Lawyer, editor at The Republic, and author of Fela’s Republic and the #EndSARS Protests, Tunrie Bisi-Afolabi, believes we need writers now more than ever. ‘Writers are guardians of truth,’ she says, ‘and in this climate of erasure and obliteration by the powers that be, writers have never had a more important mandate.’
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up, I read the staple required school books such as Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana’s Daughter, Kola Onadipe’s Koku Baboni, Zainab Alkali’s The Virtuous Woman, The Incorruptible Judge by D. Olu Olagoke, Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, books by Enid Blyton, and others. My mother being a school principal also meant that I had access to a large collection of books growing up. I remember developing a keen interest in literature from a young age, but perhaps the most impactful book for me growing up was Harry Potter. It was the first time I discovered the remarkable ability that books have to transport you to another world. I must have read each book at least four times. I remember camping out in my room for four days to finish the Order of the Phoenix.
As I got older, I read a lot of law and legal theory. I studied law, so naturally, I read a lot of legal theory, but I also developed an interest in moral and political philosophy—so the ideas of Socrates, Plato, Austin, Rawls, Hart, and others. Some of these influences were evident in my essay on the #EndSARS protests. I believe HLA Hart’s The Concept of Law is one book everyone should read and I’m constantly awed when I meet non-lawyers who love the book. But, ultimately, I’m a Dworkinian at heart. Ronald Dworkin believed that the role of the lawyer is to interpret the law in its morally best light, and that’s a philosophy I can definitely subscribe to.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
Harry Potter. I would definitely bring Dumbledore back. And I’m a Gryffindor always and forever.
What have you read recently that changed your mind about something?
This was an online post actually. I read something recently about an author preferring to use the word ‘unearthing’ over ‘becoming’ because unearthing implies that the person you believe you are becoming has been within you all along. It just needed a little time. I couldn’t agree more.
I’m a Dworkinian at heart. Ronald Dworkin believed that the role of the lawyer is to interpret the law in its morally best light, and that’s a philosophy I can definitely subscribe to.
You’re an editor at The Republic. What is a common misconception about editing?
A common misconception about editing is that it’s easy.
However, it takes a lot of time, energy, and effort to do each piece enough justice. Editing is definitely a lot more rigorous than people think. There is a duality that comes with editing as well. Trying to see things from the perspective of the author and also from the reader’s perspective.
The former perspective is important when analyzing the author’s ideas and the latter perspective is necessary when thinking about the counterarguments to their ideas. The editing process at The Republic is also very rigorous, and ultimately the readers benefit from this in that they always have access to quality writing.
What was your process for editing the last piece you worked on?
The first time I read a piece, I assume the position of the reader. This way, I am at ease when I am first acquainted with the author’s ideas. The second time I read the piece, I am reading as an editor and I’m certainly more critical at this point. I’m thinking of the author’s motivations for their ideas, points they might be overlooking, assumptions they might be making. Then there is, of course, the ongoing discourse with the author.
I have found that the editing process is most rewarding when working with authors that are committed to the evolution of their ideas.
You’re also an author. What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
Draft first, then edit. I think writing is a creative process that involves a high level of spontaneity and authenticity. I believe the moment I start to edit as I write, I’m interrupting the creative process that must happen. So, I try to let the words just flow naturally, and then edit when I’m done.
I think writing is a creative process that involves a high level of spontaneity and authenticity. I believe the moment I start to edit as I write, I’m interrupting the creative process that must happen.
What was your process for writing ‘Fela’s Republic and the #EndSARS Protests’?
I wrote the piece in two days, which is shorter than I would typically spend on a piece, and this was because of the urgency of the issue—there was no time to waste. But interestingly, I had been thinking about writing on Fela’s activism for close to four years. I’m also a huge Fela fan. I have always felt that his philosophical side is largely understated. It’s there in his music and his interviews—Fela had ideas on everything, from pan-Africanism to police brutality to democracy. So I have always wanted to examine his views closely by writing on them. I just never had an issue with the level of urgency and significance that was required to bring his ideas to life.
Coincidentally, during the #EndSARS protests, I had been reading Fela’s biography by Benson Idonije, which I had picked up a few months earlier from ‘Jazzhole’. While reading, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between Fela’s struggle and what young Nigerians are facing today with SARS. It felt like the injustice and tyranny that was present during Fela’s era was just being replayed—the same script, the same characters, everything. The police brutality Fela sang about in ‘Zombie’ is still very much alive.
That said, writing the piece required a huge amount of research. There was also great attention to detail on my part, as I believe that writing on any form of social change or resistance is a huge moral responsibility that writers must not take lightly. With the #EndSARS protests particularly, I believe that writers documenting this movement owe it to the protesters, every life that has been lost, and the ones to come, to make sure that this story is told accurately and truthfully. There was a lot of researching and fact-checking to make sure that this was achieved with the piece. It was also important for me to understand the heart of the protests at the time and to make sure that this was captured well. Speaking to young people as well as listening to interviews from young Nigerians was helpful in achieving this.
My knowledge of legal theory also came in useful, particularly with regards to what a just society entails, and what a state owes to its citizens. I’ve also been thinking lately about how a state ought to respect the moral status of its people, as rational autonomous agents capable of making choices; and free to pursue their personal ends and desires, while certain that the powers of government will not be used to deliberately frustrate their efforts. But when you look at the #EndSARS protests and the government’s response to it, none of these ideals have been upheld so far.
And how did you find being edited for a change? Did anything surprise you about the process?
It was certainly different being on the other side. It definitely made me appreciate the rigour and careful thought that goes into the editing process at the Republic.
What three books should we be reading to understand (or as we think about) the #EndSARS protests?
Benson Idonije’s Dis Fela Sef! The Legend(s) Untold: A Memoir, because I believe it’s interesting to see the parallels with Fela’s struggle. I also believe that reading about the country’s history could help us understand the significance of the current events.
The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, because I believe we can learn a lot from how other countries have achieved social change.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg: A Life by Jane Sherron De Hart—which is a biography of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I believe there is a lot to learn from her passion and determination to challenge the systems of oppression, which is especially significant given the important role that women have played in the #EndSARS protests. Can you tell I love biographies already?
When you’re open about the counterarguments to your ideas, you go from just being conversant with the material to being in charge of it.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
‘You can only present an idea at its strongest if you are open about its weaknesses.’
I remember when I first started writing and I’d discover a counterargument to my point. It always felt like it was my Achilles heel—my moment of defeat, and I would just hope that no one else found out about the counterargument. Until one of my professors wrote in my essay, ‘why isn’t x counter-argument included.’ He went on to say that, ‘you can only present an idea at its strongest if you are open about its weaknesses.’ And that was very monumental for me.
I later realized that when you’re open about the counterarguments to your ideas, you go from just being conversant with the material to being in charge of it. So, it’s a sword if anything—a weapon. Counterarguments—they’re swords that can be used to your advantage; certainly not Achilles heels. Now when I write, I try not to ignore countervailing ideas to what I am saying. If I think my ideas could have varying interpretations, I make sure to state this.
And I say ‘sword’ instead of ‘shield’ because you’re not just passively protecting (shielding) your ideas from opposing arguments, but you are actively showing the reader that you have taken those points into consideration. It’s a sword because it’s an active choice you are making.
So, is good writing a talent (something innate) or a skill (something we learn)?
I’d say it’s both actually. In essence, while we’ve all been endowed with different talents by the great architect, one must then become the architect of his own fortune. So, while one may be gifted with good writing, there is a need to cultivate the skill diligently. Thus, what sets a person apart is how they cultivate their natural innate abilities. This could be through further learning, training, writing workshops, or even just through practice.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
My style of writing is clear and simple. I try not to obscure the meaning of what I’m trying to say. I mean life is complex enough. And no one does this better than Paulo Coelho. He basically took the most life-changing lesson and communicated it in the simplest yet most impactful way in The Alchemist. I certainly wish I had discovered his work earlier.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I believe writers are guardians of truth and legacies untold and in this climate of erasure and obliteration by the powers that be, writers have never had a more important mandate. I think Toni Morrison captured this perfectly when she wrote, ‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language.’
My style of writing is clear and simple. I try not to obscure the meaning of what I’m trying to say.
What can we expect you to write about next?
Two things actually. The first is prison reform. This is an issue that has been brought to the forefront recently with the #EndSARS protests. I’m particularly interested in people who haven’t had access to trial and are currently serving time without being sentenced; and the obstacles they face.
I also plan to write about Lady Kofo Ademola. She was the first black African woman to earn a degree from Oxford University in 1935. I have always been curious about what life must have been like for her, especially at that time. I coincidentally attended the same college that she did at Oxford and was able to get my hands on her 21-page autobiography, titled Ten Africans which she wrote during her time there, at the insistence of Margery Perham; to challenge British stereotypes about Africans. This only fueled my interest even more. She described her childhood as a mixture of western cultural orientation and African orientation. But I intend to explore her story further, find out more about her experiences—how they shaped her and ultimately unearthed who she was at her core.
Question from Irene Chidinma Nwoye: What piece of literature or work of art (painting, film, etc.) inspired you to start writing? And why?
It was a collection of poems, Daughters, compiled by Frances Grant. It was a gift from my Dad for my ninth birthday. I remember being so in awe of how beautifully the words were strung together. That was the start of my love for writing. I’ve been writing ever since!
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What genre of writing do you believe is most effective as a form of resistance, and why?⎈
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