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Smoke & Mirrors with Chantelle Chiwetalu

Interview by Megan Pillow (Read the Story) December 21, 2020

Chantelle Chiwetalu

Chantelle Chiwetalu

The first thing that attracted me to this story were the precise, evocative details: the beheaded statue at the Stadium Crossroads, the toenail polish “the warm yellow of a danfo bus,” the blue panties that come out of the building’s tap. They’re memorable not just because they’re so vivid, but also because they’re weighted with history and memory beyond the narrative. The conjuring up of the danfo bus by its color, for example, suggests all of the packed-together lives that the buses carry from place to place. How do you choose which details to emphasize? And why these details for this particular story?

The details are from my student life: once, during a protest at my University—it was a few weeks to examinations and there was no electricity and no water—some students beheaded a statue in front of my hostel, and it stayed that way for the longest time, even after we’d all paid a steep reparation fee. A blue T-shirt came out of a tap in Nsukka, and for days I wondered how it got there. I went with underwear because it’s more likely to arouse apprehension in the average religious Nigerian: They’d think it was a hex to keep them under or something. Health concerns would be secondary. Danfos are a peculiar shade of yellow. They’re happy-looking. I find the irony amusing.

I love that Victor is a storyteller herself. I’m fascinated by her insistence that narrative is part of our everyday life, that it may in fact control it, and I’m fascinated by the way that her insistence breaks the fourth wall: it says pay attention to the fact that this is a story, to the places where the story works and where it doesn’t. What’s the purpose in doing this for you as a writer? What about for the reader?

In “Our Girl, Victor,” I take a good-natured jab at a lot of the short stories (including mine) that I’ve read this year. Victor is well read, and, unlike Kelechi, aware. I imagine that readers will relate with her dissatisfaction with contemporary writers’ tendency for descent-into-hatred narratives and endings that make them think, ‘wait, that’s it?’

This flash is a snapshot, a glimpse at a telling moment in a character’s larger life. It’s one of my favorite kinds of flash to read, those stories that give us a sense of life and scope and meaning beyond what’s on the page. Why did you choose flash as the vehicle for this piece? Do you imagine telling more of Victor’s stories?

I love flash. It’s precise, and what it lacks in length and the possibilities for exposition, it makes up for in style. In a longer story, Victor just might lose her wonder. I wanted xenophobia, unrequited attraction, and familial denial addressed without screaming them at the reader.

Will I tell more stories where Victor breaks the fourth wall? No. There are versions of her in my other stories: of opinionated women, practical women, women who struggle with empathy because they’re nursing problems of their own.

Just like your detail work, many of the techniques in this piece call up a host of writers: Victor’s movement through a mosaic of humanity like the protagonist in Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For The Thief, the story-within-a-story that you use that suggests Helen Oyeyemi’s “is your blood as red as this?” the quiet delivery of the life-changing as if mundane, like in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” What writers or works influence you? What traditions are you working in, or perhaps against?

Jamaica Kincaid’s writing is phenomenal. “Girl” revolutionized short story writing for me. Petina Gappah, Randa Jarrar, and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s works are amazing. Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Yours is Not Yours is just really clean writing. Sandra Kring and Khaled Hosseini tell stories with such beauty. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things has an almost-overpowering sweetness.

Experimental writing dazzles me. Nigerian stories about pain, lack and imperfect families reflect our reality to an extent, yes, but could be explored differently. I pick up a story and know that someone’s going to get heartbroken, or lose a loved one, or die. I just wanted something different.

I can’t stop thinking about Kelechi’s story about the bull and his twin brother—I can’t stop thinking about whether or not the story is real, about the grief of a family who ignores your pain, about whether or not Kelechi was really just talking about himself. Will you write about him again? If you do, what future do you think you’ll give him?

The bull is based on a primary school memory of my mother’s, of her and other students watching excitedly as her classmate flew through the school gate and slapped a mad bull on the head while reciting incantations. As she tells it, it became as calm as a lamb. It’s fascinating stuff.

Kelechi is loosely based on a friend with whom I once joked about the kind of therapy available to the Nigerian lower middle class. If I absolutely have to write about him again, he will be a Sxuttlers brand ambassador or something, and his twin will be blessedly, incandescently fulfilled, having dropped out of med school and taken up farming like our president wants us all to.

About the Author

Chantelle Chiwetalu lives in Lagos, Nigeria. Her works have appeared in Kalahari Review, Kreative Diadem, The Muse and Pride Magazine.

About the Interviewer

Megan Pillow (formerly Megan Pillow Davis) is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. Her work has appeared, among other places, in Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Paper Darts, Brevity, Passages North, and Gay Magazine and has been featured in Longreads. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her two children.

This interview appeared in Issue Seventy of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy
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