When Eloghosa Osunde was working on her debut novel, VAGABONDS!, she learnt that writing it was the easy part: ‘Writing a book changes you. At the idea stage of any work, there are all these plans you have for what you will do with a story—all valid!—but I’ve learned that every piece of work I see to completion has its own intentions for me, too.’
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?
Growing up, books were my most reliable way to get Somewhere Else, and Somewhere Else is where I wanted to be a lot of the time, so I read way too many books to count. I preferred reading to watching anything, so I missed out on films and tore through adventurous books about escape, with stubborn protagonists, worlds far away from my life: everything by Jacqueline Wilson, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket, Louise Rennison, Judy Blume, Ann M. Martin, Mallory Blackman, the Archie Comics, Bible stories, etc.
But this question helped me remember that some of my favourite reading memories growing up were communal. The group of friends I was part of in secondary school passed books around and it was a solid generosity I’m still thankful for.
When I was 13 or so, an erotica book went around by an author with the pseudonym Zane. (I looked her up, writing this.) I read and loved the book, then passed it on to a friend who passed it on to another friend until a teacher found it. The whole class got punished over this, because no one would say where or who it came from. Some people didn’t know and those of us who did would rather kneel for two hours than submit the name. We just knew that a story about touching, which belonged to someone’s mother had found and changed something in us, and we weren’t going to betray that for anything. No one would go under the bus without the rest of us. I think it’s beautiful that no matter what I forget, this stays in my mind: the image of teenagers in Lagos heat smuggling books into each other’s school bags, like ‘here, take this. I’m trusting you with it’.
My memory of books is also linked to lasting love. My first best friend, F., and I had a separate ritual of spending hours discussing our thoughts on characters and I think it tethered us to each other. She never stopped being one of the best parts of my life and we replicate that still, whenever we’re reading the same thing. But the books that really transformed my reading experience are books I found in my late teens and early twenties: Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, Aminatta Forna’s Memory of Love, Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sister’s Street, Tsitsi Dangaremgba Nervous Conditions; Sefi Atta’s Swallow and News From Home, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Edwidge Danticat’s Krik! Krak?. Finding stories that weren’t about white girls literally changed my life and shaped my road as a reader. There’s a before and after as far as what I believed stories could do, how close to my life they could get.
I think these books showed me that language and story are one thing; but the cultural context and backdrop against which a story is set are just as, if not more, important. That made the difference for me between loving to read to escape, and thinking of the things going on in my world as worthy of being set down on paper.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
To answer this question, I’m essentially asking myself what (classic) book I’ve cared enough about to want to change something about it; but not a single one comes to mind.
First of all, I don’t engage books that way. I don’t read anything because it has been ‘judged over time to be of the highest quality… or value.’ At least not anymore. In fact, I tend to run far away from books that are referred to that way or used to teach. I believe a lot of craft rules are rigid, flat and tedious. Sure, many ‘classic’ books tell varied stories, but the containers are the same: start with this, show don’t tell, here’s where the conflict goes, here’s where it gets resolved, now introduce the ending.
Even the stories that are considered ‘outstanding’ are all pretty well-behaved and it bores me to tears. There are so many more interesting things happening beyond the usual twenty books people love to debate over and I haven’t met enough of them yet. I want to.
Give me the rascals. Give me the stories that were written by people who clearly didn’t pay attention in literature class, but who’ve written pages full of heart and truth, not just for the sake of it, but because the story said so. I don’t necessarily read to emulate or even criticize; I read to be bookmarked, to be moved, to be made to remember. No one can decide that for me. I think that’s why I don’t believe in or respect the idea of a ‘classic’ book: because the gatekeepers who often decide these things did/do not have me in mind. Their taste is not my business, because half the time, people are holding the work up against a preconceived notion of what a book is and isn’t. And like, exclude me. I don’t agree or disagree; I just look elsewhere. The book moves me or it doesn’t, and for me, that can be anything about it—from language, to structure, to form, to the story itself, to a writer’s obvious stubbornness.
Sometimes I finish a book because of what/who the writer clearly (doesn’t) respect. There’s no formula to it. It’s in between the lines, in what they do and don’t choose. Subtle when true, but there.
Another reason my answer is: none is because if a book is widely accepted as a classic, it probably has a massive enough life already. I prefer to write something else from scratch. If what has been written disappoints me or makes me upset, that shows me exactly what I care about, exactly what is missing. And so, I obsess over putting that into the world, because each story is a living thing, and I try to trust anything that has life with its own life.
A ‘classic’ book to me then, is a book that follows its own internal rules or logic, one that believes strongly in itself. I see it this way: the book either has the thing you’re looking for or it doesn’t. If it does, then it doesn’t need rewriting. If it doesn’t, then just write your own.
That said, I’ve been spending a lot of time with music recently and playing around with playlisting and genres, so I know that reimagination is an art, too—one I deeply respect and am still trying to hone. I just prefer it in music. I think of song writing and production as serious text to be engaged properly, so this counts, too.
I recently came across a remake of Billie Eilish’s ‘Everything I Wanted’ (Everything I Wanted, 2019)—which to me is a classic, because the song is older than itself—by Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa. It was mind-blowing in so many different directions. I’m working on being able to cross worlds like that across genres and art practices. More of it.
I don’t necessarily read to emulate or even criticize; I read to be bookmarked, to be moved, to be made to remember.
What is the last book/text you disagreed with, and why?
The Power of Now by Ekhart Tolle. I picked it up because someone who always has my ear gave it to me and it immediately took me back to the makeshift library under my mother’s bed in Lagos. I might not have otherwise. But I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about time and that book speaks widely about the present.
It’s a book I thank because it has taught me so much about staying awake to my life in the way meditation does. But it also flattens so much about how time works. I don’t disagree because I think it’s wrong. I disagree because I think there are other truths. Months ago, in conversation, the same beautiful person who handed me this book introduced me to John Mbiti’s work on African timing, which thinks of time as two-dimensional and happening backwards. Mbiti’s approach is infinitely more thorough to me than Tolle’s, but my own personal experiences of time go beyond both only the present is real, nothing else exists; and the idea that the future is essentially a gapspace, not yet made. The present is where life happens, true, but the past is absolutely a location. And so is the future, right now. I move between those places all the time.
That said, as a general rule, I don’t amplify what I deeply disagree with. When I find a book or text that falls into that category, I drop it as soon as I can and never mention it again, because that empowers me more than discussing it. But I’m predictable in the sense that if it’s a book that intellectualizes/spiritualizes bigotry or a violent idea, you can be sure that I disagree.
If it’s a book that turns people’s lived experiences into flat hypothesis, or a book that has no respect for what it costs to be alive, I disagree. If a book is more interested in being beautiful than it is in reflecting the truth, I disagree. There are books I agree with intellectually, but not emotionally and vice versa. Sometimes both.
What’s a common misconception about contemporary African writing/literature?
That it must be groundbreaking or ‘raw’ or a very specific kind of excellent to be worth publishing or widely read. I want funny books, random books, serious books, casual books, quirky books, etc. There’s space for everything. There’s also this idea that African literature must find a way to ‘represent’ us and say something profound. We’re already well-represented in the spaces that matter. When we shift our focus back to us, I think we find that telling stories to each other is more important (and rewarding) than telling stories about ourselves.
As a general rule, I don’t amplify what I deeply disagree with. When I find a book or text that falls into that category, I drop it as soon as I can and never mention it again, because that empowers me more than discussing it.
What’s your writing process like: edit as you write or write a draft first, then edit?
I think of each draft like a ladder with rungs. I write my way down the page until I have new information, at which point I climb back up, rewrite, before writing down again. It’s messy, but my brain is often restless, so it works for me. The closer I am to the bottom without needing to go back up and up and up again, the closer I am to finishing.
What was your process for writing your short story, ‘Good Boy’?
I wrote ‘Good Boy’ in one evening, on my bed where I write most things.
The entire story flowed out in the character’s voice. When people ask me about how I ‘crafted’ the tone, I try to tell the truth: I didn’t craft it, I listened to it. I remembered from the inside and transcribed it. He reminds me of someone I know and love, actually, so it wasn’t difficult to hear him.
The most fascinating thing about the process of writing that story, for me, was that the ending came first. We hear (and read and watch) so many stories about queer characters being disowned by their parents because they came out or were outed. Those stories are powerful, but I was curious about something else: a character who a) centres his own experience, b) lives his full life, c) decides for himself who he wants to let in on the truth about who he is, d) never comes out to his parents, e) is thickly loved through his obvious messiness and f) draws a line between himself and what he is(n’t) willing to let go of for the sake of being accepted.
Nigerian parents come out all the time, actually: as intolerant of their children’s true selves, as peer-pressured, as terrified to love themselves and their kids beyond reputation/conformity. It’s regularly disappointing to me, so it was freeing to write a character who responds to that even through anxiety; a character whose eventual disposition is: I’m not begging you, I’m telling you; in fact, I’m not telling you, I’m being me; If I’ll be here at all, I’ll be here as me.
He doesn’t need to earn a ‘love’ that insists on erasure, because he has Actual Love in abundance. It means so much to me that this story in particular keeps finding readers who need a reality like that, reflected in fiction.
I wrote ‘Good Boy’ in one evening, on my bed where I write most things. The entire story flowed out in the character’s voice. When people ask me about how I ‘crafted’ the tone, I try to tell the truth: I didn’t craft it, I listened to it.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
‘Face your work’ – Akwaeke Emezi. But also, more recently, they said to me in response to publication anxiety: ‘Let the book go. It’s only a timestamp of where your craft is at this time and you’ll only get better.’
That freed me so much. I’m proud of the work I made and I know its worth, but a timestamp published in hardback and paperback says: something epic happened here! But that’s it; the story is alive now. Thinking about it that way allows me to move and keep moving. They’re one of my favourite writers to read on craft, because their dedication to the work is literally spiritual and their work ethic is unmatched.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Jamaica Kincaid, for her short story ‘Girl’, which has no respect for anything. Marlon James, for what he did with A Brief History of Seven Killings. Richard Siken, for how his work handles shame and desire. Rachel McKibbens because I never realized poetry could read like that. Lidia Yuknavitch, because what she has done with her work when it comes to the subject matter of girlhood is literally unmatched. Helen Oyeyemi, for Jessamy Harris in The Icarus Girl.
These authors all come to mind because they would have done wonders for a younger me. They would have encouraged me to abandon structure and rightness a lot earlier than I did and helped me to start telling the truth—exactly as it happens for me, sounding exactly like me—a lot sooner.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I’ve been enjoying reading about joy and gratitude.
Ross Gay writes beautifully about these in The Book Of Delights as well as Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. I love that he chooses these spaces to trust with himself. There’s a tendency to think only pain has transformative power, but that’s not true. So, two books interested in articulating what paying attention to goodness can do to our hearts? Yeah, inject it.
I’ve also been enjoying the work being done at Stears. Nigeria is a lot all the time, but writers like Fadekemi Abiru are doing consistent work breaking down our economy with patient grace, always with young Nigerians in mind; and I can’t stress enough how important this is.
I enjoy reading about love—the practice of it, the weight of it, the depth of it. Bell Hooks’ All About Love is timeless work, and everyone, I think, can learn at least one thing from it. OluTimehin Adegbeye writes excellently about this, too, every single time. It’s wild how consistently I learn something new from her thinking and feeling on a page. I truly respect what she says and how she thinks, but also, magically, what she doesn’t say, because that is just as much part of the work.
Some months ago, I read Mariame Kaba’s book We Do This Until We Free Us, which is just incredible on so many different levels. We all can do better at reimagining how we resolve harm and we won’t get free until that work is done. Joshua Segun Lean’s essay here at The Republic is one I return to over and over again because it pulls abolition into the Nigerian context. Joshua’s patience on a page and his incisive vision are incredibly humbling. If he puts a full stop on a page, I will pay attention to where. There’s a glorious conversation on rigorous grace at the Paris Review between Kaveh Akbar and Leslie Jamison which is full of beauty. I will read whatever Sheila Chukwulozie writes, even Instagram captions. I also recently reread Taiye Selasi’s stunning short story: The Sex Lives Of African Girls. Still epic. Always so.
Joshua Segun Lean’s essay here at The Republic is one I return to over and over again because it pulls abolition into the Nigerian context. Joshua’s patience on a page and his incisive vision are incredibly humbling. If he puts a full stop on a page, I will pay attention to where.
Your debut novel, VAGABONDS!, will be published next year. What’s something simple that surprised you about writing a novel/book?
— Writing a book changes you. At the idea stage of any work, there are all these plans you have for what you will do with a story—all valid!—but I’ve learned that every piece of work I see to completion has its own intentions for me, too. As you’re thinking of what you’ll do to/with this work, the work is also thinking about what it will do to/with you. For instance, VAGABONDS! definitely intended to deepen my courage in ways I could never have seen coming. I was slow to catch on to that, but it’s clear to me now.
— Imagination is an act of service and an act of love. Stories are real and have weight. I’ve known this for a long time, but it’s different to see it from this side, to hear my friends who’ve read the book tell me about how they see a page or paragraph or story that they put their faith in playing out in their lives, or about how a certain story opened up a path they hadn’t considered before, or helped them release something.
I also see this in my life: I get to live out bold and radical possibilities because I first allowed myself the audacity to imagine them. I’m better for it. My community is better for it. I want to always keep that in mind.
— Writing a book is the first step. Learning how to read your work again and again during the editing stages is where the real work is. No one will tell you when it’s ready. There are so many other steps to go through before you get to hold it in your hands.
Writing a book will show you that the process of getting the work on the page is about translation, is about giving flesh—a body—to what you’ve already seen. Publishing a book is… a whole other story.
What can we expect you to write about next?
Mm, I don’t pre-empt what I’ll write about or where my work should go next because that pulls joy from my process. So until you see the next thing, find me in Melting Clocks, my column at the Paris Review, or in forthcoming short stories. What I can say for sure is: There are other manuscripts; there will be more books.
Writing a book changes you. At the idea stage of any work, there are all these plans you have for what you will do with a story—all valid! —but I’ve learned that every piece of work I see to completion has its own intentions for me too.
Question from Promise Frank Ejiofor: If you had the power of immortality and could make a writer live forever, which writer would that be? And why?
None. I generally don’t want the power to make anyone do anything, but beyond that, I don’t think of immortality as a gift. Their work already has its own interminable life, which is so much more precious than being trapped in a body. Everyone deserves to rest.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
Whose work would you say yours is friends with?⎈
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