Kem Joy Ukwu
In Conversation with
Kem Joy Ukwu's fiction has appeared in PANK, BLACKBERRY: a magazine, Carve, TINGE, Blue Lake Review, Jabberwock Review, Auburn Avenue, The Brooklyn Quarterly and Day One. Her short story collection manuscript, Locked Gray / Linked Blue, was selected as a finalist for the 2016 New American Fiction Prize and was published by Kindred Books, an imprint of Brain Mill Press. She will lead a workshop on short fiction at the 2018 Writing from the Margins Institute at Bloomfield College. Born and raised in the Bronx, she currently lives in New Jersey with her husband. Below, she discusses how her characters navigate relationships, class, and their desires.
Elizabeth Martin: What larger thematic obsessions drive your book?
Kem Joy Ukwu: Loneliness, distance, loss and estrangement are the major themes that move the stories in Locked Gray / Linked Blue forward. My stories explore how these themes interconnect with each other as they relate to the characters who experience them. From a fiction perspective, I am fascinated with how individuals navigate their relationships—and their feelings about those relationships—and how that navigation affects their decision-making. The choices many of my characters make about whether or not they will maintain, mend or end their relationships (friendships, family bonds or romantic attachments) are influenced by their emotional explorations.
EM: You use a variety of points of view throughout your collection, including second person. Could you speak a little about how point of view drives a story for you? Particularly in some of your stories told in second person?
KJU: Writing in second person is almost like having a direct discussion with the characters. For me as a fiction writer, writing in second person can facilitate a more immediate urgency with storytelling, especially with micro fiction and flash fiction.
Writing in first person, I work to ensure that I am not writing about myself to maintain distance between my own perspective and that of the character. Sustaining distances between my perspective and those of my characters are much easier for me writing in third person. Sometimes it can be easier to write with a similar kind of storytelling urgency when writing in first person rather than the third person point of view.
EM: I was often struck by the narrators of your story and how much of their lives often seem out of their control, like in "Demetrius" where the narrator's sister, Chioma, drives the action of the story even though Colleen is the narrator. What function do you see your narrators playing in your stories?
KJU: The narrators in most of my stories deal with emotions they experience after they lost someone or when they are in the process of losing someone. In "Demetrius," Chioma's actions are the fuel that drives the story forward but Colleen's emotions start the vehicle—her reactions are the destinations. Chioma's actions are the most engaging when the reader observes Colleen's reactions to them. While Colleen's actions are sometimes passive, her emotions are active—even when they are not explicitly shown to her sister. Chioma's endeavors drive the story forward yet Colleen's reactions give the story gravity.
Many of the narrators and main characters in my stories are in situations that are out of their control yet many of them neither want nor hope to control anything. They mainly want and hope. Their wanting and hoping can appear inert on the surface but they are also quietly active. Their internal wishing emphasizes and enhances the stakes. Their situations control the page but their sentiments take center stage.
EM: Those emotions and sentiments—that sense of wanting and hoping—felt especially present for your female characters. Many stories in your collection deal with difficult family relationships, particularly around occasions where society tells women there is supposed to be joy like a wedding, the birth of a child, a proposal, etc. What intrigues you about writing through these moments where the pressure to be happy is often responsible for some of the pain your characters feel?
KJU: The contexts and the circumstances around the roles the characters play in the events often cause their pain. In "Demetrius," Colleen is despondent during her sister Chioma's wedding because it signals a continuation of her sister's distancing. Her sister creates a new family by marrying and that new family would include Colleen but would not prioritize her. In "Maid Adrift," the main character Mercy's role of maid of honor to her mother implies a prioritization yet her angst mainly stems from their own strained relationship. In "Proposed," Olive contemplates a marriage proposal from her friend for whom she has no romantic inclination. In "Text Me A Photo," the birth of the narrator's grandchild brings both joy and frustration as the narrator is blindsided from the wonderful news because she had not known her daughter was pregnant.
Events where women sometimes feel pressured to be happy imply that in society, those situations are supposed to represent happiness and success. In reality, sometimes they do not.
What I find intriguing are the mathematics of those events—the variables involved that when you add or multiply them sometimes equate to joy, sometimes equate to melancholy and sometimes equate to a complex blend of both.
The variables often include the context and circumstances around those events and I am invested in how they interrelate and after they combine, what they ultimately equal.
EM: Your stories often span large time frames where we learn about a character's entire backstory. How do you make decisions about where to start your stories and what to include?
KJU: Sometimes I start a story with writing a sentence without a planned direction and figuring it out from there. Other times, I envision a scene before writing, then I start writing that scene out and seeing where it leads. In terms of decision-making, some story choices happen during the revision stages.
I tend to write backstories in my short fiction yet I still find there are pockets of time and/or other perspectives that I have not explored that I am curious about. That’s how one of the stories from the collection "Her Mother, Nneka" was started—I was curious about the perspective of a character from a previous story and thought to answer my own questions by writing out her story—her side of the story.
EM: Some of your female characters live in an anxious space between wanting a partner and living with the disappointments or mistreatment they (or their mothers) have experienced at the hands of men. This tension at times is directly connected to class—men leaving their wives and children and then moving up in social class, like in "Flight in Transit" or "Lost, Never Had." How do class dynamics complicate the lives of your characters and their relationships?
KJU: Money does not always offer happiness but it often offers options. Money represents access to resources. While money is not the only way to access resources, it provides a higher chance for autonomy. Having money offers some of my characters options and not having money sometimes locks them to situations, partnerships and/or parental/family connections they would prefer to be free from. Some of my characters want to start over and they find that starting over can be expensive, both financially and emotionally.
Starting over (on their own terms) might be unattainable for some of my characters. How they come to terms with that—or not—leads to tension with people whom they care about and sometimes, with themselves.
EM: What are you working on right now? What culture are you consuming?
KJU: I am working on adapting a screenplay from one of my stories (not from the collection) and revising/rewriting a novel manuscript. I am almost finished with reading Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes and have been inspired by what she learned from her experiences (I mostly read fiction and poetry, but I have been branching out by reading more non-fiction).
I watched the brilliant film Black Panther in a theater twice so far and hope to see it again. My husband and I have been watching Black Lighting and This Is Us. I am looking forward to the third season of Queen Sugar on OWN. Books I am eagerly looking forward to read this year include Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I am delightedly looking forward to watching A Wrinkle in Time when it arrives in theaters.