This month, Western MA arts organization, Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop, will launch a new program: The Writing Across Borders reading series, which seeks to promote dialogue between writers across cultures and continents by spotlighting, each fall, a talented emerging writer living in another part of the world. The program hopes to offer the featured writer a platform in which they can share their work and their story, and will give local writers an insight into other lived experiences and backgrounds.
Nigerian writer Uchenna Awoke will be the program’s first featured writer and will Zoom in from Nigeria on Sunday October 24 for a reading and conversation with PVWW founder Joy Baglio. Uchenna will share his fiction and discuss his writing journey from self-educated writer to MacDowell Fellow.
Uchenna grew up in rural Nigeria (where he still lives). He remembers how, as a child, his mother would emptied the only oil lamp his family used so he would stop writing: She saw it as a waste of kerosene. Self-educated as a writer, Uchenna’s short fiction has appeared in various literary magazines, including Elsewhere Lit, Trestle Ties, Transition, among others. He’s received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Vermont Studio Center in 2018 and 2019, respectively, where he recently completed his first novel manuscript.
PVWW founder Joy Baglio met Uchenna in the fall of 2019, when they were both fellows at Vermont Studio Center. Baglio mentioned that they shared many conversations about their work, literature, the writing life, and respective home lives. “He is an immensely talented writer who just finished his first novel and was gearing up, at that time, to begin querying agents,” she recalls. “He was full of exuberance, gratitude to be in Vermont, and a hopeful determination to continue his literary work no matter what the challenges he faced back home in Nigeria.”
Yet a little over a year after his VSC residency, a growing conflict in his rural region of Nigeria – between semi-nomadic Fulani herdsman seeking grazing land for their cattle and the crop-dependent farmers – worsened, as violent attacks from Fulani militants on farming communities became more frequent, which of course made writing an impossibility for Uchenna, as he feared more and more for his life. While the conflict is complicated and two-sided, the Global Terrorism Index names Nigerian Fulani militants as the fourth most deadly terror group in the world, yet the violence has received little attention and media coverage.
The escalating conflict and unpredictability of attacks has had devastating economic repercussions, leading to widespread poverty and starvation among communities that had otherwise relied on farming. Recently, after a chilling message was circulated from a Fulani source among the people of Uchenna’s community, stating “We will kill [you] today or very soon”, Uchenna has been in hiding with his wife and sister, switching locations frequently. His hope is to flee to a safer location.
In addition to providing a platform for Uchenna’s fiction and story, the Writing Across Borders program hopes to bring increased awareness to the challenges faced by Uchenna’s community and this conflict in Nigeria.
How You Can Help: Join PVWW founder Joy Baglio and featured writer Uchenna Awoke on October 24 (4 – 5pm EST) for the first Writing Across Borders reading. In addition, all donations this fall made to PVWW’s free monthly Community Writing program will go directly to a fund to help Uchenna and his family flee the country and relocate, very likely to Northampton MA. You can also contact Joy Baglio (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like to be added to a “Support Network” that is in the works to help Uchenna.
The Pioneer Writers’ Workshop is a literary arts organization based in Northampton MA. It was founded in 2016 by Baglio and offers one-day and multi-week writing workshops in fiction, memoir, nonfiction, poetry, hybrid/experimental forms, and publishing – for experienced and aspiring writers of all levels and backgrounds.