As a journalist, author of ‘Edo State’s Struggle for Meaning’, Ope Adetayo, often encounters misconceptions about Africa: ‘I read a lot of reports on the so-called Global South, especially “Africa”, and what we have come to glorify is bad news, tragic news.’
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?
To be honest, I did not grow up around books. I grew up in the streets of Mushin in Lagos, where books and reading are strange because people are only trying to survive violence and poverty. In secondary school, I was in science class throughout. I recently transitioned to the humanities in the university where I am currently studying English after making a rebellious academic detour caused by my fascination with language and its ability to process my imagination in a way nothing else can. The only book I retained the memory of reading as a child is I.E Ufondu’s The Fruit of Honesty. But in my teenagehood, I developed a habit of reading after coming in contact with Wole Soyinka’s Abiku, it was the first major literary piece I read and I was drawn into its vortex of meaning and mysticism. I then began to read African classics like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God; Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest, Death and the King’s Horseman, The Lion and the Jewel; Camara Laye’s African Child; Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy; Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy; Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood; Niyi Osundare’s Village Voices and Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine.
I grew up in the streets of Mushin in Lagos, where books and reading are strange because people are only trying to survive violence and poverty.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
It is a no-brainer for me because the book still haunts me. That is Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood. I would like to rewrite it because sometimes I think about Nnu Ego and what her fictional life is. In my mind, she is a fictional embodiment of the lives of many Nigerian women I have seen. Her suffering is palpable and I still feel for her. That is what classics have, the ability to be eternal. So, in my own version, Nnu Ego would get a happy ending, a sort of relief.
What’s a recent book/text you disagreed with, and why?
Ruth Maclean’s ‘A Continent Where the Dead are not Counted’ in The New York Times. The reason I disagree will be pretty obvious to everybody. First, it reinforces western tropes of seeing Africa as a monolith because only two African countries were featured in the piece and it concludes that we don’t count our dead in Africa!
Second, as Africans, we know that death is a passage in itself with its own ritual details with all their significance. The piece fails to acknowledge these nuances. Even though it is a report on the pandemic, the people’s cultural sensibilities should be something to really consider.
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your reading tastes/habits?
Personally, the pandemic has shown me that the small details of our lives that we take for granted are actually what make us who we are. Since the pandemic, I have been more interested in the ‘intimate’, the small details. The casual fistbump you give to a friend, the brief hug, all these tiny actions, and how they come together to give our lives their meanings are what I am looking forward to in a text now.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
There are two books here for me: Jennifer Makumbi’s Manchester Happened and Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside: Short Stories. They disabused my mind of the fantasy of life in the West as Africans. In the short stories, I see in tiny and magnified ways how you can never be fully and unconditionally human as an African migrant in the West.
Since the pandemic, I have been more interested in the ‘intimate’, the small details. The casual fistbump you give to a friend, the brief hug…
What’s a common misconception about journalism in Africa or African journalism?
The common misconception about journalism in Africa, I feel, is that the piece must portray a tragic part of our lives to be ‘African’ or to be excellent. I read a lot of reports on the so-called ‘Global South’, especially Africa, and what we have come to glorify is bad news, tragic news. Perhaps I am guilty of this, too. We should look for more hopeful stories to tell because our lives as Africans are not about tragedies alone.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
My writing process is a very slow one. I edit as a write. I spend as much time as I can on a sentence; finetuning it and making sure it is as clean as possible before going to the next. If there is a problem with a sentence or a paragraph, I don’t mind spending the entire day.
What was your process for writing ‘Edo State’s Struggle for Meaning’?
For a long while, I have been looking at the ideoscape of Nigeria’s politics and I came to the conclusion that it is barren. I did my research on the history of defection in Nigeria and right from the First Republic (1963-1966), we have had the cancer of political gallivanting. The research motivated me to write an essay and thankfully, an election was around the corner that was characterized by defections so I used it to prove my point. So, it basically started with an observation, then research, then writing, and several months of editing.
If there is a problem with a sentence or a paragraph, I don’t mind spending the entire day.
Put in the work and remember you are on your own journey. This piece of advice has two parts. First, to develop as a writer you must realize writing is work, not a fantasy. It is a process—a process of creation. There is nothing divine about it, it is work. Second, our evolutions as writers are dissimilar. There is a distinct path for each of us and that your distinct path is what you must embrace to grow.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
This is a tough choice because as I have said, I did not have a ‘literary’ childhood filled with books in my room and there are a whole lot of authors I would have loved to read growing up. Anyway, I will be biased towards Edwidge Danticat.
To develop as a writer you must realize writing is work, not a fantasy. It is a process—a process of creation. There is nothing divine about it, it is work.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
In summary, I like an excellently told story. If you write it well enough to sustain my attention, I am definitely going to read it. But these days I am more drawn to long, narrative reports like Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal’s ‘The Uncounted,’ Anne Applebaum’s ‘History Will Judge The Complicit,’ Alex Tizon’s ‘My Family’s Slave,’ Beau Donelly’s ‘“It takes a village to killa child”: Uganda’s Hidden Children,’ Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s ‘A Most American Terroist: The Making of Dylaan Roof,’ Liam Taylor’s ‘They Came With Plainclothes With Gun: “Abducted” by Ugandan Army,’ Madeleine Wattenbarger’s ‘Where surveillance cameras work, But the justice system does not,’ etc. The list is endless.
What can we expect you to write about next?
This is tricky as a journalist because I do not know myself but generally, I am more interested in stories about minority and minoritized groups.
Question from Nanjala Nyabola: What is a book that you believe needs to be written in this cultural moment?
The #EndSARS protests last year showed me that Nigerians understand the pyramid of oppression and rather than dismantling it, they rather want to be at the top. We refuse to see the intersections of our lives and the book that will perhaps make us see it is what is essentially needed now. Also, another book I feel should be written is a honest, no-holds-barred critique of what we have seen Nigeria’s goverment morph into since 2015. Nigeria’s literary landscape needs to be more confrontational with politics. We are perilously close to full-blown fascism. The question is who will write it and at what costs?
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What can be done to inject activism back to Nigerian writing?⎈
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