'I do think we have the responsibility to tell our own stories, but I don’t think it is entirely for the educational benefit of the West...I think it's equally for our own benefit and empowerment that we should tell and consume our own stories.' - Céline Tshika

When the Congo born and South Africa raised Céline Tshika moved to Los Angeles in 2017, she had done so to study Acting at the New York Film Academy, and not so long after, her web series, Jess Goes West, will echo the voices and shared experiences of thousands of African students studying in the West.

Céline Tshika is a multipotentialite - a Writer, Actor, Singer, Songwriter, Producer, and Engineer, amongst many things unlisted. She is the creator of the web series, Jess Goes West, which follows the life of a Congolese/South-African graduate who moves to Los Angeles to study but is completely astonished by her experience. 

I speak to Céline about her journey as a storyteller, what Jess Goes West means to her and how we can shape narratives as African storytellers.

Adora:  Let's talk Céline. I find your identity quite interesting; Congolese/South African - how would you identify yourself, and who is Céline?

Céline Tshika: Whew, that is a complicated question. My family moved to South Africa when I was still a baby. So when I was younger, I felt more South African, but as I got older, I felt more Congolese. I tend to answer the 'where are you from?' question according to who is asking and what I think they are trying to figure out. I feel both and neither at the same time.

Adora: That's an interesting answer. I think there are lots of Africans and even non-Africans that feel this way about their identity. Do you feel like this issue of identity affects you in a way? Perhaps in the way that you relate with others and even with yourself?

Céline Tshika: I think it really does! It definitely comes through in my writing - writing really helps me process all of those thoughts and constant questions I ask myself about how I identify. Because of more shows with people of colour in them, I have found comfort in the fact that I'm not alone in it. I think many different people can relate to it in the same way that I feel seen and heard watching the show 'Never Have I Ever.' Different cultural groups, set in different countries, but many similar experiences and cultural clashes. And I think with all the access we have to different ways of living, a lot of people can grow up to find that they don't really resonate with the culture, city, or country they grew up in.

Adora: Great! You are quite diverse, be that in personality or talent; actor, singer, writer, producer? Wow! What has the journey been like so far across these art forms?

Céline Tshika: Thank you. It has been confusing! I find that in many immigrant families, artistic talents aren’t valued in the way that scientific talents are, so I spent many years seeing those things as hobbies. I think the first talent I discovered was dancing in primary school, then singing. Acting came later in High School, and lastly, writing. I have always kept a journal, from the time I was about 9 or 10, so it’s funny in retrospect that it took me so long to think of myself as a writer. It can be tough to accept that I can’t focus on nurturing and developing all of my talents at once, but I am coming to accept that they all bring me joy and can all be part of my life in different capacities, depending on what I feel needs to be expressed at a point in my life. Songwriting helped get me through my Engineering degree, but it has taken a back seat since going to film school. I plan to return to it once I have completed a few screenwriting projects.

Adora: Let's talk about genres, are you a comedienne?

Céline Tshika: I am still largely defined by comedy, and I am happy with that. It was my first entry into screenwriting, and it’s a great way for me to channel my activism without feeling like I’m being too intense. It’s a fun outlet for me to express things I care about while forcing me to be vulnerable enough to get a laugh out of people. I do feel there are subjects I would like to express through dramatic pieces, which is what I have started working on this year. The actor in me tends to want to be challenged in that way, so that has pushed me to write stories I would want to act in. 

'Your experiences are valid, and when you put your stories out there, people will find them.' – Céline Tshika

Adora: I binged Jess Goes West, and I loved it. I think lots of Africans can relate to this story, and these are some of the issues we try to highlight when we speak about New Narratives. What was the inspiration behind Jess Goes West?

Céline Tshika: Thank you for watching it! The stories actually started as YouTube vlog ideas. I had a little WordPress blog where I posted comedic content about my life in America, and I thought I would tell a few of them as vlogs. But after taking a course in TV writing, I decided to try them as webisodes to see what screenwriting would be like. From there, I put many of my encounters over the year or so into the web series, and it became the show. So, unfortunately, they were based on real encounters.

Adora: There's the scene at the beginning where your course mates do 'that thing' - 'Oh you are African?', 'My brother was in Africa for charity,' 'Are you British?' As someone who has lived out this experience, what's your take on these types of problematic narratives, and how might we, through storytelling, solve the issues around narratives with respect to countries of Africa?

Céline Tshika: Ooh that thing! I take it as a sign of ignorance, really, and I’m not sure where to put the responsibility. One of the people who asked me the most ignorant questions was a 16-year-old girl, and I realised that nothing in her education system was teaching her about the African continent as a whole, never mind individual countries. I do think we have the responsibility to tell our own stories, but I don’t think it’s entirely for the educational benefit of the West. The internet exists, and there is access to content from pretty much any country at this point (though admittedly people can’t always be expected to take on the burden of research if it’s of no direct benefit to them.) However, I think it is equally for our own benefit and empowerment that we should tell and consume our own stories. We can’t keep seeing ourselves through the Western gaze when we have brilliant storytellers right here. But it requires a shift in many aspects of the entertainment industry, not to mention the cultural shift of a willingness to give our own storytellers a chance.

Adora: 'The willingness to give our own storytellers a chance' that's a full sermon right there (laughs), we could preach for hours. Speaking of giving our storytellers a chance, more and more African storytellers are finding their voices daily, however, there are lots of aspiring storytellers that aren't quite sure how best to proceed. So you self-funded Jess Goes West, which won the Los Angeles Film Award (2019) and had two other festival selections, tell me, as an independent filmmaker, what was the journey like for you, and how can upcoming and aspiring storytellers get their work out there?

Céline Tshika: I did. I used the savings I had from my undergraduate years to shoot the last three episodes, and there was definitely some parental help there as well, so I do have to acknowledge having had that privilege. Since my writing has evolved from there onto more complex, longer-form projects, I have definitely felt the difficulty of finding access to platforms, funding, and production companies. What I can offer from the web series is to take the leap and, as Ava Duvernay advocates, not be so precious about your projects. The reason Jess Goes West worked was that I had an idea, and with just under four months left on my visa, I didn’t have the time to make it perfect. I just thought it would be fun and went for it. And from then, moving to Cape Town to start from scratch in the industry here, I learned that just having an idea and reaching out to find even that one person can make such a difference. In each instance, I had an idea, a script and/or pitch deck, and a clear picture of what I wanted, which makes it considerably easier for people to get on board. 

Also, your experiences are valid, and when you put your stories out there, people will find them. I had messages from total strangers, girls in high school in several African countries who were just so excited to see someone who represents them in a show, however small. 'Start from where you are, with what you have', is a lesson I have to keep re-learning, and I would encourage African storytellers to internalise that. I cringe at my web series because it was my first project, but I had to have a first project to have a second and third and grow creatively. 

Adora: Brilliant! Will you be putting out more content like Jess Goes West anytime soon?

Céline Tshika: I plan to next year! I am developing two comedy projects based in South Africa, one of which is a web series. I am working on several writing projects, so I will have my head buried in papers for a few more months, but I hope to be shooting things again towards the end of this year. 

Adora: A little bird tells me you have a delicious story cooking, when will this story hit our screens?

Céline Tshika: I do have a story cooking! I’m working on the pilot for it. With all the pitching and funding applications, I suspect it will be a 2023-2024 release. But the two shorts should be out next year. I’m stretching myself this year to develop more stories told in longer forms—half-hour comedy, one-hour drama, and feature film projects. I’m learning to find other ways I can express myself through characters who are not directly based on me but can still communicate issues I care greatly about. Céline

Watch out for Céline's latest project, The Wapidemic, a satirical mockumentary that explores the impact of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's 'WAP' on a group of men called 'The Gents'. It is currently touring festivals in the UK.

Adora Ajuzie is a Nigerian creative writer and storyteller.

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