Evolution of Chioma’s Career
A lot of people apply for university places, to study certain courses, because they’re sure they know what they want to do, when they grow up. By graduation, those ambitions are pretty much set in stone.
Not so with Chioma Esther Nnani.
“I applied to study Law, because I thought I wanted to become a lawyer. I thought I wanted to specialise in Family Law, because I was thoroughly disappointed with the antics of my father’s lawyer, after my father’s death. The lawyer’s actions were so deplorable, that my mother had to report him to one of the most feared judges in the state, at the time. And I kept wondering what about uneducated women, with no access to incorruptible judges? What happens to them? The reason I actually applied to Kent, is a long story (which you can find here), but a Family Law mini-pupillage in a set of chambers, in 2006, gave me second thoughts. Then, I discovered/admitted how much money appealed to me; in fact, I only understand Math in monetary terms. And I figured I’d aim to be Corporate Law’s answer to Fiona Shackleton. During my final-year examinations, with some hours to go before I had to sit my Equity & Trusts, I knew that wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t a slow-burn process, it wasn’t even the state of the market at the time; I just woke up that morning, and it hit me that I had a place in Law School in Oxford, that I wasn’t going to take, because I didn’t want to be a lawyer.”
As someone who had always been focused and pretty confident of what she wanted, the uncertainty was difficult for Chioma. Her classmates were enrolling on LLM programmes, going to Law School, or taking a gap year. She attended her own graduation, knowing that she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life.
“I’ve written from about the age of eight. But this was not something I considered to be any kind of career. I grew up in a time and within a culture, where the only viable careers to aspire to were in Medicine, Law, and Engineering. Yes, I’d read Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, Chinua Achebe, J.P. Clarke, Flora Nwapa, the African Writers’ Series. But, they were … so far removed; they weren’t ‘real’, in the same way that a person might think that a movie star isn’t a ‘real person’. Besides, these people were from a different generation, so I didn’t relate with them. But even when I started reading people like Chimamanda, whom I’m closer to in age than the other crop, my brain didn’t make that connection.”
Throughout her university career, and even prior to that (while she was at college in Oxford), Chioma had sought a literary agent and a publishing deal. All those efforts were futile.
“I must have sent up to a thousand emails and letters. For the ones who bothered to respond, it was the standard form response that basically translates into Get lost; who do you think you are? I had also received a couple of replies that looked positive, but when I took legal advice, I was told they were not what they appeared to be; they were scams.”
In the summer after Chioma completed her first year at Kent, she met someone through one of her classmates. This person, who had gone to college with Chioma’s university classmate, found out that Chioma could write. This person (who was a graduate of the Thames Valley University, and who was on their way to the New York Film Academy, to study “Producing & Directing”), forged a friendship with Chioma; a friendship which enabled them to have access to a lot of material that Chioma had written.
“There is a marked difference between trust, and gullibility. The extent of my acute stupidity, dawned on me in 2010 – when this person tried to claim ownership of my work. We’re talking five different pieces – the original manuscript for my novel (which they first knew about in 2006, and saw in 2008), a stage production script, movie scripts, and a TV pilot. The ones they weren’t claiming they wrote, they were trying to get me to sign over to them. My material was the basis of our friendship; that was what they’d wanted from me, since 2006 when we met.”
It turned out that the person had graduated from the New York Film Academy in 2008, and had returned to Nigeria (where they were also from) with the dream of being the Tyler Perry of Nollywood. Unfortunately, despite their technical knowledge, they couldn’t write. So, they had decided to use Chioma’s material – without her knowledge or permission. In fact, they had been trying to make productions out of Chioma’s work, since their return. But they kept running into financial and logistical difficulties. When Chioma refused to give them permission in 2010, they said they would do it, anyway.
“I was traumatised. They were talking about lawyers, and I said OK, I’ll get a lawyer based in Nigeria to draw up papers. But when the papers were ready, we didn’t know where to send them. So, I called an old classmate from primary school. I said, Dude, I’ve done something really stupid; I trusted someone I shouldn’t have, and now they’re trying to rob me. Can you help me? My ex-classmate isn’t an artist(e), so didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. It was the fact that it was getting unnecessarily messy, that pushed his hand. The thief kept saying how I was a nobody, my family was nothing, and I had nobody to fight for me; how they would tie me up in corrupt Nigerian courts for the next five years, by which time they would have already made their name and fortune with my material; that Nigerian audiences were stupid and would never know the truth.”
Two weeks after Chioma’s primary school classmate got involved, she received an email from the thief. The email contained the promise that Chioma sought – the cease-and-desist had been complied with; and that all copies of Chioma’s work previously held by the thief, had been destroyed.
“My boss, at the time, was aware of the situation, because I’d read some of the awful emails at work, during my break-time. They were so vile and vicious, full of needless vitriol. And the effect was that I was shaking. My boss looked at me and said, It’s the middle of the summer! Why are you shivering like that? So, I had to tell her. I also told her, when and how the situation was resolved. Then, she told me, I’ve read your blog. You can write. Someone faked a friendship with you, to access your writing. They ran off to Nigeria, to make a name for themselves, with your writing. I know that you studied Law, and you don’t know what route you want to take – but if someone is willing to go to the trouble of trying to rob you of this, maybe it’s a sign. Maybe, it’s not the harmless hobby you think it is. I still wasn’t convinced.”
Chioma had two friends, Carmen Rose and Keely Zara Augustus, who ran an artiste-exposure company, at the time. They typically put on open evenings for their artistes. The problem was they weren’t sure what to do with Chioma, because they had never had a writer on their books. The talent on their books were more musically inclined: singers, singer-songwriters, instrumentalists, and poets.
“In my eyes, this was a window of opportunity, that I needed to slam open. So I said, You know how some people go on X-Factor, and are genuinely shocked to discover they cannot sing? Because their family and friends have been lying to them, and deluding them? I need to know; I need to know how strangers who don’t have to spare my feelings, will react to my writing. They gave me a slot at their next event. I had two people read different samples of my work, one was actually an excerpt of a stage production I was working on. The reaction my work got, showed me that there was a space in the literary world; and that space was there, because I wasn’t.”
As Chioma sought a publisher, she also wondered what to do about developing the other parts of what she was discovering/accepting as her craft – telling stories via the media of screen and stage. Film and/or drama school were out of the question, for financial reasons. She contacted a London-based producer/director, Anthony Abuah, who eventually arranged a reading of her stage production script, with actors and actresses.
“It was without doubt, one of the most surreal experiences of my entire life. To have my script read by real actors and actresses, some of whom had done TV work, as I sat in that room … was amazing. The comments were also things to cherish. Anthony looked at the entire script and said, How did you arrange this? Each character tells a story with their monologue or dialogue; but the entire arrangement – the pace – is a story. How did you do this? I shrugged and said, My instinct said that was the right way to arrange this particular script. Another comment was, This is the first time I’ve seen so many women, so many black women, written as principal characters in a stage production. And it actually works. By the time someone else asked, Where have you been hiding? Why has nobody heard of you?, I knew I’d found something else I could do, quite well.”
Chioma located her publisher, shortly afterwards. Seven re-writes of a manuscript and 18 months later, FOREVER THERE FOR YOU was released.
“I kept saying Oh my gosh! It looks like a real book. Actually seeing a physical copy of a book, that I’d worked on, for so long, was a shock. I remember my publisher met me a train station, and I kept thinking I’d pass out.”
By this time, Chioma had added Audio Transcription, Editing, Training Facilitation, Guest-blogging, Writing Partnerships, and some other competencies (which you can find here), to her repertoire.
Shortly after the release of FOREVER THERE FOR YOU, Chioma was head-hunted to become the editor of a lifestyle magazine, in London. It didn’t take her long to discover why the publication was in the mess, that she had found it – a chairman who just thought it would be nice to have a magazine in his empire, but was seriously clueless as to what it entailed; a publisher who resented an editorial hiring over her head, and was more interested in withholding salaries as part of power games, than producing editions of a quality publication; terrible ‘writers’ who had never heard of a spell-checker, and displayed a frightening disregard for Copyright Law; unbelievable ‘interviewers’, who were too starstruck, to remain coherent during interviews; weak pictures, which should never have seen the light of day, on the cover, etc.
“It was one of the worst and unnecessarily punitive excuses for a working environment, I’d ever encountered. I’ve worked as a waitress (for Oxford-based At Your Service), so that’s saying something. I was treated with more respect as a waitress, by my bosses – At Your Service – and by their clients. When I edited this magazine, I lived outside of London, so I would get home, well past midnight – because I’d be working till very late at the Central London office. I’d have to take two tubes (underground trains), and one overground train to get home. I’d carry on, working on the magazine at home. But the chairman and publisher acted like I’d walked in, begging for scraps of a job, instead of the other way round. As a boss, I found Mr TA to be weak; as a human being, I found him to be a user who was totally devoid of integrity. I learned that no matter how financially solvent a person is, I didn’t have to excuse or endure their sh*tty behaviour; another was to make note of things I would never do to anyone who worked for me. It’s gratifying (admittedly juvenile) for me to know that, since my departure, the magazine has sunk into oblivion.”
By this time, Chioma had also tapped into the market, serviced by ghost-writers. Although it was fairly new in the United Kingdom (as opposed to in the United States), she knew it wasn’t completely unheard of.
“I knew that some celebrities and people in the public eye, were heavily reliant on ghost-writers. Katie Price aka Jordan, is listed as an ‘author’, but everyone knows she didn’t actually write those books. She has also been searingly honest, in naming her ghost-writer – something that a lot of people don’t do. I knew there were so many people who could benefit from my services in this area. I’d written scripts, worked on magazines, and done interviews and profiles. I instinctively knew questions to ask, to help me get into a person’s head. I also knew when I was looking at an answer that an interview subject just could not have given. I even knew, by looking at speeches, what part was written by a male or female – it might seem weird, but there are a lot of things that give either gender, away. I knew how to recognise and replicate people’s voices, on paper. So, I put out an ad.”
Although she did take other ghostwriting assignments, her plan was to concentrate on the clergy. Chioma realised that there was definitely a market there – because a lot of pastors were short on time and/or expertise. So, she felt that if she concentrated on this segment, she would be well on her way. This proved to be a mistake, which all but bankrupted her.
“I got a number of enquiries, and actual assignments. A lot of them took one look at the cover of my book and declared me to be the answer to their prayers. I was so incredibly naive; I actually deluded myself into believing that everyone around me, especially in church, wanted my success. When a church member took it upon herself to lie that I’d slept with a married man (the man actually disputed this), and my pastor did nothing to stem that tide, a ghostwriting contract with another pastor, grew wings. I’m not the sort of person who bandies figures about, but let’s just say that the ‘disappeared’ ghostwriting contract would have been lucrative enough, for me to pay all my debts and actually build my business to a much more visible level. Walking away from that church, has to be one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”
She did continue ghostwriting, remaining professional and growing in the craft. Some of Chioma’s assignments have included autobiographies and memoirs, business tomes and how to books, issue-based material, and novels. Amongst her ghostwriting clients, now spanning three continents and counting, Chioma is known as someone who can get under your skin, into your head, and replicate on paper, exactly what you’re feeling.
“Hearing a client go This is my story! as though they’re discovering the contents for the first time, is one of the reasons I do this job. It’s almost as good as getting paid. I particularly love the clients that cry! There are few things as incredible as having a client who wasn’t sure how to go about writing their story in their own words, which would still be professional and coherent, see their goals achieved as a direct result of your skill and expertise.”
On 30th December, 2013, Chioma ran into two men at a McDonald’s restaurant. When they discovered she was a writer, one gave her contact details for a radio presenter that he was sure, would love. It wasn’t until a strategy meeting with her new ‘image consultant’, Olivia Raymond, in 2014, that Chioma decided to contact the radio presenter.
“I have immense respect for Olivia. She’s one of the few people in this world, who says, Jump and I ask How high? I’d contacted her to not just work on my skin, but also to help guide my career, in a collaborative way. There were certain things I wanted, that I knew some other managers could not deliver – because they didn’t understand the complexity of what I had to offer, or where I was coming from, or the reality of where I was aiming, and why. Olivia was knowledgeable in the different areas of her expertise, which included publicity. But she keeps things real, without requiring you to lose your soul and become a clone of some other ‘big name’. So, when I told her about the presenter, she told me to make the call immediately.”
Chioma was invited to the ONE HARMONY RADIO studios, for a publicity interview. After that pre-recorded session was broadcast, the presenter called Chioma. She told her that a retired BBC correspondent had listened to the show, and said, “There’s something about that voice. Bring her back into the studio.” So, she asked if Chioma would be willing to return for another publicity interview.
“I had no idea why she was excited. I knew that the older crop of media people aren’t very impressed with the younger ones. So, for a member of the older generation, to basically scout me, was a pretty impressive thing – especially given that I had no media training. On Christmas Day of the previous year, I’d written down some career expansion ideas, which included radio. But I thought, How is this going to happen? I had no contacts, nothing. I didn’t actually see the call-back as an opportunity, I wasn’t really sure what would happen. I was like, You want me to come on radio and talk about issues in my book? Yes, I will. I went in, and ended up being offered my own show. The offer was made on-air; few things in my life, have had the power to dumbfound me, like that.”
Chioma ended up co-producing and co-presenting a series, Let’s Talk About It, with the presenter (Shamaya) who had initially interviewed her. Shortly afterwards, Chioma made the decision to return to Nigeria.
Barely a fortnight after her relocation to Nigeria, she was nominated for UK-based BEFFTA – Black Entertainment Film Fashion Television and Arts – award, in the “Best Author” category. Chioma is also the recipient of a literary award, from Port-Harcourt, the city where she was born.
“I don’t know any serious author who does this work for awards. But I’m not about to act like they’re the worst things to happen to my career. The literary award, being given in the city where I was born, where I learned to read and write? That means a lot to me. And at an event where the likes of J.P. Clarke are recognised – are you serious? I read J.P Clarke growing up. The BEFFTA nomination was shocking. It’s something I thought that maybe I’d get in five more years or so; I never imagined that I’d be noticed enough, at this stage of my career. I never even thought to check for my name on the nominee list – do people do that? – so when I was told, I thought they were pulling my legs. Then, I checked… and had a full-blown asthmatic attack, pretty much straightaway.”
In 2014, Chioma launched the Fearless Storyteller Course – an online writing course.
“I noticed that I kept getting requests from people, asking me to teach them to write. The requests would typically come from people based in different parts of the world. An online course seemed like a logical step to me.”
While the writing course was one thing, it actually spawned the creation of other courses, which are available under the umbrella of the Fearless Storyteller Academy.
The realisation of her capabilities, as well as an admission of what she doesn’t want in her career, has been instrumental in the kinds of projects she’s willing to get on board with.
“I’m competitive. With myself. I push myself to give 120% each time. Therefore, nobody has a right to tell me what I cannot achieve in my career. Who are they? You can call me arrogant, and I suppose that in a way, you would be right. You need a certain level of arrogance to believe that you can achieve a lot of things, especially when you’re crossing over into a number of different disciplines – at pretty much the same time. You can keep all the My selling point is that I’m cute and not a threat. It’s not even about being a feisty alpha-female. You just will not get anywhere, with the attitude that says being cute is your selling point. Even supermodels and top models, have (metaphorical) balls – that’s why they’re what and where they are. Yes, I am also very fortunate (especially in terms of the breaks I’ve got, as these and certain collaborations are not things I could have planned), but I work my good fortune. I show up, and I do the work. I don’t wait for miracles to be handed to me; I create what others call miracles in my field. I am not afraid to reach out to anyone, even in the public eye, whose collaboration or platform I believe I need. The part of my brain that produces ideas (even the supposedly crazy ones), I don’t take for granted. Being one of Africa’s most fearless storytellers has nothing to do with being cute. I’m a result-oriented grafter, and I’ve got a continuously-evolving product and service line, to prove it.”
Chioma is set to release some new books, under her own label, Fearless Storyteller Publishing House, in 2015. Among the scheduled releases are SUMMER PARTY, SUMMER CAMP and SUMMER JOB – the first trilogy of an exciting series aimed at teenagers; BECAUSE HOME IS – a collection of short stories; and PUBLIC CONVERSATIONS, a non-fiction book.
You can ask to receive updates on Chioma’s new projects, request her expertise for your own projects, or connect with her on social media.
Chioma is also the Founder and CEO of Abuja-based Fearless Storyteller Radio, Fearless Storyteller Television, Fearless Storyteller Radio, and Fearless Storyteller Productions. She is also working on her sophomore full-length novel, for anticipated release in 2016.