Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, an author and law professor at Babcock University in Ogun State, on Saturday, October 31 was declared winner of the 2021 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature for her novel The Son of the House.
In an interview with Farouk Mohammed, the 43-year-old academic revealed how she wrote The Son of the House, a book that earned her $100,000 after so many rejections.
She also talked about her parents, insecurity challenges affecting schools in parts of Nigeria and more.
Congratulations on winning the Nigeria Prize for Literature, how did you come up with the idea to write The Son of the House?
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Thank You. I woke up one day and decided that I was going to write a book. But, I have had different experiences in life growing up that I wanted to capture.
It was sort of sealed for me when my mother told me a story about a young boy that sort of grow up with those short periods. It brought back so many memories that I had growing up and other things I wanted to explore in different works that I had done which were not published.
I started writing and those stories and reflections came through in this book.
What year did you start writing the Son of the House?
I started writing the book in early 2012 and finished it sometime in 2014. I gave it a period of time, came back to it worked on it over another period of six months. I will say eighteen months to two years is the time frame that it took working on the book.
Despite several rejections the book received, how did you manage to keep going?
I would love to say I’m just a fighter (Laughs). But, I’ve written other things. I have written a book that was almost a full mono script that I gave up on. I thought there was something about this book. Even after the rejections, sometimes I will come back to it and say there is something here. I am a reader myself and I’m not unintelligent. I feel something when I read this book. The characters speak to me, they move me and there must be somebody out there who would think so.
You always make reference to your parents anytime you speak publicly, what impact have they done on your life?
I think they gave us a home. They are not perfect infallible people but they gave us a home and loved us. They are brilliant people themselves. They gave us confidence. They continue to give me that even as an adult. I am in my forties and my parents are still champions of me and the things that I do.
I remember you saying at the award night you talked about how your daughter dreamt that you won the prize, how was her reaction after winning?
She was like “Wow” (Laughs). She was very excited. She said, “I told you that I dreamt you won. It felt so real”. My first son is also a writer, he was very so thrilled and excited as well. I’m so grateful to be an example to show what is possible.
I’m very sure you pass through challenges while writing the book, what are they?
I passed through so many rejections. I passed through having to work and take care of my home while still writing this book. But I think over and beyond the challenges were mostly from the process of getting it published because it began to look like that won’t happen. However, it eventually did.
How were you able to balance your life activities with raising the kids?
In terms of balance, I have none in my life. Very little balance I must say. I’m trying now to work at it to create time for what we now call self-care which includes exercise and sleep. Other than that, I just keep going. I do what ever I need to do. Sometimes I am not able to do as much as I think I could be doing because there are other things that take your time. If you look at your children you know that time passes one day they are gone. Sometimes you also work so much and won’t be that perfect mother that you would like to be. You will have to just keep going and say tomorrow I will do my best and try a different method and approach. I wish I could say there is this perfect life that I have were I have everything done right. I write for two hours and I care for my children. It is not like that at all.
What are your suggestions to the Nigerian government on how to handle insecurity from a writing perspective?
That is a really good question, I think we need to improve literacy and history. These are things we have failed to do almost abysmally. We have compounded it in the north with failing to protect schools. I think it takes a lot of will. I am not a security or military strategist but I think we need to begin to figure out how to create safe schools for sure especially in certain parts of the country. In other parts of the country, for example in the southeast where I come from I have been particularly pained by some of the things that have happened that I wouldn’t have imagined happening. We can speculate about the reason or motivations about who and who is beyond what. But I’m often fearful about periods when people are not able to learn. School is not the only place one can learn but for many people and for the way we have arraigned our lives that is one place we can learn. Sometimes is not just learning from teachers but even from classmates from reading books we will not have had access to but learning informal ways. So sometimes when I think about that been cut down especially in places it pains me.