Jerry Chiemeke is a columnist, culture critic and lawyer. His works have appeared in The Inlandia Journal, The Johannesburg Review of Books, The Guardian, Honey & Lime, Bone and Ink Press and Agbowo, among others. A lover of long walks and alternative rock music, Chiemeke lives in Lagos, Nigeria, where he is working on a novel. He is the winner of the 2017 Ken Saro Wiwa Prize for Reviews, and he was shortlisted for the 2019 Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction.
Chiemeke has been a featured contributor for platforms like Okadabooks, BellaNaija, The Bagus, The Lagos Review and the Opera News Hub. He has also facilitated writing workshops in different parts of Nigeria, and for his contribution to the Nigerian literary community, he was presented with the 2019 Connect Nigeria Award for Excellence.
RLN: What inspired you to write your debut collection of Short Stories?
JC: These days I do more of reviews and opinion essays, but I’ve always been a storyteller. Between 2013 and 2016, I used to post stories on my WordPress blog, relatable stories that tackled many topics…and I had a faithful readership; people would engage and comment, even form friendships in the comment section…so this collection is my way of saying “thank you for your support through the years, for believing in me, I’m grateful”. In more ways than one, it’s a gift to them.
Also, the short story collection as a sub-genre of Prose is not heralded half as much as the novel. Editors and publishers would tell you that a short story collection is a “hard sell”, and there are people who have dismissively said that authors of collections are “unserious and lazy”. However, there are stories that I feel have to be told, there are things we don’t talk about, and I felt an intense burden to put those stories out there.
RLN: What was the most enjoyable part of the writing process for you?
JC: When I finally sent the manuscript to the publisher…hahahaha. My thumbs and other fingers have gained more muscle than usual.
Though, I took pleasure in seeing each story come together to become a concrete piece of work. Some stories took longer to write than others, partly because the ideas in one or two stories needed time to “properly marinate”: it took over three years for the words in the title story to “ferment” and make enough sense to be splashed on a page. Three years for an idea to form completely, but six hours to write.
Beyond writing, there is such a thing as arrangement, like you see with music albums. You just can’t lump stories together, there has to be coherence in the way one story comes after the other, otherwise you lose sight of what you are trying to achieve. When I managed to pull off that arrangement, I treated myself to a cup of ice cream, revelling in the knowledge that my work was done.
RLN: What do you want the readers to take away from this collection of short stories?
JC: For one, the fact that they are not alone in their 2am wild thoughts, that their fears and quirks are valid, and that we are all unique in our broken, imperfect, logic-defying way. In this collection, I deviate from what usually passes for “socially conscious” or what the West would consider as an “authentic African story”.
My readers drink, travel, scream, make love, get heartbroken, process memories, question their own self-worth and cheat on their lovers, so I want them to see themselves in my stories. I am not writing to prove that I can write—there is my portfolio for that—but I’m trying to say something with these stories. If they can’t relate, then there is no point.
RLN: Who were your early influences on your writing journey?
JC: At the risk of sounding cliché, I started reading works published under the African Writers’ Series at a very young age…but it was at age eleven, when my elder brother brought tons of James Hadley Chase novels to the house, that I felt I’d found an author whom I’d love to emulate. I would form full ideas for novels in my head and start writing on notebooks; unfortunately, I would never get to finish the “novels” as the notebooks would get missing before I was done writing the last quarter of the story.
As I grew older, I found myself getting drawn to Ernest Hemingway’s writing. His tone and philosophy have stuck with me to date.
RLN: How has your career as a lawyer, columnist and culture critic influenced your writing?
JC: My writing is usually shaped by my personal experiences, but of course, my line of work would also come into play. I set high standards for myself: if I’m going to critique people’s art, then I have to come correct when creating mine. It has to be detailed and well-written; it has to be interesting, with plots and premises devoid of holes.
RLN: What genre(s) do you write and what themes do you focus on?
JC: I write mainly Fiction and Creative Nonfiction. Those who read my work would know that I focus largely on mental health, vulnerability, love in all its fleeting nature, loss, lust, and the essence of living.
RLN: As a culture critic, what makes a critique objective and fair?
JC: First off, you need to have knowledge of the subject matter. You have no business reviewing literary fiction if you have not read enough novels and even read books with themes similar to the one you intend to critique. Also, you need to gauge how relevant the body of work is to the times, and what it seeks to address, and then pick apart the merits and demerits of the project.
It is also important to separate the art from the individual who has produced it. One day I was reading a review of Elnathan John’s “Becoming Nigerian” and as soon as I saw “I’m impressed with his writing, but not so much with his personality”, I tuned out. Basing your critique of a book or film on your perception of the person(s) involved shows bias, and it hurts your credibility as a reviewer.
RLN: The year is not yet over; can you tell us two standout books you have read this year?
JC: I’ve not done a lot of reading this year. I’ve been largely focused on survival, protecting my energy (shrugs)…and also writing a collection of essays. However, I enjoyed reading Hawa Jande Golakai’s novel “The Score” and Samuel Monye’s novel “Give Us Each Day”.
RLN: What is the major highlight of your literary journey?
JC: Several good things have happened to me in the course of my literary journey, like winning the 2017 Ken Saro Wiwa Prize for Reviews (which came with some cool cash), speaking to young aspiring writers at the 2018 Total Writers’ Convention in Abuja, and receiving an Award of Excellence from Connect Nigeria in 2019. One standout moment for me, though, has been the 2019 edition of the Lagos Book and Art Festival, where I was on a panel, analysing art with some of Nigeria’s finest culture enthusiasts, including Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Aduke Gomez and Jahman Anikulapo. I was 28 at the time, so it felt flattering sharing a stage with these established voices in the art scene.
RLN: Attainment wise, where do you see yourself in the literary scene as a Nigerian Author and Writer in Five years’ time?
JC: In five years, I hope to have put out my collection of essays (which is currently in editing stage), published a novel, seen one of my stories adapted into film, and start making enough from my work to turn my back on paid employment. An MFA is within the sights, too.