Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor

by Christopher Allen Read the Story September 17, 2018

“A Case of Fire” invites the reader to “consider” this man who commits a heinous crime. I see this as an entreaty not to look away. It’s a difficult, troubling story. Why did you need to tell it?

We live in a world of differences. For many people, differences make them uncomfortable. You are expected to conform to certain cultures in order to be accepted. Failure to do so means you are abnormal. Your abnormal is unforgiven, not condoned. In the story, I wanted to push these ideas to the point where they stretch along the thin line between horror and slight provocation, and nudge the reader to engage, to think differently. I hope I achieved that.

I’m struck by how alone Ukamaka is left in this story: abandoned by parents and delivered into the hands of a fascist uncle, betrayed by teachers of all people. What is going on here?

I think we are alone in some ways. We just don’t know it. In our loneness lies uniqueness. However, in Ukamaka’s story, we find a malignant sort of abandonment. I feel very emotional about her story.

This is your third story for SmokeLong as part of your fellowship. What story do you think the three stories tell together?

They speak of love.

You are in the throes of a sea change, having recently moved to the US to study. How are you doing? Can you tell our readers what it’s like? It takes such courage to take such a leap.  

It has been very much of an adventure. The U.S. that I know from the books I have read seems similar and different at the same time from what I’m presently experiencing. I think I have adjusted to the weather. I have made some new friends. I get cultural shocks almost every day, but I hope these wear off soon. Before I arrived in the U.S, I mentally prepared myself to accept my blackness which, in Nigeria, there would have been no need to. This has helped me, though not totally, and it would be sheer ignorance to pretend that racism isn’t a thing in the U.S. Some white people have asked me if there is internet in Nigeria. They have also wanted to know if people use phones in Africa. Some say to me, “You speak English so well,” and go on to ask if it is the same thing with every other person in Nigeria. I have read a lot about what it means to be black or African-American in America, however it is different experiencing it firsthand. This is not to say I haven’t had good experiences so far. I admire America. I admire the knowledgeable people in America. But I guess this is what it means to leave home: you become a stranger elsewhere.

What are the odds that we’ll see a unicorn in your next story?

Zero in a million. The world isn’t a completely happy place right now.

About the Author:

Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor is a Nigerian writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Litro Magazine, Harvard University's Transition Magazine, Warscapes, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. A 2018 Rhodes Scholar finalist, he has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction. He is an alumnus of the 2015 Association of Nigerian Authors Creative Writing Workshop and the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Writing Workshop, and a two-time recipient of the Festus Iyayi Award for Excellence for Prose and Playwriting (2015/2016).

About the Interviewer:

Christopher Allen is a translator, freelance editor and the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press). Allen’s work has appeared in [PANK], Indiana Review, Jellyfish Review, Longleaf Review and others; his book reviews in Necessary Fiction, Word Riot and others. He is the co-editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

About the Artist:

Find more photography by Craig Whitehead at Unsplash.