Meet Artist Protection Fund fellow Michael Okpanachi
In the fall 2022 semester, Wayne State University's English department welcomed a new instructor, Artist Protection Fund Fellow, Michael Okpanachi. A Nigerian writer, Okpanachi’s works appear under his pen name, Pwaangulongii Dauod. He has published widely and his writing has garnered recognition through fellowships and awards.
His 2016 essay, “Africa’s Future Has No Space for Stupid Black Men,” reflects on the life and death of the author’s friend, C. Boy, who created the Party BomBoy (PBB), a “club that served LGBT people, a space where they could network and find expression. A warm brotherhood for people of ‘like passions’ living in a society that demonises them.”
Published in Granta, the essay won the Gerald Kraak Award for non-fiction; the award honors African writing and “provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality.” The publication of "Africa’s Future" led to persecution in his home country. Okpanachi is currently an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at WSU and City of Asylum / Detroit. In fall of 2022 he taught ENG 5885 Topics in Creative Non-Fiction. In Winter 2023, Okapanchi will teach ENG 5860: Topics in Creative Writing.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to talk with him over Zoom. In our interview, he shares how he began his journey to becoming a writer, his motivation to write and the advice he’d give writers.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How long have you been writing? What did that journey look like for you?
That’s a tricky question. I started reading books in my late teens and I’ve been professionally writing for five or six years. But I’ve been making a whole lot of attempts to do that some years before that.
Was writing something that you were always interested in doing?
Not really, no. I didn’t read books as a child. There were no books around. It wasn’t until I went to university that I started reading books. I’m sure that for everyone that reads, there is that pull to write. The moment when I started reading on campus at the university, there was a huge pull to involve my own imagination. As a young person on campus, I was very angry at all the things I saw and the things happening around me. I decided to start making an attempt to put my thoughts down. Writing wasn’t something I wanted to do as a child or in my teenage years. It was much later when I decided to do it.
I can relate to that. I also became more interested in literature and language when I started university. Was university where you learned that language had power?
I was born and grew up in a village. I spent my early years not speaking English. When I moved to a city where English was the primary language, I had to learn the language. Literary language came to me on campus. That power was too strong for me to resist. I wanted to engage with it and use it in unique ways. I’m always in awe of people who encounter literary language and don’t use it to write. I’m in awe of them because I think it is very impossible to come in contact with that kind of language and its power and escape the pull to tell your own stories.
I read your essay “Africa’s Future Has No Space for Stupid Black Men” and found it to be powerful and deeply emotional. It brought me to tears at points. Is your writing often motivated by emotion?
It has to be in an emotional space for me. It has to be connected, in one way or the other, to my own life. I’m working on a couple of projects now, a novel and a book of essays and both books look at my life, my family, my history, my country and my continent. These are the driving forces for my writing. I’m trying to look at the emotional conflict I have experienced for years. So, the kind of writing that I’m doing right now in this stage of my life is motivated by my attempt to bring some of the lives I’ve lived or things I’ve experienced to my writing.
Could you tell me more about what you’re working on?
The novel looks at my family from the life of my grandfather, a soldier in the Second World War. He fought on the side of the British. The British, as we know, colonized Nigeria. My grandfather was recruited during the colonizing and then he fought in the forests in Burma. Before the war, he was married with children. Then after the war, he refused to have anything to do with his family. Shortly after that, some years later, he committed suicide. The novel traces the family trauma to find some form of meaning in the interpretation of his life and the lives of the current members of the family. I was looking at his life, my father, my uncles and my siblings. It will also look at the general themes of colonizing and its after-effects.
For the collection of essays, I’m using the title of the essay that you read, “Africa’s Future Has No Space for Stupid Black Men” and will look at some of the problems I saw in Africa. I’m trying to think about why we have been the way we are for decades and have not had much development. I’ll be examining why we have not become a continent of prosperity and why there is so much poverty, misery and underdevelopment on the continent. These are some of the questions that I’ll be looking at in this collection of essays. I want to speak from my history and use the experiences I’ve had over the years from my village to the various cities I’ve lived in across Nigeria.
Wow, both of those projects sound powerful. What led you to Detroit and WSU?
I’m a fellow with City of Asylum Detroit and in collaboration with them, Wayne State University’s English department offered me a teaching position here. Cities of Asylum are found all across the world. Detroit’s was founded some years ago and I’m their inaugural fellow. They invite writers, artists, or intellectuals who face risks or threats in their home countries and because of that, they aren’t able to pursue their creative endeavors there. City of Asylum provides their fellows an opportunity to create. So far, it’s been good. I’m grateful to my hosts, City of Asylum, Professor Maun and the English department for helping to create this teaching fellowship. I’m lucky to be here.
That’s great. How has teaching your class been going so far this semester?
It’s been wonderful. I love my students. I missed teaching. I used to teach some years ago. When I found out there was a chance to teach here, I grabbed it wholeheartedly. The thing about teaching creative writing is how you teach and learn at the same time. A student creates original work for class and I’m astounded by the level of imagination and commitment the student has. That pushes you as a writer or creative person. My students motivate me a lot. I greatly benefit from being a teacher in the classroom. I couldn’t be more grateful.
What writing lesson or writing tip do you share with your students?
What I always tell my students is that honesty makes the best writing. You must be honest with your emotions, talents and time. When you commit to that honesty, it comes with discipline and being receptive to criticism and feedback. I’m lucky in this class. All my students are committed to the idea of writing. They are writers at heart. My most significant responsibility is to guide them to the real heat of writing. To meet that heat and explore it in a way that improves their writing and cherishes their imagination. These are the real ingredients of true writing.
That sounds like a great environment for writing. I had wanted to enroll in your class this semester, but unfortunately, I couldn't fit it into my schedule. Do you have plans to teach another course next semester?
Yes, I’m teaching a fiction writing class this Winter [ENG 5860]. I’m looking forward to that. The course will be looking at encounters in literature. We’ll be looking at where different races, cultures or civilizations meet and the tensions or conflicts that happen.
What is your writing process like? What does your space look like if you're sitting down to write?
If I'm working to meet a deadline, I try to be as formal as possible. To wake up every day and write. Every day, I commit to writing maybe one to two thousand words. If I am free-styling or writing something else, I can write any day, any time. At night, in my office or a park or café. The most important thing for me is to read while I write. It's very impossible for me to do any serious writing without reading a separate book. Sometimes the book will have similar themes or form, but something to keep my imagination alive. It helps keep me in the same space for writing. It helps with inspiration all the time. You'll be in bed reading and a line inspires you. So, you jump up and run to your desk to write for two hours.
What advice do you have for writers?
Inspiration as motivation is overrated. You're not always going to be inspired, but you have to commit to the process. A banker wakes up and goes to the bank because he knows he has a job that he has committed to. A writer cannot wake up every day waiting for inspiration to come. You must wake up every day and be committed to your writing. Say, "I'm going to do this." You must force the water to come if the faucet is not running. Part of my advice to writers is how to force things to come when you're not emotionally available for them to happen. Of course, it is hard for me to do, but if we really want to be serious writers, we have to commit to processes like that.
That’s helpful advice. I’m going to hold on to that for my writing practice. What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given about writing?
The first draft is always crap.
Who has been the biggest supporter of your writing?
It’s a whole lot of people. I’m a product of kindness. I’m here because many people have supported me the whole way. It would be cruel only to name one person when so many people have helped me along the way. Some people haven’t read what I’m writing, but they are still so committed to me becoming a writer. They know what I want to become and they have supported me with all that they could or had over the years. I couldn’t name just one person or institution because there are so many, from Nigeria to my village, to the cities here in America and all the places their kindness has taken me to. I’m really grateful. I’m a complete product of people’s kindness.