Q&A with Ọna Anosike, author of “The Return”

[img: close-up of Ọna Anosike’s face]

Ọna Anosike’s “The Return” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department on July 29, 2019. Q&A conducted by Bix Gabriel, Fiction Editor.

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Bix Gabriel: One of the aspects of The Return that I loved was how the body becomes, is, vegetation, the “wild leek finger,” for instance. How did you hit upon the idea of the body returning to plant life? Why?

Ọna Anosike: This story came to me while attending a writing residency at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Lampter, Wales. One of the activities I got to enjoy was a nature walk. I remember taking a load of pictures and returning to my dorm room to pore over them in order to get some sort of inspiration.

After reviewing the photos, I went to look out of my dorm window to get further inspiration, since my surroundings tend to spark my creativity. And that’s when I realized that I was surrounded by these gorgeous green hills and bleating sheep. I knew I wanted my story to be about place and nature but also about identity, and returning back to oneself.

Lampeter is this beautiful, almost sleepy town and in May, when I was there, it was rainy and dark, which motivated me to create a story that was both beautiful and heinous. There was also this undercurrent of racial tension that seemed to come to a hilt when I was there and I wanted my story to also touch on race.

The Welsh landscape and that nature walks I went on was my happy place while in Lampeter. I felt I could escape the tension surrounding me and affecting me if I focused on the beauty of the town. For my protagonist, it is the same. Plant-life and nature is her happy place, so when her mind begins to disintegrate in a way, she holds on to what makes her happy and that is how she is able to survive for some time in a place that makes her feel inferior.

BG: I think second-person is one of the harder forms to pull off, even while it seems to have become quite popular recently. How did you decide on the point of view for The Return? In general, is point of view something you pick, or that comes to you more naturally?

ỌA: Second person is something I avoided, until I couldn’t anymore. It chose me and now I can’t escape it. I am very much attracted to the concept of discomfort. I want my writing to mean something and to create change. I want to change the way people think about things, for the better, of course. And I believe change only happens when people are made uncomfortable.

Second person makes people uncomfortable. You cannot take a backseat when reading this point of view. When people read my work, I do not want them to be idle. Second person kind of forces the reader to be more active and take more responsibility when reading, and because this story is so important to me and was inspired by my own discomfort, first person and third person just did not seem to do it justice. I re-wrote this story from different points of view and second person made the most sense.

BG: This story is quite short but it has all these layers! On one level there’s the loss of children, another layer is the loss of self, and yet another is about the loss of home, ancestry, land. When you began writing, did you have an idea of what the story was going to focus on?

ỌA: When I began writing, I hadn’t a clue how much I needed to say. My writing helps me to express myself, and my feelings, and all of these thoughts and ideas I tend to bottle up daily. It’s a release and this story was this huge exhale in a way.

Stories tend to come to me; they form in small bits and at random and can take up to a year or more to make any kind of sense. While in nature in Lampeter, I knew nature had to be a part of my story and I wanted it to be a character instead of just a backdrop. Most of the story came to me that day in my dorm room when I decided to take a really good look out of my window. However, parts of the story, like the bathroom scene with the children who had long returned, was part of a different text that I had written and trashed years prior.

Race is an element of “The Return” that came to me last but was a huge part of tying it together. It was hard to be a person of color and comfortably navigate the town. I am an American with an American accent so I was privileged enough to be shielded from some of the bigotry and hatred. However, African immigrants and expats were being mistreated, maligned and denied services and lodging in Lampeter because of their race and nationalities. It was something I did not want to ignore and so I decided to touch on race and also touch on the feeling of sometimes wanting to go back to a place where you are accepted, celebrated and safe.

BG: I was curious about how you bring place, well, specific locations, into this work. You mention Boston, describe Lampeter, Wales, and in the end, the character returns to “the land of Equiano and Achebe, Bussa and Amina,” which I take to be Nigeria (?). Tell us about your decision to use people’s names instead of the name of a place in contrast with the other places in this story.

ỌA: I am clearly deeply inspired by my own life. (laughs) I grew up in Cambridge, MA, Greater Boston. I was studying in Lampeter when I began to write this story and I am Nigerian.

However, I decided to use historical figures instead of having my character return to Nigeria because I felt it was more powerful. Nigeria is a made-up country, forced together by the British who created these kinds of hostile borders. I wanted the protagonist to be free when she returned instead of bound by borders and European concepts. She wanted to leave Wales in order to escape European concepts.

I definitely wanted her to return to a specific region, West Africa, but I also wanted the reader to understand that her act was one of rebellion. So I began to think of Nigerian historical figures who were rebellious, broke the mold or who had inverted power dynamics during their time. Bussa, Equiano, Achebe, and Queen Amina were the best fit for the story and hopefully drove home my point.

Ọna Anosike splits her time between Cambridge, MA, and Dallas, TX, where she works in the education field. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts in English and Women’s Studies from Northeastern University and obtained her MFA in Writing from Lesley University. Her thesis included stories about first-generation Nigerian-Americans. You can learn more about her at Cultivatewomen.com.

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