Ijeoma Umebinyuo: Author of Questions For Ada
In the beginning, there were women.
That’s how Ijeoma Umebinyuo opens Questions for Ada in a poem titled: “Genesis.” It’s followed by a reminder:
Remember all the women who wrote for you, all the women like you, with skin like yours, women who were once enslaved, women who were once colonized, women who hold languages that when you try to speak it, it tears your tongue wide open, remember all these women who were singer, poets, priestesses, artists, healers, whose lives were declared anonymous, whose paintings hang in foreign museums as “unknown” whose lives declared as unlived, remember them.
That’s one hell of an opener. The first time I read this book, I cried. Ijeoma’s words have a way of penetrating your heart and heading straight for your soul. I felt as if I was being forced to confront every heartache I had ever carried on paper. Every secret I was hiding — already divulged. Every hope I cherished — written into life. I felt like this book knew me; knew the very essence of the things that made me who I am. Ijeoma opens the book speaking about women — but she writes for humankind. Questions for Ada moved me in a way only the most powerful of storytellers know how to do. This is rightly reflected in the fact that its author was named one of the top contemporary poets of African descent by Writvism. Her work has been translated into numerous languages. This is her interview:
Q - How did you began writing? Was it something you always did or was there a moment when you realized - this is what I was meant to do?
A - I started writing when I was about ten years old although my Dad swears I started writing earlier. My writings are a continuum of my ancestral ways of oral storytelling and we cannot stop blood from becoming what it should be in our being. I am a descendant of storytellers, this form is always going to be a part of who I am.
Q - Who are you speaking to when you write?
A - I always find this question very interesting but I am writing to ask and answer my own questions. The truth is I am my first audience.
Q - I must confess, I cried through many parts of your book. I felt it so deeply, particularly this poem:
"So, here you are. Too foreign for home. Too foreign for here. Never enough for both."
As an immigrant, this sums up everything I have ever felt. Will you expound on this? I think our readers will be moved by how you came to write this piece.
A - I returned from a trip to Nigeria back in 2013 and was devastated when I realized I had really romanticized going back home. I felt I could surely fit right back in but I could not. I wasn’t the version of Ijeoma they wanted because I could never go back to who I was when I left Nigeria for the first time as a teenager. I have always been foreign abroad and to my dismay I was foreign to many Nigerians who insisted on calling me an Americanah as I was a bit of a foreigner to the current happenings in Nigeria. It was a written out of a deep pain and longing for home.
Q - You have another poem:
"Write a poem for your fourteen year old self. Forgive her. Heal her. Free her."
A - That poem is about carrying trauma, pain and shame from experiences many young girls cannot control. Shame is what many women have been taught to carry for the sins of others.
Q - You write expansively about female sexuality and womanhood. Historically, society has feared the idea of woman having ownership over her own body, her own pleasure, and her own self. And I thank you for being amongst those helping to change that narrative. Your words empower us, but how can we continue to empower ourselves in a sea of biased media and heavyweight social pressures?
A - I believe historically Western societies have feared the idea of women having ownership over their bodies and as a person born into a colonized society. We have had to carry this idea as well. In many of our cultures, we have flipped the script and forgotten how it was.
Back to the question, I believe in defining the terms and conditions of your womanhood and empowering ourselves this way. Whatever that means to you. There is no single script to follow, it will be impossible to say “do this and it will work” through understanding who you are not, then we may have the power to create who you are. Everything is a work in progress.
Q - Who are the 5 people you'd invite to your dinner party (dead or alive)?
My Cousin Chinelo
My Uncle Emeka.
May they all keep resting in love.