Mgbechi Erondu: Writer in residency

A book jacket author bio for Mgbechi Erondu (17MD) might read like this: Mgbechi Erondu received a Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2016 and graduated this year from the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she spent her childhood in Iowa City and New Jersey, earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Princeton University, and completed a yearlong fellowship in Botswana before returning to Iowa City for graduate studies. Now in an anesthesiology residency at Baylor College of Medicine, she hopes to use both fields—fiction writing and medicine—to remind the world of how much we matter to each other.

Q: Your father is an endocrinologist and your mother is a pharmacist. Did that influence your decision to become a doctor?

A: Somewhat. I also admired my pediatrician, Dr. Claibourne Dungy, who happened to be African American. But it wasn’t until college when I really, really knew that I wanted to be a doctor. It was always a hazy dream, but it didn’t fully form until I had considered perhaps everything else I could have done.

Q: When did you consider writing as a profession?

A: I’ve always been a writer, but it wasn’t necessarily a career choice. When I was younger I used to write just for myself. I had one of those boxy, old Apple computers filled with fan fiction—stories inspired by things I read. No one ever saw those stories, but they gave me pleasure and helped me to imagine. As a child, I would spend every summer in the Iowa City Public Library, which was incredibly influential in my decision to be a writer. And the Iowa Writers’ Workshop had a program for elementary school students where they had us write an illustrated booklet. That was influential as well.

Q: After your third year of medical school, you took a break to complete an MFA. Did your medical training help you in the writers’ workshop?

A: People talk about surviving this intense workshop atmosphere, where you are baring your soul and submitting writing you might have worked on for decades. You are kind of throwing it to the wolves sometimes. Because of my experience as a medical student, I had learned how to accept criticism. In both medicine and writing, there is no right answer, because every person is different, every disease can manifest differently in every person, and you also have to consider social, psychological, and behavioral issues. In medicine, however, the consequences of your decisions can have far-reaching and more traumatic impacts. So having succeeded in that environment, going to the writers’ workshop was a relief. I was only responsible for my work, my decisions. Even if someone gave me bad feedback, it only affected me.

Q: How did the workshop experience affect your return to medical school for the fourth and final year?

A: In college, I had sometimes thought, what if I had been an English major, or if I quit pre-med in the middle of biochemistry and switched to English? Then I had the opportunity in the writers’ workshop to totally immerse myself in that thought exercise and to meet other people making it their career, some becoming Pulitzer Prize winners. I saw that, and I still chose to go back to medical school with the conviction that this was what I was supposed to do. Writing can also be my profession, but medicine must be my profession.

Q: What do you write about?

A: Every story I’ve written has to do with questions like “Who am I?”; “Where did I come from?”; and “Where am I going?”

Q: You started a novel in the writers’ workshop. What is it about?

A: It’s about a little girl who goes back to Nigeria around the same time I did, at about 7 years old. She lives with her grandmother, goes to primary school, meets a mean headmaster character, and has all kinds of adventures. In the end, she comes to understand things about her identity and culture, and about community and belonging. Akwaugo is the title, which literally means “eagles’s egg”—or “precious” would be an American translation.

Q: How will you carve out time to write during residency?

A: My mentor, Dr. Carol Scott- Conner, gave me several Moleskine notebooks to carry with me, so I can write at every opportunity I get. Jason Lewis, director of the Carver College of Medicine Writing and Humanities Program, advised me to write for five minutes a day, so it becomes routine and you start producing as soon as you sit in the chair. I’ve always followed the humanities throughout my career and found people who value what I do and point me in directions that assist me toward that path. I’ve never worried that I won’t write.