An Interview with Caine Prize Nominee Hannah Onoguwe

On the Nembe people, Nigerian folklore and Literature

Quote, Where the Palm Nut Grows

Image of Hannah Onoguwe
Hannah Onoguwe

Hannah Onoguwe's short story "Where the Palm Nut Grows" is a stunning, layered tale about colonial tensions in 19th Century Nigeria. We were beyond excited to publish Hannah's work in the inaugural issue of Timeworn, and are overjoyed to announce we've nominated this story for the Caine Prize.

To celebrate the nomination, we sat down to ask Hannah a few questions about this story, life, and what inspires her.

Q: Kuro is such a strong, dominating presence in this story. What inspired her?

A: The Nembe people are known for being matrilineal, which is rare in African society. In matrilineal societies, they say: Children belong to the mother. With most other parts of the country being patrilineal it’s just really quite refreshing. Fine, matrilineal isn’t quite matriarchal, men being men, you know. But you have these women who have agency to begin with. They are used to being heard, they’re calling the shots, doing their thing independent of men. When I researched King Koko and the Akassa raid, I found the whole thing playing in my head like a movie. It’s an amazing historical event. At the same time I was horrified at some of the things the British got up to, besides actual colonization of course, especially the way the Royal Niger Company humiliated the women. I thought it was imperative that I highlighted that. We hear about colonization but a lot of the everyday details of what the indigenes had to deal with often disappear through the cracks. I thought about a woman who would have a large thriving business and how she might react to foreigners trying to monopolize business in the way they did. How she would handle all that and still hold her head high and survive. I also thought about what her love life might be like, even though the story only touched on it briefly.

Q: Why did you choose the perspective of John Kirk for this story? 

A: Funny enough, I had submitted this same story somewhere last year and they wrote back to say they enjoyed the story, the writing was strong, et cetera, et cetera, but they had a problem with this very perspective. But I couldn’t, can’t really, imagine any other. I felt writing from the point of view of anyone indigenous to the area would have been business as usual and make the story lose a few things in the telling. In doing the research I came across this person John Kirk, and I thought, Perfect. A man and a foreigner? I felt it would provide fresh takes on the people, the food, their traditions. As someone who was new to the area with a belief system almost the total opposite from those of the local people, John’s views would be that much more noteworthy, and his observations provide further insight another might not have.

Q: What inspired the Owuamapu? Does it have a root in existing Nigerian legends?

A: Yes, the Owuamapu is rooted in existing legends of the Nembe people. They are basically known as ‘water spirits’. A lot of this generation don’t talk about such beliefs, especially with the advent of Christianity, but they’re a huge part of folklore. Although I kind of restricted them to the ancestors in the story, from what I’ve read they’re more complex than that. They are more than mermaids and a combination of ancestors and deities. In fact, many of the dances and masquerades popular in the region are claimed to have been passed down to the people directly from the Owuamapu. They are believed to control certain geographical areas with people paying homage to them and offering sacrifices and the like. And yes, they have been known to inhabit people as a way of communicating their messages. In other cases, they are believed to take on the human form from time to time to enjoy the sun.

Q: Who or what are some of your biggest literary influences?

A: Just about everyone I’ve read, really. Growing up, it was mostly fantasy or romance. I have a collection of short romantic stories, if you’re into romance as well. I also enjoy literary fiction. Over the past few years, African writers have really been the obsession, the poetry in prose of Taiye Selasi, Ben Okri. Then you have Lesley Nneka Arimah, Tade Thompson, Nnedi Okorafor, Dilman Dila, Akwaeke Emezi. The countless short stories I consume on the internet, both by Africans and non-Africans, I’ll never be able to remember the authors’ names. A chunk of them from Omenana, there are gorgeous stories in Omenana. I’ve got one of mine there too. Other writers that give me delicious writerly vibes are Chikodili Emelumadu, Hawa Jande Golakai, Adam Ibrahim Abubakar, Elnathan John. So not just speculative fiction. The work has evolved in astounding ways, evidence of what’s possible, and of course those lines blur as imaginations expand. It’s liberating, shows us writing can’t be boxed.

Q: Tell us about where you're from and how it has influenced your writing.

A: I’m from Nigeria and I’ve lived here all my life. As kids we grow up hearing ghost or spooky stories. Here, the stories are mostly to teach morals, but they’re also about ojuju, bush babies, Madam Koskos. The difference is that in my part of the world, the frequency with which you hear these stories increases the older you get. And each one is often more convoluted, more baffling than the last. In an essay I wrote, I mentioned being “modern enough to think I don’t believe in such things, but African enough not to want to take any chances”. So even in regular conversation you’re careful with what you say. You hear about people visiting native doctors for solutions alongside going to church or the mosque. I’ve seen people who live abroad discard beliefs in supernatural influences, but then they move back here and almost immediately take them up again because they’re on African soil. Because there are logical explanations for many things, no doubt, clear cause-and-effect, but you also hear stuff that gives you goose bumps because it doesn’t follow that acceptable linear relationship of things that make sense. You have doctors telling patients to ‘go spiritual’ when they find no physiological cause for ailments and the like. Take this story of an in-law of mine. He falls ill, nothing works, he visits someone who tells him his colleague is behind it, do xyz and you’ll see what happens when you get to work on Monday. He does, and on Monday without any prior contact or discussion, nothing, the minute the man sees him he starts shouting, “You want to kill me! You want to kill me!” The guy has become a nervous wreck and has to be bundled off the property. I can give half a dozen examples. So if I’m serious I doubt I can run out of ideas or inspiration. Then there’s the mythology in our ethnic histories, unfortunately not as well-documented as the Western, but we’ve begun to do better. Being from here probably also means it’s easier for me to suspend disbelief when I hear these stories, which is great for my writing.

Q: What are you working on right now? 

A: A full-length manuscript. It’s set in some part of Biafra, because apparently Nigeria did break up when we should have. It’s about a gifted woman who is drafted by the chief, along with his son, to use their gifts to find a woman who has been kidnapped. She gladly agrees to escape a home situation in which her father is trying to marry her off, and learns a whole lot about herself and her abilities in the course of the journey. I’m still working on the first draft with 80,000 words and counting. We’ll see how many of them remain, but I’m glad I’m actually putting the words down. Best writing advice I heard: Apply butt to chair. Everything else is secondary. So, we keep going.

Timeworn has nominated "Where the Palm Nut Grows" for the Caine Prize for African Writing.