“When a woman renounces motherhood” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Nigeria)
A woman and her mother bond in the face of a sexist tradition.
Read this between clenched teeth, a taut smirk plastered on your face. Try to taste each word as it escapes your mouth, like air. When a woman renounces motherhood, no one asks her why she did it. How dare you give up on a beautiful thing – nature’s call embedded in your vagina, crested on your breasts?
Innocent Chizaram Ilo’s short story “When a woman renounces motherhood” has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Cliffordene Norton asks questions about the nomination and the inspiration for the short story.
Congratulations, Innocent! What was the inspiration for “When a woman renounces motherhood”?
Thanks so much. “When a woman renounces motherhood” was inspired by the stories of my mother and other women around me. I’ve always found motherhood to be such a mystery. You see these women break their backs raising their children, raising their husbands, and for what? I think all of this built up to me writing this story.
What are the challenges you’ve experienced while writing this story?
I think the hardest thing about writing this story was the same thing I encounter whenever my protagonist and most characters in the story are women. Writing “the other” can be tricky, and no matter how many times I’ve written stories like this, I’m still scared of doing too much or doing too little or misrepresenting. Luckily, I have one of the most amazing friends whom I sent this story to, Keletso Mopai. She helped me point out when I was being weird.
What was your reaction when you heard that your story had been shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize?
I wanted to scream, and then I called my mother, who kept asking me, “What is the Commonwealth Short Story Prize? Is it like the Commonwealth Games? Are you going to see the Queen of England?” This is such a proud moment for me, seeing my work get the recognition I think it deserves.
What did you edit out of this story?
The editing stage was very long. I completed the first draft of this story in 2017, so many things must have changed since then. But I can remember experimenting with POV (point of view) to find out what would work best for the story.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I think that would be “Who will greet you at home” by Lesley Nneka Arimah. I can’t even begin to tell you how that story changed my perception of what fiction should be or should not be.
What is the first book that made you want to be a writer?
Purple hibiscus, definitely Purple hibiscus. I still wonder what the characters are doing now; I hope they’re all living amazing lives.
What was an early experience where you learned that language has power?
I’ve not really experienced a grand personal moment where language demonstrated power, but every day, I see how storytelling shapes the world with or without us knowing.
What does literary success look like to you?
Literary success is very broad. An extensive readership? An extensive publication? Prizes? Commercial success? For me, I think literary success is simple – telling a story how it should be told, whether the world is listening or not.
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