Out of the Darkness
Ada Udechukwu, author of the short story "Night Bus," discusses art, writing, and the politics of her troubled homeland
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.
Your husband, Obiora, is a bit older than you, and he actually was involved in the war. What has he told you about that time?
He was there in Biafra throughout the war and witnessed atrocities and other things that went on. He didn’t fight, but he was involved in the propaganda units, and it actually ended up being a very crucial time for his work as an artist. He helped to form a group of artists who wrote plays collectively and did their own work—their painting or their writing -- in the name of the Biafran cause. The group is still very friendly today, although they haven’t collaborated lately.
How did the two of you meet?
I was a student at the University of Nigeria while he was a lecturer. We didn’t really meet until I was getting ready to graduate. I knew of his work as an artist, and I’d been to his exhibitions—he was already quite well known. But in terms of meeting him, it was through a roommate of mine who was related to him.
Is it difficult or inspiring being married to a fellow artist, especially one who is so well known?
It’s inspiring, and it’s also difficult! But I would say the inspiring part overwhelms the difficulty because we have a very good relationship.
Are your children also interested in art?
I have a daughter and a son, and both of them are, in different ways. My daughter, Ijeanuli, is 23, and she’s thinking of a graduate degree in film. My son, Nwora, is 19. He’s just going to start college, and he’s planning to major in art.
You and Obiora are both known for exploring a style of traditional Igbo art called uli. What attracted you to this form?
When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Nigeria, I felt a lot of affinity for this spare, lyrical art form. Traditionally, uli was a method of wall painting and body painting. When I first started, I was a textile designer, and I incorporated uli symbols into my designs. And when I started doing more work on paper, I began looking to uli for its basic aesthetic of space and line.
In the past, uli was generally practiced by women. But these days, it seems that the most famous uli artists are men. Has that male influence changed the medium at all?
Uli as it’s traditionally practiced continues to be a female art form. In villages around Nigeria, uli is a dying art form. But there’s a collective that was set up where they had women come together to paint on walls and also do work on paper, and then these works were exhibited, mostly in Germany. So in that case it was taken to a new level. But that’s the only case I know of where uli was exhibited internationally.
In terms of contemporary Nigerian art, when they talk about the “Uli School,” that’s a bit different. At the time my husband was studying at the University of Nigeria, there was a conscious effort to have students go back and research uli. My husband and his teacher, Uche Okeke, are some of the major figures in terms of bringing uli to international attention. So people like myself who use uli in our work, you can say our work is influenced by it, but you wouldn’t call us uli artists in the same way you’d call the women who practice it traditionally.
You’ve said that your exploration of uli has influenced your use of language. Can you explain how?
About three years ago, I started an MFA program through the Bennington Writing Seminars. I decided to go in for fiction. Prior to that, I hadn’t written any fiction as such, and I struggled with it a lot in the beginning. I’d written poetry, but my poems were very brief and spare, and I found I couldn’t really translate that into fiction. I had to find a way to create narrative.
Halfway through the program I came to the poetry of Jane Kenyon. She drew on a lot of visual imagery in her work, and when I saw that, something just clicked for me. I began drawing on my own work as a visual artist to help me to navigate my way through fiction.
It’s interesting that you say that, because uli seems to be very abstract—based on shapes and symbols rather than the kinds of recognizable figures that would show up in a story.
That’s why it was so helpful to me. I was looking for a way to speak to emotions and situations without trying to verbalize everything—by relying on the image.
Can you give an example of this from “Night Bus”?
I’m interested very much in relationships between men and women and in the dynamics of those different relationships. My art is all about relationships. With “Night Bus,” I think I started with a relationship, a situation, and the story developed out of that. The influence of uli art might perhaps come through most strongly in the way I chose to end the story. I created an image without necessarily spelling out what was happening or what was going to happen.
How do you decide to translate a particular impulse into a work of fiction rather than into a painting or a poem?
There are times when one medium lends itself to what I want to say. It’s not necessarily that I make a choice. It’s just that I can say it better or I have the room to express myself in, say, a story rather than a painting. I would say, though, that looking at relationships between men and women, and among human beings in general, is a thread that runs through both my visual work and my literary work.
Unlike your art, which draws so heavily on Igbo tradition, your fiction has a very modern feel to it. You don’t, for instance, incorporate African folktales into your narrative the way authors like Chinua Achebe have done.
This is perhaps directly related to having this kind of multifaceted heritage. I’m very open to all cultures, and I embrace all people. I always have. I read very widely. There’s no doubt that being a person who straddles two cultures is very central to my creativity.
In some ways, though, I wonder whether living outside your homeland—building a reputation as an “African artist” in America—has made you more conscious than ever of your Igbo background.
I think so. You become really conscious of your cultural identity when you’re living abroad. In my own case, for as long as I can remember, I’ve really grappled with what I feel is my dual heritage. At various points in my life, when I was a teenager, for instance, it was a very problematic relationship. But growing and maturing as a person has helped me come to terms with it. So there’s a little less conflict. I’ve learned to appreciate the heritage, the wealth of what I’ve been given.
Just before you left Nigeria, the government executed one of the country’s best-known novelists and environmentalists, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Nigeria was expelled from the Commonwealth of Nations for that incident. How did it affect the psychology of artists and writers living inside the country?
I think it epitomized the uncertainty that comes along with living under military dictatorship in Nigeria. No one really is immune, and that incident made it very graphic just how far the reach is for anybody. But I don’t think it kept artists and writers from expressing themselves. Even at the height of the military dictatorship, the artists were still creating freely.
Are most of your stories set in Nigeria?
A lot of them are. Also, some of my stories look at the Nigerian experience here, the immigrant experience. What especially interests me is something that one doesn’t always hear about as much as the other aspects and casualties of war: What does war do to families? And what does war actually do to the common person, to the human being?
Do you find it easier to paint and write when you’re living in the United States or in Nigeria?
It is our eventual desire to return to Nigeria. But living here, I feel that my art is evolving in a way it might not have if I’d remained in Nigeria. I often wonder whether I would have had the opportunity to do my MFA or even have thought of doing it if I hadn’t come to America. Living here has changed me as a person, and that’s certainly been reflected in the content of my work. Every experience plays into what one creates.