Author Q&A: Catherine Onyemelukwe
Catherine Onyemelukwe is the author of Nigeria Revisited: My Life and Loves Abroad, her memoir of her twenty-four years in Nigeria, starting as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1962 and returning to the United States in 1986.
What was your inspiration (or what is the story behind) writing Nigeria Revisited?
Every time I meet someone new and say my last name, Onyemelukwe, I am asked, “Where is that from?” I explain that it’s a Nigerian name, and I married a Nigerian man whom I met when I was in the Peace Corps in his country. If the person is interested I tell a little about the country and its fascinating people.
Sometimes I give talks about Nigeria. I have been asked frequently, “Have you written a book about your experiences?” Nigeria Revisited is my answer.
What was the hardest part to write?
During my memoir writing classes and even earlier, when I told part of my story to a friend to help me get started with writing, I was told, “Reveal more of your feelings. Reflect on situations.” That was hard for me.
What was the greatest challenge in bringing the book to market?
I think the greatest challenge was in knowing what to leave out. When I was writing and having the book edited, I kept the chapters separate. It wasn’t until I put them all together that I discovered it was over 150,000 words. All the advice I read about publishing a memoir from someone not well known was that it had to be less than 100,000 words. I’m sure it is better now after I took out nearly 50,000 words. But I struggled with many of the deletions.
What do you hope the reader will take away from Nigeria Revisited?
I want readers to understand that for all its difficulties, Nigeria is an amazing country. The sense of belonging and being part of a community that I gained from my husband, his family, and his village has been invaluable.
Second, I want readers to know that even when a marriage faces challenges, staying and making it work are worthwhile.
What book(s) had the greatest influence on you?
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which I first read during Peace Corps training influenced my thinking about Nigeria. Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun which I read while I was working on my own memoir helped me see the Biafran War, which I lived through, in its broader context.
How do you balance writing and motherhood?
Since my children are grown I did not need to do the balancing that mothers of young children have to do. I had thought at first that I could write the memoir while I was working, but in the end it was until I left my last job three years ago that I could actually give enough time to writing.
What is your advice to mother writers?
Keep a journal! It doesn’t have to be by hand – you can keep it on your computer. Whether or not you are writing about your children or your experience of motherhood, make notes about events and your feelings. This will prove vital for whatever type of writing you do. Even if you have to recount the feelings of a fictional character, having your own notes will help you. And find a writing friend or a writing class or group.
And have a space and time to write. An hour after children’s bedtime, at the table which your children and/or husband have cleared, can be enough. Or wake up before others, and give yourself an hour alone.