Interview: Louisa Uchum Egbunike
Louisa’s research centres on African literature in which she specialises in Igbo (Nigerian) fiction and culture. Her latest work explores the child’s voice in contemporary fiction on Biafra. She co-convenes an annual Igbo conference at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) and delivers a workshop, ‘Rewriting Africa’ in secondary schools across London. She is curating a ‘Remembering Biafra’ exhibition to open in 2018.
AH: When you pitched to become one of the New Generation Thinkers you focused on Nigerian fiction and culture. Can you explain more about the arts and literary scene of Africa’s most populated country and why you decided to research more about it?
LE: Nigeria is a country with rich and diverse cultures and histories from which many of the country’s writers, musicians and artists take their inspiration. Nigeria is known for its important contribution to the arts, having produced writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, artists such as Ben Enwonwu, Sokari Douglas Camp and Yinka Shonibare, and musicians such as Fela Kuti, Rex Lawson and Sunny Ade. Nigerian writers and artists have been important voices in discussing the contemporary issues that face the nation. Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 after a protracted period of intense military rule there has been a resurgence in writing and publishing. From the mid-1980s until the late 1990s Nigeria saw many of its writers and intellectuals go into exile due to the clamp down on those who were critical of the government. Budding writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie left Nigeria to study in America during this period as universities were often engaged in strike action, making earning a degree a long and drawn out process. As such many of the contemporary texts have a diasporic dimension to them, however we are beginning to see narratives of return and more texts set primarily in Nigeria. My interest in Nigerian literature stems from both a love of literature and an interest in deepening my knowledge of the changing conditions in the country and the impact on the lived realities of Nigerians.
AH: Was there a Eureka moment when you knew that you wanted to become an academic?
LE: There was no definitive eureka moment that I can remember. I have always followed my interests, and pursued a field of study that I am passionate about. When I applied to do an MA in African Studies at SOAS, I remember writing in my application that I intended to continue my studies at doctoral level. One of the first academic conferences I attended, at the beginning of my Masters marked the 50th anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I relished the opportunity to spend two days discussing a text that had been instrumental in my decision to pursue research in African literature, and I remember listening to a range of academic papers and feeling inspired to contribute to this field of study.
AH: Can you tell me about a key area of research that you’re working on at the moment that really excites you?
LE: I am working on a documentary film project, which marks the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Nigeria-Biafra war and explores the legacy of the first civil war in post-independence Africa. I am working with the filmmaker Nathan Edward Richards, and the film centres on a series of interviews I conduct with artists from the Nigerian Art Society UK. In 2018 we will stage a large exhibition at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS which explores the impact of the war locally and globally and the film explores the war story through the narratives of these artists. We are speaking with the artists who are producing original artwork for this exhibition at different stages in the process. The documentary presents a new approach to engaging with this important aspect of modern history, offering up a wide range of topics, perspectives and mediums through which to engage this subject. I am particularly excited about the potential for this film (which forms part of a broader research project) because of its capacity to reach a wider audience.
AH: Do you have a favourite book that has inspired your passion for African literature?
LE: I first read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart at the age of 11. I was a member of a book club organised by the English department in my secondary school, and I was its youngest member. The other texts we had read prior to Things Fall Apart didn't resonate with me, but when asked to read Achebe's most famous novel, I was fascinated by the world he presented which was both familiar and alien. The novel, set in the same region that my father's family are from, opened up a world that was previously unknown to me. It presented aspects of my culture that are still practiced, but it also introduced me to the history of colonialism, which at the time I knew very little about. It sparked my interest in learning more about the Igbo/African past, and from there I began to read other texts by Chinua Achebe and a host of other African writers.
AH: Is there a historical figure that you particularly identify with?
LE: A figure that I am interested in and inspired by is my great grandmother, who was the Omu (Queen) of Asaba, in the South East of Nigeria in the early 20th Century. According to members of my family, she lived until she was over 100 and was queen after she was widowed, which is the tradition. She held an important role in her community as she was in charge of the market, which was the mainstay of the local economy (the market was also run by women). Her tenacity and good humour were described to me by my father, but in spite of her important position in my family and in her community, I know relatively little about her. She is someone that I would like to learn more about, and so I intend on doing research that draws on both archival material and family knowledge to get a greater sense of who she was.
AH: What advice would you give to someone thinking of following an academic career path?
LE: I would say pursue a subject area that you are passionate about, but also consider where your research fits into your field. Think about the current conversations that are taking place in your field, and consider what your contribution will be. Determination and perseverance are a must, both in terms of completing your thesis and in pursuit of a job.
AH: What role do you see for academics in helping us to understand the lessons of history and meet the challenges of the future?
LE: I do believe that academics play an important role in interrogating and interpreting the past, and projecting the future. My approach to research is that it should be of relevance and significance to my community and to the wider public, as I believe that my research into the Igbo experience should be accessible to the people whom I am discussing. I feel that our capacity as academics to have an impact is tied to our capacity to engage and exchange ideas with an audience that includes but also extends beyond academia. My work contributes to the untangling of complex histories, which in turn contributes to understanding the challenges of the future.
AH: If you could travel back in time to a particular period of history, where would you go?
LE: Having listened to the writer Nawal El Saadawi speak about the emergence of patriarchy in Egypt, referencing the quite distinct gender relations in Ancient Egypt, I would be interested in travelling back to Ancient Egypt to see how the society was organised and what position women held within that society. According to El Saadawi, Ancient Egypt was a matrilineal society and women wielded significant power and influence, which is apparent in the prominence of Isis, the goddess of knowledge.
AH: Do you have any top tips for early career researchers that want to get into radio and TV?
LE: I think as academics we don’t always think about broader audiences, or how our research could be of interest or relevance to the general public. I would advise early career researchers interested in getting into radio and TV to develop a jargon-free pitch that is accessible to someone with limited or no prior knowledge of their field. One of the things that I have had to work on is feeling the need to present a detailed history relating to the topics I want to discuss. I have had to retrain myself to concentrate more on the key points I want to make, and think of the relevance of my topic to a contemporary British audience.
AH: How have your found finding your voice when talking and being interviewed on Radio 3?
LE: I have a newfound respect for regulars on live radio and TV! Initially, after the two Radio 3 interviews I have participated in, there was the feeling that ‘I should have said this, I left that out’, but I have come to accept that I cannot say everything that I want to say on the subject in the time allocated. It has been a good experience learning how to present my research in a new format. I’ve had a lot of experience engaging the public through delivering talks in schools and speaking at events for the general public, but I am definitely developing a new skill set in thinking about how to present my research in the context of a radio interview.
If you have been inspired by the stories of our 2016 New Generation Thinkers and are an Early Career Researcher yourself, why not apply for the 2017 New Generation Thinkers scheme.