Author of ‘A Pair of Broad Bottoms’ and ‘Politics of Exposure’, Boetumelo Julianne Nyasulu, considers writing as a form of worship. ‘I truly feel closest to God when I write. Like it’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m transported somewhere, and hours go by.’
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?
Anything I could get my hands on. My mum used to have certain times during the day when books were banned; otherwise, I’d end up eating while holding my book above my plate. I only started reading African/Black fiction much later in my childhood; unfortunately, not many educational systems or institutional libraries promoted those books when I was growing up. So, when I was young, I read a lot of fantasy fiction; I loved being transported into another world. I read books like Holes by Louis Sachar, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, the Eragon trilogy, the Inkheart trilogy, the Series of Unfortunate Events (loved the witty humour), the Twilight series, Nancy Drew series—honestly anything that was a series was a catch because it would take longer to end.
I also read a lot of literature assigned by school or recommended by English teachers: Shakespearean novels, The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Oliver Twist, Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby, Cry The Beloved Country and others. As well as Christian fiction—my favourites were Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan and Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. In fact, I think Redeeming Love may have been the first book I felt my heart strings pulled with; it was a fictional take of the story of Hosea in the bible and a portrayal of God’s unconditional, all-consuming love for us.
What book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
I would say The Giver by Lois Lowry. It introduced science fiction to me for the first time through a utopian world without pain and suffering that the protagonist discovers dark secrets about as he’s given gifts of memory. His gifts of memory show him that in actuality the nature of that world is dystopian as pain, conflict and suffering ultimately limit experiences of pleasure and joy. I would pass the book on to someone younger because it’s an enjoyable read as a fiction but also challenges the reader to think about what contentment and a fulfilling life truly is as well as the gifts of emotions.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
I’d honestly rather start a broader conversation on what gets to be called a classic book/text and why. As I mentioned before I only really got exposure to Black/African fiction when I was older and intentionally sought it out. Many educational institutions, systems and even book lists propagate white, Eurocentric literature so, if anything, I would rewrite the top lists and curricula that we currently see to reflect a more dynamic, diverse display of already-existing Black and African literature for the younger generation.
So, what’s a book you wish everyone could read before leaving university/high school?
For high schoolers I would suggest Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman. It’s a fictional book about racism in an alternate reality where Black African people (crosses) colonized and rule over white European people (noughts). The book is written from perspectives of a male nought and a female cross whose stories intersect in a romance. I’d recommend it because it expertly highlights the absurdity of racism while also challenging our subconscious patterns that exist outside of the book that have primed us to think of certain races in certain ways. The book challenges implicit racist behaviour and microaggressions that have now been normalized, and by flipping the races, taking readers out of the world we’re used to and including interactions and difficult conversations amongst the fictional characters, it gives perspective on how deeply embedded institutional racism is. I believe the book being a fiction with an interweaved story of love makes it an easy read for high schoolers, especially for the heavier subject matter while also being the kind of book that could spark a conversation and a different way of thinking about things. Plus, I believe that race should be talked about in some way, somehow at different educational levels.
Many educational institutions, systems and even book lists propagate white, Eurocentric literature so, if anything, I would rewrite the top lists and curricula that we currently see to reflect a more dynamic, diverse display of already-existing Black and African literature for the younger generation.
What’s a recent book/text you disagreed with?
I don’t know that I necessarily disagreed with it, but I wasn’t quite gripped by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer despite him being described as one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers. I felt confused for the first half of the book, and then felt that other bits of it were predictable. But I suppose every book has different audiences at the end of the day.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor. I’ve had a relationship with God since I was young, but this book still changed how I see interacting with God. The author is so raw, and honest with her emotions, her fears, her needs, her questions, her inadequacy. It’s beautiful—I can understand why her personal prayer journal was successful as a published book.
What’s something you wish more people knew about reading ‘Christian books’?
I wish more people knew that Christian books can be very practical, that there are so many Christian books that focus on working on your heart and character—just how to be a better you. The authors often tweeze out topics and themes from the Bible and make them very tangible in a ‘best practices’ kind of format for everyday life. They range from books on vulnerability, to anger, loss, abandonment, healing, and relationships. I believe that there’s a book for every character trait we want to sharpen and develop. One of my recent favourite Christian books is The People Factor by Van Moody—it transformed the way I see relationships, romantic and platonic. It made me more intentional about the people I have in my life and offered very practical insight on healthy friendships, toxic friendships and how and when to say goodbye using the foundation of the Bible story of Ruth and Naomi.
For me, picking up a Christian book is seizing the opportunity to be mentored spiritually, by someone who has a different experience and perspective of God. It almost feels like when you’ve developed a relationship with a friend over the years and then one day you meet another of her close friends from a different stage of her life—your friend doesn’t change but you gain a different perspective of them, perhaps you see a different side of them, maybe even learn something new about them—that’s the experience of reading a Christian book; it’s less about the author being further in their spiritual journey or more theologically learned and more about learning, seeing or experiencing something different about God. And I’m a staunch believer that the deeper my relationship goes with God, the more I learn about myself and my identity.
I wish more people knew that Christian books can be very practical, that there are so many Christian books that focus on working on your heart and character—just how to be a better you.
What’s a common misconception about Blackness, especially in the global media representation of Black female bodies?
Where do I even begin? African/Black women’s bodies are related to a past of enslavement that labelled the Black female body as grotesque, unnatural, unfeminine and lascivious. This history of enslavement has framed the way the Black female body encounters hostility, exclusion and erasure today. As race and racism became encoded in language and society, a racial hierarchy became normalized that reinforced white cultural superiority and left Black female embodiment both invisible and hyper-visible. In this struggle of visibility, we either don’t see positive scripts of Black femininity or when we do, we see Black female bodies torn apart for being ‘too sexy’ (Rihanna), ‘too masculine’ (Serena Williams), ‘too intimidating and dominating’ (Michelle Obama) and so on.
So, there are a number of problematic predominant scripts of Black female bodies in the global media. There’s the slave/servant/Mammy role which unnecessarily includes scripts of Black women that provide neither context nor significance, other than a mindless consumption of servant, sexual or abusive scenes for the entertainment industry. Black female bodies are involved in discourses of dehumanization and distortion and framed as something to behold. As feminist bell hooks questioned, ‘Do we have to have the Black female dehumanized, tortured, [and] raped in order to have enjoyment?’
Black female entertainers are faced with problematic controlling images of Black womanhood that have permeated society; the most popular image being the Jezebel, the stereotype that emerged out of the myth of a sexually aggressive slave which prevents the sexuality of Black women from sexual agency or autonomy and reinforces the binary of the loose, hyper-sexualized Black woman opposed to the ideal white heterosexual female. There are so many others; there’s so much to say about representation of the Black female body which of course, also requires a conversation on our resistance and agency of those images, that it can be an entire writing piece.
What three books by Black female authors should be on everyone’s bookshelves?
Everyone’s bookshelf? Ha-ha, heavy question. So, I love to read a lot of academic books by Black female authors, not exactly your poolside read. Because of that, I’m more likely to recommend authors over books—bell hooks, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and the likes. But for the books, I’d recommend others to read, probably—Questions for Ada by Ijeoma Umebinyuo (poetry)—on womanhood, diaspora and family, All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks – poetic, insightful, gripping writing and I’ll toss in an academic gold nugget Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins.
African/Black women’s bodies are related to a past of enslavement that labelled the Black female body as grotesque, unnatural, unfeminine and lascivious. This history of enslavement has framed the way the Black female body encounters hostility, exclusion and erasure today.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I get my lo-fi hip hop instrumentals playing in the background—silence can be too quiet but lyrics and hectic beats make for confusion in my mind. And then, honestly, I often describe writing as my form of worship—I truly feel closest to God when I write. Like it’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m transported somewhere, and hours go by. I sit down and just pour out the things on my mind or heart, or critiques of something I’ve read or watched in free writing style. Once it’s all out regurgitated, then I re-read, edit and refine.
What was your process for writing ‘A Pair of Broad Bottoms’, your essay on Saartjie Baartman and the representation of Black female bodies?
I’m passionate about gender and critical race theory so I often read a lot about it, engage in critical discussions around it and at times write about my thoughts. As I mentioned in the previous question, there’s a history behind the representation of the Black female body. Nineteenth-century European scientific racism involved the Western gaze confronting Black female bodies with questions of humanness that influenced representations and ways of seeing Black/African women’s bodies today. A past that held Black female bodies, such as Saartjie Baartman, under the objectifying white colonial gaze has involved Black female bodies in a struggle to reassume ownership of Black womanhood. The history of slavery, colonial conquest and ethnography of Black female bodies led to the ‘Hottentot Venus’ as a representation of Saartjie and other Black female bodies today which constructed the Black female body as both erotic but animalistic and primitive, and as hyper-feminine but hyper-muscular.
I’m half South African so I learnt about Saartjie in high school and since then have written about her a number of times and I’ve always been curious about the ties the Black female body has to history, colonialism and the media. I wanted to write something that had roots in history and research but was still an opinion piece rather than an article; I’ve always taken a fancy to viewing art, so it seemed a fitting mode to voice my own thoughts on body politics.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
The most meaningful writing advice I’ve received is, when you have your idea and basic outline don’t overthink it when you sit down to write—engage with the page as if you’re about to write a stream of consciousness (free writing) where you simply write what comes to mind. The difficult parts of writing are figuring out how to begin and how to end, so if you get stuck in overthinking, you’ll never actually start writing. Engaging in a stream of consciousness helps me get whatever creative ideas I have onto the page and then when I’ve gotten to a later portion of the piece I can decide if it makes any sense.
The most meaningful writing advice I’ve received is, when you have your idea and basic outline don’t overthink it when you sit down to write—engage with the page as if you’re about to write a stream of consciousness (free writing) where you simply write what comes to mind.
Is writing a skill (something we develop) or a talent (something innate)
It could be either or both honestly. Some may feel they have the talent to write from a young age and decide to pursue that, but that still needs to be practised, grown, and adapted. At the same time, there could certainly be instances with individuals who don’t feel a ‘natural knack’ but decide to take a class or practise the discipline of writing. If anything, I’d say it may be easier or faster for those with the talent for writing to develop certain writing skills but it’s entirely possible for anyone who’s motivated to write to do so.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Billy Chapata—he’s a Zimbabwean poet and his book Chameleon Aura is one of my favourites. His poetry focuses on breaking, healing, mending, growing, and loving (others and yourself). It’s pensive, touching and artistic. I discovered him through Instagram in 2019 and haven’t been able to stay away from his feed and books since.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books on the neuroplasticity of the mind, healing childhood wounds, and emotional regulation; with a splash of poetry and Black fiction. Some of them include: 90 Seconds to a Life You Love: How to Master Your Difficult Feelings to Cultivate Lasting Confidence, Resilience and Authenticity (Joan Rosenberg), Think, Learn, Succeed (Dr. Caroline Leaf), Calling in ‘The One’ (Katherine Woodward Thomas), The Inner Voice of Love (Henri J.M. Nouwen), Why You Do The Things You Do (Dr. Tim Clinton, Dr Gary Sibcy), Soft Magic (Upile Chisala), Flowers on the Moon (Billy Chapata), The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennet), The Gospel of Breaking (Jillian Christmas).
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books on the neuroplasticity of the mind, healing childhood wounds, and emotional regulation; with a splash of poetry and Black fiction.
What can we expect you to write about next?
I’ve honestly hit a bit of writer’s block mixed with some procrastination since this year began but I’ve been trying to refine a piece on the politics of the contraception, Depo Proverty, and its trajectory in Zimbabwe—hopefully I can get that out somewhere. Otherwise, I’ve been toying with the idea of starting to write a book but I’m not sure of the topic or theme quite yet so that’s mainly entailed a lot of journaling and free writing.
Question from Nanjala Nyabola: What was the last book that triggered a physical reaction in you—tears, anger, a shout of frustration, an audible and extended laugh, or something like that—and why?
Know My Name by Chanel Miller had me weeping throughout the book. In fact, I had to take pauses when reading it, and I personally believe it should be listed as a compulsory book in school curriculums. The book is a memoir of Miller—who was sexually assaulted while unconscious at a Stanford frat party in 2015. I cried sad, happy and angry tears for Chanel Miller, for my own experiences in fearful and compromising situations, and for the one in five women globally that are raped at some time in their lives.
Miller documents her journey with guilt, shame, fear, anger, depression, her relationship with her boyfriend, her challenges with work and the overall feat of getting up another day to face your thoughts after such an experience. Her story reveals the issues and challenges with a legal system that defend assailants on the basis of their accolades or future potential, of court processes that tear a survivor’s background apart to showcase they had ‘put themselves in that position’, but also the strength—in her willingness to go forward with a 3-year court case, to face her aggressor, to find joy and meaning beyond what had happened.
Miller is an excellent writer who weaves in humour in distinct and odd ways for such a heavy story, and touches readers with the relatability in her humanity and the messiness of life. She also gave me perspective in what I choose for my own writing—as she writes ‘when I was given the opportunity to write this book, whatever God is up there said You got your dream. I said, Actually I was hoping for a lighter topic, and God was like Ha-ha! You thought you got to choose.’
Check out the powerful statement she read to her attacker in court here.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
If you could choose one writer to mentor you for a year, who would it be and why?⎈
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