Interview of Fey Ugokwe, Esq. on Psychological Thriller "Wifey" by Rebecca Danos, Wellesley Underground
Wellesley Writes It: An Interview with Fey Ugokwe, Esq. ‘92 (@pinkpurseintl) Author of Wifey (2013
It is delightful to catch up with Fey Ugokwe, Esq ‘92 author of the psychological thriller, Wifey, as well as licensed attorney, former human rights and disability rights government arbitrator-mediator, and founder/owner of the socially conscious brand Wharton King, and its social media activity for Women, Pink Purse International (PPI). Her debut novella, Wifey, met with very positive reviews by Kirkus Reviews and on Amazon.
WU: Tell us a little about your novella, Wifey, and what inspired you to write it?
Wifey is both a psychological thriller and a work of contemporary women’s fiction – set in real historical time, in the year 2008, at the height of the gripping, global, national, and economic crisis that rocked that period. It specifically follows the dysfunctional, newlywed relationship of a post-grad couple, from their down spiraling life in a comfy, cool neighbourhood in Los Angeles, to the sliver of hope presented in the teeming, trendy suburbs of Uptown Dallas. At the onset of their marriage, the lead Woman character, a soror, is 22 years old, a virgin prior to the aggressive affections of her fratboy husband – himself orphaned and from the inner city – and feeling culturally and ideologically constrained and disenfranchised by her well-heeled and largely Asian, Trinidadian family. It is this unsteady emotional, social, and economic backdrop that sets the stage for the prickling twists and turns – both natural and supernatural – that result. The book specifically deals with the pressing social issues of domestic violence, xenophobia, racism, classism, sustainability (food), and more, while highlighting the spiritual aspects of existence.
Wifey is also very much, deliberately, a diverse piece of fiction. For example, also within it is a gay character, a haunting, hardworking waiter named ‘Sterling/Tyrell’, two Australian expat characters, one of whom is half-Welsh, a character, ‘Juanita’, who is half Mexican and born and raised in East Texas, and more. The idea was to capture the very real, rich, cultural diversity that existed at that time in twenty-something suburban North Texas (and still does).
Originally, I intended Wifey to be a short story, to just be included in an anthology with other short stories of a contemporary women’s fiction bent that I was writing at the time. However, shockingly, in 2012, my Mum was diagnosed with late-stage, rare, uterine cancer. We subsequently learned during her journey that she actually was fighting two rare forms of uterine cancer. I battled her disease alongside her – valiant Woman that she was – caring for her, all of her medical needs, her household, and also running her active cardiology/electrophysiology practice. During the early stages of her disease, when she was sometimes at home and every so often had to be hospitalized, I felt a distinct and urgent spiritual call to write. I thought it couldn’t have come at a worse time, given how overextended, tasked from all sides, and exhausted I already profoundly was, but I prayed and meditated on it, and, pressingly, there it was again. The only question that remained after all of that soul-searching was which of the works I had previously been working on to flesh out, and Wifey, with all of its built-in distinct pathos, anguish, reeling uncertainty, and chilling, careening events, not-so-surprisingly became my best outlet, the thing that I was supposed to pen first.
WU: In Wifey you depict an abusive marriage. Was there an important message you wanted to convey in your writing?
Most definitely. What concerns me thoroughly as a Wellesley grad, a Woman, and myself a survivor of domestic violence, is that domestic violence is actually on the rise and is victimizing increasingly younger age categories of Women at that. Indeed, when I suffered two isolated instances of physical domestic violence, and two attempts at sexual assault, it was at the hands of boyfriends (domestic violence) and platonic, male friends (attempted sexual assault) during my college years. Wifey concerns repeated, sexual, physical, and verbal domestic abuse within the confines of a just post-grad college marriage. Nowadays we’re sadly having to have a repeated social discourse about high school young women being abused in their romantic and platonic relationships as well.
So, in Wifey I decidedly wanted to relay to particularly Women who are preparing for college, in college now, and just out of college: 1) domestic violence is never, ever, in any circumstance, to be tolerated, put-up-with, or quietly endured; and 2) if you indeed excuse a seemingly isolated incidence of domestic violence on your person by a lover, a friend, or whomever, it will very likely re-occur and become more routine, intensify in its duration and methods, and will always chiefly result in your profound harm. To those ends, my maternal Grandmother always used to warn me, whilst I was still just a girl growing up, that if a man hits you once, he will hit you again. Indeed. And, to be 21st century on the subject, let’s just change that to the gender neutral: if a person abuses you once, they very likely will again. Thankfully, I immediately removed myself from every relationship that attempted to cause me harm because of the sage advice my Grandma had given me during my childhood. And I do hail from cultures like the main character in my book, wherein silence on the subject is actually expected, so I happened to very much luck out by having a feisty Grandmother, who would have none of that happen to her own. But, not every Woman has had, or does have, a wise figure like that in her life, whispering the truth of things into her ears. Hence (hopefully), the teaching/talking points within Wifey.
WU: What was it like to write a psychological thriller? What preparation did you do?
It was easy in a sense because writing thrillers/horror, according to one of my MIT writing professors, himself a prolific, renowned, and decorated sci-fi writer, is definitely in my wheelhouse. He once approvingly remarked in a written review of my work – which was disseminated, as was everyone’s, to the entire rest of the class – that I wrote like Stephen King. But, given that I was writing my first ever novella – and of at all times during the harrowing experience of taking care of the health, home, and medical practice of my chronically ill Mother – it was a process swirling with stress, intense pain, anxiety, depression, isolation, and despair. The prep for any good story, we’re always taught, is to have lived it in some sense, whether near or abstract, and to translate the core of our emotions into all of its parts, especially those that are pure fiction. So, having been a domestic abuse survivor, and also undergoing the daily, grinding, anguish of caring for my beloved Mum – a type A, on-the-go professional Woman who was now ailing with cancer – were all of the additional prep for writing a psych thriller, after all of those post college years, that I needed.
WU: If there is one goal you wish to accomplish in your writing, what would it be?
I hope that I will always strive to occupy the sentience of my readers – to pitch a tent inside their minds, souls, bodies, emotions, and stay there, until well after the period dropped on that last page. The idea is to make you, the reader, see, taste, smell, think, and reason as if you are living the story line, to make you believe for the eating moments that you live there, at the table of the story, and to have you pondering and opining on all of the secret and not-so-secret messages and morsels of morals, long past your consumption of the work itself.
WU: I understand there are a lot of different dialects depicted in Wifey. What research did you do to prepare your novella?
My Mum was from the former British Guiana, a small, extremely diverse country in global South America, and my father was from Nigeria, West Africa. So, to hear various world dialects, all I needed do was incline my ear, especially when they had other equally-foreign and globetrotting, family and friends over. Growing up in Philadelphia also assisted, with its historically diverse cultural groups. Living well within its newer waves of immigration as they rapidly rose, especially during my teen years, also helped.
I’ve also always personally had a knack for really listening to the sounds of others and mimicking them, and for original story play. When I was about two years old, my parents were shocked one day to hear a variety of different types and pitches of speech emanating from my bedroom. My default nature was (and still is, despite all the talking that I have to do) that of an extremely shy introvert, and at the time, it was very difficult for anyone I knew to get me to say more than a few words to them, and I never spoke to strangers at all. In fact, a mini-anecdote here is that I was so unnaturally quiet that one of my father’s friends, who like himself, was also West African, once accusingly remarked, in frustration (because he was endeavouring to get me to chat with him but, staring, I simply would not), “The child – it does not talk??” So, suffice it to say, to hear any consistent sounds coming from my direction was truly a jaw-dropping event. The door of my bedroom was already open slightly, so in recounting the story, my Mum told me that she was wildly motioning for my equally surprised Dad, and that together, they quietly opened my bedroom door a bit more. There I was in the middle of the floor, my back to the door, with all of my dolls and stuffed animals around me, picking each one up and doing various accents and vocal pitches for them in the midst of what was clearly an animated storyline that I’d created for all. My Mum told me that she and my Father almost ran and got the camera but were so tremendously moved, awed, and overjoyed by what they were observing, that they wanted me to continue; they wished not to startle or interrupt me. They just stood there together for a while, stunned, observing me, and then looking at each other, and then turning back to look at little me in my secret, big world of active, audible, short story-spinning.
WU: I am curious about your writing process. Do you write daily or when you are inspired? Is it hard to juggle your legal consulting/coaching practice with writing? What was the editing process like? How long did you spend writing the novella?
I’m always writing, somehow. My maternal Grandma was a British-trained schoolteacher, and she taught me to read and write with British slate and slate pencil – the exact following year of the above bedroom play incident, when I was just three years old. She realized that I had a unique talent within me and so sought to release and foster it. She taught me both the British English that she and my Mum (and my Dad, in his country and continent) had learned in school, which of course, she had also taught in Roman Catholic schools back in British-controlled, global South America, and then the American version of English that they had all learned upon entry into the U.S. (which is one of the reasons why I tend to allow myself to interplay British English and American English, when writing casually). When I was about four, I started writing whole stories – complete with illustration – filling up ream after ream of those marble-covered composition books they still sell. Ever since then, I’ve been jotting down my creative thoughts whenever they occur to me, which is more frequent than I probably should relay.
The hardest part for me previously has been honouring writing over the distractions of life. I believe one of the many reasons why I was spiritually called into writing a novella during my Mum’s illness, of all harsh times, was to show me that when you have a gift, there will always be a way for you – and time for you – to cultivate, sow, grow, and harvest it. And that you always should. At the time, I was already well, well overdue for penning my first long-form work, given that gift, because I’d previously let other aspects of life relegate my creative jottings to just that. All of a sudden, after fervent prayer and meditation, when it was clear that I was being decidedly called to write – and right then – I squeezed it in during the late nights and wee hours of the morning, whilst I was up keeping vigil as my ailing Mum slept at home, or when she dozed off after pain meds while I was visiting her in hospital.
The entire writing of Wifey – especially ushering it from the short story I had initially, loosely mapped it to be, into a novella – took about a month. It was excruciatingly painful to do so during such a heart-wrenching time – my body ached from all of the demands being placed upon it in caring for my Mum, and sometimes I would literally hear myself groaning as I wrote and would rock back and forth as I typed. Editing it took another gruelling series of months, and I still pick up the work and unfairly want to edit it some – hindsight is, of course, always that best pair of glasses you had that one time. So, the entire process was just agony, agony, agony. But, whilst it meant that I was in a morass of emotional and physical distress, and surviving on almost literally no sleep, it yielded this beautiful, truth-telling, hopefully assistive thing – all that pain.
And my Mum was so proud of me the day that I both told and showed her that I’d written a book! I was getting her into bed for a nap, and she said (lilting accent here): “Ohhh!!! Congratulation!!!” She looked so eagerly in the direction of Wifey – wanted to get right into reading it. But I told her that the subject matter was too intense for her to read it just then, that we should wait until she was well, and then she could read it. That day never came. But, on the day of her funeral, at her repast luncheon, an old family friend of ours – a guy we hadn’t seen or spoken to in years – came up to me and congratulated me warmly on the book. Initially I was shocked that he knew I had written one. But, my Mum had been a public figure in the community there, so when he saw her obituary in the newspaper (which I wrote), as well as the interview the newspaper had done with me regarding her passing, he’d Googled me and found Wifey. I then instantly felt, right there in my spirit, that through him, she was congratulating me on its contents, that she had finally read them in that Great Beyond, and was telling me that she was proud of me, all over again.
WU: What did you study at Wellesley? How did your experiences at Wellesley influence your writing? Did you have any classes or professors that particularly affected you?
At Wellesley, my focus became a pre-law concentration, with a major in political science. I loved my pol sci classes and seminars, and I combined them with writing classes and public policy classes at MIT. I liked all of my Wellesley profs – especially my pol sci profs and philosophy profs – and at MIT, particularly my writing profs. I also took a Harvard Summer School writing course and that prof – himself a world-renowned head of a literary magazine and author – was amazing as well. I aced all of those writing classes, and each and every one of those profs always made certain to let me know that I indeed have a gift, when it comes to penning.
So in short, my fave Wellesley prof? Arati Rao, PhD, who was then visiting Pol Sci. My fave MIT profs? Joe Haldeman (Genre Fiction) and the late Elzbieta Chodakowska (Ettinger; Novel Writing). And at that Harvard Summ. Session writing class? Askold Melnyczuk.
WU: Tell us a little about Wharton King and Pink Purse International. What are your goals with these enterprises?
Wharton and King are my maternal Grandmother’s maiden and married names, respectively, as the entity is named in honour of her. The name for it came to me when I was a newbie lawyer, just trying to make my little way in the Washington, D.C. area. And the concept for Pink Purse International actually came to me in a waking vision, whilst I was seriously ill with the swine flu that came sweeping through North Texas in 2010 (the latter of which I forebodingly hint at in the Fort Worth, “low country” restaurant scene in Wifey). The idea is for Wharton King to be a socially-conscious company, to always have under its works those things that aim to contribute to the progressive, to the doing of its part in the global effort to make this a more livable world. And, for Pink Purse International, the goal is always to uplift the spirits of other Women, to highlight and support the wondrous works of trailblazing, game-changing Women, and to continue the necessary conversation regarding the status and experiences of Women in the world.
WU: What is up next for you on the horizon? Other writing projects?
I’m always at tasking some side writing project – typically, several at once. Even whilst I was dealing with the aftermath of my Mum’s passing away last year, I was writing voraciously. For me, it’s about trying to be even better in print than I was before – to aim to truly honour that life calling by pushing myself, even if painfully, to a new level.
Until then, of course, Wifey is living in paperback and Kindle at Amazon.com, and at BarnesandNoble.com and other online retailers – and regarding the Kindle, it is a free download or just .99, depending on what type of Amazon’er – if you are –you may have chosen to be. So, do very kindly support this work that highlights our plight – our issues as a society, and as Women.
WU: What advice would you give to other writers?
Just keep writing, and don’t let the lack of a mainstream publisher stop you; I didn’t even have the time to try to shop for one during my Mum’s illness. Get the ideas down and then go indie if you have to – as I did – and let the words within you live, blessedly, out loud.