Hearty congrats to former MQR intern Elinam Agbo, who was recently awarded a 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. According to PEN.org:
“The PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers recognizes 12 emerging fiction writers each year for their debut short story published during a given calendar year in a literary magazine or cultural website and aims to support the launch of their careers as fiction writers. Each of the 12 winning writers receives a cash prize of $2,000. The independent book publisher Catapult will publish the 12 winning stories in an annual anthology entitled The PEN America Best Debut Short Stories. The literary magazines and websites where the stories were originally published will be acknowledged in the anthology.”
Judges for the 2018 prize included Jodi Angel, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and Alexandra Kleeman. Agbo won the prize for her story “1983,” which originally appeared in Baltimore Review.
Agbo kindly agreed to share with us her process and inspiration for the piece.
First of all, congrats! A PEN prize is a terrific honor. What was the initial spark that led you write this story?
I was at home for Winter Break, eavesdropping on a conversation about the history of Ghana-Must-Go bags. I had heard many stories about this particular history, of Ghanaian migrants to Nigeria, during my childhood, and yet I’d never imagined the event of their 1983 expulsion to coincide with the stories my mother often shared about how she’d lived through a famine. I was already invested in exploring the relationships between estranged mothers and daughters, and so once the overlap in timelines clicked, I knew I had a story.
How and why did you select the first-person POV for this piece?
My stories often begin from something personal–emotional or factual–and in this case, I felt I understood the daughter’s perspective more than the mother’s, so my instinct was to explore the mother’s mind. There wasn’t much negotiation in terms of POV at this point. The first person POV gave me the most proximity to this character, and that was what I needed to access a mind as unknowable as hers.
You’re in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Did this story go through the rigors of workshop?
The story was published early in my first semester, so it has not been through the workshop process.
Is the story part of a larger collection, and if yes, how do you envision the shape of that work?
I didn’t have a collection in mind at the time of writing this piece, but now I’m working on some stories with similar themes (estrangement) set in another town. Perhaps these narratives would coincide in some way, or perhaps not. We’ll see, in time.