Melatu-Uche Okorie: ‘In Ireland, you have to be mentally strong to survive’
The author and academic on art, self-expression, and overcoming obstacles through creativity
Melatu-Uche Okorie: “A lot of creativity will come out of lockdown.” Photograph: Alan Betson
This article is part of a series focusing on hope, courage and resilience in the time of Covid-19
“All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room.” These words by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal come to mind during a recent, thought-provoking conversation with author Melatu-Uche Okorie.
The Nigerian-born academic, who holds an MPhil in creative writing from Trinity College Dublin and is a member of the Arts Council – and whose work features in The Art of the Glimpse, a new anthology of 100 Irish short stories – believes we can use the arts and creativity as a coping mechanism and form of escapism.
“Technically it is not a form of escapism for me. I don’t necessarily escape from reality, I don’t think that is possible,” she laughs. “I think I try to un-navigate from the world around me. There are so many ways, such as listening to music, consuming other works of art and prayer as well. There are so many things that I do throughout my day to navigate life.”
You don’t even know the strength that you have until it is tested
Okorie primarily turns to writing to creatively “un-navigate” – not only from daily life, but from a difficult number of years after she arrived in Ireland in 2006. Her debut book, This Hostel Life, was published in 2018 in Dublin by Skein Press. It is a collection of essays that tell the hidden stories of migrant women in Ireland – through the lens of the direct provision system.
It is a system Okorie knows intimately, having spent 8½ years living in a direct provision centre following her arrival in Ireland, a time which she describes as a “tough period” in her life.
While there, she read voraciously, and wrote at night while her young daughter slept. She won the Metro Éireann Writing Award for her story Gathering Thoughts in 2009 and was the first author to publish a book having lived in the direct provision system. Her stories reflect her own determination and ability to survive, a quality Okorie believes is universally shared by women.
She mentions Irish novelist Jennifer Johnston among her favourite writers, along with Margaret Atwood and finds inspiration in “listening to other writers and what motivated them to write a particular story”.
Okorie also says she often draws from reality to give life to the characters in her stories, and even admits that she is often “surprised” by her sources of inspiration.
“You never know where your motivation will come from,” she explains. “For me it is the people around me or sometimes it is just a dialogue [that I have]. There is always something and it can be the oddest things at times. The world around me, the people I see, conversations, everything.”
She says her life in direct provision meant despite her hard work to make a better life for herself and her daughter, she wasn’t afforded many of the opportunities available to those living outside of it.
After she was awarded her MPhil in 2011, Okorie experienced feelings of despair because she felt she “couldn’t do anything with it”. The 45 year old was left to watch her classmates “move on and apply for grants or go further with their studies”, but she wasn’t entitled to do the same due to her legal status.
Every day I give myself a pat on the back
“It was such a down period for me and I think I felt the impact of being in direct provision the most,” she says. “I was really upset around that time, I lost one of my sisters as well, so there was grief.”
Despite these setbacks, Okorie believes that many of the obstacles she has faced throughout the course of her life have helped shape her outlook on strength and resilience. “For sure facing adversity is a way of developing resilience,” she says. “You don’t even know the strength that you have until it is tested.”
Now that she says she has realised her own strength, she makes it a point to congratulate herself on a daily basis: “Every day I give myself a pat on the back. Honestly, it’s not about being conceited or anything but I say to myself that I didn’t even realise how strong I was until so many things happened to me and now I look at myself and I am proud of myself, I am proud of how much mental strength I have been able to exercise.”
‘Survival of the fittest’
Although the author has been in Ireland for almost 15 years, she regularly finds herself “reverting back to being more Nigerian” as she believes her Nigerian heritage has also played a role in helping her cultivate strength and courage.
“Being of Nigerian descent has helped me a lot because there are ways that we see life,” she says. “In Nigeria, life is almost about survival of the fittest in a physical way. You have to be strong physically, but here [in Ireland] it is more of a mental task. You have to be mentally strong to survive.”
Writing definitely gives you comfort
Now living in Balbriggan in Dublin, Okorie is studying for a PhD in creative writing for young children at Trinity College Dublin, which she started in 2016. She says she would like to continue writing after completing her course and is currently putting together another collection of stories that she is hoping to have published with Skein Press.
Okorie believes “there are some stories that are easy to write” and finds a great deal of solace in writing. “If you’re comfortable with what you’re writing, it definitely gives you comfort,” she says.
Both in her writing and reading, Okorie has a penchant for short stories as she spent much of lockdown reading the Voices anthology, an open-door project she was also involved in. She says she found the series “brilliant and funny”, and despite the economic collapse caused by the global pandemic, she believes that “a lot of creativity will come out of lockdown”.
Although Okorie faced a number of challenges, she says today she is optimistic and full of hope. “There is no other way to be, but to be up.”
“There will always be wonderful things and it is just for us to keep that at the top of our minds and not focus on the other things that are happening because those things are temporary and will pass.”
The Art of the Glimpse: 100 Irish Short Stories, selected by Sinead Gleeson (published by Apollo) is out now