Kem Joy Ukwu: Interview

by Kim Coleman Foote

In 2016, I met my long-lost twin, figuratively speaking. I was at Brooklyn’s Manhattanville Reading Series, where I had been invited to share my work along with a few other writers, including Kem Joy Ukwu.

I was struck by the excerpt Kem read from her story, “The Glowing Conqueror,” where at the beginning, a young black girl dares to envision herself living in a fairytale, even though in the fairytales she’s been exposed to, “none of the princesses looked like her” and “none of the villains looked like her either.” Beyond that, the girl uses this fantasy as a coping mechanism to reinterpret unsettling childhood experiences. Or so it seems. Perhaps the girl is a veritable superhero in the making.

When Kem mentioned to me not being able to publish this story, it sparked a conversation about racial politics and the publishing industry. Kem had published several other short stories, including in literary magazines like Jabberwock Review and PANK, but many of those characters’ race was ambiguous. “The Glowing Conqueror” not only explicitly revealed the protagonist’s race but was also set in an urban Bronx of the ‘80s, with hints of an illegal economy—an environment not often seen in mainstream literature.

This story and several others were part of a collection that was named a finalist for the 2016 New American Fiction Prize, but around the time I met her, Kem’s energy in trying to get the collection published was waning. It was a feeling I could definitely understand, myself having spent several years trying to publish my novel. In fact, I would soon discover that there was so much about Kem I could relate to, beyond the similarity in our names.

In our adult lives, we had both juggled our writing with full-time work advising and mentoring college students. We had both written fiction linked to screenplays. We both currently lived in the other’s home state—Kem in New Jersey and myself in New York. And we both started writing fiction in elementary school and had dreamt of seeing our first books in print for a long time.

Kem Joy Ukwu

Luckily, Kem didn’t let the rejections she received along the way stop her, because less than two years after our initial conversations, she achieved her dream. Earlier this year, Brain Mill Press published her short story collection, entitled Locked Gray / Linked Blue. With nods to Kem’s upbringing in the Bronx, her Nigerian heritage, and her love of comic books, these stories lift the curtain on the everyday lives of black folks—their emotional complexity, their moments of connection and disconnection from family and friends, their hopes and fears for the future. As I read, they made me recall Gwendolyn Brooks’ fiction, only set in urban and suburban New York instead of Chicago.

Kem has told me that she considers me to be one of her mentors, but now it’s she who inspires me. In addition to persevering with publishing Locked Gray / Linked Blue, Kem has sharply crafted stories with so many distinct voices, many of them with backstories detailed enough to fill the pages of a novel. I have been taking notes for my own in-progress story collection!

There are many daughters, many mothers, and a teenage boy who prefers his absent father’s love to the child support checks. The glowing conqueror, who gets her moment to shine—literally—as an unexpected inheritance and a commitment to education give her a new life with a secret mission. And one of my absolute favorites, Olive, a 58-year-old single woman with arthritic knees, who is faced with deciding between the uncertainty of a sexy-fine lover and the security of a friend.

I shared the following questions over email with my literary twin.

Kim Coleman Foote: When did you start writing, and what inspired you to write?
Kem Joy Ukwu: I wrote a story in elementary school for an assignment but it wasn’t until I was a pre-teenager that I started writing stories just to write them. Writing stories gave me an opportunity to have agency with my creativity. I loved the idea of creating stories and writing them on paper.

KCF: Who are some of your literary heroes, and why?
KJU: I have realized that literary heroes are not only the amazing writers of works that have moved me, but also the works themselves. Therefore, some of my literary heroes include Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans (writing and voice both brilliant), Citizen by Claudia Rankine (super powerful writing), Kindred by Octavia Butler (writing and storytelling both amazing) and If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black (writing and storytelling both with emotional potency).


KCF: How did growing up in the Bronx impact you as a writer?
KJU: The elementary school I attended in the Bronx celebrated the writing of its students and promoted reading. I remember Scholastic newsletters where I could order books. I spent most of my childhood in Parkchester, where I used to go to its library. I remember comic books being sold at a newsstand by the 6 train station in Parkchester and a grocery store close to where I lived. There were many opportunities to read stories growing up in the Bronx. I believe that helped to inspire me to write and create my own stories.

KCF: Tell us about your writing name, especially “Joy.”
KJU: I wanted to have a writing name that was slightly different from my full name to help me keep my writing and day job identities separate. “Joy” is one of my middle names and my grandmother’s name.

KCF : There might be writers out there who think that a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing is necessary for getting published. You and other writers have shattered this myth, but can you tell us your thoughts on the MFA degree and why you haven’t pursued it?
KJU: As a writer currently without an MFA, this past March, I moderated a panel that I composed, proposed, and coordinated about writing without or on the way to an MFA. It took place during the Montclair Literary Festival. The panel featured amazing writers who either had never enrolled into an MFA program or who had enrolled but had not yet received an MFA at the time of the festival. All of the writers on the panel either had at least one book published or had work published in journals, magazines, online periodicals or both. This panel was informative not only for the audience but also myself. I was inspired by their stories of how they navigated through their writing and networking journeys. The panel was additional proof that a person does not need an MFA to be a productive writer and/or to be a published one.

From what I have read, heard, and researched, earning and having an MFA can be very helpful and useful. I earned a master’s degree in higher education that has helped me so much educationally and professionally, and I believe that earning an MFA would achieve the same with my writing life. I haven’t yet pursued an MFA mainly because of timing and finances. However, it didn’t stop me from writing, and I continue to write.

This does not mean that I will not apply to an MFA program in the future. If I am fortunate to apply and be accepted into an MFA program with full funding, I would be excited to consider enrolling.

KCF: Tell us about your day job, and what are some challenges and advantages you’ve experienced working the “nine-to-five” while living as a professional writer?
KJU: I work at a college. I am very happy with my day job and my career in higher education. My day job allows me to write during the evenings without an immediate pressure to earn money from my writing.

Even though writing is not my only source of professional jubilation, it remains a great one. I consider myself very fortunate that I enjoy both careers: higher education and writing.

KCF: Tell us about the journey to publishing Locked Gray / Linked Blue.
KJU: Locked Gray / Linked Blue was published by the imprint and press of my dreams: Kindred Books of Brain Mill Press. The journey to my collection getting published was long and filled with mostly rejections. The same journey was also abundant with encouragement, advice, and wisdom from amazing and talented people, many of whom are also writers. Like most paths to achieving a goal, there were learning experiences along the way.

I didn’t envision my stories together as a collection until after I wrote a number of them. I realized that most of my individual stories would fit together as a collection by noticing that my stories had strong emotional components that united them. After this realization, I started submitting my manuscript into contests. I also wrote e-mail query letters to agents and presses. There were promising parts of the process but I hadn’t yet reached my goal of Locked Gray / Linked Blue becoming a published book. The selection of my manuscript as a finalist for the New American Fiction Prize was one of the wonderful and hopeful parts of this process.

After experiencing doubts of Locked Gray / Linked Blue becoming a published collection, I received an acceptance from Vanessa Willoughby, the awesome editor of the Kindred Books imprint of Brain Mill Press. Several months later, my collection was published.

I participated in a couple of writing groups with talented writers, and that was motivating. There were readers who were generous with their time to provide excellent feedback on my work. I learned a lot by reading and listening to interviews featuring writers who have gone through similar journeys.

Reading my work at several reading series throughout New York, New Jersey, and beyond helped me as well to increase my confidence with my work. Reading my work aloud placed it into a different dimension.

KCF: Getting feedback on one’s work is essential, and is incidentally a key component of writing MFA programs. How did you learn about the writing groups and reading series, and how did you find the courage to share your work with strangers?
KJU: After I was invited to read at a couple of reading events, I realized that reading series existed for emerging writers. I researched some reading series to see which ones invited submissions of work.

My husband is an awesome comedian and I attended many of the shows where he told his jokes in front of an audience. I was inspired by his courage to perform his stand-up comedy in a setting where much of his feedback of his work was presented right after he told his jokes. If he could be on stage wonderfully delivering his well-crafted jokes, I could be on stage reciting my works-in-progress.

From what I have researched, MFA programs can offer communities where writers could network with and learn from each other. Writing groups and reading series offered similar opportunities for me to listen to, read the work of and learn from talented writers.

KCF: The characters in Locked Gray / Linked Blue feel so real, with such detailed backstories. How long have these characters been with you, and how long did it take you to complete the whole collection?
KJU: The collection took years to write and revise. Some of the characters in Locked Gray / Linked Blue, including the sisters in “Demetrius,” have existed in the context of my collection for a long time.

KCF: Which stories were easiest and most difficult to complete, and why?
KJU: “Speakers & Headphones”might have been the most difficult to complete because I kept going back to the story to revise it. “Text Me A Photo” was the easiest (and fastest) to complete. I think the main reason is that I wrote an ending that was final within the conflict and context of the story. The main character in “Text Me A Photo” deals with her resentment while considering if she will help her daughter by giving her money or not. Her decision, after it’s made, ends the story in a way that didn’t compel me to repeatedly return to it to write more.

KCF: Can you give some insight about the meaning of “locked gray” and “linked blue”?
KJU: “Locked gray” represents the impermanence that can occur within family relationships, friendships, or romantic entanglements. The color gray represents the ambiguity of the attachments while “locked” signifies the assumed permanence of those attachments. “Linked blue” represents the melancholy that can occur in family bonds and friendships, as the color blue symbolizes sadness and “linked” represents the connections. Many of my characters experience both despondency and reservations about where they are in their lives, especially concerning their associations with their friends and family members.

KCF: The collection is book-ended with stories portraying an event from two different characters’ perspectives. Tell us more about this choice (unless it reveals spoilers!).
KJU: I wrote the first short story, “Demetrius,” before I knew I would write another one from the second main character Chioma’s perspective. I became curious about Chioma’s perspective. Writing out her side of the story was my way of answering my own questions about her opinion about her sister. That’s part of the wonder of writing—creating stories, and then stories creating their own questions. Sometimes stories produce more stories.

KCF: Many of the stories in the collection deal with conflict between sisters; conflict between children and their parents; absent parents; and secrets. Why do these themes resonate so much with you?
KJU: I think conflict within family bonds are both common and unique, both fascinating and devastating. Within the context of storytelling, I am interested in knowing how people navigate these conflicts, especially on an emotional level.

KCF: Some of your characters in the collection identify as being of Igbo/Nigerian descent, like yourself. Others don’t, but many seem to be African American—meaning, not immigrants or descended from recent immigrants. Can you talk about your choice to represent these various voices as well as people of various ages?
KJU: All of the leading and main characters in my stories are people of color from the African diaspora. Some of the characters are from Nigeria or are of Nigerian descent. Writers might make choices before they write or during the writing process. Regarding my collection, writing some of my main characters didn’t feel like a choice. When writing “Demetrius,” it didn’t feel like a choice that the sisters were Nigerian and of Nigerian descent. The sisters, Chioma and Colleen, were who they were at the beginning of the story; there was no deliberation of whether or not they would be Nigerian and of Nigerian descent. They were who they were.

Sometimes when creating characters in a story, the first idea can appear and remain on the page. Sometimes choices can be made and other times when certainty of who a character is exists from the beginning, it doesn’t seem like a choice for the character to remain without changes.

I believe it’s vital for writers to be conscientious regarding representation and creating and writing characters. I celebrate and value that my leading and main characters, who are from the African diaspora and of various ages, have backstories different from each other’s and have varied experiences of trying to relate to people whom they care about.

KCF: First- and second-generation African writers in the US have taken the American literary scene by storm over the past decade. Do you see yourself as being part of this wave? If not, what makes your writing different, and where do you see yourself in the literary canon?
KJU: I am proud to be a writer of Nigerian heritage. I always feel happiness and solidarity when I see news about a book that has been or will be soon published by a writer from an underrepresented community. I hope that more books by writers from underrepresented communities, including writers from the African diaspora, won’t be perceived as a trend but instead as a standard that is both permanent and permanently celebrated. I see my work as part of the literary community and I hope to continue to write more work in the future.

KCF: So many of these stories bear the weight of a novel packed into just a few pages. I know of a few novels that started out as short stories. Have you considered writing a novel, or would you consider developing any of these stories into a novel?
KJU: I have received similar feedback regarding some of my work. Some of my stories, including “Demetrius,” “Her Mother, Nneka,” and “Flight in Transit,” could be continued in the form of a novel. I have thought about it. If I envision a story beyond the scope of one of my short stories that could successfully work as a longer narrative, I might write it.

KCF: Where do you see your writing journey going from here? Are you working on anything new?
KJU: I’m currently working on screenplay adaptations, one based on one of my short stories not in Locked Gray / Linked Blue, and another based on an unpublished novel. I love writing dialogue. I have been enjoying finding new ways to tell my short fiction through adapting them into screenplays.

KCF: Thanks for your comments, Kem!
KJU: Thank you for this interview!

Kim Coleman Foote is a writer who was raised in New Jersey and currently lives in Brooklyn. Recently named a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellow in fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Literature Fellow, she has published fiction, essays, and experimental prose in Black Renaissance Noire, The Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Obsidian, and elsewhere.