Enuma Okoro writes, speaks, and teaches about issues of culture, identity, and the power of narratives. She is an award-winning author of four non-fiction books and is currently working on her first book of fiction. Born in New York City, Okoro is a Nigerian-American raised in four countries on three continents. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from Duke University Divinity School of which she is the former Director for the Center for Theological Writing.
In June 2018, Okoro led a summer writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute titled Exploring Identity and (Dis)belonging through the Personal Essay. On the last day of that workshop, Stina Kielsmeier-Cook interviewed Okoro about church and belonging, writing in multiple genres, and why understanding race and identity are essential to “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.”
The following is the second entry in our Bearings Online series on identity, belonging, and the church. Participants in the workshop led by Okoro were invited to submit essays to this series, which will be published every Thursday in November.
I’m interested in your decision to design a workshop on identity and (dis)belonging. Why is this topic important to you and for the church?
The world is getting smaller in a way that isn’t always pleasant for people. People are beginning to question who belongs where and who gets to be called what and who gets to be part of this country or this community or this culture. As humans, we have a lot invested in defining what “otherness” is. We do this because it gives us some sense of security in our own understanding of self. I titled this workshop Exploring Identity and (Dis)belonging through the Personal Essay because many of us struggle with not belonging in any one culture or context and we don’t often get the chance to talk about it.
This topic is important for the church because Christians need to explore what it means to be a person of faith while simultaneously holding on and valuing other identities. We are so often taught that embracing our Christian identity must mean washing out other identities that are essential to who we are. The phrases “We are all one in Christ! I don’t see color!” — that, to me, is bogus. God created us as individuals and we are born into these unique cultures and with unique ethnicities, and to not pay attention to that is to do a disservice to creation, I think. When we don’t pay attention to our differences, we signal to others that those differences are not important in understanding a person when they are actually vital. Though we may be told from the pulpit that we are all “one in Christ,” we don’t all feel treated the same way in Christ by other Christians and by the world. As a person of faith, it’s an area I’ve felt the church can do better, and one way I wished I had experienced the church differently, and the American church in particular.
The place I now consider my church home is the American Church in Paris. I have established a relationship with the pastor and many of the members of the congregation. What I love about it is that, though it is in the heart of Paris, there are over 40 nationalities represented in the congregation. When I first visited over a decade ago, I was struck by the diversity there and I thought: This is what it’s going to look like in heaven! When we talk about being “one in Christ,” this is what it looks like! It’s amazing when the Prayers of the People can be said by people of many different nationalities or when you are praying for Syria and a Syrian comes up to say those prayers and that’s normal. My experience there has shown me that you can still hold a very strong faith identity with these other strong national, ethnic, or cultural identities.
Why do you think the church often doesn’t address issues of identity or belonging?
It is hard and complicated and can get messy. We are so intent on peace by all means, and we do not know how to hold conflict and dysfunction while still acknowledging that we are part of one body. To disagree or differ does not always mean to be broken.
It’s much easier to not have to deal with difference, to say instead “oh, I don’t see blackness” or “I only see you as my Christian sister.” Well, as your Christian sister I am also being oppressed here, do you see that? Also, as your Christian sister I want you to celebrate this part of who I am, but not to exoticize it.
We are scared to call one another to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. This conversation on race and identity is part of working it out. This dialogue is asking “how can I fully be seen?” and “what are the struggles and the speedbumps that make it hard for me to be fully seen?” The answers might make you uncomfortable, but that’s part of it.
Creating a space where you can work out your salvation with fear and trembling is not an easy thing, yet it seems like this workshop has been that space for many of the participants. What has been your experience teaching this particular workshop at the Collegeville Institute and is there anything that has surprised you?
I was surprised that conversations have gone remarkably well, yet I know it’s because of the people who are here. They are invested. They are having these conversations elsewhere. Not only that, these conversations about identity are essential to their personal stories. There has been an element of openness and vulnerability — almost a sigh of relief as they have space to talk to each other. So many of the participants told me that when they read the workshop description, they couldn’t believe it was real — that they get to come to the Collegeville Institute and bring their whole self, including their faith! What a gift for them to come with their questions and frustrations and to hear from others, who are from totally different heritages, as they talk about what identity looks like for them.
The Collegeville Institute is an oasis for this kind of reflection. Being placed in a beautiful, quiet, and reflective space allows you to have these hard talks, then go rest or go play. Or go write about it! This group has done a lot of hanging out and processing away from our regularly scheduled events, which has helped the dynamics tremendously.
For this course, you have asked participants to invest in this topic by reading work from a variety of essayists such as Zadie Smith, James Baldwin, and Carlos Fuentes. What writers have been most influential in your life in terms of understanding your own identity?
With my faith identity, as someone who believes in the triune God, authors such as Henri Nouwen and Parker J. Palmer have been influential. In my identity as a writer, Patricia Hampl was significant in showing me how to tell personal stories. In my cultural identity, Chika Unigwe, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, James Baldwin, and Dina Nayeri have been key guides. Reading has been a way for me to enter into this discussion, which is why I stress reading so much.
Reading diverse authors helps us to see people more fully and more faithfully. I do think that writing can be spiritual or have spiritual consequences without being explicitly Christian. I didn’t assign any Christian writers because I wanted the participants to have the experience of learning from writers who write from other identities.
You have written creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. What is your favorite genre to write in and why?
I don’t have a favorite! I love poetry, even though I don’t write as much of it as I used to, because it teaches you to take language seriously. It teaches you about economy of words and how to be specific. To be specific, you have to pay attention and see more clearly. I think poetry is important for writers both to practice and to read. I love creative nonfiction because it gives me room to mull over a topic or an issue from many different angles, and it can challenge readers to look differently at a topic that they thought they already had a handle on. That’s often how I start writing a creative nonfiction piece, because I come across something that has made me think “I have never thought about it that way before! If I think about it this way, what does that open up for me?”
Fiction I just started a few years ago and while I love reading it, it’s a very different kind of writing for me. In fiction, you are creating a whole world from scratch and really building something, which can be exhausting. But there are stories that you want to be told that have not been told. You realize that you have to be the one to do the telling. For so many of us, storytelling is such a comfortable way to come at challenging topics and also make them accessible to others.
Is that why you started writing fiction, to tell stories you hadn’t heard other places?
It was more because a story came to me. Characters came to me that I can relate to, which morphed into a bigger story. I actually don’t know if I have more than one novel in me. I just know that I want to tell this particular story and see what happens from there. I have to not waste time worrying about how the story will be received but to worry about writing it, however long it takes.
I also sensed that my writing was changing a few years back. I became less interested in conversations happening inside the evangelical church, which tended to be more insular, and became more interested in broader conversations with a wider audience. I wanted to write about so many things that were not, on the surface, about faith but about living more broadly in the world with purpose.
I didn’t always feel like there was space for me to bring my multiple identities to my writing. People feel most comfortable when they can put you in a box. I am much more open to the mysterious way God moves in the world than I was a few years back, which has expanded what I chose to write about and what form it takes.