Founder of AFREADA literary magazine, Nancy Adimora, believes it is damaging for people to think African stories do not sell: ‘in my mind, the most common misconception is that our stories don’t sell. It’s also the most damaging. Our ability to tell more stories on the scale I envision is largely dependent on people believing in the commercial potential of our stories.’
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 remember being obsessed with Biff, Chip and Kipper books in primary school—just thinking about them brings a smile to my face. They were full of adventure and wonder, and I’ve probably loved stories since then. But I haven’t always loved reading—I remember when Harry Potter came out, I was initially hooked like everyone else, but the size of those books made me physically sick at one point—I took one look at The Order of the Phoenix and I thought ‘Nah, that’s enough witchcraft for me.’ And with that, my love for books disappeared for some years.
In school, reading meant skim– reading at best. I’d flick through pages, note down characters and key themes, and then say a quick prayer before doing my best to answer whatever essay question formed part of my coursework. Thankfully, my reading for pleasure picked up again in secondary school when my friends and I started passing around African American literature. We started reading stories about characters that felt familiar. Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree changed the game for so many of us, but the book that I’ll always credit for changing my life is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I received it for Christmas when I was in Year 9 and the rest, as they say, is history.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
Tricky question, but I think I’d say Becoming by Michelle Obama. It is a memoir that felt like a mirror. Reading about her life made me sit and reflect on my own. It forced me to think of my life as a story, and now, in my late 20s, I feel like I’ve finally crossed that invisible line between the years you spend masquerading as an adult, and the years you spend feeling like one. I tweeted about this the other day and somebody referred to it as ‘Saturn’s return’—it sounded a bit too close to ‘Satan’s Return’ for my liking, but once I understood the reference, it felt very apt. In many ways, Becoming is a book about self-actualization and that’s definitely the season I am in.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
I read a cover story on a prominent Nigerian musician earlier this week. It was in the UK edition of a well-known publication. The photos were stunning, and for the most part, the interview was great; –but when it was time to mention the artist’s country of origin, Nigeria was framed as the ‘rags’ part of the rags-to-riches story. It completely ruined my mood.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I’ve just finished reading My Father’s Daughter by British-Eritrean writer and journalist, Hannah Azieb Pool. Hannah was adopted as a child, and the book follows her journey back home in Eritrea where she meets her biological family for the first time. It’s a beautiful book, and powerful in more ways than I can begin to describe, but it also changed my mind in that it was my first real introduction to Eritrea. Before reading the book, I knew enough about Eritrea to confidently point it out on a map—I knew the flag, the capital city and the official language— but to know a country is to know stories from that country. In the words of Ben Okri, this book ‘tilted the axis of my consciousness’ and that’s one of the things I love about reading. It changes your mind by expanding it.
As an editor, my duty is to the writer first, and not the reader. It’s not about what our audience would prefer to read, it’s about getting to the heart of what a writer is trying to say…
What’s more important to you: the story or how it is written?
I’ve tried to think of a clever way to avoid answering this question, but I’m going to have to accept defeat and say that I think the two are inextricably linked.
What do you think is the most important contribution an editor makes to a piece?
As an editor, my duty is to the writer first, and not the reader. It’s not about what our audience would prefer to read, it’s about getting to the heart of what a writer is trying to say—what’s the story they’re trying to tell?—in that way you’re on the same side as the writer, and you’re both working towards a common goal: how can we make this better? Editing is a collaborative effort but, for fiction specifically, it’s important to recognize that you’re not running the show, you’re the co-pilot. You make informed suggestions, sure, and your opinion carries significant weight, but it’s important to remember that it’s not your story. My most important contribution as an editor is linked to my insistence that writers take the lead.
You’ve mentioned that you have a vision to ‘democratize storytelling’. What does ‘democratize storytelling’ mean to you?
It means everything to me. I realize how cringe that sounds, but it’s true. I’ve spent the entirety of my career understanding the importance of stories and, after studying the role it plays in society, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that stories are the most powerful tool in this universe (yes, universe). I read a quote that said, ‘those who tell the stories rule the world’ and, apart from being a nice change from the lion/hunter quote, it was a timely reminder that we absolutely can’t afford to have the same group of people telling the stories that go on to shape the world around us. We desperately need more stories, so when I talk about democratizing storytelling, I’m talking about ensuring that the ability to tell stories is distributed it as evenly as possible.
And how do you plan to achieve this? Where does AFREADA fit within your plans?
With AFREADA, every story we publish falls under this plan. Our goal has always been about amplifying African stories, but it had historically been a literature-first approach with a digital magazine being our core focus. We have recently expanded into what we like to call ‘a storytelling company for Africa’ which gives us the flexibility to not only do more, but to also build a more accessible and welcoming brand for people who may feel intimidated by the idea of a ‘literary magazine’.
Apart from my work with AFREADA, I’m also deeply invested in demystifying book publishing through workshops and classes. I ran regular training sessions as part of my last role at HarperCollins, and my recent pivot into publishing consulting gives me more time to build out these sessions and contribute to this area in a more meaningful way.
What’s a common misconception about African storytelling?
In my mind, the most common misconception is that our stories don’t sell. It’s also the most damaging. Our ability to tell more stories on the scale I envision is largely dependent on people believing in the commercial potential of our stories.
And what do we need to do differently, if at all anything, to correct this misconception?
Buy books by African authors. It’s really as simple as that. When you see people putting in the work, support them. The business of storytelling is like any other business—it’s essentially a numbers game, and every little helps.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve spent the entirety of my career understanding the importance of stories and, after studying the role it plays in society, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that stories are the most powerful tool in this universe.
Who are the journalists you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Hannah Ajala. She’s an extraordinary freelance journalist and the founder of We Are Black Journos, an event and networking platform connecting and celebrating Black journalists. I love how intentional she is when it comes to telling our stories—she has a human-centred approach that I adore.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
Sorry to be that person but I’m really in my personal development bag at the moment. Anything related to wellness and/or intentional living, count me in.
What are you currently working on?
AFREADA takes up most of my time these days— we recently launched an agency arm and we have started working with fantastic clients, which is exciting. Recently, I also started a project called MADE BY AFRICA, which is a new community for African creatives. I’m building it slowly and intentionally with a full launch set for early next year.
Apart from my work with AFREADA, I’m also deeply invested in demystifying book publishing through workshops and classes.
Question from Yinka Adegoke: When do you accept that an idea or concept you had in mind to write will definitely not work?
I think there’s a difference between what you can write and what you should write. I like to focus on the latter and this is where my intuition kicks in. I committed to writing a weekly newsletter for a year and I quickly learned that if my spirit wasn’t in it, everything would quickly fall apart. So, if I have an idea and it doesn’t fully click on a deeper level, then my instinct is to leave it alone.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
When’s the last time a book or a piece of writing made you feel seen?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].