Writer, PhD candidate and author of ‘Who’s Writing Who? Literary Cultural Appropriation and Ethnicity in Nigeria’, Zainab Omaki, thinks it is difficult to disagree with fiction: ‘disagree is a strong word… I finished Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji a few weeks ago. Gorgeous book, gorgeously written, but I was also surprised by how no one seems to mind that the characters are cousins, considering their relationship.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read all kinds of books growing up. Initially, I read lots of fairytales and children’s books like Ann Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club series and R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps. Later, because my sister was an avid romance novel reader, I read tons of those. In junior and senior secondary school, I read all the books that were a rite of passage for Nigerians, I think: James Hadley Chase, John Grisham, along with the classics like Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, all of Achebe’s novels and Wole Soyinka’s plays—my favourite is still The Lion and The Jewel.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
This is such an interesting question. Going solely off titles and not content, I’d say: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, except substituting my name. Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekuyasi, because I seem to be always hungry now. Perhaps, Vagabonds! by Eloghosa Osunde because I feel a bit of rebellion is good for the soul these days.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
Hmm, disagree is a strong word. I haven’t been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, which is the genre I’d be most comfortable disagreeing with. I’ve been reading lots of fiction. I finished Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji a few weeks ago. Gorgeous book, gorgeously written, but I was also surprised by how no one seems to mind that the characters are cousins, considering their relationship.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
Hmm, I am not sure I can think of anything specific.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
This depends. For short projects, I write all at once and then revise after a few days. For longer projects, I am a horrible continuous editor—or a backwards writer, as I have heard it called. It slows down the process as you can imagine.
What was your process for writing ‘Who’s Writing Who? Literary Cultural Appropriation and Ethnicity in Nigeria’?
I wrote that initially while I was doing a residency in Germany. I wrote the first draft all at once. I wasn’t quite happy with it because it didn’t really capture what I was trying to say. So I sent it to a friend. She gave me some wonderful feedback, which I used to revise the piece before sending it to you (The Republic).
You’re a prose and screenwriter and you have a Masters in Creative Writing. What’s a common misconception about creative writing?
That it’s easy. There’s a quote—I can’t remember who by—that goes something like: a writer is someone for whom writing is hard. I think that’s true. It takes a lot of effort to get a good piece of work.
A writer is someone for whom writing is hard … It takes a lot of effort to get a good piece of work.
What have you found most challenging about writing a novel?
Silencing your own inner voices of criticism. A novel is an endurance sport. You have to get to point B from a very far off point A. It’s quite easy to start but the longer you are on the journey, the more you question the choices you made, the directions you chose to take. Turning that off takes a lot of effort and self compassion, I think.
Is writing a talent—something innate—or a skill—something that can be learned?
Definitely something that can be learned. I don’t think everyone is naturally suited to it, but I think everyone can learn to be a better writer if they’re interested. Read a lot. Write a lot. Take a course. Enjoy the process.
A novel is an endurance sport. You have to get to point B from a very far off point A.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
‘The writer you are is enough.’ This was by Ruth Ozeki in an article.
In person, I am not sure that I can isolate a meaningful piece of writing advice I’ve received. Perhaps, ‘what are you reading?’ This was from Andrew Cowan who taught me during my master’s degree. He basically advocated for reading a lot of what you’re trying to write. It helps, by osmosis, to help you get there.
What advice would you give to a young writer that’s just starting out in her career?
It’s a cliché, I know, but you can’t outwrite your reading. If you’re not reading, your writing will suffer. I know this from personal experience. Read poetry. It will help you with your language. Find what works for you as a writer in terms of process. I can only write with all the curtains closed and the room dark because it gives me the illusion of being alone in the world. Find your own thing.
Who’s an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Hmm, I adore Mohsin Hamid; he’s probably my favourite writer at the moment. So perhaps, him. I also just read The Living Is Easy by Dorothy West which I really connected to, and the poet, Christopher Okigbo who I had never heard of before until four months ago.
You can’t outwrite your reading. If you’re not reading, your writing will suffer.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Again, Mohsin Hamid because he, with each book, experiments with style while delivering such interesting and nuanced stories. Uche Okonkwo, because her short stories have a lot of heart, humour and stunning complexity. Otessa Moshfegh because she always straddles the line of the perverse. Her characters aren’t simple or good in the way we think of good. They’re a bit messy and I enjoy that.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
It’s taken me a long time to admit that I love love stories. Not romance per se, but stories of love in whatever form. I used to be so ashamed of that for some reason. I guess I thought it wasn’t deep enough. I just finished Bolu Babola’s Love in Colour which I enjoyed, and I’ve also read Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.
What are you currently working on?
I am finishing up a novel which I’ve been working on for a while at last! Looking forward to having that out there in the world.
Question from Aiwanose Ofaden: When you’re not a writer, who or what are you?
At the moment, I am a PhD student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Go Huskers.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
If you could meet any author living or dead who would it be and why?⎈
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