My name is Binyerem Ukonu. I first became a writer before I was called to learn how to design houses for both family living and office purposes. That is to say that I’m an architect. I am the only son of my parents, although my mum is late. I have five sisters, and all of them are older than I am. So, I have always had anything I’ve always wanted, and also people to fight for me out there, both in prayers and combat (laughs). Now, I am an author of two books – a collection of poems titled Ekwurekwu (a meal of verse), and The Water was Hot, which is a collection of short stories published in Delhi by Serene Woods. I was born in 1982.
When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve always loved poems and the art of writing poetry. I always felt poets drew strength from a deity somewhere. How else could they have written those beautiful lines? I became a poet in 2002, when I lost my mother – Lady Georgy Ukonu. It was when we went into her bedroom to gather her belongings together that I found her chapbook of poetry. This is where she wrote either her poems or poems of other poets. I read from one line to the other, and felt the words taking over my head. That was how I became a poet. Then, I wrote for myself, and never wanted anyone to read my works, for the fear of criticism. A friend of mine, one day, stumbled upon a poem of mine that was carelessly kept. He read it, stole a few lines, and went to win himself a girlfriend with it. I had confidence in my works when I heard that from him. I’ve written a lot of poems, and many of them are online presently. My short stories, too, are gaining audience.
What inspires you to write?
(Laughs). This is one question I’ve always prayed not to encounter, because I’ve always heard or read other authors answer this same question. It’s scary. But I must say this. I’m inspired by chaos. And someone I told this, recently, told me to relocate to Sudan, where chaos is like street lights. But sadness inspires me most times. I am also inspired by the environment and the happy people in it. Most of my friends are becoming careful with me these days. They do not want to play a role in my stories. This makes me laugh. So, you can say that I’m a bit complex.
Discuss one of the stories in your book.
The Water was Hot, the theme story, is about a woman who fights through life with cancer, and gains strength from the love and unity that envelopes her family. A few times, people rumored she was dead, because no one saw her for a long period of time. One thing I most enjoyed while writing this story was how fast I was with it. It felt like I was writing a story that someone had already written before. I felt I was doing the right thing. And I cried most of the time. I felt fulfilled, knowing I had gotten to the end. Today, I read those lines, and they are like reading a story written by someone else. The main character became a person. A voice.
Why short stories? Do you plan to write a novel too?
Yes. Short stories because I love telling stories. And most times, I would jump from one incidence to another while telling someone what happened at a certain time. I would have told you about five stories, trying to tell you just a story. So, you can say I’m a raconteur of a sort. I gossip too. (laughs). I don’t gossip a lot. I do it once in a while. Bonny Island became my muse, and I wrote a lot of stories set on the island. The Water was Hot was inspired by many things. There is no actual theme. Here is a prostitute who actually thinks she has no better option for survival. She is also smart, and makes use of her smartness. In Mayhem, young wealthy men run away from town, because the mob just lost trust in their source of wealth. And a young engineer wishes he gave a helping hand. The theme story, The Water was Hot, is almost a true tale, excerpt it has one or two additions to it. But it is the story of a family’s battle with their mother’s sickness, which was cancer. My mother died of cancer too. Will I write a novel? Yes I will. I’m already on it, and it’s about the military in Zaria. I’ve been researching for two years now. It’s a serious novel. I will not say much about it now.
Do you have a major theme that runs through all the stories?
Not exactly. Like I said, it’s random.
What was your publishing journey like, from thinking of the book idea to holding it in your hands.
This is the most frustrating part of writing. You want your book to go out there. You want it to do well, and win awards, but no one to help you put it out. So, everyone sees you as that writer that would eventually never get published. Most publishers returned my manuscripts, and either told me that I had good stories, but they were not in the state to publish me, or they would just tell me that my book was just not good enough. One funny thing with publishers is that at the end of those rejection letters, they will always advise you on trying another publisher. Is that not funny? But you can not really blame them. And the case with publishing in Nigeria became even worse. I met Onyeka Nwelue, and we became friends. We compared each others works, and believed in what we did. At that time, his book had already been published in Nigeria, and he needed to create the awareness in India. My manuscript was ready at that time. We had always dreamed to be in the same publishing company, and that was what happened. Coincidentally, Serene Woods received our manuscripts and loved them. They wanted to publish our books at the same time. This new book of mine took me two years to find a publisher.
What books have most influenced your life most?
Many of them, but mostly those written by Nigerian Authors. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart still remains a classic. Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is one big book that I read four times before I dropped it. Then, there are authors like Chika Unigwe, Sefi Atta, and Uche Umez. But what books have really influenced me? I think Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Year of Solitude.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
What books are you reading now?
Onyeka Nwelue’s finished manuscript. It is such a fantastic book. It would eventually be titled Orchard of Memories, I guess. He already has a publisher for that.
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
Ofor Aluka has. He is the poet that wrote Trickles of a Time. He lives in Gabon, but he’s Nigerian. His mastery over words is outstanding. He also has that unique style. He is also a story teller. I think he’s almost through with his collection.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Of course! And that would be that connection with my characters. I do not allow a closer relationship with a certain character than others. I try to relate with them, evenly. And that is hardwork. Sometimes, I drop my pen or hibernate, go outside to a pub to have a bottle of beer. Then I come back to watch the screen again. I can not say that I have a problem with choice of words, because my words are usually simply. They are the words of everyday people.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Sincerely, I do not have any special author. Maybe, before I used to have, but now that I know and have many of the as friends, it’s difficult to say. But I think Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is good.
What do you think of the Nigerian publishing industry?
Like our today’s Nollywood, we’ll one day grow.
What comments do you have about the reading culture in the country?
I think it’s poor, and needs to improve. Books nurture the human mind and set you in the right path. Do you know that it is possible to successfully live a very good life that you saw in a character from a book? There are signs that things will improve. I love what 19 year old Iyinolwa Aboyeji is doing with online education. People are getting to know more about books, and more author are emanating from all corners. This is a good sign.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
All I can say is that they should keep reading me. I need to always draw strength from their words. I need to be inspired by them. They have been there for me all the while. They need to take this beautiful journey with me.
Do you have an online presence, Facebook, Blog, Twitter or a website?
Yes, I do. I am presently the editor of http://www.africiwrite.blogspot.com, where I write, and also publish stories and articles from African writers. You can find me on twitter at http://twitter.com/twwh. Then, on Facebook, you can find me at http://www.facebook.com/Inkflows.
Where can we buy the book, both in stores and online?
Presently, it’s in bookstores in Delhi, and all India. In India, they can also order online from Flipkart (http://www.flipkart.com/water-hot-binyerem-ukonu-book-9380112343). Recently, Serene Woods has made it possible for readers to order online from anywhere they are. All you need to do is just to register with their web store, and order for the book, THE WATER WAS HOT (http://serenewoods.com/book_details.php?id=465). It’ll soon be on amazon. Although, we’re working hard to bring it to our Nigerian readers through local bookstores, we also encourage you to order online if you can.