I met Kesha through our Beyond Black and White Facebook page. She has written an anthology of stories featuring a variety of African women’s experiences in Nigeria, America, and across the world. I have actually read this book, No God Like The Mother. It is emotionally heavy, yet it is also a powerful and thought-provoking piece. I hope you enjoy this feature.
What inspired you to start writing?
I started writing because speaking was not always an option for me. When my parents separated, Mom moved us back to America while Dad remained in Nigeria. It was the 90’s. I was thirteen, and spent most of my time watching reruns of I Love Lucy, Good Times, The Golden Girls, and anything Alfred Hitchcock. After a year into living in the States, I still had no friends. I kept to myself and my thoughts went straight from my head onto my diary. I had not even learned how to talk to kids my age, when my English teacher asked us to compose a story about a time when something scared us. While I had a cauldron of terrifying options stowed away, the least devastating was of the time I had seen a thief set ablaze at a market in Lagos. However, I could not traumatize American children with that much horror in the seventh grade.
How did you capture that fear?
To depict the fear left in me by that incident, I wrote about a woman searching for her vehicle in a public garage while a stranger’s footsteps bounced off the walls behind her. She had done everything wrong, pausing to dig in her purse, walking in dim lighting, and stopping to see who was following her just as the man went in on the attack. As the teacher read my story, I raised my head when I realized the silence there was due to the command of my words. All around me, I saw everyone’s eyes steeled in his direction. When he read the final line, “And the director yelled, “‘Cut,’” I felt the collective sigh of relief cast out by everyone in there, and then came the applause.
What happened next?
After class, some pat me on the shoulder, and others offered to high-five me. One girl asked for my number, and said she liked writing too. The next time I sat before my diary, thinking out my words, it was not about having my story chosen to be read, or the new friendships, or the attention. It was about the magic of creation, the birthing through mind not body, and the presence of various emotions moving around the room. I knew then that I had found my passion. Over the years, I studied the greats and read plenty of books. At the same time, I worked on honing my skills and now, I cannot see myself doing anything else.
What made you decide to write an anthology?
I chose a short story collection to showcase the different styles of my work, and because I couldn’t decide which ones to develop into a novel. I also naively thought short fiction was easier to write but my greatest feat was compressing whole lives into three to eight thousand words without losing my mind. I really would like feedback about which one of these stories my readers would prefer to see as a novel.
Why did you choose this title, No God Like The Mother?
I grew up in Nigeria, a very religious place, where God was first in all things. The book is by no means a referendum on religion; I chose it because it fit the running theme on motherhood in this collection. I had heard those words said when a child was caught disrespecting his mother. The adult nearby responded with, “You love God so much, yet you disrespect your mum. Don’t you know there is no God greater than the mother?” It struck me then and stayed with me as a reminder to always respect my mother even when she was not in her best form. I dedicated the book to her as a final tribute because she loved her children as best as she had been loved and although she was not perfect, she was mine.
Why did you choose to write about such a heavy topic?
I lost my mother to cancer five years ago. People offered to help me grieve and volunteered their time to talk. However, I quickly learned that not everyone means it when they say that. People are mostly preoccupied with their own lives, and I am not the kind of person who likes to bother others with my problems, so I wrote instead; especially since my bouts of crying to relieve my grief often struck in the middle of the night. There are moments in each story that reflect something I was personally experiencing, and I would say that I used it to heal during that difficult time. I will always miss my mother, but I worked out my thoughts and feelings through this book. It was therapeutic, freeing and a necessary part of my growth during this loss. I think that is what people are feeling when they read my work. I hope my next book will be lighter, but I cannot promise that there won’t be tears.
How important was it for you to include bits of your culture in this work?
It is the most important part of my work. My culture informs all my experiences. I would not be able to tell my stories without having been shaped by both my African and American upbringing
What is your favourite scene in the collection?
If I had to choose, I think the elevator scene in “The Silence Between Us,” required the most delicate touch. The character, Emilola, carries a lot of debilitating guilt. When she gets near finding the closure she pursued, we find that a new door opens to deeper issues where nobody wins. Again, the love in that story is what I wanted to come through the most.
Do you have a favourite character from this series?
My favorite character is Ayomide from the title story, “No God Like The Mother.” I have since turned that short story into a novel. Through the process, I saw her grow from a frightened but determined little girl to a strong and resolute woman, even with the world’s repeated attempts to break her.
Did your characters come from personal experiences, observations or your imagination?
My characters come from a combination of personal experiences and my imagination. From the women I know who have experienced multiple miscarriages, to the many women I met through my work with immigrants and refugees, I wanted to tap into understanding the kind of resolve they all displayed. I chose to pay tribute to women like my sister, who, while still a child, stepped in to make difficult choices that kept food in us, clothes on us and peace around us. I wrote from my own experience with postpartum depression as a 19 year old mother with little to no support. The grief in all these stories was very personal even if the circumstances were fictionalized. There was, and Is, something hidden in all these stories, that needed unearthing through conversations that I could not make happen in the real world, so the next best thing was to write about them.
What is your proudest moment with this book?
My first proudest moment was when my eldest daughter created the art for the cover of No God Like The Mother. Another proud moment was a combination of the following: while my intention has always been to showcase hard topics about what some girls endure to earn their way into womanhood, I feared that only women would understand. After my publisher assigned the manuscript to a white male editor, I was worried about his ability to recognize my take on such vivid storytelling involving African women and childbirth and grief, and essentially the black woman’s love of self. However, he surprised me.
I write women’s stories, but I do not write only for women. I felt reassured for humanity when he and men like my husband, father and brothers displayed the kind of awareness that I hope for and believe will lead us all to change our perception of what is to be expected of our women.
How does your work distinguish itself from other pieces out there?
There is no shortage of stories about relationships in the world, it is why we exist: to be, to learn, and to share experiences with others. I write about relationships and try to do so in a trauma-informed way. I think we have moved so far beyond the shock of seeing the effects of addiction, abuse, etc.that we are too comfortable with simply expressing our disbelief and carrying on. I want to focus on the “why” and to do so with blatant and sometimes brutal honesty.
What impact do you want this book to have on readers?
I once heard that fiction is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted. I tell stories about women who find themselves in situations that will take strong will to climb out of and I want to continue telling those stories to showcase exactly how strong many of us have had to be just to survive, no matter how uncomfortable it might make some people.I read a comment from a woman who is also a writer. She said that she was sick of reading about rape, as she was bored of it. It reminded me of the kind of language people use where they complain about how exhausting it is to be constantly reminded of racism. I would like to agree with that fellow writer, as I too hungered for a world where we did not mistreat one another. However, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like for the child whose uncle entered her room last night to steal another piece of her, knowing she could not speak up about it. I do not want to be told to shut up about adults damaging children. No child gets to adulthood in a stable place if his/her childhood involved sex, if he/she was beaten, abandoned, on drugs, angry, or insecure. They do not stand a chance at a life of peace. I think it is time to focus on how generational trauma affects all of us, and I hope this book stands as my contribution to killing the silence between us.
What lessons should they draw from your work?
I want to erase the shame derived from the idea of imperfection. I hope that we can change minds about womanhood being incomplete without children, or that mothers must be infallible, or that childhood trauma is something one can simply get over. I plan to continue chipping away at the notion that the way it was done is the way it should be, and I hope that all our children see the world as limitless, and choose their life based on the kind of fulfillment that best suits them.
What is your message to the world?
I hope to change enough minds about what should be expected of the female body. I hope no one else feels silenced by the world and especially by other women. If it takes me to my last breath, we are going to change that.
Do you have any tips for our readers?
Support lesser known authors. These days, name recognition leads book sales more than anything. However, there are so many talented writers who want and need to get their work noticed. Even after publication, I see that the real work begins with finding readers. I am constantly reassuring readers that it is okay to try something new. My writing centers around the African woman’s experience in the world but that doesn’t mean non-Africans cannot relate. I ask that people books that have been translated from other languages or switch up their favorite theme of book choices even if only to see how their world opens. Also, and I beg of readers, please share reviews.
Are you working on any other projects?
Oh yes! Several. I have a novel that is a continuation of the title story in my book No God Like The Mother. I have expanded the FGM story to follow the character, Ma’a, into adulthood. I have a screenplay that needs a home. I have another collection of short fiction on the way, and ahead of all of these is THE novel. I cannot decide on a name yet, but I know now that it can wait. It is about a young African American woman who is the first in her family to return to Africa, after the slave trade, with a focus on her explorations as a young wife and mother through 1970’s Nigeria to the current day. It is based on my American mother’s experience in Africa, and I am excited to share it with the rest of the world.
Do you have anything else on the go?
The marketing side of things for No God Like The Mother is my focus right now, but in-between scheduling the next events, I try to find time for reading. I alternate reading a book a week (mostly) and taking off a week to write. It has been my ritual for years, in and out, in and out. Then I publish something in an article, or a magazine and I hope to continue building from there. I wrote for Beyond Black and White a few years ago about my interracial marriage and I hope to share more as time goes on.
Where can people buy the book?
No God Like The Mother can be purchased through my website Keshaajosefisher.com. It is currently selling on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and anywhere online where books are sold.
That’s all for this interview. I hope that you enjoyed this feature. To read a copy of Kesha’s first book, please visit the links within the text. I would to hear your thoughts on this interview in the comments below. If you have a similar book that could speak to our audience, I would love to interview you. Please let me know in the comments, contact Christelyn or me at [email protected].