At first glance, the artworks of Nigerian artist Ada Udechukwu look like abstract symbols—spare black-ink brushstrokes surrounded by empty space. But gaze at them longer and human features emerge: a pair of eyes, the curve of a breast, a tangled mass of hair. “I am conscious of the pulse of silence,” she wrote in an artist’s statement for a 2004 exhibition, “that which lingers after the words, after the images.”
Self-Portrait by Ada Udechukwu, 1991. Brush and ink on paper.
For those who are familiar with Udechukwu’s art, “Night Bus,” her short story in the Atlantic’s 2006 Fiction issue, may come as a jolt. There are no gentle arcs or reverberating silences in this tale; from the opening lines, the atmosphere is harsh and oppressive, at times even claustrophobic. The narrative follows a young Nigerian woman named Uloma on the road from Southeastern Nigeria to Lagos. Throughout her journey, she is surrounded by men who want to taunt her, rob her, and violate her—beginning with the security officer who pulls her aside as she boards the bus:
[The officer] stood before her, his fly only partially zipped, revealing aquamarine nylon underpants…. She handed him a folded bill. He checked its denomination and slipped it into his pocket. Uloma reached for the duffel. The officer’s hand brushed over her breast. He flashed a smile at her, and the dull red of his tongue filled the gap between his front teeth, pulsing like a live animal. She flushed, fighting an urge to strike him.
Uloma suffers all of this for the sake of her boyfriend, Monye, who has persuaded her to join him on a business trip. At his request, she is carrying a duffel bag filled with American dollars. Monye has promised to meet her onboard the bus, and she spends the first half of the story waiting anxiously for his arrival. He has assured Uloma that the money in the bag will allow him to buy and sell a Mercedes, and that the profits will pay for their long-awaited wedding. But as she sits alone on the sweltering bus, Uloma allows herself to doubt him. When Monye finally arrives, the events that follow give Uloma—and the reader—all the more reason to doubt not only Monye but the fundamental decency of humanity.
Although “Night Bus” does not deal explicitly with Nigeria’s political turmoil, it takes place in an atmosphere of anarchy and fear, reflecting something of the author’s own childhood experience. Udechukwu was born and reared in Nigeria by her American mother and her Nigerian father. In the late 1960s, when her native region of Eastern Nigeria broke off, amid much bloodshed, to form the Republic of Biafra, she and her siblings took refuge in Michigan with her mother while her father stayed behind. They remained in America until 1971, a year after Biafra’s collapse.
After returning to her homeland, Udechukwu developed a deep interest in the culture and aesthetics of her father’s Igbo tribe. In 1977, at the age of seventeen, she enrolled at the University of Nigeria/Nsukku, where a number of prominent artists—including her future husband, Obiora Udechukwu—were rediscovering a traditional Igbo art form called uli. Ada began painting uli patterns and swirls onto fabrics and canvases, and her work has since been featured in international exhibitions. Her husband Obiora’s career also continued to flourish, and in 1997, at the height of Nigeria’s military dictatorship, he accepted a teaching position at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. Together with their daughter, Ijeanuli, and son, Nwora, the couple left Nigeria for America, where they have been living ever since.
Udechukwu has often written poetry to accompany her paintings, but she is a latecomer to prose. She began writing fiction only three years ago, enrolling in an MFA program at Bennington where faculty members include such ultramodern American authors as Amy Hempel and Rick Moody. Unlike her artwork, which incorporates pieces of ancient Nigerian heritage, Udechukwu’s stories have a thoroughly contemporary feel. She portrays the struggles of present-day Nigerians, exploring themes of alienation and betrayal. If her artworks dwell on spaces and silences, her fiction explores the deafening roar that drowns out human relationships and shakes entire nations apart.
I spoke to Udechukwu by telephone on June 15.
“Night Bus” is a very dark story. The main character is in a state of anxiety from beginning to end, and everyone around her is either apathetic or menacing. It would be easy for an American to guess that your story is a commentary on the state of modern Nigeria. Is that the case?
In a way, yes. For the past several years—in fact, from the point at which we began to be governed by military rulers—there has been a progressive worsening of this whole climate of uncertainty for the average Nigerian and what you have to encounter on a day-to-day basis.
Your mother wasn’t originally from Nigeria. What was her background, and how did she meet your father?
My mother was a white American—her family had been immigrants from Germany and England, but they’d been living in America for many generations. She met my father here when they were students in the 1950s. It was more common for Nigerian men to go to Britain, but at that point, a few were coming to the United States, and my father was one of them.
The two sides of my family have each remained quite independent of the other. My mother’s family never visited her in Nigeria. And no one from my Nigerian family—apart from my brothers, sisters, and father—has visited us here or knows our American family. So they really are like two separate entities. There isn’t much of a connection between them.
Your father’s family belonged to the Igbo tribe, a group that was targeted in mass killings during the 1960s. Do you have firsthand memories of the violence?
Not that I’m aware of consciously. I was a child, so I guess the violence didn’t affect me the way it would an adult. But I do remember people speaking about the pogroms and the trains of refugees and everything that had taken place. I remember it as a vague thing and, of course, I read about it afterwards, but I don’t remember witnessing it or having any family members caught up in it.
Do you remember the period that followed, when your native region broke off and formed the Republic of Biafra?
We left very soon after Biafra was declared, so I never experienced the war or any kind of hardship firsthand. But I clearly remember leaving the country when America began evacuating its citizens. I was seven years old, and I remember the journey by boat across the River Niger, because at that time the bridge had been taken by the federal side, so there wasn’t any traffic across it.
So for the most part, I experienced the war from America. We lived first in East Lansing, Michigan, because the University of Nigeria, where my mother was working, had a link with Michigan State University, and later in Pittsburgh. There was a small Biafran community in America, and I remember how my mother used to send us out to fundraise for Biafra. We didn’t return to the country until 1971—after Biafra had collapsed.
Did you experience any culture shock in moving from West Africa to East Lansing?
I wouldn’t call it culture shock. But there was a general dislocation, especially in being separated from my father. He didn’t leave the country. He was there for the duration of the war, which was a very common scenario. In most families like ours, where the wife was an expatriate, the women and children left and the men stayed behind. It was a difficult time for me. My mother tells me that I became very withdrawn.