any writer. Mentally limit distractions. Nothing is ever worth staying in your mind. Fight to get things out as soon as they go in. Change environment or shift creative spaces if you must.
About the contributor
Melatu Uche Okorie is a Nigerian-born writer, educator, and scholar, based in Ireland. She was born in the mid-1970s in Nigeria and grew up in the eastern part of the country before moving to Ireland in 2006. Melatu has a Master’s in Creative writing from Trinity College Dublin. She is best known for her critically acclaimed anthology “This Hostel Life,” which was published in 2018. The book is a collection of three interconnected stories that explore the experiences of African migrants in Ireland. In addition to her writing, Okorie is also a dedicated educator and has taught writing and literature at various universities and institutions in Ireland. She is a strong advocate for diversity in literature and has worked to create opportunities for marginalized voices to be heard. Okorie’s writing has been widely praised for its honesty, depth, and compassion. She has been described as a “brave and important voice” in Irish literature and has received the Metro Éireann Writing Award for her story ‘Gathering Thoughts’. Overall, Melatu Uche Okorie is a talented and accomplished writer. Her work serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of diverse voices in literature.