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Bibiana Ossai on Writing in America Versus Nigeria, Writers block and Academia

By Tomas Maldonado

Hailing from West Africa in Nigeria, Bibiana Osai is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to creative writing. She has published extensively in poetry, creative nonfiction, and short story with publications in African Writer Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Dillydoun Review, Poetry Project, 805lit, and the University of New Orleans’s Beyond the Margins Literary Journal.

Photo: Bibiana Ossai posing against a fence, a body of water in the background
Photo: Bibiana Ossai

Bibiana completed an MFA from Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York, and is working on a novel for her PhD at Texas Tech University. She has achieved multiple awards such as the Marilyn Boutwell Graduate Award in Fiction and the 2019 Equinox Journal Poetry Contest. To add to her creative writing portfolio, her academic writing and essays explore intimate topics such as Nigerian Identity, African fiction, and postcolonialism.

We sat down via Zoom on Saturday, September 16th, to discuss her current studies in America, experiences with writing abroad, creative writing prompts, writer’s block, and a slew of other related issues centered on writing.

Tell us a little about your studies at the moment?

I'm currently in the PhD program at Texas Tech University (in Lubbock, Texas) specializing in Creative Writing, Fiction.

What is your experience with writing in Nigeria versus writing in America?

Until this moment, I don't think I've actually ever thought about this. But thinking about it, I would say one thing I realized is when I was in Nigeria, I was always interested in writing about America and the European world. Just having characters that sort of embody this particular culture. But now that I'm in America, it's sort of like the other way around, like, I'm really interested in my home country. I'm really interested in, like, the tradition and the history of this place, the people, the culture. And so, just seeing that sort of dynamic and that switch happen I think is, really interesting in something that I may think more about. It's not that I don't write about America or its culture, but it's that my work mostly focuses on that tradition or aspect of my country, Nigeria.

Can I follow up and ask you, do you feel that now that you're in America looking at back home in an American setting, do you feel in any way maybe 'othered' or different here in America?

Yes. Oh, my goodness. Yes, there are so many things and I would say this, the difference between America and Nigeria is that here in America race is sort of like let's say dominant, and like the culture, the politics, the social aspect of this place, like it's constantly race. Back in Nigeria, it was more of ethnicity and ethnic tribes and all of those things. When I was in Nigeria, one thing I liked to really think about was the ethnicity of the indigenous people. Recently, I kept thinking about the fact that like I'm the only black person in a particular class, some of my professors are white. And so, that became more significant. Like in terms of just my everyday life and activities. It's something that I began to pay attention to when I came to America compared to when I was in Nigeria. It's not that I didn't know about racism. Or, I wasn't aware of the racial differences and all of those. But it wasn't that dominant or permanent in my life, because there were other issues that I had sort of focused on, I think, compared to now, that I'm here. And that's one thing I have to think about, along with diversity and inclusivity as well. So, I think that's sort of the difference I've noticed in myself, both internally and externally.

What writing prompts do you use when you teach creative writing?

I would say, I use the ones created by myself. The thing is, most times I don't have a prompt until I get to the classroom, and so sometimes it's sort of based on the vibe or based on the discussion that we are having in the classroom. I'm like, oh, okay how about we try this? How about we put this into practice? And so, I come up with the prompt while I'm in class or while I'm teaching. I think it's really interesting because there are days when I already have a prompt prepared, but it changes during or after the class discussion. I'm like, okay, this won't work anymore because of what is happening in the classroom. So, I have to sort of try something else. One class exercise I did in my class this semester is I asked my students to sort of keep a material journal entry. They submit it before we begin each class. And so, for that journal entry, they have to take detailed notes of their observations, their emotions, their feelings about things they plan to explore as they continue to write or work in the classroom. Based on that material journal entry and our focus for the class or for the day’s class, I combine the two of them and I come up with a writing prompt that sort of helps the student to put into practice what we've talked about and what we've discussed. Because I feel like, as you sort of learn, it is important for you to practice. Writing is about practicing and actually doing it rather than just learning about it. Another writing exercise or prompt is an outdoor creative writing exercise. I put them in a small group of four or five and I told them to get out of the classroom, go to specific locations on campus and just sort of listen to the sounds happening around them. The various sounds, people moving, people clapping, people talking. Maybe it's the bird, maybe it's the tree. Whatever sound you hear, take note of it, and then using the sound devices that we already learned in class, they should incorporate those sounds into a poem. A three-stanza poem that they wanted to write, and they really seemed excited about actually getting out of the classroom to sort of write a poem rather than just remaining in the class, which I thought was really nice and good.

Yeah, I've done that too. So, in a way, are they kind of like incorporating onomatopoeia and incorporating it into the poetry?

Yes. So, they could choose any sound device, they could make use of assonance, and consonance, and I had a lot of students make use of alliteration as well as assonance in their poems. And sometimes they made use of anaphora as well in their poems. I think it was really good for them to sort of think or listen to the sounds and then sort of incorporate that rather than just remaining in the classroom that is very quiet, and they can't really hear what is happening around them.

What inspires you to write?

I know this might sound cliché, but I feel like I just have stories to tell and just the innate desire to tell the stories is my drive and motivation. And apart from that, I grew up in a Christian home and when I started studying the Bible, I studied the Psalms. There are a lot of stories and parables to learn about, and most times I get inspired, actually by the Bible to just tell a story. And so, when you read my work, if you are someone that is well versed with the Bible when you read my words, sometimes you sort of see that association. Like, I remember one time my sister read my story and she was like, wait, isn't this in the (Bible)? And I'm like, yeah. It is, but it's only an expression, it's completely different. And another thing that inspires me is life. I feel like there's so much layer and complexity in life that I sometimes just sort of want to explore or I just want to sort of, how will I say? There is this word I'm looking for…just sort of simplify it. Instead of telling it in a way that people can understand or people can relate to, as well, I think is something that inspires me every day to just write and tell the story. I want people to read my work and be able to relate to it or associate it with other aspects of life as well.

So, connected to that inspiration of writing, how do you then overcome writer’s block?

Yeah, I feel like every writer gets writer’s block, but most writers don't love to call it that. Instead, we just say we are feeling stuck or we lack inspiration. And so, we can't do that. But for me, I would say just write. Like, when you experience that, just let yourself feel. Allow yourself to be able to interpret that feeling or emotion onto the page, and also read. Whenever I'm feeling sort of stuck, I would go online to search for literary magazines, and I would look for short stories that I can read to get myself motivated or to get myself to actually write something down. So, reading does help a lot and also, I would say this: with the advancement of technology, most writers prefer using their laptop to type everything down immediately. But if you're sort of struggling with writer's block, I would say instead of using your laptop to type down your ideas, try and go with the old method of using your notepad and a pen or a pencil to actually write. And that helps you to generate ideas more. That has worked for me. Whenever I feel stuck, I just shut my system down and then I take my book and my pen, and I settle right (in) instead. It has really helped me to overcome that as well. So, I would say go back to the root or to the beginning and do that.

What is your favorite poem that you have written?

Let me see…you know, I was going to say The Fruit, but now I think I would go with Taxi Driver.

What! You gotta be kidding me!? That’s like my favorite one!

It literally just came to my mind, you know, as soon as you asked a question Taxi Driver just came to my mind and I’m like, yeah, I think that’s my favorite poem, so far. It’s one that is personal and the one that I really like, yeah.

With the connection with your father? So that’s a real connection in that poem?

Oh yes, yes. It is a real connection. So, I was attending a workshop and we were supposed to write a poem for the workshop, and I think it was the week before or two days before that. I received a phone call about my dad had been in an accident and was hospitalized. I called and I tried to reach my dad, finally, he picked up. And when I saw his face and the damage, I started to cry. I just felt overwhelmed and confused. I didn’t know how to wrap my head around it or how to even deal with the emotions that I was feeling at that moment. And so, I just opened my laptop, opened a new Word document, and I started writing. I feel like that poem really helped me to sort of untie the knots that were formed in my heart as well as emotions and just sort of relieve myself of that emotion I was feeling or the sadness I was feeling. And so, I interpreted that into that particular poem. That’s why it’s like, really personal and dear to me.

What Nigerian writers do you recommend?

So, I’ve started reading a lot of Nigerian authors, lately. I would say if you want to get into Nigerian literature you have to begin with Chinua Achebe; that is the number one for sure. I would say also Buchi Emecheta, who wrote the book The Joys of Motherhood, I would say you need to read that as well. Another person that I would recommend is Ayobami Adebayo and my favorite book of hers has to be Stay With Me. I think that was a debut novel and one that really resonated with me as well. And, of course, Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater. You definitely have to read that as well because it has to do with Ibo practices and traditions and the culture of a specific ethnic group in Nigeria as well. I feel like I could go on, but I would just stop there.

I mean, there’s a lot most people don’t realize. Just a lot of great Nigerian writers. For me, in America, we don’t study enough like the only one I’ve ever studied in class was Wole Soyinka. That’s the only person. And it’s like there’s more than that. I mean, he’s a great writer, but what you shared, some of these names I haven’t heard. We need to tap into that, I think it’s great for us to realize that that there’s just so much out there from Nigerian writers that we need to really appreciate and learn.

Yes. And now that you said that, I want to include one more author and this is specifically for my fantasy novel lovers, those who love fantasy or anything fantastical, I would say they have to read Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi. That is a really good book for anyone who loves to share a fantasy.

Fantasy, is that like, not Sci-Fi, but it’s what type of (genre)?

Not, not Sci-Fi. It actually has to do more with mythology, mythical elements rather than anything. I don’t think it falls into Sci-Fi. I feel like that’s the one thing that I really think about. When you say Sci-Fi consciously, what exactly is Sci-Fi? Do you have to be thinking about, like, only technology? Do you have to be thinking about the medical aspect of Sci-Fi or how do you really categorize that as well? But I would say this is definitely fantasy.

What do you want the world to know about Nigerian writers?

I think about this Nigerian author who published Vagabonds (Eloghosa Osunde). I don’t know if you’ve come across that book. And recently, she made a presentation at this Victoria’s Secret show as an artist and they had her read a poem. And so, what I would like to say is that Nigerian writers are change makers because they are creative, they are multifaceted, multitalented and we are driven as well to tell our stories. And to sort of put our people out there as well as to sort of break the stereotypes, the generalizations that people have about Nigeria or about its culture and place.

In the world of poetry, who are you reading right now?

I’ve been reading a lot of poems online and I’ve written a lot of poems because I teach poetry this semester, but I’ve also been reading Natalie Diaz’s poem, Franny Choi, and even Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman. I read that recently, and it just sort of resonated with me in a different way, especially because I was reading other texts about post-colonialism, femininity, and womanhood. That particular poem is one that I read recently, and Jihyun Yun’s Some Are Always Hungry. That is another poem of reading and lastly, Ada Limon. I really love her writing.

What are you working on?

I am working on a speculative fiction novel, more specifically, alternate historical fantasy fiction.

What is your opinion on those with MFAs, should they venture into the PhD or pursue writing and get published? Or maybe both?

Photo: Bibiana giving a reading
Photo: Bibiana giving a reading

I would say it depends on the individual and what your goal is in life. The MFA and the PhD are degrees set up to help you to accomplish the same thing. The reason I say that is if you have an MFA and you already have, like teaching experience, you can always get a tenure-track position, which is one of the goals of getting a PhD. At the end of the day, a PhD degree gives you an edge to work in academia, if that's what you want to do. You can also, write your book, get published and do your research and do everything simultaneously whether you have the MFA or you have the PhD degree. That's why I say it's up to the individual. For me, the reason I'm getting my PhD is simply because I needed a sort of system that would help me to work on my debut novel after my MFA. I was really determined that I wanted to work on the novel, and I wanted to get it done. And I knew I couldn't do it all by myself. And so, I was like, if I'm in the PhD program, there would be professors and people, constantly checking on me to make sure that I accomplish that goal. And so that's one of the reasons. I did not have any teaching experience when I was getting my MFA. So, the first time I taught was when I got into the PhD program. I realized that getting a PhD would be beneficial for me because of my interest in getting a tenure track position.

So, you're the opposite. You know, most people hate workshopping. For some, it's just (that) they feel like they write perfectly. And workshop really wakes us up and lets us know it's very subjective. But for you, it seems like it's the opposite. PhD pushes you and motivates to write and get your work completed?

Yeah, you're absolutely correct. Most writers don't like workshops and sometimes I understand because workshops can be brutally honest. They will tell you your work is crap or maybe you need to figure out exactly what story you want to tell, and that can be really difficult for people. I actually like that. I like it when people tell me, oh, this is working, or this isn't working, or this is what you need to improve or maybe you need to develop your characters more. Because I think it helps me to grow as a writer and it helps me to understand my own writing style. I feel like even in workshops, at the end of the day, the story is yours to tell. So, even when people give you feedback, I feel like it's up to you to sort of filter through the feedback and decide what you want to apply to your work and what you want to ignore; having that understanding at the back of your mind I feel helps people to deal more easily with workshops. Even if people should talk crap about your work or your story, it's up to you to decide whether or not you want to believe it’s crap or whether you want to move past that and continue to tell your story at the end of the day.


Website and Social Media

Instagram: @bibianaossaio

LinkedIn: Bibiana Ossai


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