with HEEM, the Writer
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
Heem: I first began to write in my early teenage years. I was, however, bundled to science class in 1999 after acing my JSC Exams in high school, driving me of course in my literary endeavors. I’d say writing did not stop for me despite this because it was a core part of everything I found myself doing over the years, but I only found my way back to creative writing in 2019, at 33, when I read and was stunned by Makena Onjerika’s Caine Prize winning story, Fanta Blackcurrant. My earlier influences include Chinua Achebe, James Hadley Chase, T.S. Eliot, Cyprian Ekwensi, and George Orwell.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
Heem: My biggest influence today would be my environment. Of course there are a great number of people whose works I find inspiring, but my environment is the singular most influential factor in my writer-life right now. I should also mention though, that the crop of writers and poets emerging from Nigeria at this moment in time are such a powerful force, their influence is truly immense.
Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing? Have any travels away from home influence your work?
Heem: Most of my early childhood was in Ado-Ekiti, but some was also in Ilorin, both in Nigeria. Culturally, this placed me in the middle of Yoruba norms, folk-hood, and by extension, literature. This was not all, however, as many of Nigeria’s other (vast) cultures were also able to find their way in, helping me to have a truly beautiful and diverse literary foundation. Asides to Ghana and the countries along the way there from Nigeria (Benin and Togo), I’m yet to travel away from my immediate surrounding, but that has not stopped me being influenced by cultures worlds away. Literature and other art forms have been my way of spreading my wings and being anywhere and everywhere I want to be without the hinderance of borders or visas. I still have a lifelong dream of traveling the world though, and hopefully that will begin this year.
Q4: What do you consider the most meaningful work that you’ve done creatively so far?
Heem: This would be my yet-to-be-published collection of short stories which examined varying experiences of Africans in Africa and elsewhere across centuries. It explores different forms of storytelling, including the letter, diary entry, story within a story, and prose poetry. It is titled Dear Descendant(s) and was longlisted for the 2020 Dzanc Diverse Voices Prize. Many of the stories therein have been published in reputable journals, with some winning literary prizes.
Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be writer/poet?
My literary journey has not been a straightforward one, and so I have had these moments more times than one. The first was in early childhood, indulging in all the many books on my parents’ shelves and others that I found in school or exchanged with friends. I would also lay on mats at night with my grandmother to count the stars while she fed me stories after stories that helped to broaden my imagination. I always wondered about the authors and poets whose works I was reading and was so sure I wanted to be like them when I grew up.
The most recent was when I walked away from a ten-year career in media and entertainment, specifically from the position of general manager at a foremost record label in Nigeria because of how much my creativity was being stifled. I just knew that reality wasn’t for me and I had to be able to express myself as freely and as meaningfully as I’m doing now.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Heem: There are so many, but if I’m to pick the most fulfilling, it will have to be spending time with my beautiful family, reading or executing ideas.
Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?
Heem: Hopefully my manuscripts find publishers soon so I can have something major to promote.
Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?
Heem: I wish I could pick one line from a poem or song. One song that has huge significance for me though is ‘I Can’ by the rapper Nas. It was released at a time when I was in that juvenile delinquency stage, prone to all sorts of influences, but it came packed with so much positivity, real life facts, and reassurances for the future, especially coming from the genre of rap which otherwise was more popular for its angst and i-don’t-give-a-f**k attitude, and from a rapper who was one of my all-time favorites. The entire song is that one line for me.
Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?
I know this is asking for the who, but I’ll have to answer with both the who and the what. With who, I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of amazing creatives who have been kind enough to help in a way or the other, but the most consistent has been Temitayo Olofinlua, a Nigerian writer and editor. It actually didn’t start all rosy between us, but that’s a story for another day. The story today is that she eventually became more convinced and more assured about my work and she’s been a pillar of support in more ways than one since then.
The what has been my amazing writing group, put together by Joshua Kepreotis, a writer and friend from Kythira in Greece. The group has all these amazing writers from different corners of the world, all with varying perspectives that come together to form something truly beautiful. This group has helped my writing grow in more ways than I can enumerate.