A Writer At Risk, Working in New York City
Kanchana Ugbabe: "It is like waking up to a festival every day."
What is home, and how do you know where you truly belong? These are questions that Kanchana Ugbabe, an Indian-Nigerian writer currently living at Westbeth Artists Housing in New York City as a Fordham University “Writer At Risk,” has had to contend with over the past several years.
Growing up in Chennai, India, Ugbabe was always in love with words. “Reading and writing were like a staple diet as far back as I can remember,” she says. “I was always a dreamer; I liked making up stories and exaggerating existing stories when they were being narrated. And I’ve always been in love with words.”
She translated that love of words into a BA and MA in English literature from Madras University. Later, she attended the Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide where she received a doctorate in English Literature, focusing on 17th-century English poetry. In Australia she met her Nigerian husband, Aako Ugbabe, and in 1975, they moved to Nigeria, eventually settling in Jos, a small town in Plateau State in Central Nigeria. There, Ugbabe started teaching in the English Department at the University of Jos.
“It was the early days… when English literature was predominant as the teaching subject in countries that had been colonized by Britain,” she says. “Then gradually over the years, as we came into the 90s, African literature came into its own… [and] I became very interested in African writing and began to read and teach that as well.”
In her classes and personal life, Ugbabe championed books and stories by women writers, especially African women writers. “I was really concerned and interested in women’s writing, not only the constraints under which they wrote, [but] how they overcome constraint—both gender constraint and other constraints… in order to become writers,” she says.“It’s vitally important to provide writers like Ugbabe the safety and freedom they need to do their work.”
For her, living in Nigeria was not like being an expatriate. “It was home,” she says. “I had made that transition… I was an insider in many ways.” Even still, she felt the tension of being dislocated and explored these ideas in her own fiction. “Being in Nigeria, one of the important things that happened to me was a feeling of being in a liminal space, a transitional space where home and belonging, everything seemed confused,” she says. Her collection of short stories Soulmates, which focuses on these themes, was published in 2011.
All this time, Nigeria as a country was going through complicated transitions of its own. For nearly three decades, Ugbabe and her family witnessed oppressive military regimes cycle in and out of the seat of government. Many writers wrote boldly against this oppression and paid with their lives. Jos was largely shielded from this unrest until 2001, when the country’s transition to democracy brought violence to Ugbabe’s doorstep.
“There was this political event, which was a local government election… [which] brought to a head certain conflicts between the indigenous ethnic groups who lived in the part of Jos where we lived… and another group, which was seen as the settler group,” says Ugbabe. “Settlers in the sense that they came from another part of Nigeria and settled in Jos. They had been there for so long that they saw themselves as part of that region as well. But the indigenous group historically saw the land as belonging to them.”
The settler group, who were Muslim, won the elections. The indigenous group, who were broadly defined as Christian, quickly became hostile. “It morphed and became a religious crisis,” Ugbabe says. “Because the first thing [the indigenous group] did was go and burn a mosque, and in retaliation, a church was burned. And they took it on from there.”
This and other ethno-religious conflicts in the region soon escalated into full-fledged war. Despite imposing dawn-to-dusk curfews and closing schools and businesses, the local government was mostly ineffectual to stop the violence as it spilled into neighboring regions. “It was a very difficult time,” Ugbabe says. “It was a time of nervousness and insecurity. This went on for years, on and off.” Each year, the intensity escalated along with evolving threats from Boko Haram and other terrorist cells. Foreigners were being kidnapped and never heard from again. Markets, places of worship, and other public areas were being bombed. “Towards 2015, things were so bad,” Ugbabe says. “The final straw was when our home was attacked. We just came face to face with terror at that point.”
For Ugbabe, being targeted in such a way was a painful wake-up call. “I was sort of lightly naïve over the years,” she says. “I think I had lived in Nigeria for too long, that I truly saw myself as a Nigerian, not as a foreigner. I had raised not only children, but also raised generations of students at the university. It was really hard for me to think that somebody would see me as a foreigner. I had been driving in the streets of Jos, and had been around Jos for so long, it had become home.” But it wasn’t until the attack on her home that she realized others did not see her the same way.
It was then that Harvard University and their Scholars at Risk Program changed Ugbabe’s life. In 2015, at her son’s suggestion, she applied for and received a Visiting Scholar position in Harvard’s Women and Gender Studies program. In the safety of Cambridge, Massachusetts, she was allowed the space and time to reflect and write creatively, and undertake research. During this period, she gave talks and was invited to be part of panel discussions at Harvard, MIT, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Now, Ugbabe is a Writer in Residence (At Risk) at Fordham University. The yearlong pilot position was created jointly between Fordham University, PEN America, Artist at Risk Connection, and Westbeth Artists Housing. “It was of course daunting coming to New York in the beginning, but I think the bodies that have brought me here… over the months, they have just embraced me,” she says. “They have become like guardians, and have taken care of every aspect of my life. I’m really privileged to be living in Westbeth, in the heart of Manhattan, in a lovely space surrounded by artists. It is like waking up to a festival every day.”
As a teacher, Ugbabe feels it’s crucial to share her experiences with her American students, many of whom have never heard of the ethno-religious war raging back in her hometown. Last spring, she taught a course at Fordham called “Creating Dangerously: Writing from Conflict Zones,” which explored war and conflict writing, the language of trauma and how writers can approach and articulate the unspeakable.
She has also been steadily working on her own fiction again. Since coming to America, she has completed three short stories drawing on the detailed journal she kept while in Nigeria. She hopes to publish a second short story collection centering on the conflict in Jos. “At the same time, I’m also exploring the idea of home and belonging while I’m here,” she says. “Because being in yet another environment, I’m looking at the idea of going back [and asking], is Jos really home, after everything that happened?”
While safe for now, Ugbabe says there is still uncertainty over her future. She is not sure what comes next after her year at Fordham is up. “I’m trying to make the most of being here, through the work that I need to do,” she says. “The thing about home and belonging is that I can explore it through my writing, so clarifying it in my mind is a process, which also helps me articulate it and write about it. It’s something that I find that I can write creatively about. So that’s where I am—things have changed, but looking into the future, there’s a lot to sort out.”
Coming to America has also made Ugbabe reflect on other writers who face oppression similar to hers. “There are writers [at risk] in many parts of the world now,” she says. “Ones that come to mind are writers in Syria, in Iran, in Afghanistan, in Nigeria, even in other parts of Africa—like groups in Ethiopia—who are facing persecution.”
In all these cases, it’s vitally important to provide writers like Ugbabe the safety and freedom they need to do their work. “I think writers write to be heard,” Ugbabe says. “Writers want their work to be read. They want others to be informed about what is going on around them in the climate of fear in which they live.” For now, at least, she’s grateful for the opportunity to do just that.
You can find out more about the conflict in Jos by reading A Deadly Cycle: Ethno-Religious Conflict in Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria by Jana Krause and Jonah Jang and the Jasawa: Ethno-Religious Conflict in Jos, Nigeria by Philip Ostien.