More than the end-result and feedback, journalist, Emmanuel Akinwotu finds the process to be the most exciting part of writing: ‘Talking to people who are gracious enough to share experiences or expertise with me, a stranger writing for a publication they may or may not know, read or care for, is a kindness I try not to take for granted.’
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?
Thankfully I genuinely loved reading as a child, because if I hadn’t, my parents would have heavily enforced it. My mum was an English teacher in Nigeria before she moved to London to join my dad in 1988. Like many Nigerian and African immigrants in the UK, they put intense pressure on our learning and excelling in education.
I loved the books we read in primary school reading groups, by Roald Dahl, Anne Fine, Ladybird classics. and fantasy. Then independently, I remember being seven and finding Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman in the class library. The cover is this radiant image of a young black girl, smiling with gaps in her teeth, with a look of anticipation. It’s such a simple and striking picture.
Later on, when I was around 11, I was hooked on Malorie Blackman’s novels, from Pig-Heart Boy, then Thief, then Noughts and Crosses series, then every book she’d written that was available at The Clocktower, my local library in Croydon, South London. Reading novels that centred black characters in stories that were not ‘black stories’ felt striking to me.
We had long commutes on a few trains and buses from my school near central London to the suburbs. It gave me and my younger brother time to speed through Harry Potter novels, enjoying the virtue signalling of carrying these large popular novels in hand on the journey. But then we’d get home and I’d be reading my mum’s romance novels. She read constantly, mostly Danielle Steele and Penny Vicenzi, also most of everything by John Grisham – legal dramas that I found quite dull.
I remember being weirdly hooked by Sunset in St. Tropez, a Danielle Steele story about three middle-aged couples who go away and secrets between them unravel. I think reading it made me feel like I was more mature about life and relationships than my friends were, which probably wasn’t true.
Later in my teens, I got deeply into Jodi Picoult novels, which felt like fairly emotionally heavy dramas, and then a brief period of reading more non-fiction, which didn’t last. What has stayed with me, particularly now as a journalist where I read articles constantly, is the escape that great fiction offers.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
Recently, I found myself thinking about the biblical story of Bathsheba in second Samuel—probably the defining point in David’s life after he became king—and a classic text for me having grown up in the church.
I’ve thought about the interpretations of this text and others that I grew up with, which reduced women’s pain and humanity, and the ways that mirror how women can be treated in these spaces.
David is a beloved character, conflicted and immersive, and a dominant figure in the Bible. But his status in part leads people to pacify his brutality, and for the suffering of his victims to be overlooked—a dynamic that has faced more of a reckoning in recent years since #metoo.
In the narrative, David preys on Bathsheba and then ‘lays with her’ in what feels like an ambivalent description, making it seem open to being consensual, when it feels more plausible he raped her.
Bathsheba becomes pregnant and David then kills her husband, Uriah, a loyal commander in the Israelite army. The punishment for this act is that Bathsheba and David’s son dies a week after he is born.
The story centres the men, David and Uriah, while Bathsheba’s pain, in and of itself gets cursory focus. Maybe I wouldn’t be the best person to write it but I’d like to read the story in a way that centres her instead, on how she was preyed upon by David, and then had to mourn her husband Uriah, and then her son.
The prophet Nathan tells David a story of a man who owned a single lamb that he loved, before it was snatched from him by someone who had many—as an analogy for how David had acted. But the implications of the story are thorny, because while that relationship is depicted with a tenderness, ultimately it is the man who owns the lamb, and the man who has taken it away.
I read The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin a few years ago, which was a moving retelling of the story of Jesus, through his mother Mary’s eyes. It partly demystified Jesus’ story so that you see him less as divine but an individual, and it explores the relationship between them as a mother and son navigating the friction between their relationship and Jesus’ celebrity, divinity and death.
What has stayed with me, particularly now as a journalist where I read articles constantly, is the escape that great fiction offers.
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your reading tastes/habits?
I was reading a lot more, then I got into a lull. The pandemic has had so many different stages. I’ve recently been reading more again and feel back into the ease of it. I’m sure it will keep changing.
What’s a common misconception about journalism in Africa or African journalism?
Many of the well-known criticisms of Nigerian and African media do not factor in the grim realities of being a journalist in a heavily underfunded industry, with few enforceable labour protections, where powerful interests are able to clamp down on critics without accountability.
There are Nigerian media organizations owing staff up to a year in salaries. Some journalists earn barely above the minimum wage. Many of the owners of Nigerian media organizations aren’t interested in public interest journalism and accountability, providing very little cover for the journalists who do care.
It’s an environment that actively incentivizes propaganda and misinformation and the journalists and media that do well should be really lauded for that and people should invest in them.
I’ve seen some snobbery online about Premium Times’ paywall, from people who have been critical of Nigerian media’s issues, and I think, you can’t have it both ways. We have to invest and support our organizations when they fulfil these roles.
Someone sent me an email last year about the work being done on prison reform by an NGO they had founded. They said they were reaching out to international media because ‘as we all know, Nigerian journalists don’t care about these issues.’
In my experience, journalists in Nigeria may expect to be reimbursed for transport or a token fee for expenses. This is not ethical but it is easy to understand why it happens in a context where journalists are not always able to ‘expense’ these costs and are expected to bear them out of pocket. Aside from that, I know plenty of journalists working for Nigerian media who want to write about important issues and be noticed for it.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
Fraught, sadly. Not always but often. I write and edit as I go along, and can easily fall into overthinking and being indecisive. I need deadlines to focus me.
Something I thought would get much easier to manage the longer I worked as a journalist, would be the anxiety of writing something that, for well known publications at least, many people will read and critically judge. I can easily fret over whether I’ve framed something simplistically or incorrectly. Of course, you apply yourself to avoid or mitigate that, by talking to the right people, doing your best to have a nuanced understanding of what you report on, especially in Africa where complex dynamics are often reduced to problematic tropes. But it’s inevitable you’ll make mistakes. I guess being afraid of making mistakes can be helpful, but emotionally it’s not easy to manage.
I write and edit as I go along, and can easily fall into overthinking and being indecisive.
Who’s a journalist other people should know about and what project of theirs have you learnt the most from?
Someone who I feel is up and coming is a freelance journalist called Ope Adetayo. He’s an English student in Nigeria who has done really excellent work, and has an eye for looking at an issue and covering what is being overlooked.
What was your process for writing your Guardian article on why many Nigerians supported Donald Trump?
I was having long-running conversations with some friends about the ways in which Nigerian and African politics are framed in a reductive way that overlooks ideological and political forces for simplistic tropes. Patronage, ethnicity and religion, as is often the focus, are clearly important factors in Nigerian politics, but ideological leanings are less focused on and understood, despite being present.
Iterations of right-wing populism and fascism have a strong tradition in Nigeria and Trump’s popularity in part speaks to that. I wish the piece did more to focus on that but those are the conversations that got me thinking about Trump.
I was 18 when I first visited Nigeria with my parents and went to the CMS Bookshop, one of the oldest bookshops in Nigeria, and saw Trump’s books on the shelves, alongside rightwing figures in the US, like Ben Carson, who also particularly prior to running for president, had a strong following in Nigeria. In the US, Carson is clearly defined as being a prominent figure on the Christian right, but in Nigeria, figures like Ben Bruce and Reno Omokri who align with him, are not defined as such, or even thought of as ideological figures, with quite set beliefs.
When you work on a report, what’s the most exciting for you: the process, the end result or reader feedback?
The process, always. Talking to people who are gracious enough to share experiences or expertise with me, a stranger writing for a publication they may or may not know, read or care for, is a kindness I try not to take for granted. Learning and shedding further light on interesting or important things, and being paid to do it: the dream. Having to write those things in a way that’s truly engaging and reflects all the nuances and dynamics you come across is far less fun. Positive or constructive feedback is great too.
Talking to people who are gracious enough to share experiences or expertise with me, a stranger writing for a publication they may or may not know, read or care for, is a kindness I try not to take for granted.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Probably that you shouldn’t agonize over writing the best piece; just write it, however shit it is and then work with it from there. I’m still working to take that on board.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
It’s nice discovering things at your own pace. I can be quite temperamental with what I read or watch. A lot of books I’ve read have been based on recommendations from friends who challenged the kind of flimsy reasons I was holding out on reading something I would probably end up liking. Being ‘late’ to an author or work doesn’t really have a downside for me.
Conversely, there were a lot of classics that I read when I was younger but didn’t really enjoy but which I think I would enjoy more if I read them later on.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
Recently I’ve been looking out for fiction that’s set in political eras that I’ve read about but was too young to really experience and would like to understand more meaningfully. So novels set before democracy began in Nigeria or up to the 90s. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo is a novel that did that for me, showing how the constant threat of military coups hungover everyday life, and the rise of armed robbery in Lagos in the 90s.
What else have you been reading?
I’ve just downloaded At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop on my kindle which I’m really looking forward to reading. I’m about halfway through The Death of Vivek Oji, which I’ve found gripping so far. Against all I’ve said about my aversion to non-fiction, I’m also currently reading Pentecostal Republic by Ebenezer Obadare. I had read some of it before but I’ve been really sitting with it.
You shouldn’t agonize over writing the best piece; just write it, however shit it is and then work with it from there.
What can we expect you to write about next?
I am writing more on the colonial legacy of beauty standards in West African countries, starting with this feature I recently published. At some point this year I’d like to write about something which draws on the history of Nigerian slaves that returned to Lagos from South America. Many returned with Catholicism and versions of it, which has in part shaped life in Lagos Island, an old part of the city where my mum grew up.
Question from Chinonye Otuonye: 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?
I mostly take notes on my phone and write on my laptop. Sometimes I find that taking notes in pen is easier but it isn’t an important factor to me. It’s what’s recorded that matters.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What’s been the novel or text that you’ve read which has given you the most joy?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]