Annabelle Ulaka

In the coming weeks, we will feature Q&As with the contributors to this year’s Best Debut Short Stories anthology, published by Catapult. These stories were selected for the 2023 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers by judges Venita Blackburn, Richard Chiem, and Dantiel W. Moniz.

Annabelle Ulaka is an emerging writer who believes in the magical bond of family. She’s a mother to three cats nicknamed Little Tigers. Her greatest aspirations are writing an international bestseller, learning to dance, and knowing the names of one-eighth of the world’s population.

“My Grandmother’s Feline Soul” was originally published in West Trade Review.

Here is an excerpt: 

227 days ago, Grandma died for the first time.

I awoke that morning to Grandma’s chickens crowing outside the house. Those chickens—like me—had somehow survived the Christmas festivities. Grandma’s house stood atop a hill. It was the biggest mansion in our village, so secluded that it appeared haunted. Every December, Grandma turned the house into a museum. We’d have guests taking pictures in our bathrooms, picnicking on Grandma’s carpet grasses, plucking fruits from our trees, and stealing our flowers.

What inspired you to write this story? Where did the idea come from?

If you ask my close friends and family this question, they’ll simply say I’m weird, and weird people write weird things. In most cases, concerning what I write, they’ll be correct. But it was different this time. There’s a story behind “My Grandmother’s Feline Soul”. The year was 2018. We’d been at home for some months, due to an extended nationwide strike organized by public higher institutions. The strike dragged on for too long. Weeks became months. So I took a job at a beauty salon, pending when we’d return to school.

There’s this thing about beauty salons everywhere: the people there gossip a lot. Not just the staff; everyone. I think there’s a science behind telling your secrets to someone whose hands are in your hair.

This customer came in one morning. She seemed very happy. After getting comfortable, she told everyone that her great-grandmother had just died. 

I was confused. Wasn’t death supposed to be a bad thing?

The real confusion started when she said her great-grandmother was a witch. She had died three times before. Each time, she’d wake up a few days to her burial, giving everyone a mini heart attack. Someone else, often a child, would die in her place within some days. This time around, she didn’t wake up.

I didn’t believe that story. Everyone else at the salon did. They thought I was weird for doubting. They said I’d been in the city all my life, so I wouldn’t know about supernatural things. If that story was true, I had so many questions. Did that old lady really die? Who waited at the gravesite to confirm? Did she wake up during the burial and was denied escape? I told myself I’d write it down. Maybe if I did, it would make more sense. So I did.

In case you’re wondering, I still don’t believe that salon lady, but I’m forever grateful for the inspiration.

What do you hope readers take away from your story?

To me, a story is just a bunch of words swimming in my head. I write them down because my brain would feel clogged otherwise. There are no morals or takeaways. After completing a story, I show it to people who tell me what the words mean. These people are the readers.

I have one wish, that the story finds the reader at the right setting and it gives them peace.

How has the PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?

I never saw myself as a writer. Everyone at home did. They kept encouraging me to put my work out there, even though writing isn’t really a career in my country. So I caved once and published “My Grandmother’s Feline Soul”. The story was selected as a winner of this award, and it renewed my writing spirit. I can finally see what everyone else was seeing. 

Readers and literary agents are reaching out to me, expressing their love for my work and asking for more. I feel seen. The award has definitely placed me one step closer to my literary dreams. 

What advice would you share with aspiring writers?

Keep writing. That’s why we’re called writers, because we write. Don’t be afraid to switch genres or writing styles when you feel your literary ability is being suppressed. There are many rules; there are many mentors. The most important rule is that you write. After writing, you edit. Editing never ends. Send your work out with an open mind, and when you get rejected, keep writing, editing, and querying. We’re all reaching for the sky, and if we aim high enough, we’ll achieve zero gravity.

What does this story tell us about loss and family?

The protagonist, Victory, is someone who grew up loving her grandmother deeply. I’ve felt such love before, and I know how painful it is to lose someone you love. It’s even more painful when they’re your parent. 

I wrote “My Grandmother’s Feline Soul” imagining how grief would have felt if I had been Victory’s age when my father died. Family is the strongest bond. When one molecule pulls away, it leaves a part of you broken and empty. Victory was my gateway to family and grief. Her family wasn’t perfect, like all families. In the end, something pulls us all together or apart.