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DBF Interviews: Melatu Uche Okorie

Melatu_Uche_Okorie_lo-res_Leo_Byrne_Photography_470_313_sMelatu Uche Okorie is a writer and scholar. Born in Nigeria, she moved to Ireland in 2006. It was during her eight and a half years living in the direct provision system that she began to write.  She has an M. Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin, and has had works published in numerous anthologies. In 2009, she won the Metro Éireann Writing Award for her story ‘Gathering Thoughts’.  Melatu has a strong interest in issues concerning the rights of asylum seekers and migrant education in Ireland and is currently studying for a PhD in Education at Trinity College, Dublin. This Hostel Life  is her first book.

Melatu joined us for a chat about her debut collection, the personal value of creative endeavours and the wealth of influences that have shaped her work. We’re honoured to have her speaking at A New Ireland on Friday 16 November!

You began writing after travelling to Ireland, while living in direct provision. What inspired you to take up writing under these circumstances?

I suppose it was a form of escapism, not that I was aware that was what it was at the time! But, I don’t think I’m alone in that sense. I have read of many Nigerian authors who started writing after they migrated to a new country – Chika Unigwe for one, the author of On Black Sisters Street, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I read somewhere that she also started writing after she moved to Belgium with her new husband. I guess there is something about leaving the familiar and being confronted with a ‘whole new normal’ that triggers something in one.

 

This Hostel Life is the first publication from Skein Press, a new publisher offering a platform for writers from ethnic minority backgrounds. What are your hopes for this new venture?

I hope more voices will come up. As a matter of fact, I cannot wait. There is still an underlying sense of US and THEM mentality in existence in Ireland, and until more voices arise, in their different forms, people would still continue to think that any expression of opinion by a migrant on Ireland is a criticism by THEM of US, rather than as an expression of a point of view by one of US on US.

Literature in other countries has been one way of opening up these types of discourse. The vision of Skein Press is to create that channel here in Ireland and I hope it is embraced fully by everyone.

 

What role do you feel writing and creativity have to play in improving the lives of asylum seekers, or in reshaping attitudes towards them?

It is unprofitable and unnecessary to bother oneself with trying to reshape another’s attitude. Anyone going into any form of creativity (in this case, writing) should only do so for the sole purpose of improving their own lives!

To answer your question, research has shown that taking part in any form of creative activity is of great value to the participant, so definitely, writing and creativity would play an enormous part in improving the life of any asylum seeker who chooses to engage in it: because, not only does it provide a form of expression, it also helps the participant in locating their place in the society, if that makes sense.

I have to highlight that it’s not just writing. Any form of creative expression does that. When I was in direct provision, I knew people (both young and older) who were great bakers, seamstresses, visual artists, chefs and hairdressers. They too need to be encouraged by helping them conquer their fears in setting up businesses around their talents.

 

Can you tell us about a favourite book that has influenced your work?

This is a tough one! I’ll say many books influence different aspects of my work. In terms of use of language, I’ll say: Irvine Welsh, Roddy Doyle, Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Flannery O’Connor – mostly writers who play with language in their work.

In terms of characterisation, I love Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor, and many of the ones already mentioned above and others that I can’t recall at the moment.

When it comes to creating a distinctive mood, be it nostalgia or sadness, it would be Nawal El Sadaawi, Mariama Bá, Flora Nwapa…mostly African women authors.