“I either go ham or I ghost” talking to Ngozi Anyanwu

“I either go ham or I ghost” talking to Ngozi Anyanwu

I talked to Ngozi Anyanwu about her compelling play in progress Homecoming Queen. The play about– thus far– family, belonging, and the contemporary shifting concept of home. Ngozi writes with a direct voice. She is not afraid of uncertainty or questions, instead I think those things give her work a depth and strength, and the answers she’s in search of are hard ones. I feel really honored to have been permitted to read this draft of her play. Thank you Ngozi!

For me, so often, it feels like home is not so much a place but a fantasy, a recurring dream of safety and wood smoke, snow, naked trees. I work hard to give my son a home that feels his own, and I hope it doesn’t feel shallow to him as he grows up, I hope he comes to understand what home can be, and how to make his own home in his heart. So for me, talking to Ngozi about her main character Kelechi, an American Nigerian going to her father’s home in Nigeria, the question of what feels like home was foremost in my mind.

Kelechi is coming home, but at the same time, as an American born Nigerian, she is far from home. She’s a first-generation American, but has strong familial ties to Nigeria. Does her Nigerian-ness cut her off from being American? Does her American-ness cut her off from being Nigerian? Or is there a way for those two national identities to exist within one person?

I don’t know that it cuts her off
She’s very both
She very American in the way she speaks the way she moves through her privilege, I don’t believe she’s cut off from that part of herself at all
At the same time she Knows where she comes from
It’s traditions
Even if she’s forgotten in her bones she knows
She may not have every detail
But the little things
Tradition she needs to relearn
A boldness that makes it easy for her to move through her village unapologetic
I do think that privilege, that Americanness, cuts her off from her Nigerianness
Not being able to speak the language is the largest barrier
And being away in America for so long
She’s forgotten things
But she’s different
She’s a black person that can go back to Africa and trace her lineage
Her ancestry
But she’s also an American
Who doesn’t visit Nigeria very often because she doesn’t have to
And does not have many things tying her to this place.

My great-grandparents were from Italy, and when they landed in Brooklyn they tried to learn to speak English, to read English, and they did that with varying degrees of success. My grandparents eschewed their Italianness in an effort to assimilate, and their kids were less Italian, and now my generation is even less Italian than that. It’s to the point where when I visited Italy, I felt more of a connection to the art that I’d studied in art history classes than to the people, the land, the language, although I loved it, and wanted to feel that connection. Do you think Kelechi wants to feel more tied than she feels?

Umm yes
I think she has something to do first
There’s reasons for her never fully emerging herself in her parents culture
N once she’s healed some of those things
She can maybe move forward
I think Nigeria represents alot of things for her
Her parents didn’t really assimilate n I think that can leave a first generation child feeling like they’re on they’re own
Very close but very far

You mentioned that you felt that this draft of Homecoming Queen is fragmented, but it feels like so too is Kelechi. How closely linked is the almost disjointed, non-concrete style of story telling– where a chorus of older Aunties come in and out, where that which is unsaid is so present seeming, where what has happened is as essential as what is happening– to the creation of Kelechi? Are the fragments of story linked to her fragments of self?

The non concrete thing
I’m not sure
I’m still figuring her out, figuring out where I want to go
So I just write a Monologue or scene here and there and see if it fits
Or write a few version of the same scene or monologues and see if that tells something else about the way the story should go
I am trying to have her remember things
She’s haunted and I’m not quite sure about what yet
So I’m just laying some bread crumbs in there and hoping it will lead me somewhere juicy Or it may just send Kelechi on a wild goose chase
I’m not very good at non fragmented things I speak in fragments
I think in fragments
I have a thought and go
Oh yeah !
and back to that all the time
I feel like my plays look like that
Which I feel like is not fun for some trying to read it
But I’m still trying to figure out how to marry the two
Because I’d still very much like to not be soooo bogged down with format I’d like for the play to look like art but no soo much that only I get it
That’s no fun
That’s not so much Kelechi as it is..

I found that style really intriguing. It was like having a glimpse into something, like there’s this painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by Marcel DuChamp, and I forget what it’s called, but basically there’s this large wooden door with a peephole cut into it, and to see the painting, which is this whole crazy installation thing, you have to press your face up against this wood, worn from the oils of so many faces, and peer through the hole. The fragments made me feel like that, like I was getting to see something that I had to work to see, and it was worth it. There’s a point in the piece where I read two possible monologues for the same moment, and they both informed such different ideas, it was like secrets were being revealed. Would you consider leaving in all the versions?

For now probably
The goal is to just trudge forward and go back
My original goal was to do an African take on the visit
But with a coming of age/coming to term theme in there
I’m pretty sure I had an intention to write a coming of age play
But now it might be a revenge play
N if i can do both cool
Which is why for now it’s door number one scene or door number two
And I’ll see what wants to really be written

The feeling of place is so strong, and the way there are two stories: Kelechi’s personal story of what’s happening back in the States, and who she is in that context, is what’s driving her, but it’s like she has so little control over what’s happening in her life while in Nigeria. There is a school of literary thought that critiques women’s writing by saying that the main characters tend to be passive, not active enough in their own stories, but participating in a life that is happening to them as opposed to one that they are actively driving. Kelechi seems to be at the mercy of what’s happening around her, but I don’t feel that it makes her character any less strong. What would be your response to a critique of a passive female character?

Hmmm passive huh?
But I can say
Kelechi is bidding her time
If writers
write their ids
I guess
I seem rather passive at first when somethings bothers me
I either go ham or I ghost
Kelechi in this case being a character does not have the luxury to ghost And what looks like the problem of the play is not the main problem
Also she is bound by tradition
respect for her culture her elders
And her love and resentment for these things
But she also
Breaks these with the first five pages
She’s the only child of patriarchal society
Where there are many women but none in charge so Yeah she may seem like she’s letting things happen to her But gimme another 30 pages
I think what may look like she has no control maybe the spiritual element creeping in
Which I don’t think I have an answer about Yet….
I think our ideas of what is passive are maybe cultural
I don’t see Kelechi as passive at all
But thats probably cuz I have an idea of where she’s headed

In terms of process, you have an idea of where she’s headed, do you outline what’s coming or do you keep it in your head?

I keep it in my head
N as soon as I get a chance I write a note in my phone so I don’t forget
I talk about it a lot
But sometimes when I try and put it on paper the dialogues takes me somewhere else

Do you start out knowing the whole story or does it emerge?

I’m on my third play now
And I have Ideas for a beginning and end so I usually put down a scene the one that’s the most vivid in my head
I basically talk it oh and type and hope it links up
At the moment k write scenes and try to connect the dot
This play number three is the first one I’m trying to write chronologically
But I’m a third of the way through so that may not stick.
It’s emerging
The more I ask my parents questions
The more I ask the more I sit alone and talk to myself
But yeah it may be time to start story boarding when I get to play number 4!

some links to Ngozi:

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