Ting Xuan Tan
A binational citizen of Jamaica and Niger, Antoinette Tidjani Alou is the first Nigerien to participate in the International Writing Program. She calls her time as a resident productive, insightful, and a valuable place for cultural exchange.
“It is productive, because the writing project I took here was an ambitious one,” Alou said. “Insightful, because I never thought of a writer’s residency as a retreat. At the same time you are working on your writing, you also learn about yourself.”
Alou will read, hopefully, from this unnamed ambitious project at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St., at 7 p.m. today.
As former president of the International Society for Oral Literatures of Africa and collaborator on the Women Writing Africa project, Alou delved into topics of African oral tradition, women’s voices in Africa, cultural construction of African cinema, and African voice performances.
“Those took me to another side of aesthetics and identity construction that I call the politics and poetics of culture,” Alou said. “As a Caribbean woman from the diaspora, it was a learning experience.”
Alou is a professor of French and comparative literature. Her position as director of the Arts and Culture Programme at the Université Adbou Moumouni de Niamey is very meaningful to her.
“For the first time, students can actually take creative writing, filmmaking, or choreography as a diploma path in the university,” Alou said. “I am very excited to be piloting this new orientation. It something that gives me a lot of energy and inspiration to help young people to do something that was not traditionally possible.”
From her childhood in Jamaica to her education in France to her professional life in Niger to her residency in Iowa City, Alou has had to adapt to different cultures.
“Being in this program has really lifted the ceiling for me as a writer,” Alou said. “It has been an extraordinary space in which to be immersed into the whole aesthetics, poetics, and pragmatics of writing.”
She has spent a substantial amount of writing and editing in seclusion. She has also attended most of the readings at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St., Shambaugh House, and Prairie Lights that showcase IWP residents, visiting professors, and acclaimed authors. These readings have introduced Alou to the diverse literary community in Iowa City.
“Writers in the International Writing Program come from a wide variety of artisans, countries, continents, backgrounds, ages, and outlooks which has brought the world to my doorstep,” Alou said. “Many of the things we think are the challenges are universally shared experiences.”
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Alou will reading from two different works at Prairie Lights. The topic is: Writing About Life. On m’appelle Nina is a fiction-memoir written in French about how Alou grappled with the death of her 16-year-old daughter.
“That experience of having lost her questioned my choices of having gone to Niger, which is extremely different than the place I was born,” Alou said. “When somebody dies, you want to be angry at somebody — and then yourself — and then environment in which you live. Somehow, you think death is unnatural even though it is.”
On m’appelle Nina also explores the variations of grief, trauma, and mourning. She faced immense internal pressure to adapt. She used writing as a way to explore the question of “Who am I?”
“Writing life is working through the meaning of life itself,” Alou said. “Writing is one of the ways of exploring the meaning of life in beautiful and difficult things.”
She also discusses the same motifs in her fiction. Her fifteen lyric prose collection Tina Shot me Between the Eyes explores the various spousal, parental, and societal relationships in which we surround ourselves. Alou is working on another fiction-memoir tentatively called One Life is not Enough, which covers to her childhood.
“I realized how important relationships were to the characters,” Alou said. “Even in fiction, I continue to write life because stories are always about people. Inevitably in writing fiction, the author is always writing about himself or herself. You do not realize it when you are doing it, but when you step back, you always give a part of your heart, your dreams, your desires to the characters you create.”
Antoinette Tidjani Alou
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque