Andrea Nwabuike on the importance of locating ourselves within the stories we tell

Interview by Ilana Reimer

Q. What was your experience with creativity growing up?

A. Both of my parents are quite creative, but maybe not in the way you would think of. My dad is a pastor, so every week he creates sermons and Bible study materials. And my mom is a very hospitable person. Every birthday, she’ll decorate the house so it looks different for each person. So, both are creative in their own right, and I think that had an impact on me.

Q. And when did you discover writing and poetry?

A. The first poem I wrote and then performed was maybe in Grade 6 or 7 at a middle school concert. I don’t think I’d ever heard spoken word poetry or knew what it was, but I wrote a poem about bullying. It wasn’t something I had experienced, but I had seen others experience it. For whatever reason, I felt [spoken word] was the best way for me to capture this experience and share it.

Q. Are there writers or storytellers who have inspired your writing?

A. When I was a kid, in all the books I read, the characters looked the same. They were all very fair-skinned with freckles and red hair. So, in my imagination of adventures, stories, or daydreams, I wasn’t involved.

In university, or maybe my last year of high school, I started reading books by people who looked like me, with characters who looked like me. The first book that really had an impact on me was Purple Hibiscus by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian-American author.

It was refreshing to read about someone who was my age, who looked like me, and who had a family like mine. It helped me feel connected to a culture I can sometimes feel distanced from as a first-generation Canadian. And then I read other Nigerian authors—Chinua Achebe and Buchi Emecheta. I tried to get my hands on authors who shaped my imagination so I could be included in the stories I imagined for myself.

Seeing aspects of my culture and identity written in stories has helped me find more comfort and courage in my cultural identity. That’s why a lot of the pieces I write, poems or articles, involve some aspect of cultural identity or my family. [These authors] have validated my confidence and comfort in where I come from. It isn’t an accident or by happenstance. God has placed me in this specific identity for a reason.

Q. Has the process of finding your voice been challenging?

A. My sister and I laugh about it, but my mom is definitely an outspoken person. In the grocery store, if someone cuts in line, she’ll be the one to say, “The line starts here, you need to go back.” That’s always been a bit embarrassing, but when I reflect on it, I think it set such a good example for us.

It hasn’t been the easiest journey. Especially as I’ve gotten older, I’ve struggled with doubt. Everyone is writing blogs and putting out content—is there space for me to add something else? Part of my nature is to bottle things up or let my boundaries go. But that only brings frustration and hurt, for you individually, but also for your relationships. My mom’s example encouraged us to be vocal—not to create tension where it doesn’t need to be, but to recognize it’s important to lay what’s in your heart on the table.

Q. In those moments of doubt, what are some of the truths you come back to?

A. I read through Scripture and see small stories of people no one would talk about if they weren’t in the Scriptures. There was nothing flashy or interesting about them, but God intervened in their lives in specific ways.

Seeing those examples in Scripture has been a reminder to me that even the smallest encounter with God is worth glorifying Him for and sharing with others. So that has been an important motivating factor for me to not shut out my voice or perspective.

Q. What are some of the themes you gravitate toward in your writing?

A.  In the last year especially, writing about racial and cultural identity has been really important for me. It felt so natural to me to grow up having paddy and rum cake and jollof rice at church celebrations, to sing in hymns with reggae beats, or to sing in Swahili and different languages. Cultural identity was a part of worship and my experience of faith.

But when I stepped out of my cultural bubble, I realized that wasn’t necessarily the standard. Every message I heard came from a white male perspective. Examples we were given of bad theology or doctrine were consistently from women or people who weren’t white. So that shook my perspective. It’s important to have conversations, especially in Canada, about the way the gospel affirms cultural identity, and how it challenges it too.

And I think talking about women as well, and how women need to have a voice within the Church. What you believe in terms of theology about the role of women in the Church, I don’t think that’s the most important conversation to have at this time. But how we can encourage women—all people, but women especially—to feel they have a place at the table, a place in the Church. Because when we’re not including people who are part of the family of God then our experience of worship will be limited, and that does a disservice to all of us.

Mental health has also been on my heart because I work in the mental health field. How can we normalize some of those experiences and also offer a holistic form of support? We want to have coping mechanisms that are recognized in science. We also want to recognize the role of the Spirit in bringing health and wellness to people.

Q.  You’ve talked about your own voice a bit. How do you see the role of storytellers as a whole fitting within the Church?

A. All of our faith rests on storytelling. When we hold the Bible, we’re holding stories. It helps us experience a fuller sense of worship when we hear stories of how God has intervened in the lives of other people. We’re able to locate ourselves in those stories. That’s what helps us see our participation in church and faith as participation, not just checking that off our weekly to-do list. It’s participatory, which is what the Church is meant to be.

The Church is unique in its ability to craft stories that involve everyone with a common underlying narrative. This is our special gift we can offer to the world, so we should really be excited about it and trying to hone that ability as much as possible.

Q. Do you have any advice for other Christian creatives who are trying to find their voices?

A. Especially as Christians, we should have high standards for the art we produce. We want to produce excellent things because we serve an excellent God. It can be a hard line to find because we don’t want to be perfectionists, which prevents us from being creative or producing anything. But we also don’t want to approach it thinking, I’m just going to bring whatever I have to God and it should be good enough. I think that’s when we get into some of the cheesiness we tend to find in Christian art or the Christian world.

We need authenticity and vulnerability. I find whenever I write an article or poem and I try to keep it too general so that it applies to everyone, it loses its impact. So, try to be as honest as you can, as if you’re writing for yourself.

Journalling is a good place to start. It helps you hone in on your voice and cultivate that vulnerability. And there are so many gems you’ll write down, not thinking they’re anything big or important. But you’ll read it years later and think, This is actually brilliant. There’s just so much value in not editing ourselves so that we can find those gems. When we try to sound good or smart, that’s when we lose some of that brilliance.

Find out more about Andrea Nwabuike’s work at Photography by Jessica Chiong.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.