By Katie Chambers
Please join us in welcoming Achiro P. Olwoch to the NYWIFT community! Achiro P. Olwoch is a queer artist in exile from Gulu in Northern Uganda, currently living in New York. She is an award-winning writer, director, and producer who created and wrote the TV series Coffee Shop, was head writer for Yat Madit, created several short films including The Surrogate, The Mineral Basket, and Maraya Ni.
She is in the process of completing her late father’s manuscripts alongside her first novel Sex or Slave, set in 1940s Uganda during colonialism. She also has two memoirs in the works: They are Who I Was, about her life as a lesbian in Uganda and her eventual escape, and The Girl from Koro Abili, about her journey being born in exile, living through the war in Northern Uganda, through to her present life in exile.
Olwoch been published by Guernica, Exposition Review, Westbeth online newsletter, and PEN America. Her play The Survival recently had its debut performance at Lincoln Center, produced by the National Queer Theatre. And she recently graduated with certificates in screenwriting, TV Writing, and Film and TV Producing from New York Film Academy.
In her spare time, Olwoch volunteers as the African Representative on the Women Playwrights International management committee as well as the Artistic Collective of the National Queer Theater in New York.
Olwoch spoke to us about living in exile, her artistic journey, and her resilience.
Tell us about yourself – give us your elevator pitch!
My name is Achiro P. Olwoch and I am a Ugandan writer currently in exile in the U.S. My name Achiro, by the way, means ‘the resilient one’ — so it is like my late parents predestined my path when I was born. I love writing like I like to breathe and after getting COVID twice, believe me, I love breathing. I write to get away from the world but also, I write because I love to create another world even if the stories are close to reality. The art of storytelling on film is like being transported to that story — this is what I live for as a filmmaker.
You started in the airline industry and moved to a creative field in 2007 – wow! That’s quite the transition. What inspired you to devote yourself full-time to creative work?
I think I was restless and really tired of the repetitiveness of my schedule at the airline, and I wanted more. I started by writing a book from a transcription and I loved the editing process. Then I got a column in the newspaper and when the money started trickling in, however small, I thought, “I could make this my life” and I dared and quit the airlines.
Naturally life got hard, and I needed an even bigger job — I got that with a lifestyle magazine as a sub editor. It was there in 2008 that I learned about Maisha film training – it was the only training for film [in Uganda]. There was no film at the universities then. The idea of seeing my work on screen got me excited. That was when I ventured into film.
And what brings you to New York?
Sadly, nothing glamorous. I am in exile after fleeing my country for my sexuality and my work with political and LGBTQ themes. But thanks to my close friends here and all the organizations supporting me, I have started to make it home.
What has been your favorite project to date and why?
Two projects: The Survival, my play that recently showed at Lincoln Center produced by the National Queer Theater. This because it was this play that got me on the ‘watchlist’ back home but here I was able to rewrite it and produce it in all its glory — the gay characters holding hands and even sharing a kiss. This would have not been able to slide in Uganda.
Secondly — my new screenplay, The General’s Amnesty, set in contemporary Uganda following the life of a gay man fighting for his life in a safehouse after being unlawfully arrested for his sexuality and political support of the opposition. This I love because it is based on my late father’s book of the same title that was set in 1970’s Uganda — minus the homosexual theme, but it mirrors the corruption and political unrest and torment of the locals today like it was in the 70’s.
We’d love to hear more about the work you are doing completing your late father’s manuscripts.
I am doing final edits on the first one — after getting professional editors on board then I will self-publish it on Amazon. I have applied to publishers and gotten so many rejections I am exhausted. So yes, The General’s Amnesty and The Smell of the Poor, both set in 1970’s Uganda and completely mirroring contemporary Uganda will finally be on the market in late 2022 into early 2023.
What do you hope audiences will take away from your work?
Oh, I hope they are transported and learn something new about another country, another culture. This is why, when I can, I make my films in my local language and have subtitles.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? And the worst?
I will start with the worst: my managing editor at the lifestyle magazine once told me I could not write and I should not be writing. This haunted me for a while.
The best was from my late mother who told me, “Be the kind of person everyone will be happy to be around.”
And what is next for you?
I am writing and keeping writing. I have written a new book and a memoir and two films since being here —my hope is that someone, a publisher or producer or both will discover me and love my work.
This is a new start for me. I have learned how to uncensor myself as an artist and also be more comfortable in my skin as a queer person. It is still a work in progress, but my work is better for it.
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