Nkem Ndem is a popular Nigerian writer and editor. Her column ‘Nkem Says’ on BellaNaija which is being featured on other online and print media has a huge following among Nigerians and across Africa. We asked her to tell us a little about herself, her motivation and what we can expect to read in future issues.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in Aba, quite an interesting city in the south-eastern parts of Nigeria. My family and I relocated from Cameroon (my mother’s country) to Aba when I was about 3 and I lived there until my father passed away. I was about 16 at the time. I have since studied Mass Communication at Covenant University, Ota and moved to Lagos, where I currently live and work as a writer and editor.
How early did your romance with writing begin?
I started writing before I even turned 6. Perhaps that is why I can recall a lot about my childhood (laugh). I started school quite early, and consequently, reading and writing came quiet early for me as well. My mum and siblings always laugh and tell stories of how at age 5, I would read out loud every word on signboards on the road or words on flyers and pamphlets I found lying around. A behavior they found extremely annoying at the time [Laughs] I don’t recall that, but I am quite sure it was at age 6 that I felt the urge to start keeping a diary. I think I had seen someone do it in a movie and threw a tantrum until my parents got me one. I kept diaries and journals up until secondary school when I realized the diaries were no longer enough. I started to write short stories. I would write in lined A4 sheets and string them together to form a sort of novella. Although it was stressful since I had to handwrite most of them, I wrote quite a few. The stories which were centered on my life, my classmates at Dority International Secondary School, and the secret events that happened amongst us were all linked as my intention was to create a book series. At the time, I read a lot of Baby Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High and Mallory Towers series so it was rather easy to adapt the form in my writing. Obviously, I couldn’t publish these tiny books I wrote, so I settled for getting my mates to pay a small sum to borrow and read them for a maximum of 2 days. They sold like hot cakes because everyone wanted to be current on class gist. For those who paid extra, I would reveal the codes names used in the stories. [Laughs].
Do you remember your first piece of writing?
To be honest, I can’t remember. Knowing myself, it most probably was a love letter to a boy I fancied which never saw the light of day. [Laughs]
You are a prolific writer in both the domestic and international press scene. Where do you get your literary muse from and how are you consistently able to lend your opinion to a wide array of issues?
It’s simple, I read a lot and I am always watching stuff from different parts of the world. Being an introvert, I am not very social. In fact, I hate crowds and I really do not have a lot of friends. But I am friendly and I observe people a lot, listen to them and learn from what I witness. So, most of my writing is based on the truth around me.
Who has been your most impressionable literary influence?
This is difficult to say as over the years I have read so many books, different genres, from different cultures and written by people from different generations. There was a time I was obsessed with Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie,V.C Andrews, J.K. Rowlings, John Grisham, Stephanie Meyers, then I started to pick an interest in African literature. It started with an obsession for Chinua Achebe [‘There Was A Country’ is my best of all his books by the way], then Elechi Amadi, Ben Okri, Seffi Atta, e.t.c. But lately, I have been a little into feminist literature. I love Audre Lorde, Mona Eltahawy e.t.c, but I would say Chimamanda Adiche has been most impressionable. I know it sounds totally cliché as most African writers now allude to her, but I find her writing style genuine and extremely interesting. I can say I have read almost every word she has written, including articles and even post on social Media.
What are your thoughts about western stereotypes about African writing? Do you think African writers are constrained to writing about certain topics so as to garner critical acclaim from the west?
Just as is the culture of Africans, their literature is diverse and multifaceted. I wouldn’t say that there is an outstanding western stereotype or that African writers are necessarily constrained to writing about certain topics, so as to garner critical acclaim from the west. We have writers who have stuck to authentic African literature and written books that highlight Africa’s social and cultural issues, ranging from women’s rights and feminism to post-war and post-colonial identity. And have gotten international acclaim. Yes, there is the argument that African writers are only international acclaimed when their writing promotes certain western values that are probably not even acceptable in our society, or when they are in diaspora and are able to infuse western norms to their “African experience”, however, certain writers who have gotten great recognition while remaining completely African. Consider Chinua Achebe who wrote “Thing fall apart”, Ayi Kwei Armah who wrote “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born”, Mariama Bâ who wrote “ So Long A letter” , Ben Okri who even won the Booker Prize for “Famished Roads”…amongst many others…I doubt they felt constrained in any way.
Your column ‘Nkem Says’ on BellaNaija, which is now been featured on other online and print media has quite a following among Nigerians. What do you enjoy most about writing the column? How do you think the column has influenced you/helped you evolve as a writer?
Yes. ‘Nkem Says’, a column I have been writing exclusively for BellaNaija, I believe has garnered quite a following, thanks to Uche Pedro who give me the opportunity and other media houses (online and print) who now repost from Bella Naija onto their platforms. It is a column that addresses relationship issues – especially the ones most people consider controversial and shy away from; as well as everyday issues single women in Africa deal with. What I enjoy the most about the column is the fact that I get to share my stories, my personal experiences and basically my life with my readers. And from the letter, e-mails and DMs I get per post, it is satisfying to know that I actually affect lives positively through my writing.
Is there any major difference between a columnist and a book writer?
Well, they both write to be published, however while a columnist writes articles that offers commentary and opinions in a series, usually for publication, an author is more engaged in literary work. She composes literary work per time.
Aside from writing, what other things do you do?
Well, aside from writing, I give talks on relationships and femininity. So far, I have just spoken to small groups and fellowships but it is something I enjoy and hope to do more of. Also, I have just taken baby steps into TV. I recently just co-produced a reality TV dating show. The show is called “Perfect Match” and should start airing very soon. I worked with Executive producer, Addy Awofisayo and other members of the team. It was a marvelous experience. Before this, I had only written co-written a couple of movie scripts, but now, I am pumped up to write more for TV: scripts for TV shows and series, Movies e.t.c and basically delve into TV production.
You were recently featured in a BBC Radio documentary, tell us about it.
Ok. It was a BBC UK Radio documentary on ‘Masculinity’. They loved my article “8 Kinds of Men You meet in Lagos” and reached out to get my opinion on masculinity and patriarchy in Nigeria. It had a great time sharing my experiences and challenge. There is a lot of expectation from the male folk in Nigeria and as such they deal with a lot of pressures on a daily basis. This somehow affects the women as well, the way they are raised and treated by these men. It is something people need to know.
What do you hope to achieve with your writing?
Writing has transcended from being a passion that I have to being a part of me. I can’t turn it off [laughs]. It’s funny because when I am stressed from writing, I write to de-stress [laughs]. I write mostly to express myself. I have been in situation where I have been asked something and I wish I could get a paper and pen or a laptop to write down my response, because I express myself better by writing.
How many books and articles have you written so far?
It’s amazing, but I have written a couple of books for people on a “ghost” arrangement, however, I am yet to publish one in my own name. As per articles, my goodness, I have lost count. I have been writing an average of an article a day in the last 3 years, some with my byline and some for the media house I have worked for, so I’d say probably a thousand.
Are you currently writing a book? Tell us about it.
Yes. I am currently working on a sort of biography. It would be published as fiction, but it will be based on a true life story, my mother’s. Her life’s story is such a dramatic one and I feel so happy and proud she was willing to let me write about it. It is still in the early stages so I cannot say exactly when I will have it published…but certainly, I can’t wait to share it with the world.
How best do you think young African writers can best equip themselves to thrive in the new digital age?
They need to be tech savvy and that requires a measure of training. Luckily there are so many courses and classes available to people looking to get ICT training. They can take advantage of that, that way they are able to maximize opportunities made available to them courtesy of the digital age, because truth be told, the digital age comes with so many perks for writers. From apps that can help guide writers with the writing process, to sites that allow them self-publish and sell their books, things are so much easier now. Also, they can take advantage of the internet and connect to not just their readers as well other writers who are better experience for mentoring and advice, but also share their work with the world!
What should we expect to see more from Nkem Ndem in the coming years?
More writing of course! Articles, blog posts and my own books. Also, I am looking to write more for TV now, so in coming years I hope to have written hit TV shows and A-grade movies.
With your writings on relationship and issues of life, are you in a relationship? What do you look out for in your man?
At the moment, I am single. I mean, I’m fairly certain I am not dating anyone right now [Laughs]. What am I looking out for in a man? I would say someone who is responsible, has authentic moral values, is witty, intelligent, generous and has a great love for everything that I am. Oh! He cannot have halitosis or a strong body odour as well.
Thank you for your time