When author, Oreoluwa George-Taylor was writing ‘Everything I Desire is for Me’, she wanted a relatable entry point: ‘Most people hate fitting rooms, and most people have tried on something that didn’t fit quite right, so I knew readers would know what I meant.’
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 didn’t learn to read until I was about six or seven—much later than my peers. For the longest time, it just didn’t click, and then, one day, it did. I read almost every Roald Dahl book, but Mathilda and The Twits were my favourites. I loved that Mathilda was a little girl like me who loved to read and loved the library. My mum was an avid reader, and she started taking me to the library once a week when I learned how to read. The library became my favourite place to visit. The novelty of choosing multiple books to take home with me never got old. I read the Roald Dahl books for at least two years every night. Sometimes, I’d skip to my favourite chapters and just re-read those before going to sleep. Eventually, I graduated to other genres, although fiction remains my favourite. Like most millennials, the Harry Potter series was arguably the cornerstone of my foray into books.
Perhaps because of my experience of being the only Black person in my primary school, I gravitated towards stories about race and Black children in the UK. I distinctly remember immersing myself in Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series. Still, even earlier than that, I remember a book called Face by Benjamin Zephaniah. Stories that centred difference and how lonely it can be on the margins of communities stood out to me. The most impactful story of my childhood was probably The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank. The thing that struck me most when reading young Anne Frank’s words was just how ordinary so many of her thoughts and feelings were despite what was happening to her family at the time. I didn’t fully understand the Holocaust then. Hence, the context was a little different for me. Still, I understood fear, isolation, frustration, and curiosity. I admired her commitment to telling her story even if no one else would ever hear it or read it.
Do you or did you ever own a diary? Why and how did you start?
Throughout my life, I have tried unsuccessfully to keep a diary. I have old notebooks scattered around my house containing my many failed attempts. I first tried after I read Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl, in primary school, but I’ve never seen diary-keeping through for more than a few weeks. It seems that no matter how much I feel I have to say, I don’t have the patience to get it all down on paper. I had more success with a digital journal about seven years ago, but then sadly forgot the password for it, and so, that’s gone too.
I have a diary now, and I write in it only when I need to or feel like it. It serves a different purpose to all the other ones I kept. This one is just to help me remember specific moments in time, so that I can keep my memory in check. So, if I go for a nice dinner with a friend, or something else notable happens that day, I log it, so that I can remember the order and sequence of the days and weeks of my life. I envy people who journal consistently and document their lives properly. Your autobiographies are being written. Initially, I wanted to capture and portray the best version of myself. Now, I just want to capture the truth. Twitter is my closest thing to a diary now, and it’s so public that I am careful about what I share and post. Your online personality, in many ways, is immortalized so I am trying to be more mindful of what I put down in my public diary. I am also trying to be more courageous.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
It would probably be one of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth or Othello. I’d have written a bigger part for Lady Macbeth because, given her actions and motives, I think there would have been an excellent backstory for her character. For Othello, again, I think there was more to the ‘jealous Moor’ than we get to see in the text. We have to make a lot of assumptions about who he is and why Iago can influence him so easily. Rewrite is probably the wrong way to explain what I mean about these texts. If I could, I would write modern adaptations of both, drawing out the more contemporary issues. I’d love a Nollywood version of Macbeth and maybe an American version of Othello set just after interracial marriages were legalized.
Perhaps because of my early experience of being the only Black person in my primary school, I gravitated towards stories about race and Black children in the UK.
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your reading tastes/habits?
Being at home for a year has made me more open to genres I usually wouldn’t consider. I have been reading a James Patterson crime novel since last year (I am a painfully slow reader), and I am enjoying it. The prospect of doing nothing but watching TV made me a little worried that I’d lose my ability to read, so I downloaded many more audiobooks. Sometimes I read along while listening to them. I’m also less pressed about how much I read. I am happy to read a few articles a week and cover a couple of chapters of whatever books I read. I also started downloading more samples on my Kindle to taste a wider variety of books and stories before choosing which ones I will commit to finishing. The pandemic has made us all more aware of our mortality, and life is simply too short for me to read books I don’t like. I’ve also become more interested in autobiographies and even some self-help books. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have considered either. Now I am comfortable admitting that those who have the patience to sit and write whole books about their lives and experience might have some valuable things to say.
What’s something simple about autobiographies that has surprised you so far?
I guess I am amazed by how much people remember, and also the ability to condense your whole life into one book. My life feels like a series of books. People decide what needs to stay in their stories, and they’re okay with the summary becoming the full picture for readers. It’s also quite powerful, though, to have documented your life on your own terms and to put the story out there for others to read—that’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?
What’s a recent book/text you disagreed with, and why?
This is such a funny question! I don’t know that I have disagreed with a book or text, and now I am worried that I am not seeking out thoughts and ideas that counter my own enough. I don’t want to exist in an echo chamber of my own ideas, values and belief system. I will seek out views contrary to my own, and then I’ll think about why.
The pandemic has made us all more aware of our mortality, and life is simply too short for me to read books I don’t like.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
I am reading two books that have really shifted the way I think about my body and how Black women’s bodies, in general, are treated and viewed. The first one is Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings. The name says it all really. The second is Rebecca Scritchfield’s Body Kindness. Because of this book, I am re-thinking what health means. I am discovering now that viewing my body from a place of love, compassion, and gentleness could improve my quality of life. It could change how I eat, exercise, sleep and even manage my time with friends and loved ones. ‘Healthiness’ has been something I’ve believed I need to work really hard at. But actually, a healthy mind and body might be attained relatively quickly if the measures are shifted from difficulty, deprivation, and exclusion to ease, feeling good, and showing myself care. My mind is still changing on this topic; it hasn’t stopped yet.
I finished Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown a few months ago, and before reading it, I was sceptical about the overall message, which in a nutshell, is that we have more power and choice over how our time and resources are used than we think. I mentioned earlier that self-help is a genre I avoided pretty intentionally. Still, somehow, this book emerged as a top choice in my book club, and so, I read it. The first thing that struck me was how often Greg used different examples, anecdotes and analogies to drive home the same simple point. The second was how easy it was read and easy it was to win me over to his way of thinking. I find the art of persuasion and influence to be quite fascinating. How do you get someone who disagrees with you or doesn’t believe you to change their mind? Using Greg’s approach, you just show them how your view or position is better for your reader than their current one is. I enjoyed having my mind changed because I want to believe that there was a better way to view my life and the power and choice I have over how I spend my time. It was easy to change my mind because the shift in perspective left me more empowered and actively looking for opportunities to optimise my hours in the day.
What is a common misconception about Black women’s bodies?
That black women’s bodies are a monolith: we are built the same way; we can bear more and endure more than others. Our bodies exist for collective use and consumption. When they are no longer desirable, they should be covered up and hidden away. Black women’s bodies are, arguably, subject to more scrutiny, more policing and more criticism than any other group.
Which three books from any time and any place should be on everyone’s bookshelves?
- I feel like there should be a children’s book or collection of stories, for sure. I had a book of fairy tales, My Giant Book of Fairy Tales by Isabel Uruena that I used to read when I was growing up, and I think there’s something special about immersing yourself in simple stories and worlds created for children. Many children’s tales have quite sinister origins so, if you’re curious enough, there’s something to learn from that too.
- The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Black women’s bodies are, arguably, subject to more scrutiny, more policing and more criticism than any other group.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I edit as I go and then edit when I am done. According to what I’ve read, if you edit when you’re done, you do a better job. But what happens to those fleeting thoughts that come and go as you work? I can’t let them go, I can’t jot them down without context, so I like to course-correct/adjust as I go.
What was your process for writing ‘Everything I Desire is for Me’?
The process was easy because I was tapping into a story that was ready to be told. My body changing isn’t something I can ignore, especially when bigger bodies are less desirable in society at large. The essay was published in the order and sequence that it was written. I started with wedding dress shopping in a pandemic, looking back at how I felt and behaved at earlier times when I was smaller. I focused on times and places with specific memories that still stand out to me now and filtered down on what I believed would be most relatable. E.g. most people hate fitting rooms, and most people have tried on something that didn’t fit quite right, so I knew readers would know what I meant. I tried my best to focus on accuracy and honesty. I thought about my journey to body acceptance and what it has taken to get me to this point and tried to document it. Then I decided that I needed a call to action or a conclusion that acknowledged that my body is still not perfect, despite all my efforts. Still, it doesn’t need to be for my life to be good. If most people take the time to reflect, they may draw similar conclusions regardless of how their bodies are. I approached the essay as if I were writing diary entries to the younger version of myself. Someone who would likely be appalled by my appearance now but comforted by the quality of my life.
I approached writing the essay, ‘Everything I Desire is for Me’, as if I were writing diary entries to the younger version of myself.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
The only bad writers are those who never start. I wish I could remember who said this to me.
What is more important to you: the story or how it is written?
All stories are important, but a story is only as good as how it is told. If I tell you someone fell, you don’t know if I mean literally or figuratively. Did they fall over or fall in love? If I say someone fell off a bed, you may not instinctively think it was a nasty fall. If I say a baby fell off a bed and onto a marble floor, I have your attention. You want to know if the baby is okay.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Chinua Achebe. I read Things Fall Apart, starring my favourite fictional character, the stubborn, proud, obstinate Okonkwo, for the first time in university. I feel strongly in my heart that not being exposed to the book earlier was a form of cultural and artistic deprivation. In my view, it is one of the best books ever written. The storytelling is perfect. The characters remind you of people you know, even if the context is very different from your present reality. The immersion into culture and tradition, the gift of simple world-building, and the pockets of humour in the book are pleasures I wish I’d known sooner.
I feel strongly in my heart that not being exposed to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart earlier was a form of cultural and artistic deprivation.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I read a Harvard Business Review business or career article almost every day. Most of them are five-minute reads or less, but they are always informative and helpful. I save The Republic essays for weekends, but I like that they’re all looking inwards. By inwards, I mean focused on stories, voices and opinions about us, told by us. I am interested in stories about us.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on content for future episodes of the Peer Mentor Circles Podcast. I am also trying to learn about screenwriting. I want to write a script. I spend so much time criticising how dialogue is scripted in Nollywood shows and movies that I feel obligated to give it a shot myself.
You’ve written your first film. Your three leading characters are played by?
Wunmi Mosaku, Nse Ikpe-Etim and Danai Gurira.
I save The Republic essays for weekends, but I like that they’re all looking inwards. By inwards, I mean focused on stories, voices and opinions about us, told by us. I am interested in stories about us.
Question from Oreva Olakpe: What is the funniest typo you have ever made?
‘Ask’ becomes ‘ass’ more often than it should in work emails. I read all drafts out loud before sending them now.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What’s the title of your biography (5 words or less)?⎈
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