Author of ‘National Belonging and Social Integration’, Nafeesah Allen, believes writing should be something you enjoy: ‘I used to really blame myself for not having a more structured process. …I have never enjoyed writing that way. I have never wanted to think of writing as anything other than enjoyment.’
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?
As a kid, I read all types of books. I went to a predominantly Black public school in Newark, New Jersey. Education was important and reading was the cornerstone of that. I grew up during a time when many people had thought they figured out Afro-centrism.
I’m a granddaughter of the Great Migration and a Nation of Islam baby, so there were always a lot of books around about Black identity and the value of African cultures. I read a lot of books by Black authors whether or not they were writing about Blackness. I also read lots of Babysitters Club books and I tried Goosebumps but was just too scared to finish.
A book that had a big impact on me was Ryan White: My Own Story, a book about a young boy who got HIV through a blood transfusion very early on in the 1980s, well before people really understood the disease or how it was transmitted. That book was very inspiring for me in my youth, as I learned that individual stories aren’t always in line with the major narratives around those issues or people. That was my favourite book for many years, despite it being a really sad story.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
The book that has always come back to me as foundational for my thoughts around activism and integrity rooted in pan-Africanist beliefs and global blackness is Amilcar Cabral’s Return to the Source. So, I wouldn’t exactly rewrite it, but I would expand upon it and put it into a context of Portuguese colonialism and negritude.
Return to the Source is a book that really should be read with a historical companion because it is even more profound when you realize what was happening in Cabral’s world at the time of writing it.
Individual stories aren’t always in line with the major narratives around those issues or people.
What’s a recent book/text you disagreed with?
I do a lot of magazine work about money and personal finance now. A book that people swear by is The Richest Man in Babylon by George Samuel Clason. I do not understand the hype and I totally don’t get the point. That said, I’m also not of the Christian faith. So maybe there are references in it that I’m missing because I didn’t grow up within Christian Bible culture.
I find that a lot of books about wealth and growth use Christianity as a compass as if only those who are of that faith system are rich, happy, and healthy. There’s a lot of bias in Anglophone writing that uses Biblical references assuming that everyone will just understand those cultural references. Many of us in other faiths can feel left out of the discussion. Also, as a writer, I feel like it’s possible to tell the story of humanity, money, and growth without doing it through a specifically religious lens.
In high school, I read Thayer Warshaw’s The Bible as in Literature and it really helped me delve more into this notion of the ubiquity of the Bible in English writing, in particular. It’s a bias I don’t think many people even see.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
That would be Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ They Were Her Property. That book really transformed my thoughts on White women and the role some have played in upholding White patriarchal culture.
Jones-Rogers basically shows the historical way in which White women benefited from, perpetuated, and exacerbated slavery in the US, and the trafficking in persons that is typically associated with White men. She raises the consciousness around the ways White women used Black women—as wet nurses—and how many held their wealth in inherited slaves.
I think it’s been important for me to consider the idea of how positionality and privilege are embodied. Meaning, which kinds of people (bodies) are allowed to hold privilege and do they always do it publicly? Who is the public face of the problem? And does that image always sync up with those who actually benefit in residual ways?
You’ve written extensively about Migration and completed a PhD in Forced Migration. What’s a common misconception about migration in Africa/African migrants?
There are so many misconceptions about migration in Africa and they all bleed into one another. First is the idea that Africans are typically going to be people who emigrate. There is this notion that Africa is a place where people leave from. It is a pervasive grand narrative, especially now. Facts are that this present moment isn’t emblematic of historical discourse.
Slavery and colonialism in Africa since the 15th century could only have happened because of foreign arrival to Africa, right? Those forced migrations of Africans from the continent were triggered and accompanied by voluntary European, Middle Eastern, and Indian migration to the continent. Half of the story is completely erased, and that reality doesn’t do justice to historical fact.
If we exclude the Moor domination of the Iberian Peninsula, this notion of a voluntary departure of Africans seeking better conditions is a relatively recent phenomenon, given the much longer and harsher history of foreigners seeking their fortunes on the continent and actually earning their gains by forcibly trafficking Africans from a continent they had no intention of leaving.
Also, the idea is that Europeans and Westerners came to Africa and then left. I think that dominates the narrative around Trans-Atlantic slavery through the countries in the North West of sub-Saharan Africa. But, what we see in the rest of the continent is that many Europeans, Asians, Middle Easterners stayed in Africa. They created families and businesses, which are still preserved in some of the architectural histories of many capital cities like Addis’ Little Rome, the masjids of Maputo, the churches of Luanda, and the garment districts of Johannesburg.
Colonization was predicated on the settlement of non-Africans in these elite areas, so that means that we know—for a fact—that those communities stayed behind. There is a permanence there that goes unacknowledged. The Sultanate of Zanzibar is an example, where people must recognize the permanence of Omani people and culture in this African space. Another example is South Africa, where we know that apartheid could not have existed as a political system were it not for Dutch and British settlement, right?
So, I feel that we have completely disconnected the migration narrative of non-indigenous people coming into Africa from the contemporary demographic of the African continent. Those of us who are not originally from a country on the continent often act as if external presence was just a flash in the pan.
While that narrative might be more believable in West Africa, it is just not true for Southern Africa and East Africa, where multi-racial societies are quite common and multi-ethnic communities are part of a longer legacy of foreign permanence in African geographies.
We have completely disconnected the migration narrative of non-indigenous people coming into Africa from the contemporary demographic of the African continent.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
My writing process is very messy. I used to really blame myself for not having a more structured process. I would hear other people talk about how they sit down one hour a day or treat it like a job. I don’t have that kind of discipline and I have never enjoyed writing that way. I have never wanted to think of writing as anything other than enjoyment.
So, I really kick myself to do the parts of writing that feel like work—the writing proposals and pitching really don’t come natural to me, but I’ve become more able to do it and take rejection in a constructive way. But the part I love is just getting buried in a story. I seek inspiration and do research around a topic for a really long time.
I only write about a topic when I’m kind of bursting at the seams. Even when I’m writing a commissioned piece, it can take me a while to really feel inspired. I binge write when I feel inspired. I start after my kids go to bed and then I write through the night. I need a day between writing products. And if I’m working on a book or long-form, I’ll write for 8-10 hours at a stretch, then I don’t touch the work again for days or sometimes weeks.
I really try not to think much about my writing process, because if I do, I’ll criticize it rather than recognize that this is how I do my best work.
I do most of my work from transcription or dictation these days, because—after working with a wonderful writing coach that I started using when I was writing my PhD dissertation—I figured out that I need orality to really flesh out my work. I don’t do well with written outlines or visual maps.
I have to hear myself talk about a topic as if I’m colloquially explaining it to someone who doesn’t know the topic. I also really got into oral history as both a subject and a method, so I really do rely heavily on orality. I record voice memos on my phone, have the dictation sent to me via email, and then my writing starts from editing that file. Most of the time, I don’t use exactly what I said but I can edit to make things clearer. I can improve word choice after reading it a few times.
I’m no longer able to start from a blank page with something I want to publish. I really preserve pen and paper for journaling, not for things I want the external world to see.
What was your process for writing ‘National Belonging and Social Integration’, on racial identity and migration in Mozambique?
That was a chapter from my PhD dissertation, and I was just beginning to discover the oral nature of my writing. That was one of the last chapters I wrote because I was struggling to talk about mixed-race groups without sounding like a bigot.
I felt like all the words people used were slurs and I felt like there was a lot of shame projected onto some of the people I was writing about. So, for that one, I just recorded myself explaining why I was having such a hard time with this chapter. And basically, that became the outline for the final piece, which was edited quite a bit before I shared it with The Republic.
I really try not to think much about my writing process, because if I do, I’ll criticize it rather than recognize that this is how I do my best work.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Permission to use the oral modality is really important feedback I got from my coach. It really unlocked my ability to be clear and quick with my thoughts. I suffer from word slippage. It is common among people who read and write in multiple languages. I’ll think I wrote a word and I actually skipped the word altogether. Or I’ll think I wrote a word and when I look back, I wrote a completely different word. This means a lot of people will think I’m being careless or I write with lots of typos. I really felt stigmatized by it for a while, wondering how I could have a PhD and not catch some of these basic errors.
My coach really taught me to just speak what I want to say first and then edit in the writing. That has helped a lot. I also have to leave a lot of time for revision, because I won’t catch my errors unless I hear (not read) them.
I typically do this by using the Read Aloud function on my computer. It is an accessibility setting that most people don’t use unless they have a visual impairment, but for me, it ties back into the orality of language.
Without this feedback to use those technological and oral tools, I don’t think I would have been able to professionalize as a writer.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
There are so many. I think that’s a two-part question though.
There are authors who are coming out now who I wish had written years ago. It’s less about me discovering them but that I wish the world had heard their voice as writers in an earlier time.
And then, there are the authors who I wish I had read sooner; I read them later in life because it was only after I learned their native language that I could access them. In both cases, I think it’s a matter of who gets published and distributed rather than wishing I had stumbled upon them earlier.
There is an entire cadre of Black female writers from the global North who are really stepping up to tell the story of the West. Heather McGhee, Roxanne Gay, Isabel Wilkerson lead the pack by straddling this line between journalism, academia, and public historian. I wish Black women writers were able to shine alongside Howard Zinn in his time or before that with Franz Boas. What an era that would have been.
I think we’re seeing a shift from Black women in literature—Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Nikki Giovanni—to Black women in social critique and policy. I had read bell hooks in college but didn’t get her until much later. I think that’s because she was so unique for her time.
From a fiction standpoint, I wish I would have learned about Mariama Bâ, Nadine Gordimer, and Buchi Emecheta earlier, especially when I was in a phase of interviewing and interacting with creatives and intellectuals from the continent. It would have been such an honour to sit at their feet.
And, of course, there are books in Spanish and Portuguese that I’m just starting to read in their original versions. They are so much better that way. Mia Couto and Paulina Chiziane come across so much more eloquently in Portuguese than in English, which is a really blunt language if you try to translate nuance and sentiment from a more loquacious language.
I suffer from word slippage. It is common among people who read and write in multiple languages.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
I am really into personal finance, money, and business these days. Not only do I feel like managing money is key to managing creative freedom, but I really struggled with this story that writers and artists don’t make money. Growing up, I always heard that if you decide to become an artist or a writer, you should be prepared to die a pauper. It is a fear that many of us have.
I’ve been taking this year as an opportunity to reconsider that notion with examples that I envy. I think about Paulo Coelho and Dan Brown not as writers, but as business models. How have they managed their careers so that they can live from doing what they love?
Aside from that, I’m writing a lot on diversity these days. People always are looking for the niche story that is hidden within larger stories, so I write a lot of personal narrative and interviews on people who are hiding in plain sight.
As for reading, I’m working with my team to populate my new online book review website: blackhistorybookshelf.com. So, I’m reading lots of Black history books from around the world. I’m delving more into stories about the intersection between Africa and Asia, in preparation for my upcoming book.
Reference to my recent work is below, but my full publication list is here.
What can we expect you to write about next?
I’m writing frequently in US magazines like Parenting, Real Simple, and Better Home & Gardens. Those articles centre on money topics.
I also do a lot of my writing about diversity and inclusion on Bold Culture Hub.
I have a full-length book that I’ll be submitting to Palgrave MacMillan in September for publishing next year and that will focus on the stories of Indian and Pakistani people living in Mozambique over the course of the late 20th century.
That manuscript is based on my PhD work where I looked at the ways that serial decolonization from 1947-1992 stirred instability and triggered migration among this racial minority group in Maputo, the country’s capital.
I also have a trade book in the works with Salky Lit Management and I hope we will secure a contract for it shortly. It interrogates race and immigration through the lens of misconceptions and historical evidence on marginalized groups. I truly question how Black people fit into this American identity narrative that is intrinsically linked to being ‘a country of immigrants.’
Question from Fadekemi Abiru: What is a book that people take too seriously but shouldn’t?
You’re going to get me in trouble here. I’m not going to speak to one book, but I’ll say that I have been reading quite a bit from South African authors around Multicultural and Multiracial societies in Africa and there are so many that I think are only accurate in the South African context.
And while I’ve learned a lot from South African scholars and South African based scholars, I have seen some people speak for the rest of the continent in ways that I don’t think is accurate—from my experiences in Angola and Mozambique. So, I hope people don’t take those books out of their specific national context.
I’m sure this happens with African-Americans speaking for other Black and African Diaspora groups too. We sometimes generalize when it’s best to be specific. I don’t think it is done maliciously, but I do think it is negligent to speak for other countries with scant research or context — especially when writing in dominant language groups that the subject group can’t read or refute. We want to convey cultural solidarity, but the factual contexts may be different and those inaccuracies may be more important than initially perceived.
When I write about the US nobody asks me to tack on Canada or Mexico. I can write about the West from a national perspective, and I’m not required to speak for an entire continent.
I wish that concept really was adopted and asserted by contemporary academicians in Africa. It’s not your responsibility to know everything about the entire continent and that is an unfair burden to bear.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
How is your positionality as a writer reflected in the work that you produce?⎈
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