Suffocating in Silence: Winner of Valley Advocate Juniper Writing Scholarship puts displacement in its place

For writer Elinam Agbo, words are like air.

“If I go too long without expressing my thoughts in one way or another, I begin to feel suffocated and distant from my memories as well as my lived moments,” said Agbo, this year’s winner of the Valley Advocate’s Juniper Summer Writing Program scholarship at UMass Amherst.

The Juniper program focuses on poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and is hosted by the UMass Master of Fine Arts program for poets and writers. It’s an intense week of workshops, manuscript consultations, writing, readings, and craft sessions with esteemed creative writers. Each year, the Valley Advocate provides one full scholarship to the program.

This year’s program is June 18-25 and featured writers working with program participants will include Arda Collins, Rachel Glaser, Nathan Hill, Amy Leach, Paul Lisicky, Harryette Mullen, Arisa White, Joy Williams, and Tiphanie Yanique.

Check out a poem by Agbo here, skip below to finish the article.

Misplaced Interpreter

By Elinam Agbo

They keep asking for my family history

      I keep shaking my head

      “Are you sure she speaks English?”

Yes, I cannot say

History agrees

Someone stole my voice box

They need to hurry with me

They want to move on to the next bed-warmer.

Am I staying or am I going? Am I going

to die?

Not yet, somebody laughs. It may not be cruel but it sounds cruel.

This is a matter of agency, somebody says. It may not be terse but it sounds

like a blade hissing as it scrapes my bones.

“We need her history. We are not familiar with this condition.”

I am here in this body

They are all here locked for safe-keeping

It’s just it’s just

when we shed our skin at the door, we thought we’d be glorified.

Agbo was born in Ghana and lived there until she was 10. She moved to the U.S. and spent time in Nevada and Kansas before moving to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago where she’s majored in biological sciences and minored in creative writing. She won the creative writing department’s New Voices in Fiction Prize last fall — an accomplishment that gave Agbo the confidence to apply for a master of fine arts program, she said. Agbo will attend the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan in the fall.

I caught up with Agbo, via telephone, to talk about her writing and hopes for the summer.

Kristin: What is your relationship with writing? How has it become a part of your life?

Elinam: I write for the same reason I read: to connect with others, especially those whose life experiences are different from mine just because. I used to write just for fun, mimicking some of the fictional worlds I loved but it has become something that I need to do.

Kristin: What is your writing style/ what do you like to write about?

Elinam: I write about some of the topics I like reading: displacement and immigrant narratives, stories that blur the boundaries between worlds — real, magical, or other — stories about young people. In terms of style, I have experimented, in the past couple of years, with different voices in search of one that I feel at home in. I would say that currently, I am fascinated with the role of narrators — that is, the relationship between the person telling the story and the subject of the story.

Kristin: What inspires you?

Elinam: Novelists and poets I admire. Also, personal memory — the things I remember that others who shared the experience do not, or vice versa — in addition to generational memory. Finally I like to think and observe everyday life, the things that seem mundane, and the news and our relationship to it — especially distance.

Kristin: How has the Valley Advocate Juniper Scholarship helped you? What do you hope to get out of Juniper?

Elinam: Without it, I don’t think I’d be able to attend. I remember thinking I wouldn’t have the tuition by the deadline but I wanted to give the application a shot anyway. I’m looking forward to meeting and connecting with other writers; working on pieces I have written but haven’t had time to reflect on; going to craft classes and readings; and simply being in the company of artists and thinkers.

Kristin Palpini

Author: Kristin Palpini

Editor of the Valley Advocate

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