I first encountered Uzodinma Okehi at a reading at KGB bar in the Manhattan’s East Village. He started his set by reading a cover letter for a submission to a literary journal that was a work of (hilarious) art in its own right, and continued by reading excerpts from his novel Over for Rockwell, out from Short Flight/Long Drive Books last year. The book is a coming-of-age story in which the narrator, Blue Okoye, leaves Iowa to live out his big-city dreams in Hong Kong and New York. Blue struggles with making art and meeting girls, but unlike the familiar arc that ends in some almost-adult epiphany, the book offers glimpses into Blue’s continued struggle with art in adulthood, and his difficulties creating a more settled family life. In a casual yet charismatic tone that borders on frenetic, as though someone you haven’t seen in a long time is unburdening themselves with urgency, Okehi details the characters’ nighttime adventures and missteps, insecurities and failures–like a first meeting with an editor during which the conversation turns relentlessly philosophical before Blue can have a chance to talk about his work. Over for Rockwell is fun, and reads as though you’re listening to someone who is about to become a dear friend, and fast. Okehi and I spoke over email.
The Rumpus: A big part of Over for Rockwell is about failure and the burdens of ambition: Blue, the narrator, is failing to make art (in this case comics), failing to succeed, and failing to make his relationships with women work. These failures take place when Blue lives in Hong Kong, then again ten years later living in New York City, as if the location doesn’t matter if the person is the same. Would you say the cities themselves fail to meet expectations? And what role does place play in terms of being a burden to ambition?
Uzodinma Okehi: Do I think of this guy as a failure? He’s definitely a chronic loser. I guess the looming issue is if someone can even admit that without it being a pose and also without having to become some kind of pessimist . . .
For the place aspect, I might just go out on a limb and say that cities always, at some point, fail to meet our expectations. Same way people do. At some point you realize you’re struggling to keep that mythology alive. You either project your frustration, your disillusionment, on that person, on the city, or you can turn back, you can choose to reinvest that belief in your own strengths. In the book, Blue goes to Hong Kong, believing, typically, that all he needs is a change in scenery to turn his life around. From college in Iowa City, to Hong Kong, then to New York, only to be confronted again and again with the same issues that seem to be rooted more in his personality than any specific city or place.
As a writer, as you know, it boils down to you in a room, in front of the computer, so for me, I suppose it could be anywhere, any city. I’ve been in New York for almost twenty years now, so whatever issues I come up against, I feel I’m gonna try and work through. I mean, never say never, but for me, picking up and moving somewhere else hasn’t ever seemed like a real solution.
Rumpus: The bulk of the narrative takes place in the past, however the snippets in the present also reflect on failure, even though Blue’s relationships are more stable. The struggle to create is still there. Will that struggle be a lifelong burden, and how does one make peace with it?
Okehi: If he’s lucky. I mean, I’m always kind of squirming around to find time to write, stuff with my kid, my job, to better balance everything out. It’s frustrating, but then I try to remind myself that we’re all lucky, in a way, to live in an era where you can make that choice, have an outlet, even if you’re not a full-time writer.
Also you’ve got to be honest with yourself. Most of the time, with art stuff, I think it’s an issue that we’re not getting the attention we think we want for whatever it is we’re doing. But then, are you really comfortable with that much attention? Are you really worthy or interesting enough to deserve it? Those may not even be fair questions. And I say that, not to talk about fame. I mean, I’m not famous. But I do think the attention, knowing everyone is hooked and watching, reading your stuff—that pressure is a real thing in art and I think it keeps a lot of people motivated.
For a writer at that high end of the spectrum, I think it’s, can you perform, can you deliver again and again under pressure, the deadlines, expectations? That’s one side. While on our end, it’s, can you stay productive and consistent year after year with no one watching? No applause, no one cares. You’ve got a day job. Now you’re married, you’ve got kids. Can you keep sitting down, putting in those hours? Now you’re divorced, or you’re getting old, health problems. Or you’re fucking depressed. You can’t stay up all night like you did back in the day. Whatever. It’s always gonna be something. My way of coping, I guess, I try to concentrate on the regimen, stacking up days. Head down, keep working. I also remember someone telling me to always finish projects, even if there’s no paycheck. That made sense.
Rumpus: That’s an interesting point about being comfortable with attention. Having people watch is exciting, which is the appeal of Twitter and other social media. Speaking of which, why are you so hard to find on social media? How can you possibly be motivated to keep performing without constant positive reinforcement? Tell us your secret.
Okehi: It’s not like I feel I’m above it [social media], I just think, with so many options and sites and platforms in play, you don’t necessarily have to try to do everything. For instance, let’s say I build up again to the point where I have a story or flash thing out at least once a month, somewhere, on some site. That in and of itself is “social media.” I’ve got a book out, and every couple months or so I’ll do an interview or I’ll review someone’s book, and that byline also mentions my book and or my other work. I’ll also do a reading somewhere, let’s say once a month.
Look, the goal isn’t to take over the world, and the upside of the Internet is that this stuff is actually all connected now. You publish on a site and that goes up on their Twitter, their Tumblr, and Facebook. You do a reading somewhere, that almost always has its own page. My approach is to pick my spots, to mainly try and be consistent. People have been telling me to get with it since Myspace. What?! You gotta get on Friendster. Now it’s Tumblr, Twitter. What else? Periscope, Snapchat. I was on tour for a week in November and we all tweeted using one account. And I did like posting tweets, and it was interesting to see what everyone was thinking, more or less in real time. I can’t even hate on it, because I actually had fun being on Twitter. And if I thought I’d be doomed without it then, believe me, I’d sign up, no hesitation. Keep in mind though, there’s always more than one way to do things. Like with writing, with art, it’s not about blindly accepting what everyone says you have to do. You check out the landscape, make choices, you try and think about what’s going to fit for you.
Rumpus: Do you always finish projects?
Okehi: That’s the rule. After years of never being able to finish anything. I know that’s not everyone’s specific hang up, but getting to that point was huge for me.
Rumpus: Vanessa is one of the only characters in the novel that consistently does the work and eventually succeeds, and naturally there’s an undercurrent of envy and repulsion in Blue’s attitude toward her. When I read about how she drew over Blue’s comics, I winced. What is it about someone trying to teach us something that’s so irritating?
Okehi: Yeah, Vanessa. There’s envy there, some weird-tinged cruelty. The flip side, obviously, is she makes him feel kind of disgusted with himself. She’s basically living out exactly what he said he’d wanted to do with his own life.
I took a comic book drawing class at SVA, and that drawing over your work thing is actually the way the teachers “edit” your pages. You have this tracing paper with your supplies. They’ll put a sheet of that stuff over your page and draw all kinds of corrections. I got used to it, and it actually helped a lot. But I figured, with Vanessa having gone to art school, it would be something she’d casually do. I’ve actually even seen people do it without the tracing paper. Just sketching lightly in pencil. Blue is basically self-taught, and generally, given his personality and also with the dynamic of their relationship at that point, I figured he’d be the type to feel salty about it.
Rumpus: I don’t know much about comics except for super-hero movie stuff. From what I understand, the hero always has a nemesis. Do you have a nemesis?
Okehi: That’s funny! But yeah, that’s real. Probably a ton of different little matchups over the years. When you work the same job for a while, there’s always those personality conflicts that seem really epic at first. But, OK, I’m trying to think of one less petty, that didn’t probably start off with me not liking somebody’s outfit . . .
Rumpus: I would love to hear about your most-petty nemesis. I find having a nemesis—someone whose career or Instagram I casually follow and who I don’t like much—to be an effective motivator, but only for a short time. If I follow for too long I start gaining empathy for the person…
Okehi: Here’s one. Pre-social media. Second year of my MFA, at NYU. I want to say, by that time, I already had a reputation, and rightfully so. I was an asshole at times, a scumbag. Fall semester, it’s a novel writing class. The professor was going over the basics and he mentions that he knows a lot of people are coming from work, so feel free to eat something in the classroom if you need to. At that moment I had an apple in my pocket, so without even thinking about it, I started eating. I also remember this longwinded thing where he’s telling us he’s gonna break down the elements that the best writers employ to write their great works. From that to the syllabus, where naturally, he then announces, the first novel we’ll be reading is his first book. And, swear to God, I didn’t snort, or laugh, or anything. Did I think it was ridiculous? Absolutely. Was that visible on my face? Probably. But I didn’t say a word. So fuck it. I didn’t think much more about it. The next thing, we’re working out the order of everyone’s stuff getting workshopped. As usual everyone’s nervous about who goes first, which I’ve always thought is kind of stupid. He clearly wants my classmate, she’s a pretty well-known writer now, so I’ll call her B, to go first. She’s hemming and hawing about it, and me being me, back then, I’m sitting behind her, and I’m kind of openly making fun of the whole thing. But we know each other pretty well. That goes for everyone in the class. We’ve all gotten drunk together, hung out, dated each other. To be honest, I remember thinking it might break the ice a bit and that we’d all laugh about it. Nothing though. Silence. Nobody laughs. She was a little tight, but I can’t remember if she snapped at me, or anything like that. But it was an uncomfortable moment all around.
A couple of days later I got a call from the program office. I ended up having a series of sit-down meetings, with Melissa Hammerle, the then-director of the creative writing department, and I realized, gradually, that they were thinking about actually expelling me from the program! Or I’ll say it seemed that way. Eventually I had an office sit-down with [the professor]. And really, not to bash that guy. But it was as if we were supposed to square off or something. Everything about that guy and that encounter was like he’d braced himself for this big showdown. I remember he had on this mock turtleneck, buttoned up tight on his neck like a choker. His little mustache, his face got red as we talked, the whole situation to me just seemed insane. It was the way I’d been eating the apple, that’s what bothered him. That’s a quote! I was harassing his students. Guys like me, and so forth . . . Like a scene out of a movie. And clearly, from the moment he’d seen me that first day, he didn’t like me, for a variety of reasons, probably, but unlike a lot of situations in my life at that time, it was definitely him not me. I could see that he literally wanted to punch me out, or make me cry or something, and the feeling wasn’t mutual. I think that guy locked into that Batman/Joker thing as soon as he saw me, based on his first impression.
The crazy part was it turned out he was keeping me in his class! For years afterward, the rumor was that he’d kicked me out. But I ended up getting a lifeline from another professor, who let me jump over and finish my last two semesters in a different class. I didn’t want to be trapped in some yearlong, weird dynamic, so I opted out.
That turned into kind of a long story, by the way. Sorry.
Rumpus: In your bio you mention that you spent two years handing out zines on the subway and it wasn’t as fun as you’d thought it would be. Do any interactions with the public during this time stick out? What wasn’t fun about it?
Okehi: No, there were fun parts, but also, I’d say, moments that made me rethink everything. First couple weeks down there, for instance, I’m going through a car handing out zines, and the conductor comes out of that little control booth. I jump back, lean against the doors, I’m trying to act nonchalant. And everyone in the car is almost laughing at me. The conductor guy barely glances my way, he’s just crossing over to another car. Then later, last stop, coming back through that same car and most of those zines I gave out were strewn about, all over the floor and seats, same as those AM/Metro newspapers you get free in the morning. And in that moment it was kind of funny. Like, relax, no one gives a fuck—Which is a good thing! In other words, no conspiracy, no one’s rooting for or against me, and it’s as much about how I choose to carry myself . . .
At that time though, I’d become an introvert, and in the course of trying to send out and write every day I was spending thousands of hours alone thinking myself to death. Fucking around on the subway, on the streets, talking to strangers, stuff like that helps refresh my confidence. Overall, though, like with everything, it was a grind, hours from my week, and at a certain point I had to revert to more practical attempts to find an audience.
The good thing about having a book out is it helps you get into places to do readings. Bookstores, features, arts festivals. I will say, from being in the subway, to now, going to a poetry café, lame as it might sound, to read from my book feels really good, really optimistic. So that’s pretty much my hustle. Anywhere I can get on the mic, read a quick set, you know, it’s a pleasure. Little by little, readings, writing, working on new stuff. Trying to keep it all going.