Not everyone has the willpower to leave everything they know and start afresh in pursuit of a dream. But then again, not everyone is published writer and Ph.D candidate, Amara Okolo. Amara has been working towards her Ph.D since 2017 when she first made the decision to leave the country and pursue writing as a her primary career, a year after her debut romance novel, Black Sparkle Romance, was published under Ankara Press.
Since then she has moved to the United States, earned an MFA, published more work and is furthering her journey into academia by pursuing a Ph.D. For #MCNWorkLife, we spoke to Amara about how Nigeria’s many shortcomings are the catalysts for life changing decisions, how she is approaching academia and her enduring relationship with the country she first called home.
Please introduce yourself?
My name is Amara Okolo, and I am a writer and artist from Nigeria currently living in the United States, where I am pursuing a PhD program in Creative Writing, Multiculturalism, Women, Health and Gender Studies in Baltimore, Maryland. So far, I have written and published three books. Before coming to the US, I worked as a lawyer and later, as a communications specialist in Nigeria. Now I am more of a recluse writer using my experience of legal research to conduct my own research and write my novels, my dissertation and theories. It’s been a journey so far.
What did you want to be growing up?
A pilot. It’s bizarre now when I think about it, because I completely detest flying. But as a child I imagined that being in the skies must be the greatest escape a human could ever have, so I wanted to have that future, and being a pilot was the closest to that. Then I got older and realized the escape of the mind was the greatest escape, and art/creativity granted you that. So, I guess that explains why I am an artist today (laughs).
What is your primary occupation now?
A writer/researcher and adjunct professor. I recently completed my Ph.D coursework last spring, so now I’m writing and researching my dissertation while teaching undergraduate classes at my university. It’s a lot of work, especially the teaching part, but I love the ability I have to organize my own hours. I look forward to the moment where I’ll begin traveling to complete my research, and to finish up my book/dissertation.
How long have you been on this career path?
I’d say two years now, for the PhD. I completed my MFA in 2021, and started my PhD the same year. So technically, I would say four years (inclusive of the MFA), but two years, if we take that off.
What inspired you to drop everything and move abroad to pursue an MFA?
The February 2019 Nigerian presidential elections. I’m serious…that was the only reason. Back then I was working for an organization that oversaw the credibility of elections in parts of the world, and having inside eyes to the menace and utter corruption that permeated across Nigeria’s elections was alarming. I had initially gotten an eye into that in 2017 when I worked for a sector I will not name, that was why I began to look into applying for MFAs within that year and the next (2018).
But after the horror of watching voters harassed, chased, beaten and sometimes, killed at the polling units during the 2019 elections, it was enough for me to decide to leave. I had a great job, lived relatively well enough, and I wanted to be closer to home, but I had a foreboding after the 2019 elections that more terrible things will happen in Nigeria’s governance, and I did not want to be a part of it. It’s sad to say now that my intuition was right.
How is an MFA different from a traditional Master’s Degree or an MBA?
The long-suffering passion. I say this because I think people get Master degrees to elevate their careers or to get more lucrative income. So far, for people I know who have MFAs, it is the opposite. Most of us come from other careers to take this route because of the longing to write and create work. Sadly, not most people would make money out of it. Gone are the days of art being entirely lucrative on mystery, so you have to be popular to sell your work. Getting an MFA gets you some of that popularity, but not all of it.
Personally, an MFA makes it easier for you to get a first footing in the American literary space, that’s all. Sometimes, it doesn’t even do that. It gives you a degree you may not be able to utilize because quite quickly, you’d realize that America is more of a “work-centred” culture, rather than art-centred, as they’d portrayed themselves to be to the outside world. That’s why most MFA holders usually go for a PhD. It’s an interesting but rather exhausting realization. But the passion, as long-suffering as it is (because it will be long-suffering!) will shoulder you through.
I have heard that studying for an MFA means you have to work as a full time student and a full time writer, is there any truth to that?
Yes. You have to be able to do both, and with so much vigour, else you will lose what gave you the essence to desire to become a student in the first place. So that means while being a 100% fulltime MFA student, you have to be a 200% full time writer. MFAs can be brutal. You go from being this solitary writer with your own words and small circle of friends and supporters on Facebook and Twitter, to a workshop of other writers who may have no inkling about what you write about or why you write it, and do not care to know.
You will get feedback that may make you begin searching for new graduate programs to apply to by 1:00am in the morning. You have to constantly remind yourself why you went this route of your life, and one way to do that is to shut out the noise, both congratulatory and judging, and keep writing. For me, I keep reminding myself that the work is the purpose, not me. I can take the beating, but the work must exist after me, a person of its own. It keeps me focused.
Were there any events in the last few years that helped cement for you the reality that you were now a writer (professional) instead of a writer (hobbyist)?
Maybe the publication of my books (Black Sparkle Romance, Son of Man, Daughters of Salt). When I got published and got all those interviews on Aljazeera and all, it made me realize that maybe I could make this professional. But I could also say that even before publication, I never took my writing as a hobby. It was more like an escape for me, materialized from my talent as a visual artist.
I loved words as a child…I read everything I saw. I felt words would make my art more potent, so I began writing alongside my drawings. I did it on quiet mornings and quiet nights, because my imagination explored topics and worlds I was yet to see. So I never really took it as a hobby or something that I saw people do and became interested in. If I had taken writing as a hobby rather than an escape, I would never have become a writer. I would have remained a visual artist and that only.
Is there any personal anecdote that you can share that you think best illustrates what it is like working as an immigrant, black writer in America?
You know that meme of a toddler eating a burger with tears in their eyes? That’s literally the only anecdote I can think of right now (laughs). It’s pleasure and pain mixed into one. You’re enjoying the ability to do what you want without obstructions (NEPA taking light, having a home office where every electronic gadget works, being able to say ‘I’m a writer’ and not be asked, well, what’s your real job?) but then, there are tears! The tears, baby, the tears. They are numerous to mention.
What’s a typical day in your work life like?
It’s not perfectly defined, but most days I wake up early, say a prayer then make a cup of tea and try to write for an hour or two before getting into the day. Depending on the time of the year (school year I get ready to teach my students at the University), and summers I’m more laid back and go to work at the Writing Centre in my University. Or I take a vacation or weekend trip (the perks of living in Maryland close to so many other states) to do nothing but be. I recently had those in late June, and it was wonderful. But like I said, because I have the luxury of organizing my hours, my work life is not a basic routine but rather a mixture of different levels of my life, both highs and lows.
What is the thing you like the most about what you do?
The fact that I find ease in it. It makes me connect with my memories, my experiences, my past, my present. Writing allows me to harness memories of things I experienced in passing. For example, I am writing my first ever full-length novel, and not to give much away, it is loosely based on one of the law cases I handled as a lawyer in Asaba during my NYSC in 2013.
I added some parts of my childhood into it, and I am amazed at the ability of remembering some things I thought I had forgotten with time. I recalled the smells, the sounds, the languages, the body languages, the sights, the people, the neighbourhoods, the loving, the fighting, the being, the existing…just the normality of the average Nigerian life while growing up in one of Nigeria’s oldest cities in South-Eastern Nigeria. It was a wonderful moment for me, how words can open up the brain to a life lived. I find a special ease in that, and it makes this work easy to continue doing.
What is the thing you like the least?
Capitalism. It has ruined the world.
Do you believe in work buddies?
I do! I have a very small space of close friends who I talk to about my work and we share experiences in what we are doing and how we are doing it. We respect each other’s boundaries and encourage ourselves, both mentally and emotionally, and we also delight in each other’s wins and progress. It’s a small circle I am very grateful for.
What’s your stance on ‘work spouses?’
I don’t have a spouse yet so I cannot say much (laughs). But I would say as someone who had a relationship where my partner at the time believed in my work, it is a beautiful thing. I don’t think I am answering this question properly…(laughs). Okay, I will guess you mean having a spouse who also works or does some work similar to yours? I don’t know.
Well, my stance is that the only time you should ever think of having a spouse is when said spouse is your biggest supporter. They may or may not understand why you work as a writer, but they never judge you or put you down, or make you feel like you are not doing something of substance. I had a partner who created an office space in his house for me to write. He literally set up the space in a room with a view, right opposite his own workspace, so I could wake up each morning and go there to do my writing. Another time, he paid for a getaway trip so I could finish up a writing I planned to submit for an award. It brought tears to my eyes, and made me feel very loved and appreciated.
What is the most annoying stereotype you have to deal with as a PhD candidate/working writer?
That my research and PhD focus has to be one-dimensionally defined. I don’t think so! I regard my focus as multi-disciplinary. It covers science, technology, feminism, women, gender, identity, politics, immigration, health…everything that makes up our world as we know it. The only centre is the writing, and I do it creatively. So nowadays when people ask me what I will do with my PhD, I tell them: everything. I am researching everything to write about it.
Do you have any side careers/hustles/hobbies that you devote time to?
Not yet. I have some ideas, but I’m still exploring them, and searching for the best location (possibly where I will live in retirement), to establish them.
What is next in the cards for you career wise?
To share this novel I am almost finished with, with the world. There have been some interests, and I hope one day for people to hold it in their hands. I’ve been writing it since 2018, and I am proud of my dedication to believing in it. Asides that, I am also writing a second novel, which will be my dissertation, and with ideas for a third. But all in all, I am looking forward to being done with my PhD fully, and venturing into the next phase of my life and the place I have always wanted to be: Home.
Can you give us a tip you swear by for successfully managing a work/life balance?
Do something you love and everyday it will never feel like work.
Do you have any advice for younger women who want to do what you do?
You have to ask yourself the question of if you want to do this for a sizable moment of your life. Not because your friends are doing it, not because people told you “you write beautifully”. You have to take out the flowers and consider the thorns. When you answer this question with absolutely nothing else but certainty, then, and only then, should you begin the journey.