Featuring Ifeanyi Awachie
Born in Nigeria, Ifeanyi Awachie is a photographer who moved to the US when she was at eighteen months old. In 2013, she returned to Nigeria to re-discover her heritage and share her journey to the world. Her experiences are beautifully captured in Summer in Igboland, an exhibit and e-book showcasing photographs of contemporary Nigeria. Ayiba’s Joy Mwaniki connected with Ifeanyi to find out more about her photography and Summer in Igboland.
Who is Ifeanyi?
I’m a Nigerian-American creative. I write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, I’m a photographer, and I curate AFRICA SALON and other events. In all my work, I’m passionate about telling and advancing stories that expand and add nuance to mainstream narratives about “the African experience” and “the African-American experience.”
When did you fall in love with writing and photography?
When I was a kid, I discovered Emily Dickinson’s biography in a children’s encyclopedia and started copying her poems by hand over and over. I didn’t know then, but I was trying to be a writer. Later, I started writing original poems and stories, and I dreamed of being a novelist, though I never thought of pursuing the work seriously because neither my parents nor anyone in my community had ever talked about writing as a career. In college, though, after taking a fiction writing course on a whim, I realized how deeply I valued this practice of creating worlds that reflected life as only I see it. No matter what other work I did, I was always going to write. I felt doomed to it and thrilled by it at the same time.
I discovered photography in college as well, through a course on documentary photojournalism that instantly made photography part of my future career—once I learned how to compose a photo, I couldn’t stop. I found the process of slimming life down to framed scenes to tell a specific story about a place or people so stimulating. But what excited me most was the potential of photography to reframe my birth country in people’s minds.
You left Nigeria when you were young. What drew you back?
Growing up, I identified strongly as Nigerian, but by the time I got to college, I realized my knowledge of Nigerian culture, history, current lifestyle, etc., was pretty limited. That made me question my Nigerianness. But my destabilized sense of identity granted me this maddening yet productive curiosity about the country. I had this hunger for more of Nigeria than my parent’s stories, outdated textbooks, or Google searches could offer. In addition, as a newly aspiring writer and photographer, I realized my perspective gave me a unique lens when it came to telling stories about the country. I conceptualized “Summer in Igboland” as a way to discover Nigeria for myself and, believing that I would find beauty there, to share those stories with as many people as possible.
What things were familiar vs. surprising during your return?
The funny thing is, the things I found familiar in Nigeria were surprising. But to hear more about that, you’ll have to read the book. Wink wink.
What realizations did you reach during your photographic adventure in Nigeria?
So many! I describe one of my most vivid in the chapter titled “Munachi,” about an infant cousin of mine:
Someone held me the way I hold Munachi nineteen years ago, someone that I no longer remember. I imagine introducing myself to Munachi nineteen in his future, a strange cousin from America that he has to call “Auntie” reminding him that she’d loved making funny faces at him when he was two, that used to lie on her chest. I will try to win his affection, and he will respond with a shy smile, blank with lack of memory, slightly apologetic, the same expression I have given so many of my parents’ old friends…
Why did you decide to turn your photography project into a full-length book?
I envisioned “Summer in Igboland” as a multimedia project from the beginning. I knew I wanted to present it as an exhibit first, then as a photography blog and eventually share my experiences in my native storytelling language: writing. I chose to publish an e-book because presenting the text and photos in a digital environment made the most sense to me—like many people, I experience most of the photography I consume digitally—and because I wanted the book to be interactive.
What are the challenges of working full-time while writing?
It’s exhausting! I think it was Alice Walker who wrote and worked full-time her entire life; she is a much stronger woman than I am. I recently reorganized my life to dedicate more time to my creative work: I write and do a range of creative projects part-time and work part-time as Curator of AFRICA SALON.
What was your favorite part of creating the book?
I have three favorite passages in the book—when I was writing them I felt the satisfaction of saying exactly what I wanted to say. Those were the best parts.
What challenges did you face in creating the book?
Honestly, this book was 90% pleasure, 10% work. Since this is my first book and I pursued publishing options after I finished writing, I never had stressful deadlines to meet. Writing and editing allowed me to relive my summer in Nigeria over and over, which was a luxury since I’ve been fighting nostalgia ever since and haven’t been able to get back yet. Seeing the photos and text and design come together so beautifully thanks to Pronoun, my publisher, whose mission I respect so much, was a dream come true. I was able to create the book on my own terms, and that has been incredible.
What has been the response to the book?
So far, my readers have been overwhelmingly supportive. The book has been described as “relatable,” “tender,” “pitch-perfect,” “thought-provoking.” It’s exciting and surreal to see people interacting with the book, and even more surprising and gratifying to receive such positive feedback. I’m really grateful and hope Summer in Igboland will spark critical conversations in the future.
How has social media helped grow your work?
Anyone who knows me has heard me declare my love for Twitter at least once. I love social media—I love that it empowers creative to package, promote, and distribute their work on their own terms. For me, it’s been essential. Tumblr has helped expose Summer in Igboland to a wide audience. Facebook allowed me to announce the book to almost my entire network at once. I’m currently developing promotional content for the book for Instagram and LinkedIn. I’m always thirsty for feedback, and my socials are possibly the best means I have for interacting with my readers, now and in the future. I’m really looking forward to the conversations I’ll have about Summer on social media as the book reaches a wider audience.
Which writers and photographers inspire you?
Audre Lorde’s Zami, Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, and Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World are three of the most beautiful books I have ever read; I aspire to those levels of skill. Sheba Anyanwu (Ayiba’s inhouse blogger) writes short stories and essays I wish I had written. I discovered David Uzochukwu‘s photography recently and it is absolutely next-level. Joe Were‘s work is uncannily strong, especially considering his stage in his photography career. Teff the Don is a talented abstract photographer with a keen eye for lush color and texture and I love the treatment she gives Nigeria in her photos. And lastly but importantly, Brandon Stanton was a huge inspiration to me as I started photography; he nearly flawlessly demonstrates what I find most powerful about street photography.
How do you think the space for African creatives is evolving?
I see lots of African creatives adopting the cause of challenging, taking ownership of, complicating, and expanding the stereotypical African narrative. It’s becoming easy to consume culture that reflects diverse authentic African experiences, and that is powerful. That is essential.
As a creative who shares this mission, I’m grateful to be surrounded by similar work that I can draw inspiration from, choose when I’m looking for entertainment and stimulation, and see myself reflected in. My hope now is that more Africans across age groups and social classes will value creative work even more in the future, for the sake of the continent but also for their own fulfillment.
Find out how to get your copy of Ifeanyi Awachie’s Summer in Igboland here.