Iquo Essien: A Diasporic Renaissance Woman
Iquo B. Essien is a multidisciplinary artist who divides her time between New York City and Lagos. At Stanford University, she majored in biology and was awarded a National Institutes of Health Research Fellowship to spend a semester studying herbal remedies for typhoid at the University of Ghana-Legon.
Iquo has danced professionally with Movement for the Urban Village; blogged for The AFRican Magazine; drafted a debut novel, Alligator Legs; and is currently a directing major in New York University’s Graduate Film Program. She has made several short films, and most recently spent five months in Nigeria working on a multidisciplinary memoir project, Elizabeth’s Daughter, about her late mother.
Ms. Essien received a 2009 Hedgebrook Writing Fellowship; was a 2010 PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship Semifinalist; and participated in the 2011 Fidelity Bank International Creative Writing Workshop at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She has contributed to PopMatters, The AFRican Magazine, Ariztos, and the Black Arts Quarterly, and runs a popular blog called Alligator Legs.
Iquo with the Family Head Chiefs of Etoi Clan in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State in Nigeria.
What gave you the inspiration and courage to pursue your art?"I believe that each person has a unique purpose and vision to manifest in the world at birth. So pursuing my art has more to do with being authentic and staying true to this belief. Once the work is out in the world, it takes courage, discipline, and determination to deal with the criticism, to keep pushing out one’s work in spite of it, to keep trying in the face of rejection and sometimes failure. But at the end of the day, in spite of all these things, I can’t help but write or dance or make movies; it’s who I am."
What keeps your imagination vibrant?"I surround myself with positive, creative people who are serious about their work and trying to make a difference. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Lagos mingling with a burgeoning community of artists in film, theatre, music, and literature. I find their work very exciting because they are largely pioneers who are working with little or no creative infrastructure. They inspire me to do more than I think I can- to not be afraid to say that I write, dance, and make movies. Being a dancer has taught me the most about writing and filmmaking— about being present and open, establishing a pace and rhythm, trusting in my ability, being courageous, and, above all, remembering to breathe. Every day I do my morning pages, a technique out of Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way that involves writing three pages of text as soon as I get out of bed. Cameron also writes about filling one’s inner well with things that inspire creativity, like taking long walks in nature, visiting the museum, and listening to music."
What are your greatest influences?"I have been working on a memoir about my late mother for the past year, traveling through Nigeria interviewing relatives and childhood friends. Though she is gone, my mother remains the greatest influence on my life in terms of my attitude, my world view, and as perspective as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. She was a dancer, creative, supportive, and visionary. I try to be this way in my life and art, and a lot of my work delves into the mother-daughter relationship, particularly across generations and American vs. Nigerian culture."
Where do you want to be in your career/artistry in 10 years?"I had been writing a novel for years before I started the memoir project. So, ideally, in the next ten years, I will have completed both, gotten publishing deals, and they will be available for purchase everywhere. I will also have finished my MFA in Film & Television from New York University, and will hopefully have a distribution deal for my second feature film. The next ten years will really be about moving from the emerging to established artist phase of my career, so my goals are geared toward making a smooth transition. As far as artistry goes, I just want to become stronger in my voice, but freer creatively to explore more universal themes and stories."
What do you want your legacy to be?"At this point, I can only say that I’m committed to telling stories about Africa, women, and marginalized communities, and am open to whatever direction that commitment takes me. In ten or twenty years, I can better answer questions about my legacy, but I’d rather let the work speak for itself!"