Author of ‘Food Sovereignty vs Food Security: The Future of Yam Farming in Nigeria’ Ayoola Oladipupo, reveals his next writing project. Oladipupo is working on ‘a collection of essays on food culture in Nigeria—investigating some of the spaces where food is eaten across Nigeria, the creators of these spaces and how they persist.’
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 didn’t have the patience for reading books. Barring a few Enid Blyton books I read in the first few months of junior secondary school due to peer pressure, I only read academic (at least in the conventional sense) books until university.
At 16, I moved to Scotland for university and had several experiences through which I discovered the realities that came with being Black in certain countries. I had quite a lot of anger against the world which I didn’t know what to do with, so I started reading books from the Heinemann African Writers Series; mostly Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Steve Biko and Buchi Emecheta. At the time, I read these books for survival, but through them, I became fascinated by purposeful storytelling.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
There probably is one, but I haven’t read it yet. Migration is a central theme in my present moment. Most stories I’ve read on migration are quite heavy, and understandably so, but this would be a softer, bittersweet story on migration. As the protagonist begins to make sense of their place in the world, they also lose their sense of belonging due to the reality of their loved ones moving all over the world. A wicked irony, really.
I had quite a lot of anger against the world which I didn’t know what to do with, so I started reading books from the Heinemann Africa Writers Series.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
I read everything with some skepticism, even my own work, so it’s often not memorable when I disagree with a text. What comes to mind is Dialogue, a book based on a conversation between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, and this is perhaps memorable because I’m not yet sure that I disagree with it.
During the dialogue, Baldwin attempts to explain how the racism Black American men face influences their ability to express love to their families at home. To this, Giovanni responds, ‘I love you so I get the least of you…if you love me, you must lie to me.’ While her point is interesting—contrary to what we tell ourselves, telling the truth is almost always self-serving—I’m uncomfortable with the idea because it seems like a very slippery slope.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I recently read The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties by Paul Collier. Amongst other things, the book makes an intriguing statement on freedom and responsibility: ‘Freedom is not found in servitude to self, but in escape from the self…our regrets about insufficient personal achievement are dwarfed by our regrets of obligations that we failed to meet.’ Being a product of a generation which is perhaps more individualistic than those before us, and a country with a relentless hustle culture, this book served as a call for introspection and reassessment of my goals and priorities.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
In most cases, the subject is more important to me. I’ve enjoyed reading many questionably written pieces simply because the subject moved me. On the other hand, it takes an extremely skillful writer to make something out of a weak subject. This is undoubtedly impressive, but I wouldn’t describe it as powerful.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I’m a bit obsessive—I don’t like to leave things unfinished so once I start writing it’s quite difficult for me to pause to make any major edits. On the other hand, I really don’t like editing finished drafts. I mostly send my first draft directly to the editor, but nowadays I get a friend to give comments before I send. I think as I get older and more patient, I’m evolving towards drafting first, then editing.
What was your process for writing ‘Food Sovereignty vs Food Security: The Future of Yam Farming in Nigeria’?
The process for most of my writing is quite similar; my ‘Notes’ app is a collection of mini-essays in form of bullet points. I write down any interesting ideas as they come, casually carrying out research to validate these ideas, and eventually I organize them into themes, which become topics. In this case, I first added a note on the climate change mitigation potential of indigenous agricultural production systems about two years ago when a friend told me a story about his grandfather’s oil palm plantation. Over a long time, I casually added more bullet points to this note until some months ago when I read the book Yam in West Africa: Food, Money and More by Felix Nweke, and realized a lot of the points in my oil palm note were complementary to the points in my yam farming note. I wanted to write about food system sustainability and the need to reassess the way we currently view agricultural productivity, and yam seemed to tell a better story than oil palm.
I’ve enjoyed reading many questionably written pieces simply because the subject moved me.
How similar or different was it from the writing process of ‘Expensive Money: Is Money-Spraying the Problem’?
This essay was atypical for me in multiple ways. Firstly, the ideation process was very short, which meant I edited the article quite a lot as I was writing, and each section was written days apart. Also, beyond the typical interviews and desk research, writing this essay involved listening to specific music to evoke certain memories and watching music documentaries. While it was quite uncomfortable to not have as much control over the narrative, given that my other essays have months or years for ideas to marinate and transmute as needed, it was also refreshingly challenging.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your writing?
My Master’s thesis was a sociology paper on the impact on neo-colonization on dietary patterns in Sub-Saharan Africa, and one of my professors mentioned that it read more like a ‘philosophical think piece’ than an academic text. The comment was interesting to me because, although it was intended as constructive criticism, I received it as a compliment. As I read more books in university, I started to find academic writing unnecessarily tedious and restrictive. I still do.
Food deserves more stories; I am most interested in stories about where and how food is grown, sold, cooked and eaten.
What’s the best book you read in 2022?
I have to pick two books because my 2022 really felt like two years rolled into one. In the first half of the year, All About Love by bell hooks was a fierce and instructive read. I read Measuring Time by Helon Habila a couple of months ago and I could not put the book down from start to finish. It is a brilliant story of loss and longing; it touches on several topical issues without ever removing the focus from the characters.
What are your expectations for the new year?
To spend more time writing and putting more of my work out there. I specifically want to do work that centers Nigerian people: our stories and experiences. Most of the things I wrote this past year were heavily influenced by the nature of full-time job, which involves a lot of system or big-picture thinking. I’ve always been more interested in individual experiences, and I hope to be able to reflect that in my work moving forward.
On the life side—to travel. I love travelling, and I find it to be the easiest and most fascinating way to learn new things. I’ve had the privilege of being able to travel to a decent number of places given my age and passport, but I hope to travel even more within Nigeria and Africa in 2023.
As I read more books in university, I started to find academic writing unnecessarily tedious and restrictive. I still do.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I was younger, probably in JSS2/3, a teacher mentioned that although my essays had good content, structure, and vocabulary, they felt distant from the reader. Now, when I write, I try to put myself in the shoes of the reader and consciously add words and sentences to hold their attention.
I had quite a reputation for being a divisive character growing up, and the consequences of that shaped the way I showed up in the early years of university. In preparing for a term paper, I spoke to a sociology professor about wanting to write an essay about the social constructions of mental illnesses, but I was worried the ‘speculative’ nature of it wouldn’t be appreciated by the department. Her exact words were ‘when you have ideas like this, you can’t afford to play it safe.’ This advice continues to shape both my approach to my writing and full-time job.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Of all the writers I’ve read, Helon Habila is my favourite. I’ve read all his books and I recently read that he’s working on a new book so I’m excited about that. There is just a way he gives life to his characters that pulls me in. His book, Travelers, is a 150-page collection of short stories—which are understandably quite limited in the depth of their characters—that reads like a 500-page book because of the depth of the stories.
Yaa Gyasi has a way of taking me on a transformative journey whether or not I’m up for the ride. I was initially hesitant to read both her books, Homegoing and Transcendent Kingdom, but here I am waiting for her next book.
Khaled Hosseini is the best storyteller and wordsmith I’ve read, and I hope he writes more books.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
Food—how we interact with food and how food interacts with us (via the economy, environment etc.). Food is central to our existence on several levels, and my favourite Nigerian story would be one told through food. Food deserves more stories; I am most interested in stories about where and how food is grown, sold, cooked and eaten. Longthroat Memoirs by Yemisi Aribisala is an exceptionally written book on Nigerian food and Salutations to the Gut by Wole Soyinka is a short and sweet piece on Yoruba food culture.
What are you currently working on?
A collection of essays on food culture in Nigeria—investigating some of the spaces where food is eaten across Nigeria, the creators of these spaces and how they persist. I’m quite excited about this because it focuses on people—on Nigerians as opposed to Nigeria.
On a less serious note, I’m developing a personal project where people get to talk about their food stories: what certain foods represent to them and the different memories they attach to these foods.
I’m developing a personal project where people get to talk about their food stories: what certain foods represent to them and the different memories they attach to these foods.
Question from Desola Olaleye: Would you say that your writing—the practice and method of it—is shaped by your personal character?
Yes, strongly. For example, despite being quite particular about structure and routines in my personal life, I also have a track record of pushing for alternative ways of doing and thinking about things. My writing also reflects this: scrutinizing current practices or reimagining potential futures, with a hint of the cautiousness (or sometimes lack of ambition) typical of academic texts.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
Which writer do you most look up to or draw inspiration from and why?⎈
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