Multimedia journalist and creator of the I Like Girls podcast, Aisha Salaudeen, believes you can find a story in anything: ‘Every place, thing, person, item, etc., has a story. And you can find a story in anything; you just have to know where to look. Whether or not it’s a good story or a story worth telling is an entirely different conversation.’
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, I mostly read books required by the secondary school curriculum in Nigeria—like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood. I’m grateful that those books were compulsory to read because I was introduced to many Nigerian authors and the world of storytelling.
I also read a lot of self-help books. My dad loves to read, and many of his weekends were spent reading self-improvement books. So, I picked up a lot of his books. I think the one that sticks to date is Sean Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. I still apply some of the tips in that book in my daily life.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
The closest is Minna Salami’s Sensuous Knowledge. In the book, Minna takes us on a journey into understanding feminism outside the European lens. She writes about a fresh Africa-focused approach to understanding and navigating sexism, oppression, and racism.
Right now, a lot of my life is based around traversing discrimination for being a woman. And not just any woman—an African, visibly Muslim, woman. Because Minna’s book explores new ways, ideologies and approaches to my lived reality, it’s a close representation of me at this moment.
What is a recent book/text you disagreed with, and why?
Mariam Khan’s It’s Not About the Burqa. It’s a collection of essays from different Muslim writers across the globe. In it, they chronicled personal stories and experiences that reiterate that Muslim women are not a single monolithic entity lacking diversity. You must first understand that I didn’t disagree with all of the book; I enjoyed reading most of it because their stories were raw and honest and emphasized how multi-faceted we are as Muslim women.
But there are some essays in the book that I don’t agree with. Some arguments were made regarding Islamic fundamentals that I struggle with. For example, one of the essays mentions that it’s okay to skip salah (Muslim five daily prayers) as long as in your heart, you have faith. And the argument isn’t based on her personal opinion or lived reality (which I’d never argue against); it was made based on the claim that Islamic principles and texts are in favour of this.
I think it’s important to distinguish between what is our reality and what the fundamentals of religion are. I’m very confident that many Muslims out there skip their daily prayers. I’m not judging or implying that I pray daily, I’ve caught myself skipping too. And if I were to make a similar argument based on my current reality, I’d say that what’s important is my faith in God and not necessarily how I choose to worship God. But it becomes conflicting if, like the essay, I imply that fundamentally, it’s okay that I don’t pray—instead of clarifying that it’s my way of life and not a principle of my religion.
Right now, a lot of my life is around traversing discrimination for being a woman. And not just any woman—an African, visibly Muslim, woman.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I’m going to switch this up a bit and talk about the last couple of essays that expanded my view about something. I used to think that Europe had stricter abortion laws in comparison to the US because quite a number of European countries have ridiculous abortion policies. But in the wake of the Supreme Court leak (prior to the eventual ruling) on Roe vs Wade, I consumed a lot of articles about abortion laws in the West and realized that it’s much too complex for me to just assume, based on a couple of statistics, that the US has more lenient abortion laws.
I’ve learned that there’s no blanket European standard on abortion, and it’s going to take a minute if I decide to analyse it the way I want. So, I’m going to summarize by saying that many factors such as abortion time limits, differing laws, and waiting periods make it difficult to measure the severity of these laws.
Some of the articles that helped expand my viewpoint are Adam Serwer’s ‘The Myth That America’s Abortion Laws Are More Permissive Than Europe’s’, Tom Norton’s ‘Fact Check: Is it Harder to Get an Abortion in Europe Than America?’ for Newsweek, and Rob Picheta’s CNN piece on how the US compares on abortion rights.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
Both are pretty important.
But I’m going to choose how it’s written because you can create powerful text with a ‘meh’ subject if the writing is good enough and/or if you have additional characters/voices to buttress the subject being written about. But my goodness, it’d help to have an exciting subject.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I draft first, then edit after.
My first draft of anything is usually just me stringing together words based on the topic and the information I’ve gathered. I don’t worry too much about the fine details as long as the writing is factual, readable and tells a good story. When the draft is done, that’s when I do my first and second-line edits. And I just keep tweaking and tweaking till I think it looks and reads good enough to go to my editor.
I enjoyed reading most of Mariam Khan’s It’s Not About the Burqa because its stories were raw and honest and emphasized how multi-faceted we are as Muslim women.
What’s the greatest story/piece of journalism you’ve ever read?
I don’t know the greatest piece of journalism I’ve ever read. But I have read hundreds of compelling and well-written stories that have sparked change, which are the kinds of stories I tend to gravitate towards.
For example, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s investigative report on Harvey Weinstein is such an essential piece of journalism for our time. Besides containing undisclosed information stretching over almost 30 years, it did a fantastic job of getting the entire world to pay attention and loudly demand accountability from a famous sexual predator.
There’s also Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu’s ‘Life in the Boko Haram caliphate for an abducted woman’. I am drawn to this piece because it is a harsh reminder of the insurgency in many parts of Nigeria. Sometimes, it’s easy to become jaded because these stories pop up so often, but reading Hauwa’s piece and gaining context on what women like me experience in the hands of Islamic militants is an unfortunate but essential prompt.
What’s a common misconception about African journalism/African storytelling?
The one I’m sick of hearing is that African journalists are lazy and allow Western media to tell their stories. A lot of people don’t have context about the challenges of storytelling on the continent, and as a result, they make inaccurate assumptions about our journalism.
African journalists are not lazy; they’re faced with a barrage of challenges such as the lack of press freedom, poor salaries, inadequate infrastructure and resources, and an almost non-existent business model for the media. With all of these things, it’s a miracle that our storytelling has evolved to be as crisp as it is today. And I am not listing these challenges to excuse lousy journalism, which by the way, exists all over the world; I’m just providing context.
As a producer, what’s more important to you: the story or how it is written/told?
This is a tricky question because both are pretty important to me. But if I had to choose, I’ll go with how the story is told.
First of all, I’m a big believer in the existence of a story in everything. Every place, thing, person, item, etc., has a story. And you can find a story in anything; you just have to know where to look. Whether or not it’s a good story or a story worth telling is an entirely different conversation.
So, because I believe there’s a story in everything, I believe there are ways to stretch a seemingly random story into becoming something well made, well told. As a podcast and TV producer, I’ve taken some of the most arbitrary stories and told them excellently with the help of good writing, additional voices, audio engineering, music and b-rolls.
I’m sick of hearing that African journalists are lazy and allow western media to tell their stories. A lot of people don’t have context about the challenges of storytelling on the continent.
When you work on a story, what’s the most exciting for you: the process, the end result or audience feedback?
The process is definitely the most exciting bit for me. Interestingly, it’s also the most exhausting. Writing, producing or reporting a story for me requires research—finding what makes the person tick. Then creating an outline to give an idea of how to best approach the story. Other things like interviews, filming, writing the script, and stringing audio and words are also part of the process. I find that all these keep me going because I’m constantly on the move, thinking, learning new things, talking to all kinds of people, and stringing things together. It’s a lot of work but thrilling nonetheless.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I first became a writer in 2017, I spent hours trying to develop the perfect paragraphs, and when the words didn’t flow the way I wanted, I’d pretty much break down. As someone who transitioned from accounting to writing/journalism, I had a lot to prove. So, I wanted my work to be impeccable. My editor at the time realized my struggle, and he randomly said something along the lines of ‘The first draft is always trash. The second will be better.’
I don’t think he meant for it to be profound; he probably said it to cheer me up. But it’s the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten, and to date, it’s something I hold on to dearly. Sometimes, as writers, we’re so busy stressing about making the first draft flawless. But by design, the first draft is supposed to be faulty. In fact, the first couple of drafts are supposed to give room for edits and tweaks. It made me realize that my focus should be on putting together the writing and not establishing excellence in the first draft.
To clarify, I aim for excellence in the first draft, and I think every writer should. But I just don’t stress about it when it doesn’t come, and I give myself room to make mistakes with the goal of correcting them later.
Who’s an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
I wish I had discovered Egyptian-American author, Mona Eltahawy, earlier. Mona writes a lot about feminism, feminist movements and women’s rights. She uses a lot of profanity in her activism and her writing. In fact, she’s known for advocating for the use of anger when it comes to fighting for women’s rights.
I find Mona interesting because in one of her books, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, she makes the argument that if we’re to fight the oppression of women, we can’t be nice about it. It would require some form of rebellion, especially as history has shown us that being pacifist in the face of violence against women mostly just fuels subjugation. I don’t always agree with Mona, but on this, I think she’s right.
When I was coming into my feminism in late 2016, I was angry about the discrimination against women in multiple facets of life. I had a lot of resentment and anger towards society and patriarchy for my experiences and those of the women around me. I didn’t particularly know what to do with that anger. Perhaps if I had discovered Mona Eltahawy, who writes about what to do with that rage and anger you feel as a feminist, I’d have reconciled my feelings towards men and women who are foot-soldiers of the patriarchy earlier than I did.
I aim for excellence in the first draft, and I think every writer should. But I just don’t stress about it when it doesn’t come, and I give myself room to make mistakes with the goal of correcting them later.
Who are the journalists you’re most excited about today (and why)?
This is a tricky question because I’m excited about many journalists for different reasons. I think I’m going to do the Nigerian thing here and change the question a bit. I’ll just talk about two of a dozen journalists I’d like to work with.
I’d like to work with Kunle Adebajo, the investigations editor at HumAngle. He pretty much does and edits all kinds of investigative stories around conflict and humanitarian issues. His work revolves around finding, investigating and documenting stories that are underreported. That’s something I haven’t gotten the chance to do as much in my current line of work. I tell human interest stories, but not around development like Kunle. So, it’d be nice to work with someone who does this daily.
I’d also like to work with Nima Elbagir. She’s CNN’s Chief Investigative Correspondent. She’s been working as a journalist since I was eight. Nima has reported from multiple countries across the globe and is excellent when it comes to investigations. I’d like to work with her because of her wealth of experience.
Honourable mentions: S.I Ohumu, Ope Adetayo, and Aanu Adeoye.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
These days I read a lot about people who have built things, whether it’s products, companies, services or non-profits. I find myself reading profiles, books and articles about entrepreneurs, activists, creators and founders, particularly those that give back stories about how they’ve built things. As a storyteller who is building a publication and a ton of podcasts, reading stories like this provides me with much-needed insight into how other people have been able to create things I want.
Right now, I’m reading How I Built This by Guy Raz. Guy is a correspondent and arguably one of the best podcasters in the world. The book pretty much contains insights and backstories of some of the world’s most compelling entrepreneurs. So, there’s a lot of information on there that is helpful for people like me, who have exciting ideas and want to turn them into full-blown products, companies, or whatever.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on season two of my podcast, I Like Girls. It’s a narrative storytelling show that documents the experiences of African women and how life impacts them differently as a result of their gender.
Every episode of the podcast uses one woman’s story to tell a broader story about something that affects women. So, over the past few weeks, I’ve been transcribing, writing and producing the final episodes of the podcast.
I’m a big believer in the existence of a story in everything. Whether or not it’s a good story or a story worth telling is an entirely different conversation.
Question from Leena Koni Hoffman: What keeps you up at night?
Currently, I am obsessed with creating a podcast that is, without a doubt, exceptional. And figuring out how to go about it keeps me awake at night. I’ve been working on a true crime podcast that requires a lot of research, funding, human resource and investigation. It’s no small feat, especially because podcasts in Africa are still relatively niche.
Please suggest a question for a future First Draft
‘What’s an experience where you learned that language had power?’
I got asked that in an interview that I recently took and I found it pretty interesting because it made me think a lot about the first moments I realized my writing and/or words could have an influence on others. I’m curious to hear about other people’s early moments of realizing the power of their writing⎈
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