Academic and author of Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions, Omolola Ogunyemi, wanted her debut novel to capture the ways in which the lives of Nigerian women have changed over several generations: ‘I was always intrigued by stories of how things used to be, especially when I found out that my grandmother’s older sister was once married to a woman who couldn’t have children of her own, and that this was once a perfectly acceptable part of the culture in her region of what is now Nigeria.’
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 started out reading children’s books—lots of Enid Blyton and abridged versions of classics like the Odyssey. As I outgrew them, I moved on to Nigerian Pacesetters book series such as Victor Thorpe’s Paul Okoro books which were my favourites. This series include titles such as The Worshippers, The Instrument, and Stone of Vengeance. My mom was a literature professor at the University of Ibadan focusing on African and African-American literature, so we had tons of books around the house. I started sneaking the books she was teaching to read them at night because I felt she would say I was too young to read some of them. That’s how I got introduced to books by Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Gloria Naylor.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
Ooh that’s a fascinating question. I’ll have to pass on this one because the answer is boring—it would be Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions!
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
The book, Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson. It got me to reframe the way I think about race and class in the United States. I was born in Nigeria, but I’ve lived most of my life in the US and I’m still learning the nuances of how the past affects the present here.
My mom was a literature professor at the University of Ibadan focusing on African and African-American literature, so we had tons of books around the house.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
Actually, I do a bit of both, depending on my mood.
What was your process for writing your novel in interlocking stories, Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions?
I wrote one story at a time, and I shared the stories with family, friends, in writing workshops and then revised them based on the feedback I received. Four of the stories were published between 2007 and 2017. Once all ten stories were written, I revisited and revised all of them to make them work as a coherent whole. It took fifteen years to complete my book because writing a book wasn’t my main focus during those years, but I’m glad the book evolved that way.
What’s the inspiration behind your book/Why did you decide to write this book?
I wrote this book thinking about the difference between my life and my grandmother’s life, and I wanted something that would capture some of the ways in which women’s lives have changed in Nigeria over several generations. I was always intrigued by stories of how things used to be, especially when I found out that my grandmother’s older sister was once married to a woman who couldn’t have children of her own, and that this was once a perfectly acceptable part of the culture in her region of what is now Nigeria. It struck me that women’s possibilities for self-fulfilment and belonging in Nigeria have expanded in some ways and shrunk in others and I wanted to explore experiences of Nigerian women across generations.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions?
A reader who made a connection between what I describe in the book and the experiences of Asian immigrants to the US, which is something that I would never have thought of.
Which story/chapter of Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions was the trickiest or most challenging chapter to write?
The first chapter. Writing historical fiction for the first time made me very, very nervous, but it produced my favorite character of the entire book, Adaoma.
I was always intrigued by stories of how things used to be, especially when I found out that my grandmother’s older sister was once married to a woman who couldn’t have children of her own…
What’s something simple but surprising about writing a book?
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter where you start. Just begin writing. I thought I had to carefully map out a beginning, middle, and ending and one would flow into the next. The first words I put to paper ended up in a story somewhere in the middle of my book, and that’s just fine.
How did you come about the title of the book, Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions?
The original book title was Jollof Rice and Revolutions, because I was going to name it after the second story in the book, which follows a group of young friends at a boarding school and jollof rice plays a small role in the way events unfold. The new title came about because there was a sense that the book should have a different overall title than that individual story, but I still wanted a nod to that story and the events that shifted the course of the girls’ lives.
Your book is dubbed as ‘a novel in interlocking stories’. Can you tell us more about the structure of your book?
I started out calling it a linked short story collection because in ten stories, it follows a few characters, their relatives, and acquaintances over a wide span of time (a little over 150 years). My editor at Amistad told me after he read it that it worked as a novel in interlocking stories. I had never heard the terms ‘novel in stories’ or ‘short story cycle’ before talking to him, but I was happy to find out that there was a whole genre of books in that vein.
Your book is heavy on the Nigerian boarding school experience. What books do you remember reading while in boarding school?
I remember reading tons of Mills and Boon romances and more Pacesetters. I really, really liked Pacesetters because I could see myself and the people I could relate to in them.
Who are the Nigerian/African authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Chimamanda Adichie. I remember being so excited when Purple Hibiscus was published and making my entire book club in Boston at the time read it—most had never read a book by an African author, and I wanted them to understand some things about the Nigeria I grew up in. I am also excited about authors like Chika Unigwe, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Chibundu Onuzo, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Meron Hadero, and Imbolo Mbue. I just started reading Stephen Buoro’s debut novel, The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa, and I’m loving the narrator’s voice.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I’m doing a lot of reading on large language models (like ChatGPT or Google’s Bard) and artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning for work. I’m fascinated by the potential as well as the possible pitfalls if people jump on the bandwagon without realizing that most models are only as good as the data they learn from. I use machine learning quite a bit in my day job which involves biomedical informatics. I try to curate and build models using data from medically underserved populations—people who live in areas that have a shortage of healthcare professionals—in the US to build predictive models that are most relevant for those populations.
What are you currently working on?
In terms of fiction writing, I’m working on my next book, which is a fictionalized take on my great-grandfather’s life. He was found with a cache of guns in what is now the Delta area of Nigeria in 1897 and was banished by the British as a result. No one knows where he ended up or died—some think Calabar or another area of Nigeria where he didn’t speak the language. My research thus far has found that many Africans who challenged colonization were banished—Jaja of Opobo to St. Vincent and then Barbados, the Asantehene to the Seychelles, Ahmadou Bamba to Gabon and then Mauritania. The list of banished Africans is staggering—I have information on more than 20 individuals so far and there are a lot more, which gives me a wide range of material to serve as inspiration as I fictionalize my great-grandfather’s story.
He [My Great-Grandfather] was found with a cache of guns in what is now the Delta area of Nigeria in 1897 and was banished by the British as a result. No one knows where he ended up or died.
Question from Kuukuwa Manful: What seemingly small thing has made you smile/be happy recently?
Just walking by the ocean this morning. There is something about large bodies of water that evokes a sense of joy in me. I also find them calming and peaceful.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What food evokes good memories from your childhood?⎈
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