Welcome to my world…
On May 19, I attended the screening of “My Mother’s Tongue” at the Fillmore. This compelling story captures the journey of a young man named Obi, who is forced to figure out a way to communicate with his non-English speaking grandmother, when an unexpected incident renders his mother speechless.
Click here to view the trailer
Knowing and embracing one’s heritage are the recurring themes of “My Mother’s Tongue”. I got the chance to interview Chike Nwabukwu to further discuss the topic at hand.
1) You have been quoted as saying that “My Mother’s Tongue was influenced by your own and many other people’s experiences growing up bi-cultural. How long were you living in Nigeria? What is your fondest memory?
“I was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Prince George’s County, MD. At the age of 5, my mother and siblings at the time went for a visit to Nigeria. However, on our attempt to return back to the U.S., my mother was informed that her papers were not in order and they wouldn’t let her come back to the U.S. with us. Essentially, she was stuck in Nigeria but we, the children, weren’t. What was intended to be a short extended stay turned out to be a much longer experience. We returned to the U.S. almost three years later. My siblings and I schooled in Lagos, Nigeria during this time.
I have many fond memories of Nigeria during that particular stay. One that comes to mind is when my eldest sister, who grew up in Nigeria and was raised by different mother, came to visit us in Lagos. She used to draw images on my back with her hand and I would have to guess what the image was. This was a simple game but I loved it a lot. There was something soothing about her hand and also something exciting about guessing the unknown image. This childish game helped us to bond.”
2) Growing up, how severe were your communication issues with your native speaking grandparents? How did you overcome that?
I never met my grandfathers. Both of them passed away before we could physically interact. So this question is more about my grandmothers, which I know with different degrees of intimacy. My maternal grandmother came to the U.S. to help raise my youngest sister. When she arrived, she didn’t speak much English although she tried to articulate some words. Initially, the communication barrier was pretty severe because at that age I wasn’t concerned about meeting her half-way in the communication process. I literally would ignore some things she said because they weren’t “proper” English and act like I didn’t understand her. However, as I grew older, I wanted to know more about my heritage and she was right there in front of my face. Her English was getting better and I was maturing. I overcame the communication barrier by making an effort, meeting her half-way in the process. I asked questions and listened more than I spoke. Eventually, I started to use a few Igbo words myself (our shared language). She was willing to be patient with me and I with her. This led to an increased interest in me speaking Igbo because I felt safe around her, she didn’t judge me or laugh at my pronunciation.
My paternal grandmother never came to the U.S. Rather, I would see her when we would go to Nigeria for visits. Our communication barrier was even more severe because she had even less exposure to the English language. However, since I saw her less and would have to prepare for such a visit, I came in wanting to meet her half-way in the communication process. Essentially, I overcame the communication barrier between my grandparents and myself by making an effort. I took interest in communicating with them and found a way to share information between us. Today, I wouldn’t say that I am fully fluent in my mother’s tongue but I am proficient enough that some people (including Nigerians in Nigeria) think that I grew up primarily in Africa!
I think it is extremely important for the younger generation to learn and embrace their heritage. It is what makes them who they are, what unites them to their history and essentially their destiny in this life. As the saying goes, “We stand on the shoulders of giants”. Not knowing your heritage deprives you of standing tall and seeing further down the horizon of what so many of our ancestors fought for. Embracing your heritage makes you whole. It gives you a full sense of yourself and what influences helped to shape you. I think people can grow from their roots and expand into other cultural directions, but it should start from an authentic place of knowing where you came from and how that culture naturally mixes with another. Not bringing all of yourself to the equation of globalization deprives all involved from fully experiencing the world and its unique manifestations.
4) As a writer, producer and performer, what do you offer the industry that is not already out there?
I offer the industry a holistic perspective of what it means to be a storyteller. Being able to play different roles in the storytelling process, I bring a wider range of approaches to formulating and executing a story. I enjoy all the roles I embody, for they each feed a different part of my soul and enrich my creative practice. At the end of the day, I just want to tell good stories – the ones that make you think and feel and still entertain you. My intention is to continually grow as a human being and become a master storyteller as an artist, invoking the spirits of Paul Robeson, Ousmane Sembene, and Chinua Achebe, amongst others.
My advice for up and coming filmmakers is three-fold. First, tell the story you want to tell. Don’t compromise to make a movie that you feel others want to see just because it’s popular at the moment. Yes, it may make a few dollars in the short run or garner some attention, but your soul wouldn’t be happy and you would have to live with that anguish.
Make movies for yourself as well as others. At the end of the day, the filmmaker should like and want to see the film they made. They should be its number one fan. Making movies that are personal to the filmmaker makes the chance of them liking it a lot greater.
Second, Be Tenacious! Fight to get your film produced. Work around roadblocks and dance around setbacks. I experienced so many problems in making my short film “My Mother’s Tongue”, from beginning to end, but I was determined to make this film and continue to make more films. So, I pushed, pulled, and persisted to make the film even when others stopped believing it could be done. While I don’t consider the film a complete work yet, just by finishing and presenting it to the public I have been presented with many more opportunities to continue to develop my craft. People will and want to support others who are passionate about the projects and willing to do what it takes to get it done.
Lastly, Go for quality before quantity. If you make enough quality projects eventually you will have quantity.
6 )Final thoughts?
I hope this project helps to raise awareness about bilingual education and role language plays in building/sustaining relationships. I plan to extend the short film into a feature-length film (shot in DMV) and produce a documentary about the topic as well. In the meantime, I am developing a multilingual webseries about intercultural relationships that is slated to go viral this fall. I am excited about my upcoming projects and hope to continue to make an impact on society through cinema and culture.
You can follow my work and get updated about my projects at www.chikestory.com