Uche Okonkwo

On Choosing Your Uncertainties, the Different Stages of “Finished” and her debut story collection ‘A Kind of Madness’

Cover of Uche Okonkwo: On Choosing Your Uncertainties, the Different Stages of “Finished” and her debut story collection ‘A Kind of Madness’

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong to your own family? Or found it easier to go along with a narrative about yourself that couldn’t be farther from the truth? Have you ever felt the disappointment of realizing someone you thought you were close to doesn’t know you at all? Or heard a rumor about your family member so believable that you could never look at them the same way again? Uche Okonkwo’s debut story collection, A Kind of Madness (Tin House, 2024), touches on these types of compulsive questions and offers a refreshing interiority to fiction. 

Set in Nigeria, these stories carry a cultural weight that crosses borders. Okonkwo’s stories read like a mix of modern folklore and psychological thriller. Often unsettling, but always relatable, her characters all long for something undeniably human: a clean conscience, acceptance from peers, unshakable love. Their motivations are simple but their circumstances warp them to complexity, much like the writer’s life or the creative process. 

I spoke with Uche about the maddening levels of uncertainty that accompany writing, strategically selecting your life’s uncertainties, and the unending evolution of “finished” that a single draft can embody. 


Ashley Rubell: All of these stories are set in Nigeria. Tell me about your time spent there.

Uche Okonkwo: I’m Nigerian, I grew up there. I came to the U.S. in 2017 for my MFA, then I stayed to do a PhD. 

AR: Will you go back after your degree or stay here? Is the pursuit of your PhD so that you can teach?

UO: It all depends on getting a job that will sponsor me with a work visa. It’s complicated. We’ll see how things turn out. I’ll be looking for teaching [jobs], but I’m open to other things. 

It’s hard to think of the job I would be excited about. I did some work in the past for one company that created a variety of English language tests, and I kind of enjoyed that. So, maybe something like that. Something that still allows me to use skills that I’m competent at, but I don’t think I would want to work in publishing. I want a little bit of distance from the writing world, if I can manage that. Even teaching feels kind of close to it, but like, at least there’s some distance.

AR: I would guess then that it feels important to you to protect your creative space as a writer?

UO: Yeah. I worked in publishing in Nigeria for a long time. In fact, that was pretty much the only career I had before coming here. So I have some experience with it, although the context is very different in Nigeria versus here. But honestly, I don’t think I would like to go back to publishing.

AR: How does publishing differ in Nigeria, compared to here? And what did you not enjoy about it? 

UO: The main difference is in terms of scale. The publishing industry is a lot smaller in Nigeria. Also in terms of infrastructure. There isn’t a lot of support for publishing [in Nigeria]. It’s really hard to run. It’s hard to run a publishing company anywhere, but in Nigeria it’s really, really, really hard. I saw that working there and I didn’t hate it. I actually liked it for a very long time. I sought it out and did that work for a long time and I left for my first graduate degree and then came back to it. It’s not that I hate it, I just think I don’t think I want to do it anymore. 

AR: This feels, to me, like one of the most maddening parts of pursuing writing. This need to protect the space for your creativity while also securing a job that has that distance from it. Being a freelance writer really hinders my creative expression with writing at times, but that’s what caters best to my life stage right now with young children. I had the job with more distance but it isn’t conducive to my life at the moment. It’s been very destabilizing for me. I wonder, what is the most maddening part of your life as a writer? Or the most maddening part of your creative process? 

UO: Creatively, I’m happy with how it goes. It’s the other stuff, having to make a living and figuring out how to do that, and still have a life. I don’t know how to explain it, but maybe I have a little regret that I have built my life too closely to writing. All my degrees have been in English and creative writing. All my work experience has been in the writing space. I haven’t been interested enough in other things to really explore them. When I was younger, my mom tried to get me a job in an admin position. I hated it so much. In the interview, I was so frustrated, I told the person I interviewed with that I actually had no interest in the job. I was young and foolish, I would never do anything like that now. I can see [now] what my mom was trying to do. Maybe I should have been more open to exploring other career paths. I think it’s mainly [maddening] trying to figure out a way to live without certainty, that comes with writing. It’s such a precarious position to be in sometimes. For me, there’s also other stuff, like being in a different country, being single, not having a partner to share stuff with. It feels very unstable in a way. 

AR: Do you think that unstable feeling would be as loud or as present if you were in Nigeria, let’s say? How much of that unstable feeling do you attribute to being in this country?

UO: I think if I were in Nigeria, it would be unstable in different ways. There are Nigerian writers that live in Nigeria. They make a life for themselves in Nigeria. It’s not impossible to do. But when I just think of the kind of life I would like to live and the career options and prospects, I think it would be more difficult to achieve some of those things in Nigeria. When I was working in publishing in Nigeria I kind of reached the heights in publishing that I could reach. I was the managing editor at the publishing firm, and it was still the kind of thing where, if I wasn’t living at home, could I survive on this income? I just felt like I had reached a kind of ceiling there, so if I went back home, it would be more stable in some ways, less stable in other ways. It’s the balancing act, trying to choose what kind of uncertainty you can live with at certain periods of time.

AR: When you were writing these stories, how many had you finished writing before you knew with any certainty that there was a collection there? When did the maddening theme emerge?

UO: It’s been ten years from the oldest [story in this collection] to the newest. These stories took shape over a long period of time. When I was writing them, I wasn’t thinking of putting them together in any kind of collection. I was just writing. There was a time when me and my agent were exploring the idea of [whether we] could make the stories link. I didn’t have any strong desire for them to be a linked collection. So we discarded that idea.


The theme of madness came quite late in the process when we were trying to find a title for the collection. I thought about titling the collection after one of the stories, but there wasn’t any title that I liked as a book title. They worked as story titles. So I started looking at phrases and themes. In the first story in the collection, I don’t remember exactly what it says, but there’s a reference to madness. Like, the way my mother thinks is a kind of madness. All the stories in the collection have some kind of flawed thinking behind the conflict and the situation. It’s not a literal madness, but an argument that can be made for a certain kind of madness through all the stories. So we went with that.

AR: As a fellow writer, that makes me want to hug you. Hearing that you were writing your way through this for 10 years, that even when you had enough [writing] to put together, their connective tissue wasn’t an organizing principle that drove you through it. That’s a beautiful thing, and very, very reassuring. 

UO: Do you speak to a lot of short story writers who have a very clear connection between all the stories in their collections? 

AR: Not necessarily. On my darkest days of writing, I’m shrouded with the doubt that questions my motives, what are you doing this for? When the act of writing, with no foreseeable goal or guiding principle in mind, isn’t immediately profitable or offering an instant financial return on my time, I doubt the purpose behind these smaller, daily efforts. I think writing, in that way, can be really messy. But I also think that uncertainty is a critical part of creating; that a necessary part to making art is to not be able to see what it wants to be at all times.

Many of the stories in your book have been previously published in literary magazines. How do you know when a story draft is finished and ready to submit somewhere? How does your writing community contribute to your drafting process? 

UO: I don’t write by hand, I type. [I used to type] over previous drafts, not really keeping track, but now I’ve started doing it differently. I like saving separate versions of documents that I think are useful. In terms of a writing community, so many of my friends are writers. I send work to them for opinions. I’ve also been in school for so long. I got a degree in the UK in 2012 to 2013 and I’ve been workshopped there, and I still have some friends there that I send work to. I did the MFA here, which was with another set of writers. I retained some friends from the MFA, and now I’m here doing the PhD with another set of writers, and I’m always workshopping. A lot of these stories have been workshopped in different settings. Some of these stories are really old. Some of them were published before I had even signed with my agent. 

I think there are different stages of “finished”. There’s finished to a point where I can send it to my friends for opinions. There’s another stage of finished where I’ve done some more revising, and I can send this out now to publishers. There’s another level of finished where if a story gets accepted, they’re probably going to have some feedback and edits. That would feel like it was the last stage of finished, but then working on the book, I now see there’s a new stage of finished work, and you have to look at the story again, see if there are things to change at this point, how the stories are talking to each other. 

While putting the collection together, I noticed some of my writerly ticks. I don’t remember any specific ones right now, but I remember my agent being like, oh, you’ve used a similar phrase in this or that story. And I was like, oh, yeah, and that story was published three years before this one, so I hadn’t noticed. When the stories were coming together, it didn’t feel repetitive, but when you put them together in a book that repetition becomes clearer. Some of the stories really went through a lot more editing from when they were first published to now. “Shadow” is one that’s changed a lot from when it was first published to how it is now. I published “Shadow” before I even started my MFA. I started my MFA shortly after I signed with my agent, and part of our plan was that I would use the MFA to write some new stories, and I would workshop some of the stories that I had sent to my agent for a manuscript. So my MFA was that process of reworking things, even the stories that had been published before. Something can always change even after it’s appeared in a magazine.

AR: That seems freeing. 

UO: I haven’t always thought this way. There was a time when I thought, oh, it’s in a magazine now, that’s the final forever version. But then working on putting the collection together, I realized, I don’t have to be married to every single thing. The story is still essentially the same, but a lot of big changes have also been made, and if it makes the story better, then that’s good. One of the challenges of the process was that some of the stories I felt more connected to because they were more recent and they represent my current person better than some of the older ones. 

AR: That makes sense, pulling an old story back out and wanting to inevitably make it better because as time goes on, you’re also getting better, as a writer. 

You mentioned finding your agent prior to your MFA program. Tell me about that process. How did you know you were ready for that?

UO: I think maybe the number of stories I had at that point. I thought, I have enough material for a collection, what should I do? The process was basically just going online. I remember finding a website that had this long database of agents, but I don’t remember what it was, what it’s called, or if it still exists. I was looking specifically for agents who were open to short stories. I also wanted to hopefully find an agent who had done some work with African authors. I ended up sending to agents in batches of ten.

Then I got some responses back, some requests for a full manuscript.Then it came down to two people I was going to choose from. And the ultimate thing that helped me decide was I had sent both of them the full manuscript and was waiting for feedback; one of them came back and said, I think the manuscript is ready to go. It’s ready to start sending to publishers now. I didn’t think so. That was nice, and flattering, and validating, but I didn’t believe it. The other agent said, these are some of the ideas that I would have for revising you. That was more believable. I didn’t think the collection was ready to just start sending out right away. 

AR: Did you have specific ideas on that type of feedback or response you were hoping to get? 

UO: I’m not sure. I don’t really remember. I just knew that even though I was sending to agents, I was never sending it with the intention that this would be the published manuscript. I was looking for [clarity on] how [they would] help me make this better. My agent saw what needed work, and that felt more reassuring than, okay, it’s ready to go!

AR: You’ve received numerous honorary awards and residencies. Between your writing and your schooling, how much of your time are you dedicating to seeking out and securing programs and other types of support that are available to writers? Is the application process as daunting as it seems? And why do you think it’s important for writers to seek those things out?

UO:  It is very daunting.There’s always so much going on. It’s always a balancing act. There are times when my writing suffers because I’m doing other things, and I think that’s fine. Like right now for instance, I haven’t written this year at all, which was not the plan. But I need to do my grad school stuff. The writing has to be put on hold and I have to be fine with that because I can’t do all the things all the time. It’s a matter of figuring out when it’s okay to stop one thing, to do another thing. Knowing that there’s a reason for it. 

I try to be somewhat strategic about which writing residencies I choose to apply for. I apply to maybe six or seven every year with the hope that I get one to go to over the summer. This summer I did get multiple and I had to turn one down. But I aim for one every summer, and I think it’s a good thing to have on your CV. It’s good to see what the residency experience is like, meet other writers, make friends if that’s possible. It’s also a good way to travel and see places. They are expensive. I don’t apply to any residencies where I have to pay for the residency, but there’s still travel. Most residencies don’t have any kind of support for travel, so that’s still something to consider. If you can’t afford to travel, then you really can’t do residencies. With fellowships and awards, I try to be strategic about them, too. I aim for things that seem substantial like the Elizabeth George, the Steinberg, the George Bennett fellowship. Things that would feel really useful and worth the effort. I don’t apply for all the things that I come across. Some things I look into and I want to apply for, but maybe it’s asking too much. It’s always about balancing what feels worth it at the time, knowing what you can manage to do.

AR: When you are able to return to your writing, do you know which ideas you’ll be returning to when the time presents itself? 

UO: I have a lot. I’ve been trying to write a novel, so I have a lot of unfinished manuscripts that I think have some potential that I would like to go back to, maybe in summer. I also have some short stories that I need to revise. When I’m ready to get back to writing, there’s a lot that I can jump back into.

AR: How do you flesh out a new idea? Do you jot down the thought just to get it out and put it somewhere or does it pour out of you and keep going?

UO: I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve successfully written a novel manuscript yet. I was using this book, The 90 Day Novel. I’ve used that once to get through a whole draft, but the manuscript didn’t feel like a thing, so I abandoned it. I’m discovering how to write a novel as I do it. I really have no idea, but I generally like to get a first draft out as quickly as possible, even if it’s a short story. If I take too much time doing the first draft, then I’m able to talk myself out of doing it, because: “It’s rubbish,” “It’s not worth it,” “I’ll waste my time.” So I like to rush through the first draft.

AR: If you could expand upon any one of the short stories in this collection, or perhaps one of the characters you’ve created within them, and see that through to a longer novel-length project, which would it be and why? 

UO: If I had to choose one, it would probably be “Burning,” not so much to expand on the story, but maybe more so to imagine Adanna as an adult; what her life would be like. One of my currently unfinished pieces has a woman character that I sometimes like to imagine as an adult version of Adanna. I don’t know if I’ll actually try to make that connection a real thing, but I enjoy thinking about it.



Uche Okonkwo’s stories have been published in A Public Space, One Story, the Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019, and Lagos Noir, among others. A former Bernard O’Keefe Scholar at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and resident at Art Omi, she is a recipient of the George Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, a Steinbeck Fellowship, and an Elizabeth George Foundation grant. Okonkwo grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and is currently pursuing a creative writing PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

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