Associate editor at The Republic and author of ‘Anti-Racism Beyond the West’, Chinonye Otuonye, believes ‘Editing isn’t simply about taking away words or sentences and adding new ones.’ ‘It’s ultimately about structure and clarity.’
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
This is an interesting question mostly because I feel like it implies that I grew up. I mean we’re always growing and in that sense, I feel like the books I read now are part of my growing even though I’m considered an adult.
But keeping in mind the timeframe of what this question asks, as a child I read a lot of scholastic books—like Amelia’s Notebook, the Magic Tree House series, Shel Silverstein’s books, and The Babysitter’s Club.
My oldest sister is 6 years older than me so I would also venture into the books she would read for high school and started reading Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Harper Lee.
What book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger and why?
I would probably pass on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Both books came at times in my life when I needed them and helped me think more deeply about myself as I grew up.
I could also pass on bell hooks’ All About Love. Although I read that as an adult, it’s a book that reminds me about how I want to orient myself as I relate with myself and others. Its chapter about justice would have helped me as a teenager to think about the histories we all carry—including my parents—and how that gets reflected back.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
I’m not sure that there are books I think about rewriting, but there are books that I’ve been interested in figuring out more about and it’s often because of the particular headspace I’m in.
For example, I read Lolita as a teenager and I remember wondering what Lolita was thinking and feeling throughout. Recently, I’ve thought about Octavia Butler’s Kindred and what happens in the in-between.
When Dana is time-travelling in Kindred, we get a sense of disorientation, and I guess I’ve been trying to understand the weight of being near-death as the catalyst of time travel back to Dana’s 20th century.
I feel like the books I read now are part of my growing even though I’m considered an adult.
You’re an associate editor at The Republic. What is a common misconception about editing?
I’m not sure. Maybe that editing is the easy part of the writing process. I think editing requires attention to detail. I’m a teacher and something I tell my students is that they need to be specific with their words. Every word has a function and you need to be aware of what your words are saying or doing.
When I was in high school, my English teacher told me not to get too attached to my words. That’s an important lesson because I think oftentimes, editing can be the hardest part. Editing isn’t simply about taking away words or sentences and adding new ones. It’s ultimately about structure and clarity. Editing is part of the writing process not some ad hoc thing.
What’s a recent book you recommended to your students?
I think recommendations depend on the person receiving them. However, a book I recently recommended to a student is Anna Tsing’s Mushrooms at the End of the World because we had read a short section together and she had questions and interests that I thought would be helpful by reading the full book.
What’s a book that recently changed your mind about something?
I recently read Pursuit of Happiness by Bianca Williams and I think it changed how I thought ethnographic texts could be written. I appreciated how she structured the book because you could hear her voice while reading and I also thought it was a really important read because it thought about happiness as a political project which I hadn’t and still haven’t seen that much of.
I’m also a teacher and something I tell my students is that they need to be specific with their words. Every word has a function and you need to be aware of what your words are doing/saying.
What is your writing process: edit as you write, or write a draft first, then edit?
I don’t really feel like I have a process for writing but for more academic things I start with an outline and edit the outline. Then I write. I’ll usually send to a few friends and have them edit, work on their suggestions, and edit myself.
When I’m writing in general I don’t tend to start with an outline, I usually just write a first draft and send it to a friend to see if it makes sense, then I’ll rewrite and edit along the way and send what a semi-final version to a friend to read over and then edit again.
What was your process for writing ‘Anti-Racism Beyond the West’?
I wrote ‘Anti-Racism Beyond the West’ in June last year when things were seemingly taking off with Black Lives Matter movements in the US and around the world. I wrote it just so I could get my thoughts on paper and then I sent it to a friend.
She looked through it and gave some feedback and I edited it, sent it to my partner for his feedback, and then rewrote and re-organized some stuff again. So basically, I wrote what I was feeling at the time, edited myself, and sent it to trusted people to edit as well.
What’s something simple that still surprises you about the difference between editing and being edited?
I’m still surprised by how easy sometimes it is as an editor to tell people to cut things from their work and how hard it is, as a writer, to see that someone’s cut a part of your essay because it doesn’t work.
I don’t really feel like I have a process for writing but for more academic things I start with an outline and edit the outline.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
There’s been a few. One that comes to mind is that good writing is a habit. I’m not sure who exactly told me this because I feel like I’ve gotten this advice many times in many ways. But I think it’s true.
Writing, like any skill, is something you have to cultivate and that means including it in your schedule in any way you can. For me, that’s journaling though it’s definitely not been regular these days.
What’s more important to you: the story or how it is written?
I mean I think both matter. How a work is written allows a story to come to life. The writing matters in order to reach people and for the story itself to make sense but the idea (which is what I think you mean by the story) is the guiding principle.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
In my life so far, I feel like certain books have made their way to me at the times I needed them most. That being said, I think Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of short stories, What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, was a book I wish I found earlier.
I read it last summer as a recommendation from a friend and really loved the familiarity of her stories. I’m in New York, so being in quarantine I think I’ve come to even more so appreciate the importance of the ways stories get passed down, retold, reworked over generations. In many ways, reading that book reminded me of the importance of family archives.
Also, Tiffany Lethabo King’s book The Black Shoals, and Katherine Mckittrick’s Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. I’m genuinely sad that those books found me later on in life, but both have been really helpful for me to think through how spaces are racialized, but also how we think different mediums together, how theory is produced.
Writing, like any skill, is something you have to cultivate and that means including it in your schedule in any way you can.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
Well, I’m currently studying for my qualifying exams right now so some of the works I’m reading include works by Achille Mbembe, Jemima Pierre, Saidiya Hartman, W E B Du Bois, Kwuaku Korang, V Y Mudimbe, Zora Neal Hurston, Tina Campt, Robbie Shilliam, Jackie Nassey Brown, Toni Morrison, Mahmood Mamdani, Partha Charterjee, Arjun Appundurai, and many more.
I can’t name them all, but here are some more specific things on my reading list: Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa, Jemima Pierre’s ‘Slavery, Anthropological Knowledge, and the Racialization of Africans’, Sadiyia Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, Abiola Irele’s ‘What is Africa to Me?’, Kwuaku Korang’s ‘Where is Africa? Literary Postcoloniality in a Comparative Anthropology’, Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony, Zora Neal Hurston’s Barracoon, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ugo Nwoekji’s The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra, Robbie Shilliam’s The Black Pacific, Gary Wilder’s Freedom Time, Jessica Marie Johnson’s Wicked Flesh, Jackie Nassey Brown’s Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail, Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, Deborah Thomas and Kamari Clark’s Globalization and Race: Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness, and David Scott’s Omens of Adversity.
What’s a hack for reading and/or writing academic texts?
I think I’m still learning how to read. Reading academic texts for sure is a skill. I’ve always heard ‘read the intro and conclusion of the book’ but I’m always anxious that I’ve missed something, so I end up reading the whole thing. I also recently heard ‘read the first sentence and last sentence of each paragraph.’
What can we expect you to write on next?
In all honesty, I’m not sure yet. I’m really interested in the intersection between food and literature so may do something about the two.
Question from Dafe Oputu: What’s a book/work that doesn’t exist yet, but you wish someone would write?
This is a difficult question because I would have to have the ability to scan all the books/works ever written which no one can. I mean people are always thinking and writing so even if I think a work doesn’t exist I’m sure it probably does in some form—I just haven’t possibly found it.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
Is there an/a artist/playlist that may not be so apparent within your last piece of writing but influenced its production nonetheless? If so, who/what was it?
Given how often we’re online now, how important/necessary (if at all) do you think physically putting pen/pencil to paper is for the practice/art of writing?
What are your methods for mapping out your ideas?⎈
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