Photo by Elizabeth Appleton
Zadie Smith, Teach First and debut novels - Okechukwu Nzelu
Okechukwu Nzelu (Girton 2007) discovered a passion for writing and education while at Cambridge. Today he’s a published author and teacher who is encouraging and inspiring the next generation through his work.
It was at Cambridge, in my weekly essay-writing, that I first read the work of Zadie Smith, whose writing was to inspire and encourage my own for years afterwards.
As for many people, I’m sure, going to Cambridge was a life-changing experience for me. I learned so much in those three short years, but I also made friends for life, the kind who have supported and celebrated me through all sorts of experiences.
Importantly for me, it was at Cambridge, in my weekly essay-writing, that I first read the work of Zadie Smith (King's 1994), whose writing was to inspire and encourage my own for years afterwards. Through acting in various productions, I experienced some of the writing I most love to write myself: farce. Then, as the JCR Ethnic Minorities Rep, I ran a shadowing scheme for high-attaining BAME sixth-formers to experience a few days of life in Cambridge for themselves, and encourage them to apply. This planted the seeds for my interest in education.
Our director of studies for English, Sinead Garrigan-Mattar, was a deeply caring and thoughtful presence, who also facilitated the College’s Poetry Group. The Poetry Group provided us with a safe and welcoming environment in which to share our work: writing was anonymously submitted, and then shared among the members of the group (ranging from first-year undergraduates to Fellows), and then discussed kindly but thoughtfully. I think back on those evenings very fondly, largely because the Poetry Group helped expose me to the idea that people might read my work.
A continuing education
After graduation, I went back to Manchester and spent about a year working for a law firm and realising I didn’t want to be a lawyer, before starting work for Carcanet Press. This was a really formative experience for me firstly because, as part of my job, I read a lot of things that developed my critical and creative thinking and writing. And secondly working in publishing meant that I had the time and space to continue a kind of education – including learning how to write – long after I finished studying formally.
However, after a while I began to feel that I wanted a different challenge: my role in publishing involved a lot of work with computers rather than people, and I felt that this didn’t play to my strengths so much. It was at this time that I decided to do Teach First (a training programme in which graduates are placed in challenging contexts, where they work full-time for two years while gaining formal teaching qualifications). I wanted to teach and to make a difference with my teaching if I could. It was a tremendously difficult thing that I did, but there’s nothing like knowing that you have made a positive impact on children’s lives – however small the impact, however few the children you impact in the grand scheme of things.
To write about mental health; to write about feelings of isolation, elation, distance and difference – these things are huge privileges, for which I am intensely grateful.
A winding route to publication
Towards the end of 2014, my first year of the Teach First programme, a friend encouraged me to enter an extract from my novel for a Northern Writers’ Award, administered by the wonderful New Writing North. When I won an award the following Spring, not only did they give me some money (very welcome by this point), they also encouraged me more than I’d ever been encouraged before as a writer. They also put me in touch with the women who are now my agent and my publisher, for which I will be eternally grateful. As such, my route to publication was winding, but perfect in its own way.
To write about diverse casts of characters and their experiences in Manchester and Cambridge; to write about mental health; to write about feelings of isolation, elation, distance and difference – these things are huge privileges for which I am intensely grateful. My time at Girton and at Cambridge is part of that privilege because it helped give me the confidence to feel that I could make the contribution I did, and it gave me experiences that shaped my understanding of the dualities – the multiplicities – of life in 21st-century England. You can never know what the future holds, but as my first novel makes its way into the world now, I think about its journey so far with a profound sense of gratitude and joy.
Okechukwu Nzelu studied English and attended Girton College.
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This article has been written by Okechukwu Nzelu and the opinions expressed are those of the author.