Writer and social justice advocate, OluTimehin Adegbeye, says her biggest motivation is love. Love, she explains, ‘is exponentially more demanding and more transformative than what it has been reduced to in the popular imagination. It sits at the centre of what I consider the greatest intellectual and literary enquiries.’
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I’ve never thought about this before—at least not in any coherent way. I read the typical material; there was an abundance of Enid Blyton and a lot less J.K. Rowling than I would’ve liked. Harry and I had a secret, and therefore inconsistent, love affair because my mom didn’t want me messing with ‘witchcraft’. You know how it is. There was really no system to my reading as a child, though; I read whatever I could get my hands on, and now I struggle to remember what that stuff was. There were encyclopedias, now-obscure Nigerian publications like Twins of the Rainforest and dusty books with threadbare spines from my mother’s own childhood—I remember spending a lot of time thinking about how different the language in my mom’s childhood books was from the tone and syntax in mine. Even the meanings of certain words, like ‘toilet’ (beauty rituals) and ‘briefly’ (‘suddenly’), was different. I know I was an avid reader because I was endlessly teased about it (and also got in trouble for it at school), but for the life of me now that I’ve been asked I honestly can’t remember what I was reading!
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
Ah. I’m the wrong person for this question. People always assume I’ve read those books that are THE books—I haven’t. I’ve never been one to soldier on through books that couldn’t entrance me, so the only classics I’ve read are those I wouldn’t change for anything. Silas Marner, Oliver Twist, everything Oscar Wilde ever wrote, 1984, Wuthering Heights and Tess of the— Oh wait.
I’d definitely rewrite Tess of the d’Urbervilles. That book infuriated me. I don’t even really remember what the story was, but I do remember feeling deeply betrayed by the rape-as-plot-point trope, which is probably why I’ve deleted it from my memory. Now I’m not sure if the book is actually any good or if I’m just thinking of it as a classic because it was written by a Caucasian male who is now long dead. I don’t want to have to re-read it to find out. Someone should definitely write a less misogynistic version of it. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for sure.
What is the last book/text that you disagreed with, and why?
I don’t read books that I disagree with—it’s not a habit I’ve acquired and I don’t see myself changing that. In total, I’m unlikely to be able to spend more than about five years of my adult life reading: I don’t want to waste that time on entire books that I disagree with. I read books that challenge me, of course, and that require me to expand my thinking in unexpected ways. With digital publications, however, I’m a bit more flexible. My curiosity about topics like gender and economics leads me in the direction of essays whose basic premises I disagree with.
It’s illuminating to see how arguments I consider flawed are constructed, and it is always gratifying to be able to identify why someone might make an argument I disagree with. It’s not the most recent text that I disagreed with, but J.K. Rowling’s essay arguing trans rights are a threat to cis women has been taking up a lot of space in my mind for the past few months.
What’s the last book that changed your mind about something?
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens made me briefly reconsider my general commitment to reading only women and/or queer writers , primarily of African and non-white descent. Like I said, my reading time is limited (especially since I’m on social media so much), so I try to prioritize books that I know I will be able to thoroughly enjoy.
I was surprised to have so thoroughly enjoyed Harari’s style, even when I found his positions to be either disingenuous or even entirely distasteful. It almost changed my mind about incorporating white men into my library. Almost.
I don’t read books that I disagree with—it’s not a habit I’ve acquired and I don’t see myself changing that.
What three books should we all be reading at this moment?
Recommend, bury or unwrite a book. You’d:
Recommend— The Invention of Women – Oyeronke Oyewumi
Bury— Oh God. Every single thing ever published by white US American evangelicals. The Left Behind series, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, He Came to Set the Captives Free and so on. Throw them all in an incinerator.
Unwrite— Orwell’s 1984. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s so good that if it had never been written, we could at least claim we have an excuse for having ended up where we’ve ended up as a species: grappling with surveillance, authoritarianism and cultish allegiance to demagogues and dictators.
What’s a common misconception about African feminism?
That it doesn’t exist. There are still very many people who think ‘Africa’ and ‘feminism’ are antithetical to each other, which is an idea that I find hilarious. There is no human demographic that takes kindly to subjugation; wherever injustice exists, an innate rejection of said injustice will also exist. Therefore, it seems obvious to me that resistance must have always existed wherever patriarchal subjugation has appeared on the continent. When people deny the legitimacy of ‘African feminism’, they betray the fact that they don’t quite grasp either what ‘Africa’ is, or what feminism is.
And about African queerness?
A common misconception is that African queerness is inherently remarkable. It’s about as remarkable as belly buttons that stick out, or being able to roll your tongue. Not everyone has qualities that differentiate them from the majority, so it’s kind of interesting and different to be queer, and it often makes a person seem cooler than the average. Otherwise though, African queerness is just a thing that is.
What book(s) on African feminism and/or queerness should be on everyone’s bookshelves?
Oh, I love this question. There’s of course The Heart of the Matter, where my Gerald Kraak Prize-winning essay, ‘Mothers and Men’, is published. Also, Stories of our Lives by the Nest Collective, Love Falls on Us by Robbie Corey-Boulet, and She Called Me Woman by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan, and Rafeeat Aliyu are brilliant. The Queer African Reader edited by Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas has been on my list for a couple of years, but I’ve yet to acquire or read it.
There are still very many people who think ‘Africa’ and ‘feminism’ are antithetical to each other, which is an idea that I find hilarious.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
For years I used to edit as I wrote, taking my sweet time until I felt thoroughly satisfied with every line of every paragraph—and ‘my sweet time’ used to be anything from one week to three years. Then I started writing full time for The Correspondent and very quickly learned that it’s nigh impossible to submit only ‘finished’ work when you have to publish multiple pieces every month.
Now I write (usually quite bad) drafts, which I then revise, sometimes multiple times, to arrive at publishable pieces. It has been very humbling to have to submit writing that I know is not great to be reviewed by other people, but I’ve been told I could do with some humility. I’m still trying to be okay with the realization that my writing can be quite bad. Editors are the real MVPs.
What was your process for writing ‘Mothers and Men’?
With ‘Mothers and Men’, I did the ‘edit as I write’ thing…for three years. Part of the slowness was due to the subject matter, which is both very difficult and very personal. But it was also due to my desire to say deeply intimate things in a way that honoured the experiences I was writing about. It was my own survival that I was describing; in many ways, ‘Mothers and Men’ was the therapy I couldn’t afford.
I don’t think I could’ve written it any faster, or allowed anyone else into the editing process. The version that made it into the Gerald Kraak anthology was edited only minimally and I remember the judges thanking me for doing such a good job of editing it myself. But when a writer sits with two or three thousand words for several years, I imagine a well-edited piece is the natural consequence.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t know if this is meaningful in the way you mean, but ‘normal is good enough’ is some very helpful and liberating writing advice that I still struggle to take to this day. Aslak Sira Myhre wrote those words on a whiteboard one day during the Farafina Trust writing workshop that I attended in 2015, and that sentence loosened some of the pressure that I have a tendency to put myself under as a writer. In fact, I wrote about my continued struggle to take this advice in a recent newsletter.
There’s so much excellent writing out in the world; some of it is even my own. So I don’t have to require myself to produce canon-worthy work every single time. Sometimes a story that is just okay is what I need to write—is what people need to read. I try to remember to make my peace with that.
I don’t have to require myself to produce canon-worthy work every single time. Sometimes a story that is just okay is what I need to write—is what people need to read. I try to remember to make my peace with that.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
The person who writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante, hands down. I only heard about her when she was outed by some overzealous reporter, three or four years ago. As I was following the heated conversations in the literary world about the ethics of naming a writer who clearly didn’t want to be named, I somewhat coincidentally received her four-part Neapolitan Series as a gift.
My Brilliant Friend is one of the most moving narratives of girlhood and growing up that I’ve ever read. There was so much of Elena and Lila’s life in ‘the neighbourhood’, as Ferrante calls the low-income housing area the book is set in, that felt like Nigeria to me. To this day, I identify with Lila in ways that are simultaneously liberating and heartbreaking. I wish I had discovered the books when I was a teenager myself; I would’ve loved the chance to grow up with Ferrante’s girls holding my hand.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I’m reading a lot of Black and/or queer feminist writing, much of it non-fiction. A few years ago I picked up a non-fiction habit and I haven’t been able to put it down since; the only fiction I’ve been really able to get into in that time is either young adult (I re-read Jeanne Duprau’s City of Ember series along with my daughter and also started re-reading the first four Harry Potter books, an adventure which was interrupted by Rowling’s manifestly horrible transphobia.)
The vast majority of what little proper reading I get around to doing these days is on themes of queerness, gender and feminism. Currently, I’m savouring Minna Salami’s Sensuous Knowledge. I also have bookmarks in Oyeronke Oyewumi’s What Gender is Motherhood?, Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, Chike Frank Edozien’s Lives of Great Men and several anthologies of queer narratives. My reading habits are a mess, as you can see. I blame social media.
What’s something simple about reading or writing non-fiction that still manages to surprise you?
I think one thing that I enjoy and am always pleasantly surprised by, especially as someone whose audiences are often majority non-Nigerian, is how strongly people can relate to stories that aren’t about them at all. It’s a truism, isn’t it, that the more specific something is, the more universal it can feel? I get so many emails from people in truly random places expressing how resonant my work is, regardless of how hyper-specific it is.
For instance, ‘Mothers and Men’ is a story that is so deeply personal that I couldn’t even tell it to myself for almost a decade. The responses that I’ve received to it, from people everywhere, continue to remind me that there is no need to aspire to tell ‘everyone’s’ story. I only need to tell mine.
The vast majority of what little proper reading I get around to doing these days is on themes of queerness, gender and feminism.
What are you currently working on?
I would like to be working on my first book of feminist theory. In real life, I’m working on an essay for The Correspondent about the importance of hope and a radical imagination.
Question from Moyosore Orekoya: What is the most important question everyone should be trying to answer?
‘How can I go deeper into love?’ I ask myself this question, in a variety of ways, all the time. My biggest motivation, the impetus of my life and work, is love. Love is exponentially more demanding and more transformative than what it has been reduced to in the popular imagination. It sits at the centre of what I consider the greatest intellectual and literary enquiries: the work of African and Afro-descendant women and/or queer folks such as the incomparable Toni Morrison, or Eloghosa Osunde, whose life’s work I think we can all agree will be similarly incomparable.
In my writing and theorizing, I ask myself what I have been denied as a result of my having been designated fundamentally unlovable—undeserving of care, safety, healing, or even my own self—due to my womanhood, my queerness, any and all of my departures from normativity. I ask myself what other people are denied on similar grounds. All of my thinking and writing starts from there.
We are taught to despise people who are made vulnerable by the myths of scarcity, survival in disconnection, and human homogeneity. But what we cannot love in others we cannot love in ourselves, and so we end up hating our own vulnerability—our humanness. First we are denied freedom by others who perpetuate these myths, then we deny ourselves by taking on the perpetuation, all because we don’t know how to embrace radical love.
What would our socio-political institutions, our relationship to resources, our practices of being in community with one another etc., look like if we understood love as a framework for liberation? And how do we go deeper into that?
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What is a book that you believe needs to be written in this cultural moment?⎈
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