Flash Fiction and Writers of Color: A Conversation with Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam of Creative Writing News

I’m here with Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam of the Creative Writing News website. First of all, thank you so much for featuring Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction on the CWN website! And thank you for agreeing to have this important and long overdue conversation with me. 

**And to be clear to everyone reading: We are just two writers and NOT mouthpieces for entire groups, obviously. But as two writers who have insights into different communities, I appreciate having this opportunity to share ideas.

Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam

Nancy: As a woman, I’ve always been extremely proud of the gender balance in flash fiction—that women and men have both been represented and instrumental to the growth of the genre, maybe more than any other genre. However, I don’t think flash fiction has done as good of a job representing writers of color. What are your initial thoughts on that? Do you have any ideas why that might be?

Chioma: I can’t speak for all writers of color. But I can speak for many African writers who received education that was mostly tailored after the curricula of the European countries that colonized them. For instance, Nigerians and Ghanaians adopted the British style of studying literature and creative writing. The emphasis was always on studying and analyzing novels and poems as was often prescribed by the colonial educators.

Consequently, most (if not all) publishers in the continent preferred–and still prefer–to publish longer works of fiction and poetry. Also, publishing traditional novels and poetry collections seems to have a higher economic viability when compared to publishing short story or flash fiction collections.

Short story or flash fiction collections have never been included in the WAEC (West African Examination Council) syllabus for literature-in-English examinations. Publishers on the continent want to publish literary texts that are likely to be on WAEC’s recommended list for literature students. This way they can make tons of money from students who will purchase the books. I assume that writers have interpreted this to mean that there’s no point writing stories or books that no one will want to publish. No one wants to be a starving artist. No one envisages being like George Orwell, of whom it was said, that he took delight in sleeping on a bug-ridden bed.

Agreed. Tell us a bit about the advent of literary workshops in Africa. Did they in any way engender the culture of flash fiction writing in the continent?

In the early 2000’s, the literary world was transformed by the advent of the internet. The demand for flash fiction seemed to be on the increase. Writers of color entered and won excellent flash fiction for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. At the time, the prize was open to stories that were 400 words or less. It seems so long ago now that the guidelines have changed.

This period also coincided with the return of foreign-educated African writers who wanted to give back to the literary communities in their home countries. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila and Chika Unigwe are some examples of such writers. 

Africans also began to embrace the culture of creative writing workshops, especially as large corporate bodies were willingly sponsoring these literary events. Many young writers quickly realized that creative writing was becoming more and more profitable. And if ever there was a time to join the creme de la creme of the African literati, that time had come.

However, getting admitted  into these creative writing workshops was a herculean task. Writers suddenly found that they were required to write short fiction (also known as micro fiction or flash fiction) in order to wow the selection committees. As a result, more and more writers started experimenting with the art of flash fiction writing.

Soon, many writers got admitted into highly selective writing workshops organized by literary foundations such as the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Foundation, Short Story Day Africa, Nigerian Academy of Letters, The Caine Prize for African Writing, and so on. I know several writers who forced themselves to learn how to write flash fiction and short stories just because they realized that it was an easier way to get their work out there. 

Although there’s no evidence to prove this, it’s difficult to not wonder if flash fiction is a means to an end for many African writers. When they break into the mainstream, they revert to writing long-form fiction, which they seem to believe the publishers will be interested in acquiring.

That said, a couple of organizations have been trying to encourage African writers to write more flash fiction. For instance, the The Short Story Day Africa used to host #WriterPrompt, a regular flash fiction event that ran on their Facebook page, but it’s been suspended for a while. Brittle Paper also used to hold annual flash fiction contests.

I’ve often wondered if part of the disconnect might be that there are writers of color embracing what I would call flash fiction, but they are calling it something else? Could we actually be writing in the same genre but calling it by two different names?

There are many writers of color embracing this genre of fiction, and they are calling it flash fiction and short fiction or ‘the short story’. 

Many writers of color have written and published brilliant flash fiction stories over the years. Also, new flash fiction writers are publishing amazing stories of extreme brevity.

When I was actively writing and publishing flash fiction stories in Fiction 365, Flash Fiction Press, Tribes Write, Sentinel Mag and elsewhere, I certainly wasn’t calling it that. I am not sure why. But at the time, the word ‘flash fiction’ wasn’t an organic part of my vocabulary.

At any rate, I believe you have a point. Many writers, not just writers of color, label all stories under 5,000 words ‘short stories’. It all depends on what your definition of a short story is. 

Who are some of your favorite writers of color who are writing what I might call flash fiction (whether or not they are calling it that)?

Shachi Kaul, Chika Unigwe, Mira Desai, Jude Dibia, Alice Walker, Imbolo Mbue, Lola Opatayo, Lily Mabura, Elnathan John, Folakemi Emem-Akpan, and A. Igoni Barrett.

How important do you think it is for there to be other writers of color in a field first before a new writer might be attracted to it/try it? I can see how, if a room felt dominated by white faces, it might not feel very welcoming. Thoughts?

There are many reasons why I think there should be more writers of color writing and publishing flash fiction. 

But I want to focus on how many new writers tend to focus on genres where people who look like them have flourished. When African writers started receiving awards of £10,000 for their short stories, many new writers started aspiring to be prolific short story writers. I believe that people of color will be drawn to the flash fiction genre if editors accept and publish more stories by POC. 

What do you think flash fiction writers can do to make the literary space more welcoming to WOC who might be discovering this tiny, awesome form? What is an important message or reframe our community can embrace to become better allies to WOC?

First and foremost, flash fiction writers can endeavor to be more welcoming of people of color in their critique groups. But they shouldn’t stop there. Workshop moderators should encourage racial diversity as well as discourage cyberbullying and the utterance of racist comments.

Flash fiction writers, who are slush pile readers and editors, can go out of their way to understand the subtexts, cultures and histories of writers of color, just as most writers of color have done for people of other races. I know many writers who have received kind-worded rejections that read something like: 

“we thoroughly enjoyed reading your story and would have loved to publish it. However, we have to say no to this because we believe our [white] audience will not relate to it.”

Sometimes, the editors or readers say they had to work hard to understand the subtexts and historical nuances of the story. Feedback like these can deter WOC from trying to say so much in very few words, especially when the audience seems to be unwilling to understand their work and their perspectives.

WOC might be willing to venture into this sphere, if editors and publishers make efforts to publish and promote brilliant works from writers of color. Also, there needs to be more Black/Asian-owned magazines/journals. Some exist, but there needs to be more. People of color should also work toward creating and promoting their own platforms. 

But in the end, it all boils down to funding. I think writers of color will run successful magazines if they can get funding to pay contributors and settle the miscellaneous expenses involved in running a literary publication. Also, it’ll help if many writers of color can get funding to organize and attend flash fiction writing courses online and offline. 

One important message all writers should embrace is this: every story is important. Every well-written story can move you deeply even when you aren’t familiar with the culture, the characters and the setting. Make room for other people’s stories; they will make you wiser, more empathetic and more humane. 

This is not an easy conversation, and again, I just want to say how grateful I am to you for holding space with me. In my own clumsy attempts to make change, I try to remember that lasting change happens steadily, one degree at a time. As a former organizer I’ve seen so much burnout—in the midst of emotional frustration, we aim for 100% change right now! And when that doesn’t happen, we give up. In my experience, true change is the slower, steady, less dramatic but more sustainable changes that actually lasts. We can all get 1% better right now. Then 2%. then 10%…Your thoughts? 

I totally agree with you. A sage once quipped, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a step.’ Perhaps, this conversation is just one step out of many we’ll still have to take, before we can experience any real change.

What do you think is a 1% shift that we could all make today that would make a big difference?

There is so much work to be done. Where do I start? Online critique groups that are less racist and more welcoming to POC? Or more inclusive flash fiction workshops? And like I said earlier, more supportive editors in literary journals and publishing houses? The list is endless.

But I think it’s better to make small changes within our vicinities than to throw our hands up in surrender.

Yes to that. Yes yes yes. I’ve know I’ve been asking a lot of questions–to close us out, I just want to hand you the mic:

Thank you for asking these thoughtful questions. I hope we have a future where flash fiction journals feature the stories of many writers of color.

Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam writes prose fiction, creative nonfiction and blog articles. Her debut novella, Finding Love Again was published by Ankara Press. Her second novella The Heiress’ Bodyguard was longlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Awards. When she isn’t working as a content marketer or blogging about creative writing, she can be found playing mother hen with her three boisterous children. You can follow her on twitter: @cwritingnews or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Creative Writing News (www.creativewritingnews.com) is designed to help all writers succeed in their endeavors. It covers everything a writer and publisher might need. From writing tips to free-to-enter writing contests, creative writing news keeps members of the literati up to date with news, opportunities and more. Feel free to send in contributions about the writing life and all things creative writing. You can follow CWN on twitter @cwritingnews, on Facebook and Instagram