Stories Are All about Taking up Space: A Conversation with Ekemini Pius

July 20, 2023
A photograph of Ekemini Pius
Photo by Offlong Ekpenyong

The first week of July, the Caine Prize for African Writing released its shortlist for this year’s edition of the prize. Among the nominated short stories is Ekemini Pius’s “Daughters, By Our Hands,” a speculative fiction that imagines a world in which women live and reproduce without contact with men. Pius is a Nigerian writer and editor who lives in Calabar, Nigeria. His works have been published in the Kendeka Prize for African Literature anthology, the K & L Prize anthology, Afro Literary Magazine, and Isele Magazine. His story “Time and Bodies” was shortlisted for the 2021 Kendeka Prize for African Literature. He was also shortlisted for the 2022 Awele Creative Trust Short Story Prize. He is an alumnus of the 2019 Wawa Literary Fellowship and was a finalist for the 2022 Guest Artist Space Fellowship. In this conversation, Darlington Chibueze Anuonye chats with Pius on the inspiration and aspiration of his story.

Darlington Chibueze Anuonye: Hi, Ekemini. Congratulations on your Caine Prize shortlist. Where were you when you heard about the news? And how did it make you feel?

Ekemini Pius: Thank you, Darlington. I was about going to bed when I received the email. It was a special, tingling feeling. I still haven’t got over it.

Darlington: Oh, great. Enjoy the feeling.

Ekemini: Thank you.

Darlington: When I read “Daughters, By Our Hands,” in May last year, I was stunned by the fantastical orientation of the story. I mean, you wrote about women who could give birth by inserting their fingernails in their reproductive organ. What inspired the story?

Ekemini: One evening, I was strolling in my street when a thought came to me: What would childbearing in a women-only world look like? Several possibilities bubbled in my mind that moment, but it took one month for the idea of childbearing through nails to convince me that it was the right fit for this women-only world. Creating the story was fun and challenging—fun because nothing excites me like when I get to write beautiful prose, challenging because I couldn’t make the plot believable in the first two drafts. The third draft was much better.

Darlington: Yes, you excelled in creating a believable speculative fiction. I was surprised by how real the characters’ experiences felt. This might seem contradictory to my earlier remark that the story is buoyantly fantastical, but the greatness of the story lies, among other things, in its ability to be both fantastical and real in depicting the human condition. I would like to think that this model of reality is an imaginatively feminist response to the female experience of patriarchy in Africa. Else why was it necessary to create a world where women did not need men, in any guise, to bear children?

Ekemini: The story has a strong feminist theme, but that was not what inspired me to create it. Most speculative stories just come to me like that, without being intended as a response to social issues. It was when I wrote the character of Mama Cynthia that I realized the story could also be a response to patriarchy. Before then, I was simply writing a story that came to me. I’m glad it could show women how to thrive in the world on their terms.

Darlington: It’s so wonderful that literature offers life some support and hope. But, you know, there are no male characters in the story. Also, all the women who bore children had girls. Indeed, they desired only girls. Did you forget men and boys?

Ekemini: No, Darlington. I can never forget men and boys.

Darlington: What happened, then?

Ekemini: It’s part of the believability test that the story had to pass. I felt men and boys were not important in the world of the story because their inclusion would have created unanswered questions. Speculative fiction does not have as much believability credit as literary fiction, so a writer who wants to create a really good speculative fiction ought to be as unambiguous as possible. Once your readers find your speculative world-building vague, you are in trouble. The story demanded that I give women absolute control over all the spheres of life, starting from childbearing. And that was what I attempted to do.

The story demanded that I give women absolute control over all the spheres of life, starting from childbearing.

Darlington: Although “Daughters” is populated by women, these women are not the same. Eme is an opportunist who cares so much about the continuation of her linage and about material wealth. Aniema, her daughter, is so unlike her. Not only does she not want to have children, she also freely gives away three of her fingernails to another woman who was nearing menopause. Even Mama Cynthia, who owns the tailoring shop where Aniema apprenticed, suddenly became kind to Aniema when she realized that the girl had finally grown fingernails, just to negotiate her way through obtaining a fingernail from her. This is an impressive characterization that depicts these women as human beings struggling with human nature. But I am curious to know: why did Aniema not want to have children? Since she is fantastically reproductive, I am wondering if her decision is a feminist affirmation of the female dealignment with maternal expectation?

Ekemini: Aniema’s decision not to have children derives from her desire to live on her terms and not conform to what society demands of her. Not only is she happy to deny her mother a grandchild, she is also not interested in selling off her nails—which is the usual practice of breeders in her world—preferring to give them out for free. Unlike her mother and women like Mama Cynthia, she is unconcerned about the cultural expectations of women in her world and seeks autonomy to pursue her dream of self-actualization.

Darlington: I suppose Ukamaka Olisakwe edited the story for Isele. Olisakwe is a brilliant and fierce feminist writer herself. Her works inspire me to think more deeply about the things I could have easily overlooked in responding to the problem of gender in Africa. What kind of creative exchange did you have with her during the editorial process? What impacts did the edits make on the story?

Ekemini: Ukamaka is kind and thoughtful. And I think the role of a kind and thoughtful editor in making a story better is significant. When she sent in her first edits, I could tell that she was impressed with the characterization and the plot, but not so much with parts of the dialogue. So, we worked on it together. Evidently, the impact of her edits on this story is profound. When I read the final version, I was amazed at how a story can dazzle and fly because a brilliant editor believed in it. Given Ukamaka’s feminist inclination and her experience of motherhood, she’s the perfect editor for this story. She’s wonderful and brilliant.

Darlington: Which writers or oral storytellers influenced the imaginative sensibilities of the story?

Ekemini: Lesley Nneka Arimah. I read her collection, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, for the first time some years ago, and I was intrigued by her approach to speculative fiction. I realized that I was not interested in writing speculative fiction about people on another planet or creatures that are not human. I prefer to write about speculative possibilities that can happen in Lagos or Calabar, using the everyday conversations of the common people, tapping into their culture and nostalgia. This is what reading Arimah’s stories unlocked within me. She may never get to read this interview—I’m hoping she does—but I am grateful for her stories. Grateful that she came. That she took up space. That is what stories are all about.

Darlington: Stories are about taking up spaces! That’s a beautiful way to describe the role of literature and the responsibility of the writer in our collective memory and history. Are you satisfied with the space speculative fiction has taken up in Africa today?

Ekemini: I think speculative fiction is doing well in Africa right now compared to ten years ago. I already mentioned Arimah and how important her brand of speculative fiction is. Nnedi Okorafor is also an important writer of the genre. Her works have inspired many writers to commit their craft to writing African speculative fiction from refreshing perspectives. This year’s Caine Prize shortlist is a proof that speculative fiction is thriving in Africa, and there’s a lot more to come from the genre.

This year’s Caine Prize shortlist is a proof that speculative fiction is thriving in Africa, and there’s a lot more to come from the genre.

Darlington: What are you writing currently?

Ekemini: I am working on my debut novel and a short-story collection simultaneously. It is an exciting and challenging journey, and I cannot wait to share these projects with the world. I just finished another speculative story—which is not part of the collection—that should be acquired in about two months. Looking forward to sharing that soon.

Darlington: Best wishes, Ekemini. I look forward to the release of your new works.

Ekemini: Thank you, Darlington.

Darlington Chibueze Anuonye is editor of The Good Teacher: An Anthology of Essays in Honour of Teachers as well as curator of Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories and Through the Eye of a Needle: Art in the Time of Coronavirus. He is also co-editor of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction. Anuonye was awarded the 2021 Amplify Fellowship of the MasterCard Foundation and longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award.