Author of ‘Africa’s Lost Decade’ and ‘Banking on Women’, Fadekemi Abiru believes writing informs as much as it reflects society. She often asks, ‘What, if anything, is the story doing to fix or exacerbate the inequalities and oppressions we know are growing?’
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Trying to answer this question makes me wish I took my mum’s suggestion of keeping a book diary more seriously. My approach to reading did not have any particular method.
I read comics (Archie was a personal fave), encyclopedias, Greek mythology, and a lot of British authors. The British authors bit wasn’t intentional, but I guess Jacqueline Wilson, Enid Blyton, and J. K. Rowling were just more accessible to me at the time.
I also have to confess that I went 13 books deep into the Left Behind series before I realized how problematic the entire storyline was (cue internal horrified scream). I read some Nigerian folklore as well, like Ajapa the Tortoise and other stories from Tales by Moonlight.
What I find so crazy is, a lot of my childhood moments were heavily defined by reading (seriously, it was how I made friends), but off the top of my head, I can’t remember in detail what the books were about, which is probably because I keep reading more.
How do you know when something you’re reading is ‘problematic’?
I spend a lot of time thinking about the books I read, mostly because I think the cultural representations that exist within them matter. There is a direct relationship between the stories authors tell and what actually happens in our world. Even though every story is the creation of the author, writers still have no choice but to draw on history and social context. And often, in the process of writing, they draw on stereotypes, unexamined assumptions, and political ideologies.
So, for me, considering what it means to be ‘problematic’ is about interrogating what the actual impact of a story being told is on people. What, if anything, is the story doing to fix or exacerbate the inequalities and oppression we know are growing?
When I say that the Left Behind series was problematic, it is because even at a young age, it seemed to me that there was an attempt to draw a hard line between what it meant to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and the implications that come with that. There wasn’t enough space to interrogate who gets to control these definitions. Instead, in the envisioning of the end of time, humanity is left with a binary outcome: be ‘good’ and be saved or be ‘bad’ and suffer. But obviously, this primal duality will mean different things to different people, and this becomes harmful when we have these stories that feed into a less accommodating trope that makes it difficult for people to get, live and be free.
And what book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
Definitely one of the Harry Potter books (if their parents can get past the whole witchcraft thing lol). It makes sense to read the entire book series, but if I had to pick just one, it would be the first one, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Some people think Harry’s story only started getting interesting from the third book. But I think there are many teachable moments in the first one and it set the tone for how I went on to receive the overarching theme of the series.
For example, we see over and over how the choices we make define us—Hagrid uses magic to help Harry even if he isn’t supposed to; Hermione puts herself in danger with a troll to show her loyalty to Ron and Harry; Ron sacrifices himself on the Wizard’s chessboard so that Harry can go on.
We all make choices every day, and each choice demonstrates who we are and where our character lingers. I would like more younger people to grow up understanding this because I think that if more of us were able to reckon with how our actions impact people and the world around us, then maybe we would become more conscious of putting love at the root of everything we do. And maybe that would mean we have fewer people trying to escape the lives they have.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the books I read, mostly because I think the cultural representations that exist within them matter. There is a direct relationship between the stories authors tell and what actually happens in our world.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
Hmmm, so reading ‘classic’ books never appealed to me. In the truest sense of the word, a ‘classic’ piece of literature would be a piece of work that has stood the test of time and has universal appeal.
In my early days of reading ‘classic’ texts, I was socialized to accept that Eurocentric meant ‘universal appeal’. And don’t get me started on the ‘test of time’ argument, since books by Black folk will not have gotten the same visibility that White authors did back in the day (because, racism).
But to answer your question more directly, when I started becoming more intentional about my reading, I read Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, and honestly, what joys? I get that the point of the book was to criticize the glorification of motherhood and how that intensifies the Black woman’s burden.
But the solution we get to at the end of the story still keeps me up at night. For Nnu Ego to die on a lonely dirt road just feels wrong somehow, but again maybe that was the point? I don’t know, it’s probably the rose-coloured-glasses girl in me, but I would have been less stressed by a different ending.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
To be honest, my favourite thing about the books I read is that they force me to push the boundaries on how I understand the world. They always change my mind about something. I think it is important to seek out things that force us to question our beliefs, especially in a world that changes as often as ours does.
Before I read The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, I believed very strongly in the linearity of time—that’s why movies like Tenet and Inception always stress me out.
However, from Vivek/Nnemdi’s life and death (not a spoiler), you see what grieving looks like in different bodies, at different moments, and with different beliefs. If I had to tell Akwaeke only one thing about this story, it would be that they changed my mind about how I was taught to heal.
In our culture, when horrible things happen, we have a predisposition to mourn quickly and only refer back to the event in hushed tones and lowered gazes. I think when we deny ourselves the opportunity to grieve the way Vivek’s mum did—in full and out loud—we do ourselves a disservice in this human experience we are all participating in.
A perfect illustration of this is this global pandemic we are currently living through. When things got serious, a lot of ‘think pieces’ referred to this period as ‘the year the world slowed down’ (and other iterations) but did we really do that? Did we really slow down and just take in how the world was shifting around us? And did we adjust accordingly?
Sure, a lot of us started working from home instead of going into the office but when you think about it, that just meant we were doing more work and not less. Our commitment to the capitalism project is very interesting. People became names then they became numbers, and the world kept on spinning on its axis like the only way to move forward had to be linear when in fact, it isn’t.
And what’s a recent book/text you read and disagreed with?
Hmmm, this is a difficult one for me to answer. I’m not sure that I necessarily seek out books that I disagree with. I’m that person that will stop reading a book if it just wasn’t working for me.
The last book I had to do that with was An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. And that doesn’t mean I think it was bad, but maybe I struggled because I was reading it at the peak of the pandemic and life was already so tough to get through without having to follow a character make one daft decision after the other. But I thought the ‘chi’ narrative worked quite well.
My favourite thing about the books I read is that they force me to push the boundaries on how I understand the world. I think it is important to seek out things that force us to question our beliefs.
What’s a common misconception about African development or African economies?
That African countries are faced with a myriad of issues, so it is impossible to tackle them and produce positive social change. I always think of the #EndSARS protests as one of the most illuminating moments in my short period as a development economist.
We all know the story by now: to fight against institutionalized police brutality, young Nigerians (with the women of the Feminist Coalition at the epicentre) built an ecosystem in a matter of days that covered everything from logistics to medical care and even clean up. #EndSARS serves as a microcosm for what is possible when you are committed to the idea that nobody is free until we are all free.
Don’t get me wrong, I accept that the issues facing African economies are multi-layered and complex. But to use that as an excuse for why resources continue to be concentrated amongst an elite few when so many go without (and when I say without, I mean absolutely nothing) is absurd to me. Alternatives are possible, we just have to be willing to apply ourselves and not just think outside the box, but throw the whole box away. Throughout #EndSARS, I remember hearing a lot of weird comments about how the government could not fulfill the demands of ‘the youth’ because ‘the youth’ did not know what they wanted.
But the truth is, we knew exactly what we wanted. We were tackling the Nigerian government and the concept of ‘policing’ and what it really means to govern to task. We were demanding that the steps taken to abolish SARS should reimagine justice and not simply be about withdrawing funding for law enforcement and doing nothing else. We understood that the latter option was superficial at best and defeatist at worst. We were asking for accelerated funding of education and housing. For meaningful job creation and investments in sustainable social safety nets. We wanted to encourage the idea that responding to people in crisis does not have to involve armed weapons. We knew that all of these things helped to create security and safety and that any safety that is safeguarded by violence, is not truly safe.
I have read a lot of theories out there about resource curses and so on, and they all do a good job of presenting logical arguments for the current state of play. But the people at the helm of power in African economies are not stuck. There are other options. We just have to be committed to radical reimagination.
What three books on Nigeria / African economies should be on everyone’s bookshelf?
Male Daughters, Female Husbands by Ifi Amadiume because I think it is an appropriate call to action to the importance of exposing the contradictions in our societies that were imposed on us through colonial influences.
It also speaks to why we must record our own social history with a view to challenging, where necessary, any discrimination against marginalized genders and positively aim for a more egalitarian society for everyone.
Also, Just Before Dawn by Kole Omotoso. I have to shout out to my dad for putting me on to this one. It’s a great blend of fact and fiction and takes us through Nigeria’s history with riots, coup d’états, and the cycle of hope and grief that comes with being a Nigerian.
I think I read somewhere that parts of the book were cut for being ‘too politically explosive’, which I think is a shame. I think Nigerians deserve to know the different factions that played a role in the political life of the country and why we are where we are today.
Finally, A Small Silence by Jumoke Verissimo, which is a very powerful look at the relationship between memory and personal and national trauma. I won’t give too much away, but I felt the story really succeeded in bringing to the fore what the implications of being haunted by a dark past are.
I also loved that it showed that nobody is above criticism, not even our own heroes. I think more of us need to start getting more comfortable with that understanding. Maybe it will make us consider our chosen leaders more critically and demand more from them.
What’s your writing process: do you edit as you write or write a draft first, then edit?
Oh, I am all over the place. If the third paragraph comes to me before the introduction does, it will go straight on the page and I will think about sequencing after. And overall, I think the writing process is like (well-intentioned) policymaking—it has to be continuous and iterative.
For me, sometimes, that looks like blurting everything out then going over it later and other times, I try to be more controlled and get it right the first time. What I have learned from the second approach though, is I actually don’t have control, just anxiety lol. I think the first approach has served me better in growing as a writer, but my perfectionism still gets the better of me from time to time.
What was your process for writing ‘Banking on Women’?
I am honestly very bothered by current development practices and how they still have the core tenets of extortion at the heart of it. The microcredit revolution was pitched as a sure-fire path to empowering the disenfranchised and achieving the ambitious goal of ending world poverty. And for a while, I was convinced—my university personal statement was even inspired by it (cringe).
But the thing about development solutions that work within the framework of neoliberalism is that they will always place the burden of securing a better life on those who are particularly vulnerable in society. Basically, suggesting that anyone who hasn’t made it in life, even with all the ‘wondrous tools of capitalism’ is just plain lazy. And it’s not true. Meritocracy is a myth. I took that as a starting point.
The problem with a lot of development theories is that once they get traction, many countries go into overdrive with implementing without giving a second thought to local context and what unintended consequences could come out for the very people they claim they are empowering.
People who care and have the capacity to, need to write about it and flag the risks, to inform better choices. We need to show that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to policymaking does not yield the universal benefits that we would like to believe. Someone is always left behind. And in the world we wake up in, the world as it is today, that someone is almost always a Black woman.
And so, after writing my jumbled-up paragraphs, talking to my sister endlessly about it, and reading more widely to understand the literature better, I submitted it. I remember the editing process with The Republic also being so helpful. Editors will really change your life as a writer, I will tell you that for free.
When we deny ourselves the opportunity to grieve the way Vivek’s mum did in Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji—in full and out loud—we do disservice to this human experience we are all participating in.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
‘Write exactly what you mean’ —Michael Famoroti.
I can’t remember what year it was or the article I was trying to write, but it’s stuck with me now. Whenever I’m working on an essay or even typing a text, I do exactly that—write exactly what I mean. I think it is the best way to maintain integrity as an author, because your reader will always know what they are getting from you is exactly what you intended them to.
Oh, and a recent tweet from Bolu Babalola, author of Love in Colour, where she shares how her writing process improves when she stops trying to start grand, and instead, starts honest. I think both pieces of advice are intrinsically linked. Start from what you honestly want to say, then write it.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
I feel like I always find authors exactly when I need to and not a moment before or after. However, Khaled Hosseini and Brit Bennett are two authors that made me seek out more of their work after reading a body of work by them. But I won’t say I felt like a piece was missing prior to discovering them.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I am deeply moved by fearless and daring writing that tackles how we confront our biases and privileges. Whenever I’m invited to write an article, I try to prioritize how my contribution will change or at the minimum, influence how people think about the world. And so, I really admire writers who are committed to using their imagination to get us free.
My best friend, Eloghosa Osunde, is one of these brilliant writers who uses storytelling to test the limits of reality by questioning who gets to define it. For example, in her Paris Review column, Melting Clocks, she talks about how all the inflexible rules that have been passed down to us were made up, so honestly, all we can all really do is choose the lens and life we can survive and go confidently after that.
You should also read her latest short story on Catapult called Rain and, if you haven’t, read Good Boy, I’m not really sure what you are doing. Oh, and her debut novel, VAGABONDS!, will be published in a coordinated campaign in the UK and US in 2022, so watch out for that—it has already been described as ‘radical’ and ‘thrilling’. I’m sure you can tell how proud I am lol.
I’m also currently enjoying Caleb Azumah Nelson’s writing about love as seeing. I think his work is radical because he encourages the idea that Black love can be as simple as seeing Black folk in all their endless possibilities. Enough with the Black trauma, we want to see more Black joy and Black love that is sustained by an understanding of the other person’s needs and a desire to meet those needs without jeopardizing your boundaries.
Whenever I write, I try to prioritize how my contribution will change or at the minimum, influence how people think about the world.
What can we expect you to write about next?
Question from Christopher Olaoluwa Ogunmodede: If you could work with one author, living or dead, on a book project, who would it be and why?
If Elaine Welteroth ever wants to write another book again, I would love to work with her. When I read More Than Enough last year, I was struck by her ability to consider the summation of all her experiences and what each moment meant in the big picture of her life.
Because I think about purpose and meaning a lot, I’m positive that working on a project with someone like her would be a dream.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What is a book that people take too seriously but shouldn’t?⎈
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