Interview with Aishah Ojibara

A few months ago, we received a little story called “How to Win a Pulitzer.”

It percolated its way to the top of the slush pile and landed in our monthly winnowing discussion. As the term implies, winnowed stories are the choicest kernels of wheat left behind after the less-desirable chaff has been blown away. In our winnowing discussions, our entire staff is invited to read and comment on a handful of stories that represent a very small portion of all the stories submitted–about 2%.

“How to Win a Pulitzer” is a beautifully-written, sharply satirical look at some strange Western practices whose motivations have come to be called the “White Savior Complex,” the idea in the Western world that, according to Urban Dictionary, we can “’fix’ the problems of struggling nations or people of color without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs.” The main character in the story is a journalist set on saving Africa by writing the next Pulitzer Prize winning article on the plight of poor Africans.

Our publisher, Anna Yeatts, said of the story, “Does it make me a teensy bit uncomfortable sitting in my American white woman skin? Absolutely. Do I deserve it? Maybe. Maybe not.”

The issue came to very public awareness with the controversial release of the film, The Great Wall (2017), starring Matt Damon. Arguments went back and forth over whether the film actually was “whitewashing,” as it was labeled at the time. Whatever the truth may be, the controversy may have made us more aware of the problem in Hollywood, but it certainly hasn’t made it go away across the board.

A quick Internet search will reveal some alarming and heartbreaking examples of White Savior complex and the current problems it has created within the “voluntourism” industry.

I came across plenty of satire, like a short little article from The Onion, called 6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture. But a plentiful smattering of serious articles as well, like the tragic case of one American woman whose White Savior mentality cost lives:  “American With No Medical Training Ran Center for Malnourished Ugandan Kids.  105 Died.” Or this expose from The Atlantic, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.”

As we discussed the story, we wondered about the value of adding another white voice (as are those of many of the available sources) to the discussion. We read and judge our stories blind–meaning we don’t know the identity of the author during our reading and discussion phases. So I decided to take a look at the person who wrote “How to Win a Pulitzer.”

Author name: Aishah Ojibara

Residence: Nigeria

Then I decided to do a little Internet stalking to see what I could find out about this Aishah Ojibara.

What I found was wonderful.

Not only is she well-qualified to write a story about a subject that impacts her much more directly than white housewives from New Jersey, she is ambitious, driven, brilliant–and young.  At 18, she is already a third-year University student, studying Health Education, and is one of 23 recipients of the inaugural Africave Fellowship.

I decided that what I had to do was get to know Aishah better.  So I requested an interview.  She agreed.


SUZANNE: Tell me about the Africave Fellowship and the kinds of opportunities it has opened for you.

AISHAH:  The Africave mentorship programme aims to discover exceptional young minds in Africa and help make them into socially responsible leaders. I was picked along with 22 other young people from all parts of Africa for the 2019 edition.

[In the program, each Fellow is assigned to a mentor.] My mentor is an amazing woman.  It has been such a great privilege to work with her. I have also had the chance to meet several successful people, to surround myself in a space where people aren’t afraid to aim high, and my dreams, however far-fetched, would not be made fun of. This is a very important thing to me, because I grew up around people who were content to remain mediocre. It has also opened the door for a host of other opportunities, such as the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust and scholarships to study abroad, amongst other things.

[My mentor and I] communicate on platforms such as Slack, and from her I have learnt the value of discipline, and that if you don’t work hard enough for something the universe will not conspire to give it to you. She’s a very hardworking woman and great source of inspiration to me, especially because she’s doing so well, in spite of the enveloping stereotype that Muslim women only aspire to marriage.

SUZANNE:  I understand you’re soon to complete your degree in Public Health Education and Promotion. Tell me a little about your degree and what you hope to do with it?

AISHAH: It’s exciting because I get to study issues such as mental health, drug abuse and misuse, reproductive health, food and nutrition; issues I’m very interested in. In graduate school, I hope to specialize in the mental and reproductive health field and use my knowledge to help people, especially women, in communities. I’d also like to work with the World Health Organization someday.

SUZANNE: What will you do after you graduate, and what are some of your short- and long-term goals?

AISHAH:  Here in Nigeria, all university graduates (with the exception of individuals above age thirty) have to participate in a compulsory one year service to the nation, similar to how South Korean men have to serve in the military. My short term goal is to complete the service and hopefully pursue an MFA in creative writing.  My long-term goal is to develop myself as a writer of comely, poignant novels.

SUZANNE: What type of service do you hope to be able to do?

AISHAH:  I’d like to teach at a public school. Teachers have inspired and shaped my life in numerous ways. They have taught me to dream and work hard to achieve that dream. I would like the opportunity to help shape a young child’s path. I would also like to impart positive values–something most Nigerian parents trust teachers to do. I’d teach female students to be proud of their bodies and male students to be more conscionable. Where I live, there’s pressure on girls to live moral, proper lives, and that pressure isn’t on boys. I am of the opinion that everyone should be taught morality.

SUZANNE:  You mentioned the possible opportunity to study abroad. Where would you like to go and why?

AISHAH:  I would like to study in the United Kingdom or the United States. I have always wished to attend Harvard University or Oxford University. I feel the quality of education these two universities offer is superb. I would love to pursue a graduate degree at either of the two.

For my literary career, I’d like to attend the University of Iowa for an MFA in creative writing. I’ve been told it’s one of the best schools to study creative writing.

SUZANNE:  I’m always interested in the dynamics that shape a writer. Tell me a little about your development and the people/authors/stories that most influenced you.

AISHAH:  I have always thought of people as categorised into two groups: writers and non-writers. Of course there’s the argument that everybody writes, but not everyone is capable of writing fiction or undertaking in the robust appreciation of it. All my life I have wanted to write. I wasn’t raised in a household where people read books.  Neither of my parents read much, except for the occasional religious text.

The first fictional book I remember reading was a Nigerian book: The Gods Are Not To Blame by Ola Rotimi. It was about an irascible king who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, and how the eventual awareness of his misdeeds spurred his ruin. It was a gift from my primary school principal, and my seven year old self loved it. It made such a great impression on me that I began to search for other books, books I borrowed from friends and adults, books which have helped sharpen my mind.

The more I read, the better I wrote. But the problem was, almost all the characters I wrote about were white or Asian (I’m a huge Naruto fan; I had a phone when I was eight years old, through which I read hundreds of Naruto fanfiction on the Internet and wrote several of my own). Most of the books at my disposal were written by white people–Enid Blyton, E. B. White, Dr. Seuss–so that reflected in my writing. Other than Ola Rotimi, the other Nigerian writer accessible to me was Chinua Achebe. He wrote about Nigerians who lived before and during the colonial regime, when the British occupied Nigeria.  He wrote about Nigeria post 1960 (our year of independence from colonial rule), so naturally, I wrote like that too.

In secondary school, someone lent me a copy of Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and that turned my life inside out. To see a Nigerian book that wasn’t so remote, characters that I could relate to, who could easily be my best friends or neighbors brought me so much joy. Her books revolutionized, or at the very least contributed to, contemporary writing in Nigeria today. She is something of a superstar here and deservingly so. Post-Purple Hibiscus, I learnt to write about Nigerians like me.

If I have read a book to completion, it has made an impact on me/influenced my writing. J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace showed me writing doesn’t always have to be complex. It can be smooth and caressing, like you’re being wooed. Zora Neale Hurston, Celeste Ng, Amy Tan, Sefi Atta, ElNathan John, Chika Unigwe, Zadie Smith, Vladimir Nabokov and a host of others.

SUZANNE:  “How to Win a Pulitzer” is a sharply satirical exposé of a Western white sub-culture that has been referred to as “White Savior complex.” It made us feel justifiably uncomfortable in all the right ways. At Flash Fiction Online, we prefer stories  with a clear story arc and resolution. While Ann doesn’t change in the story and the story itself isn’t entirely resolved, the resolution in the story, I feel, is the way it might change the reader. Tell me about “How to Win a Pulitzer.” Where did the seed of the story come from? What specifically do you hope a worldwide audience might take away from your story?

AISHAH:  There’s this blog a friend and I follow, run by an American man who occasionally publishes travel articles. We were very delighted to hear that he planned to travel to Nigeria, and excited to read the promised article on his experience in Nigeria.

‘You should try so-so!’ we typed in the comment section. ‘And this food here (insert photo).  You’ll love it!’

When the article came out, we were disappointed to find it filled with the usual trope: photos of shirtless, dirtied children, slum areas with no electricity, uneducated people, etc.

‘Why,’ my friend asked, exasperated, ‘do they always have to go to the absolute worst places? Is this all there is to Nigeria?’

I asked myself the same question. So I went home and wrote a story. After several edits, I had “How to Win a Pulitzer.”

What I want the audience to take away from “How to Win a Pulitzer” is an idea that is best explained in this quote from Chimamanda Adichie’s viral TED talk: “The single story creates stereotype and the problem with stereotype is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete, they make one story become the only story.”

The recurring image of Africa is one that panders to the hypocrisy of foreigners who refuse to see us as anything other than a reminder of their good fortune. You don’t get that with other continents.

SUZANNE:  Anything else you’d like our readers to know about you?

AISHAH:  I hope to become a novelist someday, as well as someone who helps inculcate positive values in fellow Africans and the world alike.

[I expect she most certainly will!]