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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 99: Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ (Dazzling)

Charlie and Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ (Dazzling) discuss Igbo mythology, the differences between polygamy and monogamy in Igbo culture, and the social impacts of colonialism and military coups in Nigeria. Chịkọdịlị also talks about having her characters bother her when she’s trying to shower, finding literature in rubbish heaps, and needing a literary residency – please let her know if you’ve one to spare!

Please note there are mentions of rape and general violence in this episode.

Release details: recorded 7th February 2024; published 10th June 2024

Where to find Chịkọdịlị online: Twitter || Instagram

Where to find Charlie online: Twitter || Instagram

Go back to the list of episodes


01:43 The starting point of Dazzling
04:54 The original narratives and the hows and whys of Chịkọdịlị’s choices in terms of points of view and tenses
07:41 Why Chịkọdịlị doesn’t have a favourite character and how she knows her characters
09:23 Is Chịkọdịlị writing a sequel? Shhh…
14:13 Chịkọdịlị tells us about how she worked on world building, which includes information about her childhood in Nigeria and how it compared to her initial years in the UK. She also discusses colonial and Christian impacts on Igbo culture
22:03 Why it was important to include the lack of family – Chịkọdịlị talks about polygamy in her culture and the differences between that and a one-mother family
29:08 The spirits and Igbo mythology in the book
34:32 Chịkọdịlị’s use of the leopard society, which is a factual society, and who they were in reality
39:47 The ‘lost girls’ in the book – the whys and hows and the connections to reality. And the ‘use’ of menstruation
44:15 The inclusion of politics and its importance – looking at the civil wars and coups
47:04 Bringing the Harmattan into what Chịkọdịlị’s been saying
49:25 What Chịkọdịlị is writing now


Please note that this transcript has been edited for legibility and is not a 100% accurate representation of the audio. Filler words and many false sentence starts have been removed, and words have been added in square brackets for clarity.

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole Podcast episode 99. Bringing on an author and talking with them, about one – occasionally more – of their books in detail. I’m Charlie Place and today I am joined by Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ. We’ll be talking today about her debut novel, Dazzling, the book with a cover that’s a perfect match. When she was a young child, Ozoemena had an itch, the day of her uncle’s funeral. A boy touched her itch in a way that gave her great pain, it was a very weird and rather violent episode. Also, her father disappeared. But now Ozoemena’s doing something very normal – she’s off to secondary school. She’s looking forward to getting away from her mother, who’s very exacting, and her older sister who clearly doesn’t like her. Ozoemena’s going to make friends, and she’s going to try and get around the problem of the leopard society she’s been forced into wherein she’s meant to find her ‘tether’ so she can keep the ghostly presence at bay from becoming too violent. Meanwhile we have Treasure’s story – a girl of a similar age whose family was doing okay until her father was killed; now Treasure and her mother are living in poverty, her mother sleeps most of the time, and one day when Treasure is trying to get some money a spirit appears. The spirit later tells her he’ll give her back her father if she brings his spirit friends wives. There is a lot that has gone into this book – Igbo mythology and folklore, Nigerian political history, boarding schools and their own ghost stories, coming of age and lack of family support and I’m going to stop there and welcome our author. Hello Chịkọdịlị!

Chịkọdịlị: Hello, thank you for having me, Charlie.

Charlie: I would like to ask you, what was the very starting point of this book for you? The very first bit of inspiration?

Chịkọdịlị: Probably Treasure’s voice in the marketplace. I couldn’t quite figure out who she was. Because of the way she spoke, I thought she was house help in Nigeria. A lot of house helps in Nigeria tend to be people who have been brought from villages and they are brought in exchange for… so their services in exchange for being educated in towns and cities. So their parents send them away – like the young ones, not the adult house help, but the young house helps get sent away because sometimes in villages there are one mouth too many. Their parents probably have too many children and so they send them away to the cities and to the villages and to the towns to work as domestic help in exchange for being able to be sent to school. And so because of the way that she speaks, I assumed she was one of those girls. For the longest time, I assumed she was one of those girls because her voice was very strong, which is why, I suppose, it comes across as well as it does, I’ve been told. Her voice was very strong and her story was very strong, and I sort of knew what her story was. I knew that her father was dead, but I didn’t realise that she was formally well to do until about a few months to the start of the book. When suddenly she’s talking ‘blah, blah, blah,’ about her father. ‘When my father was alive, this would never have happened.’ I’m thinking, ‘who are you? I thought you were somebody who was grateful to be in town.’ But no, it turns out that she’s had a whole other life before. She’s been forced to the streets and living in penury and having to look after her mother without any sort of recourse to any sort of funds, and also without any support of her own. She’s never had to be in this position before, and so she’s sort of feeling her way through with her wits. And the fact that she has a very strong will, like a desire not to be bowed by the things that have happened to her. And I suppose there’s a dash of spite in there because she has a lot of resentment towards the people who used to come every weekend to eat and drink at her father’s place, and who have since abandoned them since her father’s died. And it’s not just that they’ve abandoned them, it’s that they don’t even want to be associated with them because of the way that her father dies. And so she was the strongest one, I think, because she just wouldn’t shut up. And she was always talking at inopportune moments, like in church when they say, ‘let us pray’. Or when I’m in the shower [laughs] and I can’t do any writing, she was by far the stronger voice. But when it came to writing their stories, they were both equal, because Ozoemena is a totally different sort of person. She doesn’t talk too much. She spends a lot of her time observing and internalising. And her own kind of perseverance is very middle class, very proper. You know, ‘let’s not make a fuss. Let’s not kick off.’ Which is why when the Leopard begins to happen to her, for somebody like her who has a great deal of self consciousness, it can be quite problematic.

Charlie: Okay, well, you said about Treasure being a maid first. Did I read correctly, you had multiple narrators when you first wrote this book. You started with quite a few different people?

Chịkọdịlị: In other versions, no, it was still the two of them. It’s just I couldn’t quite figure out who was third person and who was first person.

Charlie: Okay.

Chịkọdịlị: That was the issue. Because I have a weird… I wouldn’t call it a phobia, but I have a problem with describing action in first person. It’s awkward. It’s awkward. ‘And then I punch this person in the face and then his teeth got’ – for me it’s awkward. Maybe it’s me being too literal. But when an action is happening and with Ozoemena it happens quite a bit where she’s often just overtaken by this leopard spirit and dashed on the floor and things like that – you’re not really reliving it, you’re not living it as it’s happening. Later on, you relive it. And because she is third person present, it’s awkward to describe certain things in the present. Even though it’s just two points of view, they go backwards and forwards in time. So when she’s going back, she’s third person omniscient. And when Treasure is going back in time, she’s first person, but she’s not present-present, she’s first person with that. So it’s two points of view. As I’m saying this, I’m thinking, gosh, I have had my book around here because now I don’t even know what I’m talking about! But it’s first person and it’s third person. So Ozoemena has third person because there’s a lot of action in her part. And Treasure is first person present because a lot of the stuff that she’s feeling is very much in the here and now, and coupled with the sort of voice that she had, it had to be present because she’s just going through it now and she’s spiteful of people and she’s making deals and all of that is happening now. Whereas Ozoemena had the luxury of – being the kind of person that she is – stepping away from it. Because she’s that kind of person, if you read the book, you see she’s not keen on drawing attention to herself, and if I had written her in first person, that would be very much me drawing attention to her irrespective of my own issues of not wanting to write the action from first person. She’s not that kind of person. She likes to be a bit removed from things, which enables her to be able to give things the reaction that they need. Because at the very beginning, I say things like, ‘she’s the kind of child who likes to scan and then produce the appropriate reaction’. She can’t do that if she’s having to react all the time. She responds to situations, but after she’s kind of climbed into it and dissected it first.

Charlie: Well, that was fascinating. I was interested in knowing about that, and you’ve just given me so much of an answer, I’m going to have to listen through this again, I think, to really take in everything you’ve said, yeah, that’s really fascinating. Do you have a favourite narrator, then you’ve said about Treasure being with you in the shower? [Chịkọdịlị: No] No?

Chịkọdịlị: No, I don’t have a favourite because I understand the both of them so well. I think I get very deeply what it is that makes them the way that they are. But more than that, I know their mums very well, and I know their dads very well as well. And so, because I know their mums and dads very well, I know what has been passed on. And because I know what has been passed on through instruction and lived experience, I know how the girls are going to react to every single thing that’s been thrown at them. I just know them. So it’s hard to have a favourite when you know people so well, because even when they are acting badly, it’s not misbehaviour; it’s a response or a reaction that has been born out of a lived experience or a shared experience, or that has been passed down. Even when I write characters that are horrible, people expect me to hate them, and I’m like, ‘I don’t actually hate them’. And maybe I will criticise people’s behaviour, but it’s very hard for me to criticise who they are, because I don’t know what it is that has led to your reaction, but I know your reaction, so it’s easy for me to criticise your reaction or to criticise your response to something. And so I don’t have a favourite for those reasons. It’s hard because I know exactly who they are. I know who their parents [are]. In fact, I know Treasure’s grandmother. I know who she is, and I know why Treasure’s mother is the way that she is. I know these people.

Charlie: That’s fascinating to know, and if I have heard correctly, you may be writing a sequel to this book? Is that where…

Chịkọdịlị: Who’s told you this? I feel like I’ve exposed myself somehow. Did I say that on Twitter? [Both chuckle.] Was it me? Did I say it on Twitter? Because I’ve got DMs saying, ‘oh, I hear you’re writing book two, who’s going to be in it?’ And I know the reason they’re asking me, who’s going to be in it, because a favourite character probably doesn’t make it, right. And so they want to know, given the world building that I’ve done in the book, and given how fluid the so called real world is from the spirit world, they want to know what the porosity level is like, can people come back? This is not Supernatural. People are not coming back and forth however they want! By Supernatural I mean, the TV show or even, what’s the thing I watched again? I’ve started watching again? The Vampire Diaries. Oh, people go and they die, and they come back, and they die, and they come back, and they die, and they come back. It’s like, no, this is not that. Not to give away a lot, but if they do come back, it’s not going to be in the manner in which they previously existed, because that will be in keeping with Igbo, cultural, and religious belief in that if you’re ever going to make it back, you’re not coming back in the same form. You’re not coming back into your same old life, into the same mistakes that you’ve made, into the same people who gave birth to you. You might come back along the same lineage, so, uncles and aunties might be reincarnated with cousins and brothers and all that stuff, but you’re not coming back in a way that is instantly obvious to anybody or instantly obvious to yourself. That’s all I’ll say about that!

Charlie: I don’t know. It sounds to me like you’ve done a lot of thinking about it as well, and that it sounds totally doable. Yeah, definitely. I think there’s at least one interview, I think, where you said about a Dazzling book, too. So I was like, ‘oh, that could be very interesting’!

Chịkọdịlị: I have to stop saying that. [Charlie laughs.] Yeah, to stop saying, because that people are going to kill me; because somebody sent me a message saying, ‘oh, I hear you have Dazzling book two ready’. I was like, ‘listen, it’s not even ready, okay’, like I started writing it, and I pitched two books, and my agent wanted me to go with the one I’m writing now. So I started it, and I’m one of those people… I’ve quickly figured it out, I was talking about this with somebody yesterday – I’m a muller. I will mull over something. But given the capitalist system in which we live, you have to justify your productivity somehow, right? This is not my agency, by the way, trying to push me, this is just when you’re a product of capitalism, you think in capitalist ways, right? So I’m trying to justify my own existence, but that’s not necessarily how art works. And so I started writing this thing, Dazzling book two, and this other book that my agent wanted me to write. And, I was writing it because I knew what the story was, but it wasn’t clicking. It was just something that I was writing – like, okay, fine, some of the scenes were just making me angry, and I was like, ‘oh, why are you talking like this, I hate you so much?’ And then one day, I was on the bus, as these things happen, and by one day, I mean two and a half weeks ago, and it just went ‘click’. She started talking again. ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,’ this character. So I rushed home, and in two and a half weeks, I’ve done almost 24,000 words.

Charlie: All right!

Chịkọdịlị: And so the previous version that I’ve done, now, I’ve had to discard. And that’s because I felt like I had to justify the period where I’m lying fallow. You have to lie fallow a bit, you have to let wildness grow so that you’ll be able to then decipher what it is the story shape is going to be. So that’s happened, so I’m happy, and I was I was like, ‘oh, yeah, she’s actually right. I’m just going to put Dazzling book to aside for a minute there’. Because I was thinking, what are you talking about? This is a good world to be in. And Dazzling book two is a strong story, in my head. I’m not afraid that I’m going to forget anything because, like I was just telling you, I know people’s histories, so even if they’re not the same characters, I know that world very well. It’s just one of those things that I’ve put Dazzling book to aside for a minute; so my agent was right, thank you, Lucy. And so I’m working on this other one that she really wanted to see first, and that’s going quite well.

Charlie: Okay, well, Dazzling is a great book, but everything you’ve said here [Chịkọdịlị: oh thank you], I am really, really, really excited to see where your career is going to go, my goodness. And I’m going to ask you about the book that Lucy wants you to write, that you’re writing, later. And also [both laugh] listeners, when Chịkọdịlị said about Dazzling book two, we’re going to forget that Chịkọdịlị has talked about Dazzling book two. None of this stuff is from this podcast [that] has already happened. None of it’s happened. We haven’t said anything. [Both laugh.] But you’ve said things that are making me think about the world building. You brought that in, and I don’t know how you do world building. It is amazing. What I do know is that you’ve managed to give us a world and a sense of place, a sense of time, without actually saying it. You’ve given us the little clues to put it together, and it’s very immersive. I suppose, I want to ask, can you talk more about how you went about the world building and the choices you made?

Chịkọdịlị: I don’t even know, you know, like these are the things I have to think about consciously, because – this is also the reason why I don’t teach – a lot of what I do feels intuitive. And for me to think about it, I’ll need to sit down. So, world building. Let me think. Let me think. Okay, so, a large part of the world building in Dazzling is influenced by Igbo culture. I’m Igbo, and more to the point, I grew up in Igbo land. So there are certain things that you don’t think that you are absorbing that just gets absorbed because I didn’t care much about being Igbo when I was at home, in fact, all I wanted to do was come back to the UK where I was born. I thought I was better than back home. Eww, I didn’t want to be there. It was so loud! Why is everybody so loud? It was so noisy. Why is everybody so noisy? Oh, all the generator sounds. Oh, the music! Oh, my God! But now, with the gift of hindsight, I’m able now to sort of separate out activities and separate out events and separate out stories. A lot of it is anecdotal knowledge, isn’t it? Blah, blah blah. You’re in the barbers salon or in the hairdresser shop, and people are talking ‘blah, blah, blah’ – as a child, because we don’t have salons for adults and for children, you’re in the salon with women who are just giving it all that. They don’t even care what their language is like, whether it’s coarse or not. And you close them up because children are not supposed to be heard, so they don’t even remember that you’re there, anyway. So a lot of this has been picked up through sort of osmosis, and also the other part of it has been picked up through – I was an avid reader. Like, I read everything. I would pick up stuff in rubbish heaps and read them just because there was the possibility that it’s something I’d never seen. So many people used to burn [it] like they would burn kindling. The best place to pick up – I can’t believe I’m saying this – aah! – my parents are going to be like, ‘why are you saying this?’ But the best place to pick up material to read that is burning, is near a school, and there was this school, there was this technical college, government technical college, GTC, where I lived. GTC was on the right hand side. And if you continue down the straight road, it led to the seminary. So the two rubbish heaps there are the best places for material. If you want to pick up something esoteric or some subject, some weird subject that you’ve never read before, or some manual or whatever, that’s where to pick it up. I mean, sometimes there was pornographic stuff as well, because if these seminary kids sneak in pornographic material, they’ll make them burn it. And there I go, instead of me going home from church, because that’s the way you take home, I’ll be like, ‘oh, let’s see what I can find!’ [Both laugh.] I’ll be going through it! But you had to do it in such a way that people weren’t… because it’s a shameful thing to be going through rubbish. And my parents were well to do, so people will tell them, ‘we saw her going through rubbish. You have to make sure that something is not…’ you know? And you see how Dazzling treats madness. Madness is something to be of which to be ashamed. And so a lot of that was me just assimilating and reading weird stuff. And this is why also, I’m a big fan of weird children. Children that are allowed to do all the stuff that just seems strange. You know, all these bullied children in school, those ones, they are the ones that have something that threatens their mates because they are already perceiving the world in a different way. And so I was very much that child, and I was very much bullied for it. And so I think that a lot of the world building came from just being within the culture. But then the other part of it was having that grounding in culture, in my culture, and then wanting to research it. So I say to a lot of interviewers that a lot of my hunger and a lot of my drive behind writing comes from the fact that I don’t know where I come from. So after my grandfather, there’s a blank in my family, there’s just nothing there. And a lot of it has to do with colonialism. They make you cut ties with people in your family who are not converting to Christianity, for instance, because light and darkness should have no unequal yoke or unequal footing. So you get rid of so many things. Now, the bad thing about that is Christianity tended to lump together things that were benign or even beneficial with things that were malignant in the culture, and so there’s a huge gap there. And growing up in what was left for us in the culture, it then meant that taking what I already knew – and sometimes not even knowing that I know it; because I speak the language, I take it for granted, right? I will just say things, and one day I will be saying something here in the UK and it will occur to me, hang on, examine the phrase that you’ve just said now. Yeah, fine, we all understand that the phrase means X, but the elements of this phrase points to something further. And so things like that, that you only begin to hear when there’s an absence of your culture or your language, or when you’re surrounded by other cultures and other languages that then allows you to enter yours in a way that you normally would not have. Because everybody speaks the language and everybody knows the culture, so you don’t really stop and examine it because it’s second nature to you. So in the absence, it took me coming and becoming part of the diaspora, to really investigate things that I had taken for granted, things that annoyed me – why are we loud? All these things that have cultural significances and why do we say this when we mean that? Why do we talk in such a roundabout way? And you find that it happens when people speak English as well, but they’ve been speaking other languages in Nigeria. They speak English in a roundabout way and it irritates people here because English is direct, it’s a direct language. Even in corporate speak, something, you say directly, ‘Per to our meeting on this day. These are the things that have come out of this meeting’. That’s not how we talk in Nigeria. We go round, you go round first and then you hit the matter on the head because it’s considered rude to just go… So a lot of things that will trip people up, I started to sort of examine it. Why is it that I was very able to switch when a lot of people had difficulty switching? There was class in there, there was also level of education in there. There were all these things that you do without actually thinking about them, and it forced me to think about them. And in dissecting them and studying the bit that I had dissected, it allowed me to build a world of Dazzling that wasn’t just made up of those cultural components that I grew up with, but were made up of conscious choices that I had made to present the culture in a way that people outside – while they’re not a part of it, while they might not understand all of it – were willing to still go along with it and trust the process. And so that’s basically what I did.

Charlie: That’s interesting. And I suppose, furthering what you’ve said, I can see where the mythology has come in and where it’s important to you. Certainly you’ve definitely got the mentions of mass and church, and then you’ve obviously got the mythology in altogether. Yeah, that’s really interesting. And I think I’m going to be asking something that will cycle us back to that in a bit. But I want to take us back, actually, you were saying about how you know everything about the mothers in this book, the fathers in this book. There is a lot going on with the mothers, not so much with the fathers in the book, because they’re not there. [Chịkọdịlị: Yes], but I wanted to ask you about why it was important, I suppose, and also how, maybe, if this makes sense, how it was important to you to include this lack of family and explore that and everything that goes along with it?

Chịkọdịlị: So my… also, I’m talking very African now. I’m like, okay, this is the question, but I’m just going to go over here first. Like follow me!

Charlie: Go with it.

Chịkọdịlị: So my dad, his dad married, and then that wife died, and then his dad married somebody else. But already his dad was a catechist; he converted to Christianity quite young. And so there was none of that polygamous thing. But some of my grandfather’s brothers were polygamous. So I had that unique experience of coming from a nuclear family and coming from a monogamous system, and having relatives that didn’t come from a monogamous system as well. So we had a different sort of support system to the cousins – so the cousins from polygamous families had a totally different support system to the support system that I knew. They each other’s business, they knew everybody’s business, and they knew each other’s business as well, which we found sort of irritating. But it has its advantages, because the same way they are in each other’s business is also the same way… one of them cannot simply disappear or fall ill without all of them suddenly, like, ‘One of us is gone. Let’s go and find where they are. And if he’s been taken, one of us has been taken, we are going to fight.’ So a lot of Dazzling is a book of halves. In this case, it’s polygamy versus, or extended family versus, the nuclear family. And with the nuclear family unit, you don’t have that as much because everybody minds their business because it’s more enlightened and more civilised to mind your business. And all of this also was an advent of the British systems. One man, one wife. And the family unit is [puts on a deeper, booming voice] mother, father and children [now back to regular voice]. Whereas it was father, mothers, and children. And each woman was responsible for both her children and everybody else’s children because there were rivalries, there were jealousies and things like that but ultimately their goal was to add to the social cohesion of the family unit as well as to the numbers of the family. So the bigger the family you had, the more important and the more established you were. And so the nuclear family option, I wanted to show what the detriment of that [is]. Because obviously a lot of people, you can touch anybody and they’ll be able to tell you what the demerits of polygamy are. They can tell you even if they haven’t experienced it themselves, but they are not so keen or they are not so aware of the demerits of monogamy as a system because you don’t have anything else to compare it with. Like people just dying. Notice how in Dazzling. When Emmeneki disappears, her [Ozoemena’s] mum just kind of locks up shop. Fine, she has a few people come to do his job-job for him. But none of them really comes into the family to ask her how she’s doing. ‘What can I do for your children? Can I take them to school?’ None of that, she just locks everybody out. And she can only accept help in an area in which she is not in charge. So in charge of the hospital; she only accepts help there, but it’s not really help for her because she’s a pharmacist. She’s very particular. Now, in regards to Treasure’s family, I didn’t want to just show the evils of polygamy, because Treasure’s parents are not polygamous, but they come from polygamous households. So Treasure’s dad has other brothers and half brothers. And I didn’t want it to be a criticism of polygamy per se, I wanted it to be a study of what happens when one person in a polygamous household makes it, like very much crabs in the barrel. It’s like he had to leave them behind in order to make it. But then when he made it, there was none of that support for his wife and children. And in fact, what they did was come and take his property because he didn’t have any men. And so I wanted to not just explore the monogamy versus polygamy or the lack of support versus the support and in what sort of field those are, but I wanted to take subsets of the different support systems and kind of hold them up to each other. Because in the end we see that Ozoemena’s support system – she still has a way of making that support system for herself – is a newer more modern sort of support system akin to what we have over here, where people have their friends as their support system. And there’s even a bit in Dazzling that got removed where they have this sleepover. And Ozoemena’s mum is not pleased because ‘what are you sleeping over in my house for? Don’t your mothers have things for you to do? Go home’, that kind of thing. And then on Treasure’s part, even though she’s come from a polygamous family and should have had that support, the fact of her father’s wealth separates her entirely from it. And so the person in her life that is her support system is actually a spirit. Except you can’t be somebody’s support system if your own needs take precedence. Because the idea of support system is one hand washes the other, and for him it’s very much one hand washes the other until one hand wants something else, and then he’s going to try and force the other hand to do it. And so I just wanted to explore the way that African societies are changing, not just in modern society or in semi-rural society, but also within the individuals themselves. Because it’s about the expectation now of what people can do for you. Are people expected to be there to support you or are you supposed to support yourself? And what is it that deep down inside people feel is the right way of going about it? What are the pitfalls of both ways of thinking and being, I suppose?

Charlie: Okay, yeah, so the divide there of those two very different ways of living almost. Yeah.

Chịkọdịlị: Yeah, but the divide is not even like straight down the middle; it’s little subsets of comparison where the person who’s come from a polygamous area that should have support doesn’t because, ‘well, you had the curse of wealth, didn’t you? And now, oh’, you know? So they’re very willing to have your wealth, but they’re not willing to support you because you’re not a boy, you’re not the right kind of child. And also, your dad didn’t support them when they were… But then there’s the other part of it where the mum who, like Prisca, she does the thing where she locks herself away. But her child now is seeking out support, non-traditional or non-monogamous systems, non-nuclear systems of support, the way that it would have been in the old days. And she’s very particular with Ozoemena about her friends. She doesn’t want them quickly. It takes a traumatic event at the beginning with the examination to bond them quickly. But she would do anything for her friends, and that’s how family is supposed to be, isn’t it? Whereas we have Treasure’s own family – family, your blood tie, and they just abandon her. So I just thought it was interesting to look at.

Charlie: Well, on Treasure, you said about the spirit, and I wanted to ask about that. I mean, I suppose it comes into mythology in general, but can you tell us more about your use of the spirit in this case? And I know it kind of links into the very beginning of your book where you’ve got Idemeli, the goddess, I think it is? Yeah, I just wanted to ask you, can you tell us about your interpretation, use, that sort of thing here

Chịkọdịlị: Yeah, so, spirits in Igbo culture are not white sheets flying about, and they are not translucent. They are very much like you and me; you could pass spirit on the way and you wouldn’t know, which is why children are always urged to be polite and respectful of elders, to help them out – because you don’t know who it is you’re passing! It’s not just that it could be a spirit, but it could be your ancestral spirit, which is a whole other case. If you’re rude to an ancestor, man, you’re screwed. You’re screwed, because in place of blessing, now you have a curse, and ahh, no. So the spirits in Dazzling are very much a part of the real world. However, where I tweaked it a bit so that it was different from Igbo mythologies, I didn’t want it to be all the spirits being able to come back, I wanted it to be something that you could do with maturity; so the longer you are dead, the stronger you got, and the more you are able to breach those membranes through which spirits interact with the physical world. Which is why Treasure’s dad, who’s only been dead for a year, obviously can’t have the power yet to breach and has to be taught by an older spirit. So I switched that around. In reality, in Igbo culture, people could die right now here in East Sussex and knock on their friend’s door in Newcastle, and a friend is like, ‘oh, you came!’ Like, ‘oh, yeah, I came!’ And they give you food, and they give you drink, and then your phone rings and you go, ‘oh, one moment,’ and you go to the phone and they’re like, ‘oh, we just want to tell you that your friend died’. You’re like, ‘what are you talking about? He’s just gone to the loo’. And then you go to the loo, and eek! They’re not there any more, they’ve gone. And that’s because spirits appear very much like you and me, in our culture. Now, the one way that you know a spirit is a spirit is by bending over and looking through your legs. And usually their feet are supposed to be hovering about an inch or so off the ground. But it’s one of those things that spirits in my culture are supposed to actively discourage, so they will strike you down, that sort of thing. And so I made it in the book so that she’s trying to pick something up when she realises that this man’s legs are not touching the floor. I just wanted to have someone that was very much a part of our world, if not necessarily of the world. And it was supposed to mirror Ozoemena’s own supernatural, otherworldly, concerns in that these things, they very much interact as normal. And so in Treasure’s case, for instance, while she doesn’t have her human family – or even, I mean, we open with the markets, right? She’s in the market. She’s trying to get food for the little amount she has left, and it’s money that has been given to her from funeral goers during her father’s funeral a year before. And she’s got people eventually to give her little sums here and there, she’s trying to spend it on food for her mum. She’s not spent on anything frivolous. That’s another thing, I wanted to make sure that she wasn’t… most children, if you give them a pound or five pounds, they’re going to go to the sweetie shop and buy sweets. But she’s already ahead of the curve in that she knows that they need food, so she’s trying to buy food and all of that stuff in the marketplace. And so the one place in which, funny enough, people see her [laughs] is in the spirit world, because spirits are usually unseen, like, you just assume they’re part of you; they’re just like people. It takes a while for you to decipher that they are spirits. And likewise, she’s like a walking spirit, but like, a spirit like we know them in this part of the world; she’s almost invisible to people. They want her to go away. They want her to disappear. They want her to just ‘leave the front of my shop’. She’s like one of the great unseen. And the one person who not only sees her but tries to care for her is a spirit. And that’s because also, the spirit knows what it’s like to be unseen because he has a few particulars surrounding his death; he knows what it is not to be and not to be seen, and so he understands that it’s not just that she is not being seen, but that the one person who has always seen her all her life is dead, and she will do anything to have him back, because with him will come the status and the love and affection that allows her to be seen. So that’s why the spirit is there, to show that juxtaposition.

Charlie: Yeah, it’s interesting. And yes, certainly talking to you about this and listening to you tell us, has given me a greater appreciation for this whole thing of independence and the girls kind of coming into their own instead of leaning on their fathers, definitely. I feel I have to bring in the Leopard Society. It wasn’t something I knew about, and then I thought, I’ll carry on reading your book and work out what I need to search on Google and stuff. And then I came across the Leopard Society. Can you tell us how you’ve incorporated this? Because I think it’s factual, some of it [Chịkọdịlị: yes], and you’ve kind of incorporated it into your book. Can you tell us how you’ve done it, etcetera, and that sort of thing?

Chịkọdịlị: I wanted to show a Leopard Society that was changing with the times. I keep saying a lot of Dazzling is about a world in flux. It’s about changing from one system to the other. And I wanted to show a very traditional, very macho society, very secret society that was also having to deal with being in this world or being influenced [by] or from this world. So I did it through the lineage thing as well. I mentioned earlier in this podcast that Igbo reincarnations happen along familial lines, which is why Igbo people are encouraged to have children. If you’re married and within three months your stomach is not swelling, people will start asking you, how, ‘How come? What’s happening?’ The whole idea of waiting to be financially viable is a recent one. They’re like, ‘no, no, have children. We’ll help you. It’s fine,’ – going back to the idea of support again. Like, ‘do you need somebody to come and live with you? That’s fine. We’ll live with you. You can go to work. Just leave the baby for me. But just have them.’ And so part of it, even though a lot of Igbo people don’t know, because a lot of things have been eroded with Christianity and colonialism, is that we’re encouraged to have children because you need to have a place into which you can reincarnate. Now, the reason that it falls to Ozoemena is not just because all the world that I mentioned in Dazzling, all the worlds that Igbo people believe in are all interconnected, but also because on a very real level, the uncle who gives her this Leopard Society spirit doesn’t have any children of his own. And so by that virtue, he has to pass it on to someone, and he passes it on to her. I don’t even think I need to say I was feminist before I even knew what the word ‘feminism’ was, because there were five of us girls, and you couldn’t tell any of us anything. So I needed to make sure that the sort of world that Ozoemena lived in, with all its challenges, doesn’t need brute force. It doesn’t need the kind of brute force of the Leopard societies of yore. Now, the Leopard societies of yesteryear were people who formed a secret society, and their job was law and order and fighting off external influences. And they were not like the army, we had Igbo warriors that were like proper Igbo warriors. They’ll mount their successful ambushes, they will go to war and all that kind of stuff. These ones were highly, highly secretive. And I think I can even go as far as to say that people in the groups were not exposed to one another. They might know that they were each other, but they were not exposed to one another. It was all a very secret thing. And their job was to carry out – I don’t want to say extra judicial killings, but maybe that – it was their job to make sure that people didn’t do anything that offended any gods or goddesses that would then punish the whole community. So, like, rape, for instance, they wouldn’t just allow somebody to rape somebody. It wouldn’t be like, ‘oh, we’re going to go before the council of elders,’ because it’s very much a he says, she said thing. It wouldn’t be one of those things where people will know, because then the girl might be shamed and her family might be shamed and they might have to forcefully marry her off to the person who raped her. But they would go and they would kill this person and they would scatter the person’s body, entrails, everything ,as a warning to others and as an appeasement to the goddess, to the earth goddess, Ani, to make sure that the taboo of rape – anything that happens on top of the ground is a taboo of the earth goddess – to make sure that she was appeased, to say, ‘look, we’ve cleansed the land now, look, blood has been spilled’, that kind of thing. But I thought that the Leopard Society in this era, it would not fit because countries are divided into so many borders. There’s the UN, there are so many regulatory bodies. Can you imagine trying to kill people like that? You would get wiped out; they will set the army or something to wipe you out. So I needed something or somebody who was used to operating under the radar. Enter a girl. A girl who will grow up to be a woman. Even in the most enlightened societies, a lot of people will still try to talk out of the side of their mouths to women and tell them how they are inferior and how they should be in the kitchen. But what they don’t realise is when you are the oppressed party, you’re used to surviving a different way. You’re used to surviving on wits, on your resilience, on your cunning. Like, there are different ways; it’s not always brute force, but there’s a lot of glorification of brute force and violence. And I didn’t think that a recent modern Leopard would be that sort of person. There would be somebody who had to do their business without being unmasked or discovered or stopped. And so that was why I made it, so that Ozoemena, as a recent Society member, inherits this thing, and true to being a girl, acts like the Leopard spirit would be if it was carried by women.

Charlie: It seems the right place to ask this question here; you’re talking about murder and bodies and things, and it’s made me think of this one. But you’ve got Treasure who is looking to get the spirit different wives for his friends. And you have also got Ozoemena’s… what she’s doing with the Leopard, as you’ve explained. And I was wondering if you could say something about, I suppose you’d call it the ‘lost girls’, the girls who are going missing and things aren’t happening [Chịkọdịlị: yes]. We’re losing girls, literally and figuratively. And I was wondering if there was something here – maybe a metaphor… okay, not a metaphor – but a similarity to war and people going missing and things. But I suppose I wanted to ask you why you had this whole thing in there?

Chịkọdịlị: When there is a war, and there’s very much a war, it’s just that it’s not a war that we can see being fought, it’s a war in the supernatural realm. It’s usually women and girls, women and children are affected first. And so I wanted to show that it’s usually the most vulnerable in society who are affected whenever there’s any sort of… you know, men are doing their thing, and even the looking for the bride, it’s not a woman’s pursuit. Fine! Treasure does it because she wants her father back, because she wants to be seen as she wants status in society, and she wants his love, but it’s not a thing that she wants. She’s not going around thinking, ‘oh, I’m just going to have you. I’m going to have you, I’m going to have you.’ So having that male interest drive the loss of these girls felt very realistic to me, because it’s what happens all the time. Now, the second reason why I had the girls become lost girls and the girls get missing is because still, on the continent, a lot of girls are valued only for how they can reproduce, which is very much the central message here. This spirit doesn’t really care about who they are, et cetera, et cetera. And even Treasure herself just only justifies her involvement by looking for the worst kind of girls. Girls that are sacrificed for the ability to possibly bear offspring for these spirits, or to bear these spirits to give birth to them again. But not girls that have any sort of positive contributions to society. And she justifies that by saying, ‘well, they were this or they were that. They were rude, they were a thief. They were…’ whatever. But it’s funny that it doesn’t really matter to this spirit as long as they’re just girls; he doesn’t really care what they are like, as long as ‘just get me the girls’. And that’s because I wanted to show how there’s no discrimination. You see, both these girls, even from being first upper class and then becoming low class, and then having this middle class girl – both of them, and the lost girls, hasn’t any sort of significance other than what society has placed on them. And that was what I wanted to show with the girls.

Charlie: Yeah; I noticed, I probably took too long to realize what you were doing, but I saw that there was freedom in menstruation, which makes it a strong point in itself, yeah, definitely.

Chịkọdịlị: Yeah. Because in Igbo culture, menstruation is supposed to be this massive taboo thing. And usually before you step into anywhere, they ask you, ‘oh, my gosh, are you menstruating?’ They have a way of asking that. And I just thought, ‘what if…?’ you know? A lot of these things that happen in cultures or that happen in mythology or folklore, they have different origins. They have totally different origins. And after a while, it either gets conflated with something else, or the meaning changes to mean something bad. I thought, if the power of these girls is tied into this thing that they can do, that nobody else can do… we know that they already have been made to feel shame about menstruating. Like it’s something that is supposed to be hidden. ‘Oh, my God, you’ve got a stain on your skirt, eww!’. It’s a whole thing. And I thought, okay, that’s true. But it’s funny that they don’t realise how much power that they have, that to step into somewhere, if you’re menstruating, you can’t come in there, because the idea is that you’re going to nullify whatever charms, whatever potions, whatever spells have come before. You’re just going to die. Like, just flat. Like flat line, no battery. They haven’t realised that that is something that they can twist and use. I mean, not in this book, at least, but maybe in the next one. I don’t want to give too much away, but, yeah.

Charlie: [Starts quickly] That book that doesn’t exist, that we’re not talking about [laughs].

Chịkọdịlị: Yeah, yeah, we’re not talking about it [laughs].

Charlie: Okay, well, I’m going to pivot a bit from this, then, what you’ve been saying with these last few questions – something that I interpreted, and it was something that I was thinking about a lot, at least at the start of your novel, because it was the first realisation I had, so I suppose my brain kind of took it and went, ‘oh, does this fit? Does this fit?’ How important was politics to your narrative?

Chịkọdịlị: Politics is tied into every facet of Nigerian life. And the thing about Nigerian politics is, when I was growing lot, it felt a lot fairer, because… well, I don’t know… I mean, when I say ‘fairer’ I mean, we had just… I grew up after the Nigerian Civil War, and I was aware of politics as a result. It was the Igbo and a few other ethnic groups in the south, tried to secede from the bigger Nigeria. And so it’s sort of drummed into you as a child, even if you’re not aware of what the talking points are or what it is you should be afraid of, you are very aware of what you should not say outside. And you are very aware that you should not be drawn on politics outside because you don’t know who is listening, and they will come at night and they will take you and your family and you disappear, all of you. And this was during the military rule. And so, this is why I don’t go into too much detail about the politics, because I needed it to be true to what a nine, ten, eleven year old girl would experience, which is, ‘this thing is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. But I don’t really know much about it. I just know what I shouldn’t do and how I should keep myself safe. And I know that there are flyers everywhere. Everywhere is papered over with flyers. I know that my parents probably support this political party, but we’re not supposed to talk about it.’ Because you can’t even talk about it with your friends; there’s no guarantee that your friends won’t tell their parents, and their parents might be people in power, and now you’re in trouble. And so I needed it to be prevalent, like air. I needed it to be everywhere. I say like air but maybe like pollution, like dust. It’s everywhere, and they interact with it and they can’t really get rid of it. They don’t even have the power to get rid of it, but they can also choose to ignore it. They can carry on their lives alongside it or with it hanging over their heads or whatever, without directly interacting. Now, because they’re already born into a position of powerlessness, relative powerlessness, to everybody else, they’re also very aware that the adults around them, who might not even be their own parents, like just adults in society, might have affiliations that will cause them to riot or to fight, and they need to keep away from such things. And so it’s very much a book about how politics dictates everything, including the way that they don’t talk about politics, because what do they know, right? But also how there’s that whole uneasy feeling of ‘oh, something’s going to kick off soon’. And that’s the feeling I got when I was growing up, it was always, ‘oh, something is going to kick off ,’ because I had been born in the shadow of the Nigerian Civil War.

Charlie: You were saying there you brought in dust. Is this where the harmattan comes in? Your use of the harmattan?

Chịkọdịlị: Yes [laughs]. The harmattan was one of those things – I don’t know, it probably still is – one of those things that plagued our lives. Dust from the Sahara, just every time. You could clean it, go to rinse out the rag you’ve cleaned it with, and come back, and there’s dust again! What a very, very, clever association, by the way, and I didn’t realise I talked about dust now, but it’s one of those things that, writing this book, I wanted to capture that unease, because it’s your job, it’s your chore to clean the dust as a child, and I wanted to capture that unease of it’s not even just your home situation, you’re not just internally in turmoil. In the first circle of your relationships, there’s also turmoil. There’s turmoil everywhere. And you’re a child, a powerless child in the midst of all this turmoil, and now somebody has given you power. Go. Do you see what I mean?

Charlie: Yeah.

Chịkọdịlị: That was why it was written like that. Everything in Dazzling is sort of adversarial. Even when you don’t first realise it, everything is sort of adversarial. And I think that was very much how I felt growing up. I felt very… like I just had no power. The only power you had was the power to do well in exams, which is why a lot of Nigerians are very competitive, because that’s the one place that you have any control, is how well you do in exams. That also came in Dazzling, doesn’t it? Because she’s worried about not doing well in exams; that’s the one place she’s expected to do well, in exams. What she’s supposed to do well in life is passing her exams, and she’s worried about that because that’s the only thing you’re supposed to have any control over. And even Ozoemena finds that she doesn’t have control over that. Or she has control, but she has one mark to go, and now suddenly her whole life is spinning completely out of control. That’s how easy it is to feel out of control as a child. And I really wanted to capture that.

Charlie: It seems, from what you’re saying, even more controversial than it might often be considered, that there’s some cheating going on in the exams, then, with the friends.

Chịkọdịlị: That’s why they’re trying to help each other, like, ‘let’s help each other out!’ Because it’s very much all for one and one for all. You just have to do it, like, ‘let’s just do it!’ So even though she doesn’t want to, the fear of not having any control over this one aspect of her life is greater than the cheating in exams. That fear is much bigger.

Charlie: Yeah, yeah. I need to ask you what are you writing now? Is it called Forked or something? Or was called?…

Chịkọdịlị: [Surprised] Who’s telling you these things? [Charlie laughs.] Oh, I should keep my mouth shut! Yeah, it’s not called Forked any more, because I didn’t like it, I changed it to Civet. The one I’m working on right now is called Civet. And the reason it’s called Civet, it’ll become clearer, but civets are this little Western African… you can find them in the sub-Sahara. I know, right? What is it with me and animals? First the leopard, now a civet! But they’re basically one of those animals that are used for a lot of things, like for perfume production. And so the musk from civets, which to extract, sometimes you have to kill the animal. The musk from its anal gland is used for these perfumes all around the world, which is why they are endangered as well, because people have haunted them to near extinction. Now, luckily, the reason that they are not extinct is because civets are very secretive. Like, ‘good luck trying to find me. Oh, you have to do like this before you can find one.’ They’re good at hiding. So if people are hunting with any measure of success, it’s because they are going into habitats. They are stalking them, they are having to wait and be patient. And the reason that it’s called Civet is because my central character in it is somebody who was an ugly duckling and has just very recently blossomed and has caught the eye of this older gentleman who might or might not be nefarious. Because she was always the ugly duckling she sort of had to be the supporting cast to a lot of stars in her life. And now suddenly, she’s having to shine, except a lot of these girls that she’s friends with have shone for a much longer time, so they know how to navigate being beautiful, and it’s just suddenly been thrust upon her. Yeah, she reminds me of a civet in that she’s very, very, valuable, but also not much of a looker, and might be more useful than she ever envisaged in her life. Let’s just put it that way.

Charlie: Okay. Yeah, I can see where you’re going with that.

Chịkọdịlị: I probably have something to exercise, right? [Laughs.] But I don’t know what it is, hopefully it will reveal itself, but she’s thrust into the limelight and she’s wooed and she’s dined and… yeah, it’s going to be one of those ones that might destroy me, but it’s still going to get written because she started talking and I was like, ‘okay, well, I guess it’s time for me to write your story, right?’ I know she survives, let’s put it that way, I know she survives whatever ordeal it is because she’s talking in the first person past tense. Unless she’s dead! [Takes a deep dramatic breath.] God, I hope not [both laugh]. But I know she survives; I hope she survives. And I’m really excited about her journey because I know more and more about her now. And each time I go to bed, she reveals herself a little bit more, before I fall asleep; because I don’t really dream about characters that much or at all, but I know who she is and I know why she is the way that she is and I know why she reacts to things the way she reacts to them. And I know why she is willing to be swept up in this world because it doesn’t happen to her. It doesn’t happen to her. Now it’s happening. So should be fun!

Charlie: I’m very excited about that [Chịkọdịlị laughs] I’m looking forward to that, my goodness. Yeah. How far through are you? Are we looking at like 2025, 2026?

Chịkọdịlị: Hopefully 2025. Because I know Wildfire have first refusal. So if they don’t like it, then it’ll go out on submission – I think they have first refusal anyway. Although maybe if my agent listens to this and I’m saying the wrong thing, she’s probably going to be screaming and throwing things at the… [louder voice] ‘shut up! Oh my gosh.’ But I think they do have first refusal and if they like it, then hopefully they’ll publish it. If they don’t like it, hopefully it’ll go somewhere else. But I just do my part and then leave the rest of the stuff to other people who do their parts and everything will turn out okay. But I was hoping to have finished it last year and like I said, I took a lot of time to mull. Now I know I’m one of those people that needs three to six months of… just somebody sponsor me, like some grant money where I don’t have to do any kind of like thinking about bills and stuff because that is what makes the guilt writing happen, where you feel like you have to be productive. And especially having a whole household to manage; I have two children, a dog, I have seven guinea pigs. There’s just a lot to keep track of and I think part of my process going forward would have to involve trying to get some sort of grant or scholarship that will sustain me for those periods where I’m just mulling.

Charlie: Well, listeners, if there is anyone among you who happens to have some sort of management over literature residency programs, Chịkọdịlị, you know where to find her [Chịkọdịlị laughs]. Go and give it to her.

Chịkọdịlị: Yes, yes, like all the lords and all the ladies [Charlie laughs] in the old days, they used to have an artist who will be dependent on a lord or a lady or a duke or duchess. I’ll put you in the books, it’s fine. You can be a benefactor in the books as well, it’s fine.

Charlie: Chịkọdịlị, it has been an absolute pleasure having you today. Thank you very much for coming on the podcast.

Chịkọdịlị: Thank you so much for having me. I can’t wait to hear from people when they finish listening to it.

[Recorded later] Charlie: I hope you enjoyed this episode. Do join me next time, and if you have a moment to spare, please do leave a rating and or review of this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Podcast Addict thank you! The Worm Hole Podcast episode 99 was recorded on the 7th February and published on the 10th June 2024. Music and production by Charlie Place.

Photo credit: The Visual Team.


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