Dr. Osonye Tess Onwueme
Playwright   Novelist   Scholar   Cultural Activist   International Speaker   Performer


"Tess is a rare jewel in this country..." - Dr. K. Kendall, Smith College, MA.


Exalted New Post / Fonlon Nichols Prize / My Work Is Larger Than Any Female Ideology 

Guardian news (The State Of My Art)


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The Social Literary Critic, Embracing the African Perspective

In 1983, shortly after giving birth to her twins, she attended a convention hosted by the Association of Nigerian Authors. Two years later, she decided to join this group of highly established writers at the 1985 conference held on a grand scale, at the federal capital in Nigeria to learn more about the organization. This time she was able to stay for the entire five-day event because her children were now much older. She sat amongst the large audience, anxiously waiting and itching to see who won a literary award, ready to join in the crowd's cheer for their victory. Nominees were awarded and the crowd applauded in wait for the true winner. And then the microphone announced, “The Drama Prize for the 1985 honor award goes to Osonye Tess Onwueme.” She thought for a moment how familiar that name sounded to her. She waited to see who it was but no one rose. The rest of the audience waited in silence. Then someone nudged her saying, “Go!, go, it is you,” and she asked, “Are you serious?” The response was, “Yeah, it’s you!” So she stood up, took a few steps forward, and then turned back toward her seat in disbelief. Everyone in the room burst into laughter. That was when it occurred to Onwueme that she was really the one—an about face in her writing career, the beginning of a dream yet to unfurl.
The recount of her story was interrupted with bursts of laughter, but her voice steadily softens as she says, “It was so shocking, pleasantly shocking, and I started walking. I was trembling and then tears started rolling down my eyes.” Onwueme’s achievement began to take over headlines in Nigeria. “That was when I began to realize that whatever I write is no longer for me alone and that people do take me seriously. Since then, it’s never been the same.” Since then, she has had 18 creative works published and received 11 honors and literary awards.
Today she is a professor at the University of Wisconsin where she has been teaching Africana and Cultural studies in the form of dramatic literature since 1994. Onwueme is currently finishing up her upcoming novel, “What I Cannot Tell My Father,” a biographical fiction containing semi-autobiographical information about her. This intriguing story about a young protagonist who through determination perseveres through hardships to become somebody truly resonates the life of Onwueme, considering her own journey.
Onwueme began writing plays in 1978 when she was a junior in college and refers to life as the raw material that sparked her writing interest. “I’m very passionate about things that concern black people, especially, it doesn’t matter where they’re from, knowing the kinds of struggles we’ve been through and continue to go through,” she shares. And that fervor extends most particularly to the concerns and experiences of women, especially poor, nameless and underclass women who are often times ignored by society until they engage in horrific behaviors. Most of her literary works are testimony to this ardor as she tries to stage a bearing for these women that she believes have never had opportunities like others and therefore marginalized and sometimes even oppressed. “They suffer from economic handicaps, just multi-dimensional, and the levels of pain that they go through. It’s these ordinary women who do the impossible, day in and day out, to pull their families to live to go through life and have some degree of sanity. These are the women I find to be the true heroes,” she says.
Prior to writing plays, she had been experimenting with poetry, a medium with which her writing commenced, since high school.

“I wanted to write a poem, but somehow the way it was coming out of me, the voices within were such that I couldn’t control and contain them. And it turned out to be the voices that emerged in the first play that I wrote “A Hen Too Soon,” the same one that received a glare of publicity at the awards ceremony. Once I found those voices, I became so delighted to have that conversation,” she refers to the dialogue that took place in her plays, ones that took a pinch at societal issues. “That became the channel for me and drama took over poetry,” she adds.
By the time she graduated from college, she had written three plays. These works which began as personal journals were eventually made public when she mustered up the courage to get it published. Though major press had rejected it, she was lucky to catch the eye of a rather smaller agency and her first play “The Desert Encroaches” was published in 1985. It was the same company that entered “A Hen Too Soon” for the literary award and it won. “I was stunned because I didn’t know that my play was entered for the award,” she laughs and explains, still with a tinge of surprise in her voice. By this time, Onwueme had completed a master’s degree and was pursing a Ph.D. and teaching at a university in Nigeria.

In 1989 her play “The Broken Calabash” won the Martin Luther King Distinguished Writer's Award, which brought her to live in the United States with her five children. This meant she had to start over, to find a place and voice in a society she was hardly recognized as the writer she was. “The journey has not been fruitless, and I’ve just been working and working,” she says of the 18 years of being in America, “I’m grateful to God and my children, who sustain me. I’m particularly grateful to God for the blessing and the grace and strength.”

The challenges Onwueme faced while developing into the artist she is now are nothing unfamiliar to someone who grew up in an environment, as a child, that taught her that hard work was practically all she could hinge on to survive from the time she was six years old. “I had nobody to rely on but my God and sheer hard work,” she poignantly shares.

“From the time that I came into the limelight as a writer, I came from nowhere,” her voice drops to a whisper, “so maybe when I write, when I say that I’m passionate about the people who are nameless, those who are voiceless, those who are at the margin, maybe I am able to connect because I’ve been there.” But Onwueme has been blessed to be pulled out of the dread, like she put it, and is focused and determined to continue to strive for the best with faith and hard work alongside her; she believes that she will continue to go far with her craft.
“I don’t know where the mark is, I don’t have any specific goal to say ‘oh yeah, this is really what I’m now aiming for: I want to win this prize because it’s never really been that. I just write and do what I have to do and hope that somebody hears somewhere, that I connect with that world community that I’m trying to reach out to,” she says, though she concedes it is not easy in a country with so many well-established writers from all over the world.
Onwueme’s interest in drama, like she previously described, is a form of thirst or hunger in her to connect with people through verbal communication and the works, she says, are “supposed to be my own ways of engaging, it’s not enough to write [a] play.”
Onwueme humorously talks about another interest of hers: “I love to dance,” she laughs. By the time she was eight years old, in spite of the lack of family support, she had formed a dance troupe with other children in her village and they would rehearse and improvise with bamboo sticks as instruments and performed during major festival periods or talent shows. “I would say that was the beginning of my journey in drama. I got exposed to traditional performances early and that seemed to have seeped into my blood and I have extended it in different forms,” she says. This is a reason why her works are set in rural communities.

The dynamic 51year-old woman also shares about her experiences during the 1967 Nigeria-Biafra war that took the lives of many in her time. “It was horrifying, it was terrifying,” she reminisces. Part of her experience as a 12 year old who suffered abandonment during that period is re-lived by the protagonist in her upcoming novel “What I Cannot Tell My Father.” While young girls her age fell in the trend of sleeping around with soldiers, she was concerned about going back to school. “That was the most fervent hunger that I had, because knowing that things had not been easy for me…I saw education to be the only avenue for me to become somebody and I longed to go back to school.”
This is why she says: “It is very important for women all over, no matter where they’re coming from, to always remember to have a sense of dignity, even in the worst kind of situations. I think an integrity, a certain resolve within you, that no matter what [the] situation, you’re going to pull through, and not despair [or] succumb to victimization because that kills the spirit.”

Though she advocates connecting with the rest of the world at various levels to grow and survive, she adds, “There is the need for one to know oneself and have a certain degree of pride in one’s African-ness, living it and embodying and affirming it in what we do. It’s not enough for me to say I’m African. I wear it, I live it, I breathe Africa, in me. I don’t have any confusion or whatsoever about who I am or what I am. I have no desire whatsoever to be anything else.”

Onwueme’s passion to continuously succeed in life is evident in her advice to today’s African, and she incessantly communicates that in her work - giving hope to others.

ObaaSema - the ideal woman in every woman Friday, June 15, 2007

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