OTwo Interviews: Victory Nwabu-Ekeoma of Bia! Zine

Image Credit: Niamh Barry

Victory Nwabu-Ekeoma, founder and creator of Bia! Zine, talks to Food & Drink Editor Lucy Warmington about how she came to love the stories behind food, and the connection between food, identity, and home.

The zine scene in Ireland is experiencing a long overdue revival, and Bia! is living proof of this. Self-described as a celebration of food centring people of colour and the shared experience of migrants in Ireland, the recipes, stories, and artworks in Bia! are beautiful. Its range of contributors, interviewees, and story-tellers show the power that food, cooking and community can hold. It shows the importance and contribution of immigrants to this country. With the first edition of the zine released both physically and digitally in September 2022, its ninety-two pages are full of honesty and nostalgia; it has your new favourite recipe, conversations to resonate with, visually stunning artwork, and candid photojournalism. 

One contributor cites food as a coping mechanism for migration issues and a connection to their family back home; Bia! is filling the same role. It has become a space of comfort, a mode of togetherness, and a tangible connection to a distant family. The much-anticipated second edition is now open for submission, due to be released by March 2024. I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Victory Nwabu-Ekeoma, an Igbo-Irish writer, artist, content designer, and the sole-editor, creator and founder of Bia! Zine. 

Would you like to introduce yourself, and tell us about what Bia! is? 

“My name is Victory Nwabu-Ekeoma. Bia! zine is… I call it a storytelling project, because for me, it encapsulates a lot more than just a publication, but it’s offering as of right now is a physical publication, independently published and designed by myself that tells the stories, the histories, the cultures of immigrants in Ireland through food. So, I always say that it’s not a publication or a project centred on food, but it uses food as a catalyst for a lot more bigger, more meaningful conversations around identity and belonging, and how migrants make a place for themselves here in Ireland.”

You’ve also had panel discussions, and a launch event with live music. Has Bia! grown beyond what you had initially imagined?

“Yeah! It’s grown incredibly. It’s insane how much it’s grown because when I did the zine, I had got funding from my local council arts division here in Louth, I’m from Dundalk, and when I got that funding I was like, okay, I’m gonna make a little mini zine. That’s something that I had done when I was in university in Scotland, and it was always kinda a small, self-contained project with a few people who were interested, never really got huge. 

So, I came back to Ireland thinking, this is gonna be a little passion project on the side. I didn’t give it too much thought, but then when I released it, it got a lot of really exciting attention from a lot of really interesting people. Lots of people who were like, ‘this is really important, this is really exciting work.’ I had announced it in June, and by the time it had launched in September, it was uncontainable. It was something that was a lot bigger than what I had envisioned for it, cause I always said it was a one and done thing. I wasn’t gonna do this longer than that first zine, but here I am. A year later, still thinking of ways that I can explore more stories of immigrants here in Ireland. The zine is a major thing, but like you said there are other elements to that for me, which includes events and discussions and giving talks or whatever it is that I can do to expand on the ways that we can tell those stories.”

Bia! has just had its first birthday as well, so congratulations on that! I saw on your Instagram that you have a really exciting event coming up as part of that celebration in October, what will that include?

“Yeah, so that’s October 21st! I am collaborating with Hi Spirits Wine Club, which is Dublin’s first Black-led wine and spirits collective, and I’m collaborating with them to host our Supper Club event. October is Black History Month in the UK and Ireland, so we want to do something to mark the month, but also to celebrate the influence of Black identities and African Cultures here in Ireland. Me, myself, being Black and African, I think I always draw from my own personal experience first and foremost when I do anything, so I’m really excited for this event. I’ve been dying to do a supper club style event, to get people around the table, and it’s been a long time coming.”

In the zine itself there’s so many dimensions. You have recipes, stories, conversations. In one piece, you talk about a meal as more than simply the food, it’s the process and the love too. Have you always seen it that way?

“No. I haven’t. I think for me, food has never been this sensational thing. Like… I eat. That was about it for me. I eat, it sustains me, I’m surviving. I’ve always kind of interacted with food on that level. It was really natural to me, because it was happening around me. My mum was cooking, I was learning to cook, I went to university and I had to cook for myself, but there wasn’t this major thing where I was like, ‘oh my gosh, I looove food.’ That was never a thing for me. I think as I got older, especially through Covid, you’re sitting and you’re in this container space thinking of what you’re literally going to eat all the time, and you’re like ‘okay cool, maybe I have to experiment here’… food was becoming this thing that I was getting a lot more interested in. I think what I was drawn to with food wasn’t necessarily the flavours or the tastes. What I was really drawn to was how someone got to know what they wanted to make, or the stories behind that, the histories. What drew you to that? Because I know what draws me to certain types of food, and I know what draws me to cooking…and a lot of that is laziness, right? For me, I’m like I need to cook the simplest thing ever. But it also allows me to be super creative, because I’ll mash together lots of random stuff and it’ll taste amazing. But that’s a story as well, right, behind why I cook. I was really interested in things like, my mum cooks lots of really amazing food, but there’s also lots of stuff she doesnt cook, and her sisters do cook. Okay, but why do your sisters cook it and you don’t cook it? What’s the discrepancy there? There’s lots of different reasons and ideas behind food, and how and why people cook. I think I’m really interested in that from a migrant perspective, because when you emigrate and you leave your home country, your whole world shifts and what you eat becomes either a really big deal, or diminishes and disintegrates entirely. And so, I think for me it’s not always been a thing I’ve had a deep passion or love or care for, but as I’ve gotten older and started talking to my mum more, without getting annoyed or angsty, I’ve started to appreciate her and all that she’s been through to get here, and where food comes into play with that. Food then became this thing where I’m looking at everyone like, I wanna know why, and how, and tell me the story behind this. That’s really special I think.”

 'What I was really drawn to was how someone got to know what they wanted to make, or the stories behind that, the histories.'

There’s lots of stories in Bia! coming from that same place. There’s a story from one contributor, Paula, who merits food as a way for her to cope with her homesickness, and also connect to her Brazilian roots in Ireland. Have you seen, from making the zine, a bigger connection between food, cooking and the concept of home? 

“I think from the zine it became clear to me that home is an elusive concept. What is home? Who is home? Where is home? It became clear that that is not clear. It's really different for a lot of people. That's where food becomes really important, because even when home is contested or unclear, food tends to be a lot clearer. I’m Nigerian, and therefore I have this affinity for Nigerian food. I don’t like every Nigerian dish, but I like a lot of them. I understand a lot of them, based on the fact that I’m Nigerian. But I’ve also lived in Ireland my whole life. I also thoroughly understand a spice bag, and my American friends don’t, right? It’s really interesting that even if you’re not sure where home is, food kind of draws that out of you. 

I think if you read Paula's piece, Paula only connected recently to those Brazilian roots. She is more predominantly, I suppose, connected to her Ecuadorian roots, but she was able to connect with Brazil and those roots through food. No matter where you're from, even if you don't necessarily know ‘where’ is home, you know what food is yours. You know what food you can draw comfort from. There's a lot of people, especially people from a lot of mixed identities and backgrounds, where even if someone in that country isn’t necessarily ready to accept them as being X,Y and Z, whether that's Filipino or Irish, or myself being Nigerian, there's a lot of Nigerians in Nigeria who'd be like ‘you're not really Nigerian’, and I'm like, well… I can eat your food, and I understand it, and I enjoy it and I love it. And I think that that's very unique, very uniquely Nigerian. So yeah, I think home is not very clear, but the food from home can at least create a sense of comfort in that unclarity.”

'I think home is not very clear, but the food from home can at least create a sense of comfort in that unclarity.'

I think the zine of Bia! itself is filling a similar role, as a space of comfort, and a connection to others, a connection to family.

“For sure. Family is, I think, a huge thing. At the end of the day we’re all coming from somewhere, and whether that’s the family or friends that we know or that we have through blood. It’s laced throughout the zine a lot because family was the foundation from which I started Bia! zine. I went through my family archives and had conversations with my mum, and that was how I understood my history, and I figured there’s a lot of people who understand their history in the context of family. Whether it’s the family you choose or the family you’re born into, you kind of understand yourself in relation to other people. And that includes food. I don’t think food cultures can exist in isolation, people talk about ‘this is passed on from my mother,’ or ‘this is passed on from my grandparents,’ or ‘my father’ or whatever, because that food is generational, or it’s embodied. Even if it’s not necessarily passed on verbally, you just know how to do certain things, from watching your parents or watching your family.”

'Whether it’s the family you choose or the family you’re born into, you kind of understand yourself in relation to other people.'

I think in the Irish context as well, I think about this a lot with Direct Provision, and the lack of autonomy to cook for asylum seekers living in Direct Provision, and how impactful that would be. Because it’s not just losing autonomy over what you eat, I mean as you can clearly see throughout the stories in Bia!, it’s a loss of your culture as well for those people. 

“Yeah, and I think the thing with Direct Provision, and going back to family and that sense of ‘food doesn’t exist in isolation; it exists in relation to other people,’ especially with family, there’s a lot of young people, a lot of children, babies, being born into DP, young children being brought up in DP who aren’t going to have that experience of their mothers cooking, or they’re not going to have those memories of family being in the kitchen and cooking together. And that’s such an integral memory, and we don’t realise how important that is, what that creates and what that passes on to us, even if we don’t take notice of it when we’re younger. When we’re older, like me, who didn’t really care about food until I had that conversation with my mum, and I realised that there’s things that I know how to do just from being in the same room as her sometimes, not even paying attention. There’s a lot of kids who are going to grow up without having that, and we can’t even begin to understand the full effects of what that will be. Or at least I can’t right now. But…” She begins shaking her head before whispering, “it’s not going to end well, I don’t think. Essentially.”

No. Not at all… [pause to reflect] You met a lot of people for the making of Bia!. Was there a particular moment that stuck out to you?

“Yeah, I think there were maybe two. I had loads of amazing conversations to be clear, but I had one specific one with Richie Castillo from Bahay. He’s a chef of Filipino and Irish descent. We were in conversation, and it was just such a great conversation. I remember leaving there and being so full. I think another moment was with another Filipino chef, Nallaine, who runs a restaurant in Belfast called Kubo. Our conversation actually got emotional, we were trying to hold back tears, because it was just so… I think between Nallaine and Richie’s conversations we were talking a lot about our parents, and how indebted and the gratitude we have for just all they were able to pass on to us. Nallaine [is] Canadian and Filipina, and Richie’s Irish-Filipino, and both of them had similar stories, which is like ‘my parents shared this stuff with me and I want to reshare this with other people’ and it was really really inspiring to me, because, I mean, I’m not sharing food, but I’m giving this offering or sharing this zine with people. I think I identified a lot with them because, again I’m Nigerian-Irish, but I’ve lived here my whole life, and so there is that contested ‘where do I belong, where am I, who am I’ kind of energy… and they both have firmly decided to be like ‘I don’t really care who you think I am, I know who I am. I have a right to my Filipino heritage and I love my culture and I want to share it in a way that’s authentic to me, even if it’s not what you’d decide is authentic. It’s authentic to my experience…’ and that spoke a lot to me as a Nigerian-Irish first generation kid. Another moment was in homes. The people that opened their doors to me, anyone who let me into their house to eat food, I was like ‘wow, I am so honoured cause you don’t even know…’ like, there was no issue before that first issue to say that Bia! is a credible thing, I could have come into your home and never released anything and then ran away. I could have! But I didn’t, obviously. But [Jino and Christy] still let me into their homes and I think it spoke so much to the hospitality of people. They cooked incredible meals, I [just wanted to] write something, and they made these spreads that were more than I had bargained for. I was like, ‘you can just make me tea… I just wanna talk to you!’ And they were like, ‘No! Here’s a curry, and biryani!’ It was insane, and I was really touched by that. Those are two moments that stuck out to me, speaking to Nallaine and Richie and going to Jino and Christy’s homes. I think they just spoke a lot to hospitality and identity… what it means.”

And what else is next for Bia!? There’s lots of teasing going on on your Instagram, I feel like there’s some really big things lined up. Is there anything you can give an insight into?

“Yeah, there are lots of big things… I think the most insight I can give is… I see this as a storytelling project, and I want to explore all the ways I can tell a story. Much more than just zines, much more than just events. I’m talking content, videos, films, whatever it takes to really get the stories out there, we are going to do it this year. I think this year is really for collaborating. I want as many people to get involved as possible... I’m looking forward to seeing how these stories can be told in ways that honour the contributions of immigrants to this country.”

So my final question is quite a simple one… do you have a favourite place to eat in Ireland/Dundalk?

“Do I have a favourite place to eat? Ah, this question! This question is really difficult… Favourite place to eat? I have to be honest, because honesty is the best policy, I don’t have a favourite place to eat. I’m in a constant state of discovering. I think that that is my most honest answer, is that I’m constantly discovering new places for this project, and a lot of the places that I’m discovering are places that are holes in the wall, underground, it’s hard to pinpoint what they are, or where they are, but they’re there. So, it’s hard to say. I think some of my favourites are probably Gursha for Ethiopian food, there is a place that just opened up in Dundalk for Indian food called Raha by this incredible woman from India. Yeah, I think my favourite place is constantly changing. I recently tried this place in Dublin that was really great, Afanti restaurant. So they are Uyghur, the Chinese/Turkish ethnic group, they just opened up. That’s probably the last place I’ve been in Dublin and they’re near Parnell street. It’s like a Chinese restaurant but Uyghur is a whole different ethnic group in China, and it’s very, very different. And, it was great. It was probably one of the best places I’ve been to recently… but that might change.”

Bia! is currently in the process of creating its next issue, which will come out in March 2024. Submissions for this issue are now open, and you can read all about how to contribute on their website, www.biazine.com. Whilst there, you can also buy a digital copy of Bia! Zine Issue 00 for only €6, and read the stories, cook the recipes, and lose yourself within its pages. You can (and should!) follow their Instagram @bia_zine for extracts, photos, event details, and all else that Bia! entails.