Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor

by Tara Laskowski Read the Story March 19, 2018

I always love the idea of “watching” and “being watched” in fiction. Why do you think the idea of voyeurism—of watching others and trying to figure out what they’re thinking—is so compelling to write about?

I grew up mostly observing everything and everyone around me. It was as though I was a mute spectator, in my own world, seeing events unveil around me. (In fact, an old classmate once told me that she wondered if I had eyes on the sides and back of my head because she thought my eyes seemed to be “wandering forever.”) Watching others easily became one of my superpowers. It was both potent and utterly self-consuming as my eyes, rather than my mind, seemed to record and interpret every experience. Which is why I feel emotionally attached to the idea of voyeurism. And it is compelling—and often difficult—to write about. You want to write a story that is honest, to portray characters as they truly are, and you have to achieve this through the eyes of a single character. There is always the push-and-pull of how you see others and how others see you, a thin line between truth and falsehood. The birth of perception. Only that the eyes alone are involved. Narrative complexities like these draw me to this adventure of “watching” and “being watched” in fiction. It’s a journey for me, and I’m still gladly, painstakingly, enjoying every bit of it.

Where did the idea or inspiration for this story come from? Did it go in unexpected ways as you wrote and revised it, or did it stay similar to your initial idea?

“Watch, Watching” was inspired by artwork by Maggie Chang. In her piece, Maggie deftly paints a boy atop a mountain surrounded by splashes of blue skies and fading hills. The illustration was very surreal, and I couldn’t stop staring at it for months. Perhaps, at that point in my life, I felt so much like the boy in the painting—stranded, unable to comprehend my world, depressed. Perhaps, too, I was drawn to the brush strokes, how seemingly hurried they were, yet so lovely and finely tuned. Or, perhaps, possibly more than anything else, the boy in the painting seemed to be saying things to me. So, the story originally began as a poem. I worked on it for about two months, but it just wasn’t going well. Then I began to rework it into a story. I wanted it to be a very short story as I longed to retain the sense of urgency and mindfulness that it initially had as a poem. I finally got it right after the fifth draft. There were really no changes in subsequent revisions; I only had to subtly reveal what was initially hidden for the story to take up its complete form.

If you’re struggling to come up with a new story idea, where do you go or what do you do to get your brain thinking creatively again?

I know writers who say they struggle to come up with a new story idea. I want to say the same thing for myself, hoping it will make me appear “cool.” But, truth is, I barely struggle to come up with a new story idea. There are tonnes of voices in my head so that I fight each day to stay sane. The only struggle that I often have to deal with is getting the characters to budge. For a long time they nag at me. They want their stories to be told. I sit at my table to listen to them, yet they refuse to act. They fold their hands and stare right back at me. I have learned to invite them for tea and lunch as friends and family. I have learned to make them grow jealous when I choose to read a lot of books, listen to other writers’ TED talks, and tell them how their stories will forever remain untold if they fail to cooperate.

What’s the nicest thing you’ve ever done for someone else?

Pray.

You’ve been our fellow for a few months now, and we’re really excited you’re here. What do you most hope to get out of the fellowship this year?

Thank you for having me. I am excited as well to be here. What a brilliant fantastic team the journal has! I don’t actively think of what I intend to get out of the fellowship. I am mostly thinking of applying myself to the fellowship, establishing friendships that will last. I look forward to reading other writers’ works and discovering what works and doesn’t work in flash fiction.

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:

Tara Laskowski has been editor at SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010. Her short story collection Bystanders was hailed by Jennifer Egan as "a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills." She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Tara lives and works in a suburb of Washington, D.C.

About the Artist:

Find more of Ryoji Iwata's photography on Unsplash.