Author of ‘What Does Africapitalism Actually Mean?: Power, Gender and the Promise of Africapitalism’ Immaculata Abba, does not believe in working through exhaustion and onslaughts against our health: ‘But we [Africans] often have to work through this because we lack security, social protection, secure means of livelihoods, homes, and strong community structures.’
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?
Before secondary school, I read everything I could find. In secondary school: even more of everything. Reading Teju Cole’s Open City in my SS3 stands out because I was feeling really lost in that end-of-journey way and taking walks with Julius, the protagonist, helped clear my head. I remember being intrigued by Taban Lo Liyong, blinking a lot at Toni Morrison’s Beloved, being obsessed with Frank Ocean’s lyrics, loving Maya Angelou… (Shout out to Aisha Babalakin, The Republic’s former managing editor, for donating a set of Angelou’s autobiography books to our school’s library!)
I especially loved reading my friends’ jotters, not the ones for school notes, the fun ones. They were like Tumblr blogs, but in book form: photos, quotes, reflections, sometimes an essay, sometimes a story. Looking back, they represented a lot of the things I still vehemently stand for: DIY self-expression, collage, community—‘this is how it felt, do you feel it too?’
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
I love this question. Right now, my life is a lovely round white cabbage that you can hold in one palm. That’s the text.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
The more I think about it, it looks like it is usually difficult and unnecessary for me to acquire conviction. Besides my fundamental beliefs, (which includes, ‘empires are paranoid’ ‘it is difficult but necessary to create ourselves without creating an enemy’), I keep my imagination of what is possible very fertile. Because of that, there’s hardly any mind to change.
Reading Teju Cole’s Open City in my SS3 stands out because I was feeling really lost in that end-of-journey way and taking walks with Julius, the protagonist, helped clear my head.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
The last thing that riled me up was Edwin Okolo’s essay in 2017, or so, where he argued that Ruth Ossai’s editorial for Kenzo was pandering to a ‘noble savage’-esque stereotype of Africans. I also got the vibe from his essay and from other proponents of his view that they refuse to believe that the people photographed participated in the shoot out of their own agency. I hope I have not misrepresented their argument. At the root of my opinion was that there is no such thing as a ‘savage-esque’ anything. There’s nothing ‘savage’ about anything’s or anybody’s style or aesthetic.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
Both are equally powerful. But it depends on the reader because everyone is affected by power differently.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I don’t edit as I write but I draft then edit then re-draft then edit then re-draft…on and on.
Before I go to the word/google doc, there is a lot of physical and mental note-taking that comes from observation, research, thinking and gisting. And so, when I come to the page formally for the first time, I come as an editor who is editing my existing scrap notes or ideas into a structure.
1500 words? Okay, that means 2 sections of 300 words doing x and one section of 400 words doing y. Introduction and conclusion, 250 words. When these structural constraints are set, I go into the boxes as a writer. Nothing will be heard from the editor during this time as I write as much as I can in those boxes. Typically, I write twice the amount stipulated by my editor self. The editor comes back and once I am done, and passes the baton to the writer again, and so on.
But this is just for my non-fiction and the writings I have to do on-demand. My writing process for poetry and self-driven fiction is different; I’m still figuring that out.
What was your process for writing ‘What Does Africapitalism Actually Mean?: Power, Gender and the Promise of Africapitalism’?
This is same as my general writing process for non-fiction. For the research, I started asking the question about a year before I sat down to write about it. At that point, I was just about to start a PhD program asking an adjacent question, so I had spent months working on research proposals on the topic. I eventually decided against the PhD, and the Africapitalism essay came from me realizing: ‘I need to say this to more people and not just those 2 or 3 people who reviewed my applications.’ I wrote on and off for 8 months before the essay was published.
When I come to the page formally for the first time, I come as an editor who is editing my existing scrap notes or ideas into a structure.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your writing?
My literature-in-English teacher in secondary school (bless her beautiful soul) once gave me unusually low grades for my response to Tracy Chapman’s song ‘Behind the Wall’. I was devastated. Besides the fact that there was a public shaming ritual in my school for getting grades lower than 65, I had put a lot of effort and heart into the essays.
She had scored me something around 150/300 for three essays, about the same score she had given to someone who had written about 9 sentences in total and who was making a point about not caring about the assignment. It was probably the lowest score in the class for that assignment. When I went to her for clarification, the vibe was that my writing was good, as usual, but…there was a vague but. I could not understand it. The encounter hit a nerve, maybe for both of us.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
All writing advice is thinking advice is working advice and vice versa. My favourite is: Sleep. If you are tired and can afford it, sleep, take it slow. But about affording it, you have to be really honest, courageous and imaginative about what you can afford, what resources you have and what you can sacrifice.
The bulk of your work (as a writer, researcher, and visual artist) explores how Africans are making a living. Why is this important to you?
It is important because life can be very hard, and I get so tired. I think a lot of us get really tired. I’d like for us to be less tired or at least, for us to not have to work through exhaustion and onslaughts against our nervous systems. But we often have to work through all of those because we lack security, social protection, secure means of livelihoods, homes where we can relax, strong community structures, or on the individual level, and compassionate senses of self.
Who are the authors/artists you’re most excited about today (and why?)
One author: Pemi Aguda because in her stories the dangers are real, but I am not afraid. I leave feeling wiser, more deliberate.
One visual artist: Clifford Prince King because I want to live in the tenderness of the world he reveals in his work.
I’d like for us to be less tired or at least, for us to not have to work through exhaustion and onslaughts against our nervous systems.
What are you currently working on?
Fulfilling deferred essay commissions from last year. In these commissions, I’m thinking a lot about the face, music, silence, and people’s art or storytelling careers.
Question from Desola Olaleye: Would you say that your writing—the practice and method of it—is shaped by your personal character?
The method of it, probably.
I’m that person that has folders and sub-folders in my notes apps for everything. For instance, ‘Important messages I sent to people’, in the sub-folder of ‘Correspondences’ in the folder ‘Household’. So when I enter a writing task, I want to see and sort all the information as I am physically able to do, as though I’m trying to mop the ocean.
I think the pressure I put on myself to mop the ocean comes from a hyper-vigilant instinct I developed to help me survive childhood/adolescence on an emotional level (and on a neurological level too, if the neuro-spicy rumours are true).
These days I’m practicing letting go of the fear of being on the wrong beat. And perhaps because I’m on a letting-go vibe, I’m discovering that I’m increasingly irritated by having to write things where there is *the* point and the goal is for *the* point to be so unequivocally on point. I will say that it is the kind of writing that pays me at this point in my career. But I’m tired of being so scared of falling out of line, of missing the point. Most of the time, I can’t even find the point; it looks like there is no point. I want to play more.
It’s time in my life to make fewer arguments for things and do more sitting down with things to just experience them. ‘I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt,’ is how Namwali Serpell’s latest novel, Furrows, begins. It is also one way of summarizing how the current shift in my personal character is changing my writing.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What is the story you tell yourself about why your work matters (or does not matter)?⎈
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