DiversifYA: U.C. Kalu

UCWE ARE BACK! I’m so excited! We spent December and January catching up on email, celebrating holidays, coercing more people in being interviewed or writing guest posts, and we have such a fantastic line-up for the next few months! Yay!

For the first interview after our short break, U.C. Kalu joins us with some fantastic insights. U.C. is, according to her Twitter bio, a writing enthusiast, a vegan Person, an undercover rock star, and a lover of nothing in particular. She’s also very thoughtful and kind, as you can tell by her wonderful interview. Make sure to follow her on twitter and through her blog!

1. How do you identify yourself?

Nigerian-American. But although the second term can be pretty ambiguous, it’s probably what I identify the most with. I feel like since I do have this very direct tie to Nigeria, it’s my responsibility to acknowledge it, rather than use “African-American”.

2. What did it feel like growing up Nigerian?

I grew up in a small town in Michigan, so I never really felt like my roots grew, other than in my household. Now that I’m a science major in historically black college, most of my professors do happen to be Nigerian. But there tends to be a slight cultural divide with our tribes (none of them so far happen to be in mine). And considering the fact I’ve only been to Nigeria twice in my life, I sometimes feel like I wear the culture as a tag—mostly in my name. That being said, I enjoy the fact that I know how to cook and understand the language. But aside from that, I’m a little hazy when it comes to things like Nigerian history (I just learned the national anthem!), and I wish I had a better connection to my family overseas.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

I often feel insecure about the fact that I’m more “American” than Nigerian. When I see other people from other cultures or countries, I feel like they tend to have a better grip on their native culture despite also being born in the U.S. My name is also a mouthful for EVERYONE, so you can imagine why I’ve opted to go as U.C. Want a clue? Kalu isn’t my last name either.

Although my name doesn’t really bother me, sometimes it just draws things out. Like someone will stop me for five minutes to ask me what it means and where I’m from when I’m running late for class. Other times, I worry about whether or not people know I’m a girl. And my first name has no a’s or i’s. So I’m often a man.

Sometimes I wonder if there is a divide between how African-American’s receive me. The comedian Godfrey (a Nigerian-American) once made a joke about his African-American friends referring to him as not being “regular black”. In my case I’m always teased for being an “Oreo”. There’s a bit of displacement I feel here in America, but I know that things would be weirder if I lived in Nigeria. Even though I hope to live there sometime in the future.

Just when you thought I’d never get to quirks! I would have to say that I am proud that I do know where I come from, especially since many people do not have this luxury. With this being said, I try not to take it for granted. And I like how whenever friends ask me what I’d want my English name to be, I can’t even fathom the thought of not being U.C.

4. What do you wish people knew about being Nigerian?

The big one? I wish people knew that being Nigerian is pretty much like being American. Nigeria isn’t a first world country, but it’s not like everyone sleeps in grass huts and ride zebras (Oops, I guess I answered question five). People are people, and although I would say it is probably a much harder experience growing up there than here, times are changing. The world is a network, and you’ll be surprised to how tuned in Nigerians are with western culture and technology. So it would be nice if Americans (and even myself) tried to understand how it is there too.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

That we’re all scammers. And princes. But I think that goes for most of the world, eh? Being in an HBCU, I have noticed that people expect me to do well because I am Nigerian. So I will say that in my college Nigerians are perceived like black Asians. It’s an interesting thing that I’ll never get used to. Especially since I unfortunately fulfill the stereotype. 😛

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

The funny thing is, I think the important thing is to forget that they are diverse. Often times characters can be used interchangeably in terms of race, orientation, or even disability. People are not their race, but that doesn’t mean that they never want to see that aspect of themselves in characters. Katniss could have been Asian. Bella could have been in a wheel chair (which actually would have made for a much more interesting story). The trick is not to make it into a stereotype, which comes from taking it at a humanistic level. Diversity in books is a wonderful thing because readers want to read about them. Not the social notion of their race or condition. In my latest novel, my main character could have been anything. Diversity may not seem necessary, but it shows a level of care about everyone. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with a character who I can identify with in more than an emotional/mental level. Isn’t that a problem?

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