Nwachukwu continues quest at The W
COLUMBUS, Miss.– Iheoma Nwachukwu sees a yearning in Eudora Welty that mirrors his own.
When he first read Welty’s “A Still Moment,” Nwachukwu believed the author’s writing and her yearning to throw herself at the world and find self-definition was in many ways like his search for a place in the world.
Nwachukwu’s quest, which started in Lagos, Nigeria, begins a new chapter this semester as an assistant professor of English in the Mississippi University for Women’s Department of Languages, Literature and Philosophy.
Nwachukwu, who writes literary fiction and poetry embedded with Afrofuturism and magical realism, said Welty’s intimate association with The W drove him to research possible job opportunities at the school. He was delighted to accept the opportunity and to join a staff that includes Mary Miller, who he first met at the University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers.
“The irony of being a writer in the West is what we label magical realism here, is basically literary fiction in Africa,” Nwachukwu said. “In my fiction, I wade between two worlds constantly, half-awake.”
Nwachukwu said his wading between two worlds constantly, half-awake is a reference to yearning as a writer writing and as a writer existing in a world far from his original home. He said Afrofuturism and magical realism are vectors for his yearning and expressions of his yearning.
“Coming to America helped me find direction as a writer, a sharper focus for all the selves I carried,” Nwachukwu said.
Nwachukwu said his father named him Iheoma, which means “good fortune,” after a song from his favorite band “Oriental Brothers.” He spoke three languages (Igbo, his mother tongue; Yoruba, the language spoken in Lagos that he learned on the playground; and English, which he learned from teachers and the TV) growing up in Lagos.
In 2011, Nwachukwu won a fellowship to come to the Michener Center for Writers for a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in fiction. A year earlier, he had won a Chinua Achebe Center fellowship from Bard College in New York and had spent months writing fiction in a secluded hotel in Ghana. He said Binyavanga Wainaina, who was director of the Achebe Center, described the four seasons in America to him, which impacted him because he had just read Mark Twain’s “Cannibalism in the Cars.” As a result, when it came time to choose between the Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan and the Michener Center he picked the University of Texas because the thought of experiencing a Michigan winter frightened him.
Nwachukwu earned his doctorate in English/Creative Writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, where he worked closely with the Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler. He also worked as a visiting professor at the University of Scranton (Pennsylvania) prior to accepting his position at The W.
“We feel very fortunate to bring an international writer of the caliber of Iheoma Nwachukwu to our faculty,” said Dr. Kendall Dunkelberg, chair of the Department of Languages, Literature and Philosophy. “His work in Afrofuturism especially adds to the range and diversity of styles among the fiction faculty in our MFA program. We are also thrilled to have him teach American and World Literature at the undergraduate level. He is currently developing a class in African Literature, which we hope to offer soon.”
Nwachukwu, who is a former professional chess player and a karateka, a practitioner of karate, has published several stories, poems and non-fiction. His story “Urban Gorilla” published in “The Southern Review,” a quarterly literary magazine, earned him a Pushcart Prize Special mention and a Best American Short Stories Notable. Another story, “A Good Daughter,” translated into Italian, was nominated for the Cain Prize for African Writing.
Nwachukwu credits Alan Gurganus’ fiction workshop at the Michener Center for introducing him to Welty. He said he recently read Welty’s story “Why I Live at the P.O.” and loved it but still considers “A Still Moment” his favorite because of its interrogation of religion.
“I was born in an insanely religious country, and the spiritual will always be a component of my reality,” Nwachukwu said. “I often interrogate religion in my own work. This is why ‘A Still Moment’ speaks to me so much.”
Nwachukwu said he hopes to find the inspiration to continue work on his novel in Mississippi, even if it comes early in the morning due to the fact he and his wife have three children. He doesn’t mind writing at 3 a.m. because his yearning is part of the process that fuels his quest and feeds and drives his characters, just like Welty.
“This yearning I talk of is how a character attempts to find her place in the world. Self-definition,” Nwachukwu said. “The Buddhists say no one can exist in this world for even one second without desiring something. That core, life-defining, desire (yearning) is sensual. Fiction is a very sensual art. How can anyone live in this world without feeling?”