New Daughters of Africa: In Conversation with Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi
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r Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi was born and raised in Cameroon, where she would become the first Beba woman to earn two PhDs. She is currently a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative literature in the English Department, and Assistant Dean for Diversity in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at North Carolina State University. She is also a contributor to ‘New Daughters of Africa’.

As part of our build-up to the UK paperback release of ‘New Daughters of Africa’, we had the immense pleasure to interview Juliana about her contribution to ‘New Daughters […]’ but also about her career and experience, both as an African woman in academia, and as a published writer.

As always, we hope you enjoy reading Juliana’s carefully written, thoughtful, and insightful answers as much as we did, and that this conversation will make you want to read more of her works – starting of course with her contribution to the ‘New Daughters of Africa’ anthology.

So, without further ado, please enjoy our conversation with Dr Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi.

 


 

A: Could you tell us a bit about yourself? What do you do, what are you passionate about, and anything else you’d like us to know about you?

J: I was born and raised in Cameroon. I attended primary and high school in English-speaking “Anglophone” Cameroon and the University of Yaounde in French-speaking “Francophone” Cameroon. There, I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in languages and literature. I later moved to Canada where I studied at McGill University and from there moved to the United States in 1994 where I have lived since. I am currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative literature in the English Department and Assistant Dean for Diversity in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at North Carolina State University. I teach African and African diaspora literatures, postcolonial literary and cultural studies and women’s and gender studies. I write fiction under the pen name Makuchi. My publications include Gender in African Women’s Writing: Identity, Sexuality and Difference, Your Madness, Not Mine: Stories of Cameroon, The Sacred Door: Cameroon Folktales of the Beba. I am passionate about bringing African literature alive in the classroom with my students and to various audiences through my teaching and creative writing. I am also passionate about football, a sport I’ve loved since my childhood. I spend many a weekend relaxing with the Premier League while decompressing from the stresses of academia!

I am passionate about bringing African literature alive in the classroom with my students and to various audiences through my teaching and creative writing. Dr Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi

A: Where did the idea for your contribution ‘Home Is Where You Mend The Roof’ come from? And why did you choose to submit it to the ‘New Daughters of Africa’ anthology?

J: I originally wrote “Home is Where You Mend the Roof” for an anthology titled 27 Views of Raleigh: The City of Oaks in Prose and Poetry. Eno Publishers wanted to bring together a body of diverse voices to create “a literary montage of Raleigh, now and then.” Since I left Montreal, Canada for the United States, I have lived in the states of Minnesota, Mississippi and now North Carolina. America is a huge country and the states have many things in common but they are also different in many ways. Over my 26 years in the United States, I have struggled—and continue to struggle—with the concept of home and a sense of belonging. I have also come to realise that I experience my most intense sense of helplessness and not/none belonging or alienation when someone, especially a close family member, dies in Cameroon. That death is often conveyed to me by a voice on a phone line and in the early hours of the morning when I am deep in sleep as was the case when my brother Sylvester in March 2013. At the beginning of my essay, I draw on the agony of his death and my being so far away and unable to go “home” to mourn him according to Beba tradition. His death provides a framework for talking about loss and my sense of home, for questioning what home means and how those meanings frame the ways that I, as an African woman, navigate life, work, family, and daily living in America even as my heart continues to reach out, yearning for the smells, tastes, sounds, colours of Africa. When Margaret Busby reached out to me about submitting to the New Daughters of Africa anthology, I thought this would make for a great contribution. She liked it but due to space constraints, she asked to publish an excerpt of the essay.   

I, as an African woman, navigate life, work, family, and daily living in America even as my heart continues to reach out, yearning for the smells, tastes, sounds, colours of Africa. Dr Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi

A: When did you know that your calling would be in both teaching and writing?

J: My father was a primary school teacher and School Principal. I grew up admiring his school work ethic and his love for his students. I probably from a young age wanted to grow up to be like him. I also grew up enthralled by the story telling sessions my mother had with us around the evening fire while we waited for the evening meal to cook. Sometimes, after the meal, she would engage us in riddling and storytelling while we shelled egusi or especially during the planting season when we prepared the maize or groundnuts seeds. I inherited that love of storytelling from my mother. I used to write poems in secondary school but always threw them away because our curriculum at Our Lady of Lourdes Secondary School, Bamenda, was British and we were being prepared for Ordinary Levels and Advanced Levels. Back then, our O’Level and A’Level exams were set and run by the University of London. Needless to say, some students and their families could not afford the cost. The exam questions were set and printed in London and shipped to Cameroon. We wrote the exams and our exam papers were shipped back to London for marking. The results/certificates signed on behalf of the University of London by A.R. Stephenson, Secretary to the University Entrance and School Examinations Council, were shipped back to Cameroon and then funnelled to us the students. Even the books on our curriculum were shipped from the UK. For that reason, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in anything I had to say and systematically threw away all the poems I wrote at Lourdes. It was only at university my African literature professor encouraged me to write and I’ve been writing fiction since. Thankfully, my book The Sacred Door and Other Stories: Cameroon Folktales of the Beba grew out of the repertoire of my mother’s stories. It was also at university that after earning my B.A. bilingual degree (English and French), I flirted with the idea of becoming a journalist but in the end chose to follow my father into teaching.    

A: How different would you say your life as an academic and your life as a writer are from each other? Do they intersect? If so, what influence do they have on each other?

J: They are different but they feed off each other and enhance my productive life. My academic life has taken up most of my time, especially in the earlier years of my career when I had to juggle motherhood/parenthood, family, and academic excellence in order to earn the rewards of climbing up the academic ladder. My being a foreigner/outsider also added other racial, political, and cultural pressures I had to learn to navigate. I often felt frustrated that attention to my academic performance sometimes overwhelmed me and took away the time I could devote to creative writing. But returning to the fold of creative writing has always given me a sense of nourishment that is quite different from the sense of accomplishment I get with academic writing. Sustaining that movement between and from the academic space to the creative writing space and vice versa provides a healthy balance that keeps me grounded in who I am.

A: What role would you say Cameroon plays in your writing?

J: A lot. All the short stories in Your Madness, Not Mine are set in Cameroon. Many other stories I have written since are also set in Cameroon because, whether I like it or not, Cameroon still colours my American immigrant experience. For instance, earlier this year, I published a piece, “Am I Anglophone?: Identity Politics and Postcolonial Trauma in Cameroon at War” about the ruinous war declared by the State on the inhabitants of two of its ten regions. This war that that has been going on since 2017 has wrought untold suffering and devastation in the North West and South West regions. In the essay, my Cameroonian and American immigrant identities struggle to come to terms with this war that still has no end in sight.  

A: In your contribution to the ‘New Daughters of Africa’ anthology, ‘home’ and ‘belonging’, and what both of them mean to you play an important role. What role do these themes play in your writing and your research in general?

J: In the same way that I learned to reconcile how my scholarly work and my creative writing feed off each other, it has taken me decades to come to terms with the African proverb, “home is where you mend the roof.” So much wisdom in so few words. Many African immigrants are obsessed with building a house “back home”, preferably, a big house—“a palace”—that bespeaks their success in America and cements their status “back home”. Having a house back home is not just a mark of an immigrant’s success but proof of one’s rootedness, proof one left “home” but never forgot where one came from, et cetera. This is the myth one buys into, a very positive myth but one that can also bring much heartache, stress and depression. For some who must make this myth a reality continue to do so at much cost to their health, their wellbeing and their relationships. And so, I’ve learned to ask, what does “back home” really mean? I have lived/seen how thinking obsessively of home as only “back there” where one came from can cripple the ability to live; to live life in the here and now. At what cost should one put themselves through severe financial and emotional distress building a house “back home” that one might never really go back to inhabit and as such “be home at last” or does the physical and symbolic presence of the house in itself suffice, no matter who inhabits it? My living in Montreal for six years, in St. Cloud for one year, in Hattiesburg for eleven years, and in Raleigh for fourteen years has forced me to radically rethink the concept of home; to ponder what it means if “home” is an idea or a thing that is only “back there,” that is, where I am originally from. For me, that singular meaning of home being “back there” is debilitating, unsustainable, unattainable and undesirable. What I have learned from this struggle with home and belonging and that I apply to my writing and research is this: Home is not a house, home is not a building, home is not a location, home is not a culture. Home is what/when a house, a building, a location, a culture adds meaning to who you are wherever you are and to whatever you do. Home is indeed where you mend the roof so that the torrent of the rain or the scorch of the sun does not smite you into oblivion.

Home is indeed where you mend the roof so that the torrent of the rain or the scorch of the sun does not smite you into oblivion. Dr Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi

A: As an academic and university lecturer, would you say that ‘New Daughters of Africa’ could shape and influence curricula for specific courses (on ‘African writing’, or ‘women’s literature’, for example) and/or general English literature degrees?

J: Yes, to all of the above. The pieces in this anthology offer an incredible variety of perspectives that can engender useful and fruitful conversations on gender, sexuality, history, culture, politics, race; you name it, either by the general public or in undergraduate and graduate courses.

A: What have your experiences as an African woman academic been like throughout your career? What do you hope the future looks like for women aspiring to a similar career path as you?

J: My experiences as an African woman academic have been fraught with difficulties but have also been satisfying. I learned very quickly that I had to work twice as hard, that my race, my mental ability, my African accent, my African-styled clothing, even my African hairstyles can and sometimes do become points of contention and overt racism but I also had to learn how to navigate these hurdles. I do my work, I never let go of that African-ness that grounds my sense of self, I believe unreservedly in who I am and my ability to achieve most of what I put my mind to. I hope that future women aspiring to a similar career will say, “If Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi from Beba, Cameroon, could do it, so can I!” There are so many young African women academics trailblazing in many fields that, so far as I’m concerned, the future is bright. Very encouraging! My fervent hope is that with the current and renewed intentional drive for racial and social justice, they will not have to deal with the sexism and racism some of us have lived through.

I do my work, I never let go of that African-ness that grounds my sense of self, I believe unreservedly in who I am and my ability to achieve most of what I put my mind to. Dr Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi

A: What would you like the world to know about African women that isn’t as widely known?

J: African women are not sitting on their behinds waiting for the rest of the world to come and save them or bring change to their lives and communities. African women have been doing this themselves for millennia! Patricia Ngonda Nfah, my “illiterate,” i.e., non-western educated mother, who bore eleven babies (lost one still-born), raised ten children and died at age 46, “smiles down” (she was a staunch catholic) at us and the fact that seven of those ten kids she worked large farms to feed so my father’s Catholic school teacher salary would cover their tuition in elite Catholic boarding schools, have each earned at least a graduate degree. She did that!

A: What’s next for Dr Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi?

Keep on writing! Publish another book of fiction. 

Bonus question: Who would you invite to your dream dinner party (dead or alive)?

At this point in my life, my mother! If she’s unavailable, the late Bessie Head.

My experiences as an African woman academic have been fraught with difficulties but have also been satisfying. I learned very quickly that I had to work twice as hard, that my race, my mental ability, my African accent, my African-styled clothing, even my African hairstyles can and sometimes do become points of contention and overt racism but I also had to learn how to navigate these hurdles. Dr Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi

 


 

If you’d like to support the work of Dr Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi and all the other contributors, you can pre-order the anthology here and receive it shortly after its official publication date (for trade or large-scale orders, please get in touch with us via our contact page).

A big thank you also to Juliana for taking time out of her busy schedule to take part in this interview with us.