The Short Story is Alive and Well in Africa: A Conversation Between E.C. Osondu and Kasimma

E.C. Osondu
E.C. Osondu

E.C. Osondu is the author of Alien Stories (BOA, 2021), which won the BOA Short Fiction Prize; Voice of America (HarperCollins, 2011); and the novel This House Is Not For Sale (HarperCollins, 2015). He is a winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Allen and Nirelle Galso Prize for Fiction, among other awards. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, AGNI, n+1, Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s, and many other places, and his work has been translated into over half a dozen languages. He earned his M.F.A. from Syracuse University. He lives in Rhode Island and teaches at Providence College.

Kasimma
Kasimma

Kasimma is from Igboland. She is an alumni of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Creative Writing Workshop. She’s been a writer-in-residence across residencies in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Her works have appeared on Guernica, Meetcute Podcast, The Puritan, Cinnabar Moth anthology, Native Skin, and elsewhere.

In this conversation, E.C. Osondu and Kasimma discuss their respective new story collections, both published this year, and craft, culture, and literature writ large in an African, and often Nigerian, context. Osondu's latest celebrated book, Alien Stories, has been described as "revelatory" by Publishers Weekly and "leverages the imaginative fun of science fiction to thoughtfully reflect on the experiences of those born outside of, but living, in America," says Full Stop.

Kasimma's All Shades of Iberibe was published by Sandorf Passage on November 2, and its cover art, designed by artist Karo Akpokiere, has been named "one of the 20 Best African Book Covers of 2021 (So Far)" by Brittle Paper.

"Waiting," Osondu's short story about life in a refugee camp, was published in Guernica in 2009 and won the prestigious 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing, which brought him to the attention of the publishing industry and a broader, global readership. By coincidence, Kasimma's story, "Mbuze," an excerpt of her collection, which examines climate change from a non-Western perspective, appears in Guernica this week.

Kasimma: Let's talk about the cover of Alien Stories, which BOA Editions published in May. It reminds me of the slave hold in Gorée Island, Senegal. The view of the ocean, and the stones in it, from a house with that same shape of window and dull color of war is a replica of the slave holds. Slaves were shipped out from those “pens” (for lack of a worse word) and through the sea they saw regularly from their window. Was that what you had in mind when you imagined the cover?

Alien Stories by Osondu
Cover of Osondu's Alien Stories

E.C. Osondu: All credit for the cover should go to the hugely talented Sandy Knight, who did the design, and, of course, to Roslyn Rose who took the original photo. Interestingly, what you see in the picture was once a beach house, now looking forlorn and abject and all manners of sad. I see the connection to the slave holds of Gorée, also colloquially known as barracoons. These were spaces of abandonment—abandonment of hopes and dreams for the harrowing journey known as the middle passage. So there.

Kasimma: How did you arrive at the story, “Memory Store”? What informed your choice of depicting memory as a commodity to be sold?

Osondu: Memory is such an interesting thing. It is the only thing we bring along with us when we are stripped of all we have. Interestingly, memory is also a malleable thing. Oftentimes we hang on to the version of memory that suits us best. For us immigrants, we carry our memories the way a tortoise carries its carapace, the snail its shell, and a camel its hump. So selling this is a form of betrayal, but what is the immigrant narrative if not a form of betrayal—revealing ourselves and explaining ourselves to others and to strangers and oftentimes the selling of memories?

Kasimma: The childhood games you mentioned in “Feast” reminded me so much of my childhood. Thank you for that. I was wondering, the execution of the aliens, has it got anything to do with the way criminals were executed at the beach in the early ‘90s? I was too young to realize. But I'm wondering, was it really a feast? I know, from the videos, that people gathered to watch. But was it really a celebration?

Osondu: The celebration came after the lynching. One of the phrases that has become a kind of cliché—even though no less profound—is the phrase "the banality of evil." Even when it seems the worst has occurred, mankind shrugs and moves on carrying on as if nothing happened. Look at all that is happening today: the pandemic, the bottomless racism in America and the western world—bottomless fries and bottomless racism, ha ha—towards Black people, the refugee crisis, space colonization, climate change. But mankind continues to fiddle while our world is on fire.

“Feast” is a response to a story that has haunted my imagination for years: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. Are any of the stories in your collection a response to any other writer’s story?

All Shades of Iberibe by Kasimma
Cover of Kasimma's All Shades of Iberibe

Kasimma: I would say "My ‘Late’ Grandfather” was inspired by, not responding to, a scene in Okey Ndibe’s memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye. It was Okey’s grandfather, Ndibe, who was presumed dead but later showed up—I cannot remember if he came back during his burial or after. Before reading that book, I had, many years prior, seen that same ritual in a movie whose name I cannot remember. I am fascinated by this Igbo belief that once a grave is opened, it must eat. If it does not eat the corpse, does not eat a banana or palm tree stem, then it will eat the life of any member of that family. These stories were what inspired “My ‘Late’ Grandfather.”

In “On the Lost Tribes of the Black World,” did the Konga tribe exist? I found it fascinating. Can you tell a bit more as to how they just sealed their lips and communicated with drums? Like how? And what other lost tribes did you discover?

Osondu: This story is actually supposed to be like a mock, tongue-in-cheek satirical piece on how African culture is usually put under an electron microscope and examined minutely like a fruit fly. To be honest, each story selects how it should be told. I just lead them to the closet and let them select what apparel they want to be clothed in.

I love the name you give your characters. I like the name Kandudi (“let there be life”). How did you come up with the names of your characters? Your collection is unabashedly Igbo and African—is this deliberate?

Kasimma: For the first question, I’d say, I always listen to my characters and they tell me their names. But that might make me appear like a psychic. So let me water the truth down and say, “I imagined the names.” Names are stories on their own. My own name, Kasimma, is a story, and the naming is another story. Names mean a lot in Igboland. We don’t give names just so that the child will have a name. The name and the choice of name have a story. Kandudi told me her name. Two of the protagonists in this book refused to tell me their names. So I gave them mine.

First, thank you for the compliment. Yes, I very deliberately painted this story in undiluted Igboness. I, funnily enough, did not think of Africa when I was painting. I was, instead, trying hard to capture the dialect of my hometown, Achina, and explore Igbo nzube (central Igbo dialect) and a few other Igbo dialects. So Africa did not cross my mind at all. Books are windows through which generations unborn will see how we live now. I want to save my language, my culture, my religion, for my children and their children and their children to rediscover and explore when their time comes. I want to also rediscover Igbo when I come back. But that you saw it means I achieved what I set out to achieve; that makes me happy. Thank you.

I feel “Debriefing” was a letter to a friend who plans on or just arrived in America. It was humorous: avoid village association, country association, continent association, avoid pant on the butt, etc. Was that your experience? Coming to America with plenty of clothes only to find that you're overdressed? “Debriefing” was raw and expository. Was that the intention? Why, really?

Osondu: Not much of it was personal, but what impacts one immigrant impacts all immigrants. What can I say—weather shock is real—especially in upstate New York and Syracuse specifically.

Do you believe the short story is alive and well in Africa?

Kasimma: Yes. Many Nigerians have told me that they prefer short stories to novels because the former is faster and easier to read. Many Nigerians don’t even like novels. Novel-love is a Western thing. Nigerians are always ahead-ahead. That’s why they buy smaller books. That’s why they like short stories. Reading is hardly a hobby for them. So if they must read, it had better been short and worth it.

May I ask you to elaborate on what your fascination with aliens is? Why did you decide to write about aliens (as per foreigners) and aliens (as per aliens)? I guess the intention wasn't just about racism. What then fascinates you about aliens? Do you think they exist, that they visit earth? Do you think they will take over the planet? Why?

Osondu: I am interested in both because in America there is often not much of a difference. A Nigerian immigrant is a Non Resident Alien while a Martian could as well have the same status. In fact, E.T. the Extraterrestrial may find even more welcoming arms here. To be called an Alien is to be alienated and othered. What’s not to like in being an outsider looking in?

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