For Kanchana Ugbabe, writing is not just a calling. It is also, she says, “almost a strategy for survival.”
Ugbabe will read from her fiction and discuss her life as a South Asian, an expatriate, a woman, a teacher and a writer in exile at Ithaca City of Asylum’s Voices of Freedom 2018 celebration. The free event will take place on Thursday, October 4 at 7 p.m. at Buffalo Street Books in the DeWitt Mall, 215 N. Cayuga St. in downtown Ithaca. A reception and book signing will follow.
Ugbabe was born and raised in Chennai, India, studied in Scotland and received a Ph.D. in literature from Flinders University in Australia. In the early 1980s, she moved to Jos, Nigeria, where she took a job as a professor of English and was active with the Association of Nigerian Authors.
Jos, which sits in the “Middle Belt” between Nigeria’s Muslim majority north and Christian south, was a peaceful place when she arrived. But in 2001, she said, “things suddenly exploded.” Since then, thousands have been killed and many more have been displaced by communal violence.
In 2015, after a series of attacks on colleagues and friends, Ugbabe’s house was forcibly invaded. Fearing for her life, she fled the country and eventually found refuge as a visiting scholar in Harvard University’s women and gender studies department. In November 2017, she became Fordham University’s first-ever Writer at Risk in Residence, with support from PEN America, Artists at Risk Connection and Westbeth Artists Housing.
Ugbabe’s fiction and research focus on home, belonging and the migrant experience. She also explores writing as a coping mechanism for women living in conflict zones or displaced by violence. Her short story collection, Soulmates, was published by Penguin in 2011. At the Voices of Freedom event, she will talk about her life, read her story “Blessing in Disguise” and take questions.
“We are honored to have Kanchana Ugbabe as our featured writer for Voices of Freedom 2018,” said Gail Holst-Warhaft, chair of the Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) board. “She is a distinguished writer who focuses her work on the challenges faced by women, especially women writers, in Africa. After fleeing her home in Nigeria, she has been a voice for many others who have been affected or displaced by violence and persecution.”
Founded in 2001, Ithaca City of Asylum is an all-volunteer project of the Center for Transformative Action at Cornell. Working with Ithaca College and Cornell, ICOA provides refuge in Ithaca for dissident writers and promotes freedom of expression and human rights. ICOA is one of two North American members of the International Cities of Refuge Network, supporting writers whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing and whose languages are endangered.
The annual Voices of Freedom event, held in conjunction with Banned Books Week, celebrates literature, social justice and freedom of speech. Kanchana Ugbabe’s visit to Ithaca is made possible by support of the Community Arts Partnership and the partnership of Artists at Risk Connection, a project of PEN America. The event is cosponsored by Buffalo Street Books; the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and South Asia Program at Cornell; the Ithaca College Department of Writing; and the Ithaca College Women’s and Gender Studies Program.