”I love writing because it is the only time I fully come alive, that’s why I can stay up for 12 hours bleeding my heart, punching keyboards, a feat I would never ordinarily achieve on any other craft.”
Ukamaka Olisakwe is a screenwriter. The former banker turned writer is currently enjoying rave reviews for her debut screenplay for The Calabash.
What do you love most and least about the profession?
I love writing because it is the only time I fully come alive, that’s why I can stay up for 12 hours bleeding my heart, punching keyboards, a feat I would never ordinarily achieve on any other craft. Most times, I live through a day without much memory of what really happened, who I met, the conversations I had with people; everything gets blurred. But when I write, I come alive. Everything falls into place. Writing has become my alternative universe, that’s why I can’t really point out anything I least like about it.
Did writing come naturally to you or did you have to nurture it?
It had always been here but remained ignored because I didn’t meet people who encouraged me to delve into it until 2010. I think I would have written my first novel when I was probably sixteen, but life happened and I took another path. I found my way back, and now, it is as though I have been writing all my life, when really, it is just four years.
Who are your role models?
I am drawn to works by women; those I find a bit of myself in. Buchi Emecheta whose Joys of Motherhood remains my all-time favourite book; Maya Angelou whose autobiographies smacked me right in the centre of her world because it was like I lived during her time and felt what she felt. Then there is Flora Nwapa, Toni Morrison and Bessie Head. For the contemporary writers, I am greatly inspired by the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lola Shoneyin and Chika Unigwe. In the movie industry, there is just one woman whose works and dedication and zealousness greatly inspires me: Shonda Rhimes, the producer of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy and most recently, How To Get Away With Murder. These women, through their various works, inspire me every day. They make me want to become better, and if I trust myself enough, I would become.
There is a bit of me in every piece of work I put out, because for me to be able to deliver a story or a script, I have to see that story through my own eyes. In essence, what I mean is, there is always a bit of me in those stories; it is what makes the stories come alive for me. My personal experiences are always my staring point. And then the story grows from there. It goes from the familiar terrain to the unfamiliar.
Tell us about your latest work, The Calabash.
I worked in the banking industry for almost seven years and in those years, I had a lot of sad and happy experiences. I also had friends whose lives were deeply affected by that industry. And so when I met Obi Emelonye and he wanted me to write him a screenplay, I thought it was a good opportunity to write about the banking industry. Before then, I have been meaning to write a book on it but making a TV series seemed the better option. And that’s how The Calabash was born. It is a 104-episode TV series centred on the lives of people working in a fictitious bank.
Since it started airing, what has the response been like?
It has been mildly satisfying. I have had friends and family members call me to congratulate for taking that step, for writing that series. I have got emails and messages from people I didn’t know. I have had people also say that I wrote their story. That deeply moved me. But it is mildly satisfying because the series is exclusive to the upper-classy Africa Magic Showcase and for a DSTV subscriber to access that channel they must be on the Premium bouquet which costs a whooping N11, 650 per month. Not every Nigerian can afford that amount every month just for TV. That’s why there is relatively very little conversation about it. But a lot of friends, hundreds of which have sent me messages, say they wait for the DVD release (laughs).
What is your favourite line from The Calabash?
“I am falling in love with you and I don’t know why.” I like it because of the difficulty it presents to Doris – loving the very unlikely Kevin and totally unable to articulate the reason why she does.
Have you ever had a script rejected?
No, The Calabash is my first script.
Any plans to go in front of the camera anytime soon?
Yes! I am looking at doing a cameo, or staring in a full episode in the fourth season of The Calabash. And then I will do more. But first, I have to complete my second novel.
If you were not writing, what would you be doing?
I would still be working in a bank, I think.
How do you balance your home and career?
Well, it used to be tremendously difficult when I still worked as a customer service officer in a bank but I left this January and it has been easy every since. I have a timetable now, a luxury I couldn’t afford before.
What advice do you have for upcoming writers?
I am still an up-coming writer too. So I will repeat the mantra I chant to myself everyday: stay a bit away from the social media. Do a lot of reading. Write, write, and write! Carry a note book around. There are a lot of witty conversations flying over our heads on the streets which we miss. Opportunities to use them always come up especially when crafting dialogues.