Author of ‘The Bronze Elephant in the Room: After the Benin Bronzes Come Home, What Next?’ Daniel Olaoluwa Whyte, believes repatriation of looted artefacts is just the first step: ‘The other step and indeed the real work is in the preservation of the returned artefacts. To do this properly, we need a revamp of our cultural property landscape and a change in the government’s general attitude towards art.’
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 grew up reading different books. Some of the names I can remember are Nancy Drew’s Mystery Stories which includes The Secret in the Old Attic and The Secret in the Old Clock, Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy, and Obafemi Awolowo’s My Early Life, among others. I also read Koku Baboni, and Sugar Girl when I was much younger. I loved Yoruba literature and I used to read Ijapa Tiroko Oko Yannibo, and others books recommended at school.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
Hmm, hard to say which.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I reread This is Water by David Foster Wallace recently and I am again amazed at the profundity of the message. This is Water is a message about the commonplace things we take for granted or often overlook, like the meaning and value of education—it is supposed to be a lifelong journey which Wallace interpreted as a continued awareness of what is essential but often overlooked. It’s the humility to continue to challenge one’s perspectives or the way we interpret the world rather than succumb to the easy allure of absolute knowledge which may be shaped by bias or inadequate information.
David Wallace’s This is Water is a message about the commonplace things we take for granted or often overlook, like the meaning and value of education.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
I would say both. A subject can be important but if the writing is sloppy, the message can be lost. At the same time, even if a text is written well but has no clear message, no meaning is conveyed and the text becomes at best, a dance or more appropriately a song which does nothing, which arouses no feeling or interest in the listener. The combination of good writing and an important subject makes a text powerful. But the counterpoint is there is nothing clearly defined as a good subject. Good writing elevates any subject to become important such that it commands the attention of the reader. I think this is what all good writing aspires to.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
It depends on the topic I am writing about and the timeline. I alternate between the two.
What was your process for writing ‘How to Not Waste Your Vote: What Voter Turnout Will Mean in the 2023 Elections’?
For this article, I had to first understand the causes of historically low voter turnout in Nigeria. This led me to the research done by Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in partnership with Germany’s Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in 2011. The research informed the perspective of the essay. But the real reason I was keen to write on the issue was that I had spoken with a friend who told me that she might not be voting because she did not want to ‘waste her vote’. I tried to convince her then that because their candidate did not win the election did not mean they wasted their vote; that elections and democratic governance are not a one-time thing, but a continuous process and the results could come eventually. To not vote at all is to waste a vote. I felt compelled to still write on it ahead of the elections as I felt some people, particularly first-time voters, might have the same perspective as my friend. This informed my choice of conducting interviews for the article.
How similar or different was it from the writing process of ‘The Bronze Elephant in the Room: After the Benin Bronzes Come Home, What Next’?
The process for the Benin Bronzes article was different in some sense from the elections article. Similar to the elections article, I had to consult previous studies on the subject, particularly a report on Nigeria’s cultural property policy prepared by Adepetun, Caxton-Martins, Agbor and Segun law firm. But unlike the elections article, the article was less exploratory but more argumentative as I was making a case for change in the government’s attitude to cultural heritage and its preservation.
Why was it important that you wrote on this issue?
I wanted to contribute to the discussion on restitution. Last year there were several announcements from Western museums regarding returning looted artefacts. Nigeria is in a good position to leverage the change in the atmosphere to call for more repatriation, but I wanted to draw attention to the fact that as great and important as repatriation is, that is just the first step. The other step and indeed the real work is in the preservation of the returned artefacts. To do this properly, we need a revamp of our cultural property landscape and a change in the government’s general attitude towards art. This is important not only for now but also for the future and the coming generations. There should be a way through which posterity can be properly informed about our cultural history and heritage. This history of course would recognize the nuances in the stories and the dynamism of the outcomes. Without effective structures being put in place through physical and digital mechanisms, future generations may grow up oblivious to this issue and how it has evolved. This is why it was important for me.
Without effective structures being put in place through physical and digital mechanisms, future generations may grow up oblivious to this issue [repatriation] and how it has evolved.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I have found several useful pieces of advice in different writing books. I think one of the most important could be found in Stephen King’s book, On Writing. The advice is to strive for clarity.
What’s the best book by an African author you’ve ever read?
This is a tough choice for me. I have no ‘best’ book because I respect several authors and their works, but some works stand out for me. In recent years, one such work is Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie. I think it’s a characteristic 21st-century novel. It’s one of those novels that define an era, in the tradition of The Great Gatsby defining the American modernism era and Things Fall Apart, the colonial era in Nigeria. Chimamanda Adichie’s novel is a typical 21st-century African/Afro-diasporic novel.
Who are the Nigerian writers you’re most excited about today (and why?)
For Nigerian writers, I am excited about Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀. I have read her two novels and I look forward to reading more of her works. Her works move intricately between the personal to the public without any tension and they draw attention to some of such issues that are not yet fully explored in contemporary Nigerian fiction. I am earnestly looking forward to Pemi Aguda’s novel as well. I have read some of her short fiction and her language use and stories in general are riveting. Some stories reflect reality and there are stories with a world of their own. Her stories have their own worlds but make you believe them.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
In terms of writing, I am currently interested in African regional integration and Nigeria’s foreign policy. In terms of reading, I have been reading all kinds of books. My recent reads this year have varied from Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Japanese writer Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s A Spell of Good Things, and Emmanuel Iduma’s I am Still With You.
What are you currently working on?
I am writing an essay on Nigeria’s foreign policy towards West Africa.
I am excited about Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ . I have read her two novels and I look forward to reading more of her works.
Question from Kuukuwa Manful: What seemingly small thing has made you smile/be happy recently?
I am in the UK, so seeing the sun.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft:
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