Nneoma Ike-Njoku, a first-year MFA student in creative writing, hails from Lagos, Nigeria. Ike-Njoku is a part of that rare group of people who knew from a very young age exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up. For Ike-Njoku, her goal was always consistent: to tell stories.
Her journey to becoming a fiction writer began through poetry. “It’s actually funny looking back, because I’m really horrible at it. My dad would read the poems I wrote and act like they weren’t as bad as they were. He’s always been very supportive that way. I’m fortunate to have been able to creatively explore in that sort of environment growing up,” says Ike-Njoku.
With few to no opportunities for academic creative writing-based programs in Nigeria, Ike-Njoku knew she would attend a university in America. After obtaining her BA degree at St. John’s College in New Mexico, she headed to upstate New York for a change in scenery (and climate, to her dismay) for Cornell.
What It Means to Study Fiction Writing at Cornell
The application process is based on submitted writing samples, and the program is one of the most selective in the country. The two-year program accepts eight students total, divided into two cohorts—four spots for fiction and four for poetry.
“Besides some of the best financial packages, Cornell’s excellence lies in its cohort size. I’m in the fiction program, where workshops are incredibly intimate. Everyone gives comprehensive critiques with professor moderation and input. It’s very helpful,” says Ike-Njoku.
The program is mainly formatted to a workshop structure, which helps Ike-Njoku see her work as a whole project rather than a tentative idea. “I’m still very much in the beginning. The characters and premise, the specific feedback about the atmosphere of the setting, it helps me set a timeline,” says Ike-Njoku.
According to Ike-Njoku, the first-year students become familiar with public readings by having a showcase at a local bookshop in Ithaca. Second-year students have readings of their work in New York City, where literary agents might be in the audience.
In addition to public exposure, Cornell’s MFA program offers students the unique opportunity to take classes outside their program within the English Department in order to expand their literary education.
“The first years have workshops with the second years, but we’re all working on our theses. I’m working on my novel about music in Lagos in the 1970s,” explains Ike-Njoku, whose current writing reflects the cultural influences and experiences of her childhood.
Experiencing the Journey, Writing about Nigerian Culture
“Lagos is an amazing place. There’s a lot to do, and it’s really noisy, which isn’t actually a bad thing. There is a lot of energy. There is also a blossoming art scene. It’s a really fashionable place, lots of indigenous designers. It’s very affordable, at least compared to Ithaca,” says Ike-Njoku on why she based her novel there.
“Before coming here, I had done a few workshop classes that were somewhat helpful. But this program, due to its size, is great because my peers are very careful readers.”
Specifically, the idea for the work came from Ike-Njoku’s fascination with the music scene that resulted from the Nigerian Civil War. “In the 1970s, there were a lot of really young people in the music industry. A band called Ofege made rock music, and they were just high school students, aged maybe between 14 to 17. They had such a huge impact following the war. It was the kind of music my parents danced to. I’m interested in the power of art, and music in particular,” explains Ike-Njoku.
The comfortable workshop experience has been the most surprising element of Ike-Njoku’s experience at Cornell thus far. “Before coming here, I had done a few workshop classes that were somewhat helpful. But this program, due to its size, is great because my peers are very careful readers. Everyone wants everyone to do their best work, so we support each other,” stresses Ike-Njoku.
“Another wonderful aspect about this program is that we get the option of two extra years after graduation to lecture. During the first summer of the program, we get funding to prepare for teaching classes like Introduction to Creative Writing.” This is an economically important aspect for Ike-Njoku, who explained that her friends in other MFA programs are unsure about what to do following graduation. The ability to lecture after completing her degree allows Ike-Njoku to remain focused on her novel.
Outside of her studies, Ike-Njoku enjoys the walkable nature of Cornell. She’s learning to enjoy the crisp weather and likes that everything is centered around the campus. She peruses the downtown stores for cheap books and music deals when she needs a break from her work.
In the big picture, Ike-Njoku says that her goal is to continue to write. More specifically, she hopes that the first draft of her novel will be completed by 2019.