By Chisom Okwara
When applying for the African Writers Trust (AWT) Writing and Reading residency, I submitted a creative nonfiction piece that I had started writing in January (this year) and had left fallow for a couple of months. I ended up working on the same piece – a travel story from a short time spent in Niamey, Niger republic – during the peer review sessions. I received insightful feedback from my fellow attendees and the AWT director, Goretti Kyomuhendo. It didn’t end at that. My piece and the reception of it sparked what became a broader dialogue about the non-fiction genre – the need for more of it on the continent, niche writing (e.g. travel writing), and, more specific to writing on the continent, the sheer importance of stories from across the continent told by Africans. I left the residency full of inspiration and fervour, and spent the first week after I returned from Uganda re-writing my story, covering more ground, and working on inviting readers to experience what I was writing about instead of merely getting to know what I was writing.
During the residency (and in preparation for it), emphasis was made on writing and reading being like bedmates. We unpacked three books and engaged a number of articles in the course of the week. Thus, that week following the residency, I went on to buy three non-fiction books – Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, Travelling while Black by Nanjala Nyabola, and the anthology Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey – to read while rewriting my workshopped piece.
Me singing during the BBQ Posing with my certificate between Goretti, AWT director(L) and Susan Kiguli (R)
I enjoyed all the sessions we had during the residency and left full of gratitude for our facilitators whose warmth, wisdom, and good humour made the sessions flow with ease and cheer. From Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi whose recent book The First Woman we discussed, I learned to be intentional about character development, to have full clarity on what my story is doing or portraying at the time of writing, and to factor these questions into my writing: “who am I writing to?” “who am I writing for” “where am I writing in?”. Through Mildred Barya who facilitated our deep dive into plot and point-of-view through the lens of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, I learned about weaving stories by incorporating (and in some cases, reimagining) literary elements such as sub-plots and character arcs, and literary archetypes. Okey Ndibe whose book, Arrows of Rain, we read and unpacked, opened my eyes to the use of symbolism in setting, shedding light on the ways decisions around place and time set the mood and tone for a story.
Combining the lessons on characterisation, plot, narrative structure, setting, and POV, I was reawakened to the mix of decision making, creativity, intentionality and persistence that comes with the craft of writing. It was encouraging to be reminded that writing is iterative and that some good stories take extra time in their crafting. These lessons on the craft were solidified by conversations with Chris Merrill, director of the International Writing Program, Iowa on writing programs and opportunities for workshops and residencies. The sessions on editing with Otieno Owino, who’d been part of the editorial teams for Kwani? and Safe House amongst others; and a roundtable discussion on the many rungs in the ladder to publishing led by Precious Colette Kemigisha.
Dr.Jane sharing her thoughts. Otieno sharing tips on revising your work.
Thanks to the Writing and Reading Residency, I have become a part of a community of bright and generous literary minds who are writing, editing, publishing and lifting one other through the process. I feel less alone in the gradual pursuit of my literary aspirations, and it feels really good to know that I have people to call on (and notes to refer back to) when I need clarity, direction, or feedback.
Photo Credit: Fred Mubiru.
CHISOM OKWARA is a Nigerian writer and interviewer based in Kigali, Rwanda. She writes essays and travelogues, with publications in Thrive Global and Popula, and hopes to get back to writing fiction soon. She participated in British Council’s Future News Worldwide Conference for young student journalists in 2019. Currently, she is a full-time Project Coordinator at SoCha LLC and an Interviewer at Africa in Dialogue.