Life With My Father: Chen Okafor in Conversation with Justina Elias

Justina Elias

Malahat Review volunteer Chen Okafor talks with Justina Elias, winner of the 2021 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize with her piece, "To Do." They discuss biblical references, books that inspired her to push the boundaries of cnf, and how staying interested in the work is the biggest challenge. 

Read an excerpt of "To Do" here.


Justina Elias was born and raised in Winnipeg, MB. Her work has appeared in Room Magazine, The Puritan, Sportliterate, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and currently works at Munro’s Books in Victoria, BC.

Read what judge Emily Riddle had to say about her winning piece.

The intro to your piece sets the stage: "In the spring of 2019, my father quit drinking. Diagnosed with late-stage liver failure, he'd been told to get his affairs in order—an impossible task in the squalor he had come to call home." At the mention of getting his affairs in order, I felt sadness. Then I read the line "My father is alive and sober to this day." This provides a moment of intense relief. Why did you choose to give the reader this information at the beginning of the piece rather than the end?

It never occurred to me to do otherwise. To use my father’s imminent death as a source of dramatic tension would have felt disingenuous, since I wrote these poems long after the question of his survival had been answered. Leaving that question open could also have made the piece seem elegiac, eclipsing the humour that’s as prominent as sadness in my memory of this period. Finally, I’m just plain proud of my father’s achievements! I wanted to give him credit for his newfound sobriety before exposing some painful truths about the suffering that preceded it.

Your piece is made up of a collection of prose poems/short essays, each with its own title—"Arrive," "Make Camp," "Germinate," etc. Are they meant to be read linearly? I initially read them that way, but on a second read through realized they may not in fact be sequential. What are your thoughts? When you wrote these sections, did you write them linearly, or did you rearrange them into this order after writing?

The first poem in this series was one that didn’t make it to the final draft: a winter scene depicting one of my father’s many DIY projects (in this case, a sort of cardboard chimney flue he draped over his head like a monk’s hood to direct his cigarette smoke through the window when it was too cold to smoke outdoors). So, no, I did not write them linearly! After showing that poem to a few readers who liked the imagery but found the content confusing, I wondered if I might build context by layering individual moments from my time in Gimli, Manitoba. To some degree, this form explains the absence of a more plot-driven narrative like the one I might have achieved by leaving my father’s recovery in question. Having said that, I did recognize the need to “get the train out of the station” with the first two poems, which were written in the order they appear—though long after some of the more reflective pieces. The selection here is part of a longer work that’s still in progress: shuffling individual poems around has become a routine feature of that project.

There are recurring biblical references, especially closer to the end of the piece. The five professional biohazard cleaners you've hired become "Five masked angels," using an industrial fan that "roars like the breath of God." Then later, "Wine turned to water for my prodigal father." There are also recurring mentions of coffee, smoking, food, and dogs (both current and past). Can you tell us more about these recurrences? Did they emerge on their own as you wrote this piece?

My father grew up in Winkler, Manitoba, a Mennonite town dominated by scripture and conservatism. Religion played a profound role in his upbringing and, to a lesser extent, mine, if only through our family’s iconoclasm (we never fully rejoined the church after he left it in his teens). Biblical references flow quite freely in our conversation, so I’m not surprised they made it onto the page here. Though seeing as the summer we spent together was a prolonged resurrection of sorts, perhaps the prodigal son was the wrong biblical figure to highlight…

As for “coffee, smoking, food, and dogs”: thank you for the alternative title! I can’t imagine a more succinct synopsis of life with my father. Each component has its own built-in symbolism, but mostly these motifs are just a faithful representation of the routines we formed in Gimli. My father spent many years struggling to eat due to his alcoholism, so the joy of watching him relish food again can’t really be overstated.

As a writer myself, I sometimes think about those individuals who have helped me get to where I am today. So many lessons I’ve learned. Are there any folks you’d like to thank for seeing promise in you to be able to reach this moment? Any books or writers you're particularly inspired by?

These are very big questions! I’ll answer in reverse order. Sue Goyette’s Solstice 2020: An Archive was a launching pad for this project. In that book, Goyette writes a prose poem every morning for the first 21 days of December’s lockdown—a means of establishing rhythm and meaning during a simultaneously tedious and chaotic time. I was also inspired by Victoria Chang’s Obit, a poetry collection taking the form of obituaries for the various casualties that accompany the loss of one’s parents (memory, dignity, etc.). Finally, Jo-Ann Beard’s Festival Days lingered with me as an example of just how far you can push creative nonfiction; those writings dwell somewhere between fact and fiction, essay and story, filling the inevitable gaps in research with language so alive it seems to resurrect the past itself—emotionally if not factually.

Returning to the first question: I’m grateful to more people than I can possibly list here. To name a scant few… Anna Moore and the members of our weekly poetry workshop. Tom Hawthorn and the rest of the crew at Munro's Books. My MFA cohorts Andrea Perry, Mahak Jain, and Nicole Chin. Rob Summers from the University of Winnipeg. Andrew Kertesz from my teenage years posting fledgling stories online. And my parents, who always valued the arts and never questioned my choice to pursue writing.

Lastly, I must leave you with this question. For you who has tasted success, what do you feel is the worst thing a writer can do to inhibit such success? What's the best thing a writer can do?

While I’m honoured to have won this contest, my successes are still pretty modest, so it’s difficult to feel qualified to answer this question! Ultimately, I try not to worry about success (which is easier said than done). The only important question is: Does the writing feel honest? External validation can be motivating, but I try not to listen to anything but my own instincts when I’m writing. Which is to say: these days, I write about what obsesses me. Staying interested in the work is the biggest challenge and the most important one, I think.

Finding a small group of fellow writers who share my vision has also been hugely helpful. More than any individual critiques from classmates or professors, this was the most valuable takeaway from my MFA program. If anyone reading this is in a writing workshop, my advice would be: listen to the people who seem to get you, and tune out everyone else. It’s easy to drown in a sea of conflicting opinions, but at the end of the day, you know which voices confirm your own instincts. Listen to them.


Chen Okafor

Chen Okafor

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