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The MFA Chronicles: Tochukwu Okafor 

The MFA Chronicles: Tochukwu Okafor 

The MFA Chronicles blog series offers perspective on the experiences of Nigerian writers who are currently on MFA programs, shedding light on the challenges and rewards of such a journey. 

Nigerian writers who aspire to pursue their writing dreams can gain valuable insight into the application process, program selection, cultural and language barriers, and how to overcome them.

This month, we spoke with Tochukwu Okafor.

image The MFA Chronicles: Tochukwu Okafor 

Tochukwu Okafor is a Fiction MFA candidate at Emerson College and holds a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University. He is a 2021 – 2023 Book Project Fellow at Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop, a 2023 Kimbilio Fellow, a 2023 Oxbelly Writers Retreat Fellow, a 2022 Ucross Foundation Fellow, a 2022 Kurt Brown Prize for Fiction winner, and a 2021 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow. His work has appeared in the 2023 Latino Book Review Magazine, the 2019 Best Small Fictions, and the 2018 Best of the Net. He has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation, John Anson Kittredge Fund, and elsewhere.

What motivated you to pursue an MFA?

In the beginning, my motivation for an MFA was out of curiosity. I had followed the debates for and against Creative Writing MFAs, how they can be spaces for literary communities dedicated to the improvement of the writing craft but how these same venues can be cannibalistic, formulaic, and riddled with human defects like snobbery, envy, and malice. I found these arguments interesting, but as someone who has earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, I was leaning toward the formal inquiry of this storytelling that I have always done privately, since I was six years old as my older sister now recalls. 

Before the MFA, I had no classroom literature experience. I did not know creative writing was all some writers did; they neither taught nor worked other jobs. So, I was eager yet afraid to investigate what happens in academic literary societies. Eager because having discovered that there were MFAs, I had imagined there were clear-cut rules to telling stories—blame my very scientific background. Afraid because I was terrified of being unwanted, uninvited to this sacred club devoted to artists, and generally scared of being unable to know the right terms to discuss literature. 

However, at some point when I began to ask questions during the MFA application process, I wondered if people would take my creative writing seriously, given how well I was exploring the field of electrical engineering. An English and Literature student at the University of Benin, Benin City, where I had been a member of the creative writing workshop group, once told me, quite deadpanned, that no one is a jack of all trades and asked me what point I was trying to make by being in the workshop and if I realized how I was making him and his colleagues look like “slackers,” waltzing into their department and winning their writing prizes. 

Those were not my intentions—and I’m not better than this person—so you can imagine how I occasionally flinched at the mere thought of applying to an MFA. I applied anyway. Am I living at all if I make decisions out of fear and unconstructive criticisms of strangers?

How did you select the program you attended and what was the most challenging aspect of the application process?

I believe it was easy for me to choose the MFA program. I’m currently in my second year of the Creative Writing MFA at Emerson College, where I’ve been mostly part-time because I work a full-time job. I live in Massachusetts and did not wish to move out of state. Relocating is a lot of pain, especially when you have to undergo the shift across different states. 

I researched MFA programs in Massachusetts, with a focus on programs that offered good funding and flexibility of study. I found a one-year program. I found programs that did not offer sufficient funding. I don’t think I can benefit much from a one-year program as I might spend half of the time adjusting to this new world of academic literature with which I have had no prior familiarity. I did not wish to take out loans for the MFA; if there was anything I gained from reading the debates about the MFA, it was that you should find a program that offers you some scholarship or fellowship. The MFA program at Emerson College was the best option at that time. 

What challenged me was mostly personal: finding writers who could write recommendation letters to support my application and wondering if these recommendation letters would impact my application in any way. I remember asking a very dear friend to be one of my referees and having sleepless nights afterward, because she is a scientist and has no creative writing background or affiliation; I thought, “OMG, no one would consider her letter.” We’ve known each other for a few years, and she reads my work and describes it back to me in a way I find utterly new and surprising. She agreed to write the letter. She has written letters for my other fellowship applications, and I recall one instance where the judges got back to me to offer me the opportunity, and then right there, on the video call, they read my friend’s words from her letter, and I wept.

How has the MFA program impacted your writing and creative process? 

It’s difficult for me to track any changes in my writing, with or without the MFA program, so I’m not certain I might provide a good response here. However, I believe the MFA program has organized my way of reading—and I don’t know if this is a good thing. I tend to read randomly, never looking for patterns, but immersing myself in the narrative worlds that I encounter. 

The MFA has offered me dedicated semesters to study topics like Latin American literature, Climate Fiction, Global Literature, the art of short fiction, and so on. I usually do not plan my reading around any of these subjects, and so I adore the opportunity to do that now. 

I have made a few wonderful friends in the program, some of whom are professors and accomplished writers. It is in hearing them teach and individually meeting with them to discuss the craft that I find myself seeking to be better.

Who are you reading now?  

I’m currently reading Jhumpa Lahiri, who has had me crying at my desk. Jimmy O. Yang, whose memoir, “How to American,” I think everyone should read though the title might suggest a particular audience. I have felt deep pain and deep humor reading his book. 

I’m re-reading Megan Fernandes’ latest poetry collection and I’ll be placing an order for her previous collections once I finish at least ten of the gazillion professional tasks I have set out to do for this year. 

Patrick Radden Keefe’s essays keep me up at night and make me wonder about our humanity. I have all his books, but somehow, I find myself returning to “Rogues.” I just started reading Jeanette Winterson’s “Written on the Body,” and, oh my goodness, what am I going to do with myself? 

I’m looking forward to tracking Clarice Lispector’s work right from the first thing she ever published. I read her novel, “The Passion According to G.H.,” and I’ve never felt so greatly indebted to an author. She is one of the many writers whom I wish could live forever, so we could experience the magic of her mind.

What are your writing goals? What are you working on now? 

I’m currently revising and editing a novel and a story collection. I’m taking it bit by bit and allowing myself the time to rest. In between moments of relaxation, I’m scribbling some flash fiction and new stories and writing opening chapters of a few second novel ideas. 

I guess I’ll discover at some point—or maybe not—which novel idea seems almost fully formed to emphasize my focus. I like never having known. I like the feeling that comes with new realizations. I appreciate the wonder of discovery. Then I question the discovery itself.

What advice would you give to other Nigerian writers considering pursuing an MFA degree? 

Just do it. There is this anxiety that I observe when I hear people discuss writing: being called a writer without a book, or books if one measures their success by the frequency at which they put out stuff in the world. In Susan Sontag’s foreword to Juan Rulfo’s “Pedro Paramo,” she writes: “Everyone asked Rulfo why he did not publish another book, as if the point of a writer’s life is to go on writing and publishing.” Sometimes, I hear something like, “I can’t go for an MFA unless I have a book I must complete or have written. This way, some people would respect me when I have the degree and the book,” or “Let me do this MFA thing because it seems everyone is doing it now.” Of course, these statements are valid for people who make them and, as much as I wish I could help people question their rationale in the hope of bringing in nuance, I cannot change certain things. 

“Advice” sounds lofty, so I can only offer suggestions. Validate yourself before looking for validations in MFA programs. You’re a writer: you do not need an MFA degree to make that point, nor, arguably, do you need a book to announce yourself. Find that invisible partner in your head that makes you want to write and listen to where it’s leading you. 

There is a deluge of information these days, so much so that we now depend on uncorroborated externalities to think for us rather than trusting ourselves. In engineering, we read academic papers, sit in conferences, and perform rigorous scientific studies, tests, and analyses. In literature, I find it is now based on tweets and hearsay, which is not always completely wrong, but it is incomplete and “unchecked.” I suggest we look at critical essays, study constructive writings, and debate out of love and curiosity to learn. For example, someone tweets, “Don’t do an MFA [here or there]. It’s damaging!” and somehow this becomes every other person’s absolute truth. 

Trust that you have yourself, and you’re enough. Be nice. Read others and if you cannot be kind in your response—or if kindness is not in your toolbox—try to be constructive. There is so much hurt, brokenness, and trauma in the world, and we must not fuel them. 

Take your writing with all the fun and seriousness you want it to be. The MFA may or may not guarantee you any success; you are living and releasing love to the world, and this is success too. Pursue the MFA out of curiosity and leave room to learn and unlearn and accommodate and support everyone. Leave the door open for others once you’ve walked in. The sky is vast enough for all of us.

Interested in sharing your MFA experience with us? Please fill out the form here.

About the Writer: Precious Obiabunmo is a graduate of English and Literature at Nnamdi Azikiwe University. She’s the Digital Content/Community Manager at Kachifo Limited. Connect with her on LinkedIn

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