Alongside two Kenyan and three South African writers, H.B. Asari was shortlisted for the African regional prize in the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She is the only Nigerian writer shortlisted for the prize among 28 writers from 19 countries. A 500-level Pharmacy student at the University of Lagos, Her shortlisted story titled ‘Arboretum,’ delves into collective and personal grief and how one navigates through tragedy. She speaks with Edugist on the inspiration behind her story and the role stories play in African societies today. Excerpts:
Please share with Edugist, a little about yourself and your education background.
I’m H.B. Asari and I am a final-year pharmacy student at the University of Lagos.
Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. How did you feel when you received the news?
When I received the news, I was ecstatic.
Your short story, “Arboretum,” was selected out of many entries from 19 different countries. What was the inspiration behind the story?
The initial kernel of the story of the idea came to me in a dream and it sat in the back of my mind for years gathering bits and pieces every once in a while, until it finally felt fully formed and I wrote it in a spell.
The theme of your story deals with both collective and personal grief. Can you tell us a little more about how you approached this subject in your writing?
My story is about grief examined through a magical realist lens. In a world where people spontaneously begin to turn to trees, how would this impact them? How would the nature of their grief be changed in the face of this inexplicable phenomenon?
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is a highly prestigious award. What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for this prize and how do you think the shortlist may impact your writing career?
Being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is, to me, an important recognition of my craft and ability as a writer. It’s bolstered my confidence in my abilities and is something I am very grateful for. As for its impacts, I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.
How has your experience studying pharmacy influenced your writing? Do you think there are any connections between the two fields?
My writing and my degree have developed parallel paths that seldom cross.
How long have you been writing? Have you been a recipient of any writing fellowship or training?
Technically I’ve been writing since I was 7 years old, but I decided to begin honing my craft in 2020. I am self-taught and haven’t received any formal writing training or fellowship.
What role do you believe stories play in African societies today, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I think the stories arising from the African continent currently serve to showcase the diversity present in the society, a diversity of thought and experiences that many have tried to smother and pretend is non-existent. African writing has always been revolutionary in loud and quiet ways, and I see that continuing well into the future.
What is the most challenging part of writing a story, in your opinion, and how do you overcome these challenges?
The hardest part of writing a story varies with the story. It’s often when I feel that something craft or content-wise is not clicking and I may either know what the problem is but not know how to fix it or just have a vague sense of something being wrong, but I am unable to put my finger on it. I think in that case it’s often best for me to seek feedback because other people’s comments on the story may help me develop my sense of how to tackle the issue.
What other writers have inspired you over the course of your writing career, and how have they influenced your own writing style?
Many writers have inspired me and it’s quite a multi-disciplinary list, such as Akwaeke Emezi whose work inspires me to explore the messiness of my characters, and not kowtow to respectability; Ling Ma whose work weaves deep character exploration alongside speculative elements magnificently; Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer of the musical Hamilton which allowed me to believe there was nothing too out there to write about; Greta Gerwig, the writer of such movies as Little Women and Lady Bird who inspired me with the beautiful, delicate ways in which she handles her characters and lets their stories unfold.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
When I’m not writing I like to read – not as much as I’d like lately – and carry out DIY hand-sewing projects because it calms me.
Has the structure of your home and family dynamics influenced your desire to go into writing?
I can’t really say if my family has affected my decision to write because I’ve been writing for as long as I could coherently from quasi-complex sentences. The first story I remember writing was a thinly veiled piece of autofiction when I was seven and the next one, I remember after that was a heavily Enid Blyton-inspired tale about a secret community of living gnomes living under my garden. I think life inspired me to write. Everything I’ve ever read and experienced and all the things I haven’t yet but hope to inspire me to write.
What are your plans for the future? Do you see yourself continuing to pursue a career in writing?
I used to be the kind of teenager who had a fifty-year plan for her life by the time she was 15. I’m no longer that person. Right now I’m very much a take-things-as-they-come type. I don’t necessarily think of my writing as a career, a career to me implies a very structured existence whose principal purpose is to earn money. I think of my writing as a journey that I am taking with myself, and I am excited to see where that journey leads me.
Do you have any advice for other aspiring writers?
Firstly, I don’t think there is such a thing as an aspiring writer. You write; therefore you are a writer. The term aspiring writer has a connotation of ‘waiting for some level of external validation before I can call myself a “real writer.” I think writing is a deeply personal process that shouldn’t be exclusively motivated by external markers and that would be my advice: Don’t let yourself be beholden to external markers of success.
The external markers can be a nice recognition of your hard work and talent but that shouldn’t be the sole source of your self-worth as a writer. Believing in yourself and your ability is very important to braving the walls of rejection that you will doubtless come up against in your writing journey. This self-belief can only be concrete and non-illusory when you do the work to hone your craft. Learn how to craft stories and how to edit them. Build yourself up to where you can trust yourself to be the arbiter of your work.
Winning this prize could open up many opportunities for you in your writing career. Are there any particular goals you have in mind that you hope to achieve through your writing?
I would love to publish a short story collection in the near future.
About the prize
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth. Regional winners each receive £2,500 and the overall winner receives £5,000. The 2023 regional winners will be announced on 17 May and the overall winner in an online ceremony on 27 June 2023.