From a young age, Ukamaka Olisakwe was determined to prove people wrong.
Born in the state of Kano in northern Nigeria, Olisakwe says she wasn’t the typical girl, and often was interested in activities traditionally suited for boys.
“As a child I was always trying to prove myself, do what people said I wouldn’t be able to, do whatever the boys would do,” says Olisakwe. “Girls are taught to be demure and pretty, and I didn’t want that. So I climbed trees and played soccer with the boys.”
Olisakwe, 34, is now a novelist, screenwriter, and short-story author who was recently named one of Africa’s 39 most promising writers under the age of 40. She is also one of two Nigerian writers currently participating in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, which, in its storied 48-year history, has brought more than 1,400 writers from more than 130 countries to Iowa City. The 10-week program brings together emerging and accomplished authors to refine their current projects and expose them to American culture and literature. IWP writers also have the opportunity to contribute to and learn from UI literature courses.
For decades, Nigerian literature’s most celebrated authors were men such as Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, and Wole Soyinka, who wrote The Man Died: Prison Notes. Olisakwe, however, is part of a new, increasingly female generation of writers. Although she has blossomed into one of the country’s most sought after authors, Olisakwe initially was reluctant to pursue writing.
When it came time to decide between art or science for secondary education, Olisakwe says Nigeria’s attitude toward the arts discouraged her.
“Our society is still trying to appreciate the arts,” says Olisakwe. “Growing up, science students are seen as the intelligent ones and the art students are the dumb, lazy ones.”
This stigma pushed her to pursue the sciences and, in 2006, she graduated with a degree in computer science from Abia State Polytechnic, in Aba, Nigeria. By 2009, she was working at Skye Bank’s branch in Aba, where she says she became increasingly distressed by the sexism she observed in the workplace and in society at large.
“Sexism is an everyday occurrence in our society, and the workplace is no different,” says Olisakwe. “When I looked back at the society I left I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! We are harassed every day and sexual harassment is accepted,’ although we don’t use those terms. Walking down the street, a man might touch a woman he doesn’t know on the arm or something because he thinks she is pretty, and they expect the woman to thank them for the compliment. They say we should appreciate the compliment.”
It was around 2010 that her supervisor, who worked at Skye Bank headquarters in Lagos, began encouraging her to write.
“He thought I had a lot to say, and he loved the way I told stories about customers and colleagues,” says Olisakwe. “He was so persistent; it was tedious at the time. He is one of my best friends now.”
He eventually convinced Olisakwe to write a short story, and after seeing his excited reaction to the work, she sent it to established Nigerian writers for feedback. Of the dozen writers she emailed, only one responded.
It turned out to be the only response she needed.
Okey Ndibe, the Nigerian American author of the critically acclaimed novels Arrows of Rain and Foreign Gods, Inc., was impressed by Olisakwe’s work and reached out to her to share his support.
“Dec. 27, 2010. I still remember I was visiting my parents when he called me,” says Olisakwe. “We spoke on the phone for over three hours and I was crying I was so happy because I couldn’t believe that this big-time writer was calling me. He saw a glimpse of potential in my short story and encouraged me. That was the push I needed.”
Soon after, Olisakwe began writing her first novel, Eyes of a Goddess, and various short stories in her free time. However, her job at Skye Bank, which often demanded workdays lasting from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., had Olisakwe, also a mother of three, struggling to find enough time for writing.
“On top of my responsibilities as a wife and mother, I didn’t get a lot of sleep,” says Olisakwe. “I couldn’t have gotten through this without my husband. He’s a very supportive partner, and when he saw that I was tired and stressed, he would handle a lot of the domestic responsibilities so I could write.”
After the publication of Eyes of a Goddess in 2012, Olisakwe’s profile grew, and she was contacted by a Nigerian movie producer living in London. He was interested in collaborating with her and asked if she had any movie scripts to share.
While she didn’t have a script, Olisakwe instead pitched the idea of a TV series based on her experiences in the banking world.
“I had some really bad experiences in the banking sector, and that became the inspiration for The Calabash,” says Olisakwe. “The show mostly explores sexism, harassment, and work relationships. A big theme in the show is how women are often the gatekeepers of patriarchy. Women too often enforce patriarchy and oppress other women and only men gain from it.”
With the script finished in 2014, all 100 episodes of The Calabash aired in 2015 on the DStv network. The show, which was broadcast in Nigeria and other African countries, aired a new episode three times a week and was well received by viewers.
While she is currently working on her second novel, which she hopes to finish before the end of the year, Olisakwe has been writing for a range of publications.
She wrote articles for The New York Times on two occasions. Her 2015 article discussed the political tensions in Nigeria during that year’s presidential election, while a 2014 article discussed the regional divide in the country between Muslims and Christians, as well as the Boko Haram attacks. Olisakwe also writes for the Nigerian magazine Olisa, where her contributions range from political pieces to reviews of Nigerian movies and music.
While she enjoys writing for most platforms, Olisakwe says she likes writing novels best, in large part due to the writers who initially inspired her and for the cultural change they were able to stimulate. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart delivered a humanizing perspective of pre-colonial African life, in contrast to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and other Western literature that portrayed Africans as uncivilized, she says. Olisakwe says the growing prevalence of female Nigerian writers and stories told from the female perspective have a chance to change attitudes about gender roles in the country.
“The women writers of this generation convinced me that I was able to be the main subject of my writing,” says Olisakwe. “The way the first generation of Nigerian novelists wrote back to the West, I think we are now writing about our realities as women living in a deeply patriarchal society.”