When social justice advocate and author of ‘Decolonizing Human Trafficking’, Oyinkansola Wumkes, writes about human trafficking, she is intentional with her choice of language and imagery: ‘I try my best to avoid reducing survivors to mere flesh, stripping them of their personhood and making them into mere objects of violent and sexual impulses.’
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?
I owe my appreciation for literature to my mum. She worked in a bank and was away from home for most of the day when my siblings and I were in elementary school, but she made sure to never leave us idle. She bought stacks of books at a time for each of our reading levels and made us read them and narrate the stories to her. My first encounter with reading and getting lost in stories was with Enid Blyton novels. I must have read all the Famous Five and Secret Seven books and remember getting lost in the wide range of fictional genres she produced, from mystery to fairy tales, circus stories, and beyond. I also read a lot of Roald Dahl books, with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory being an all-time favourite.
My first encounter with a more ‘serious’ fictional text was a book called Basket of Flowers by Christoph Von Schmid. I must have been eleven years old at the time. Set in Germany over a century ago, it is the story of a 15-year-old girl and her father who faced great persecution and, eventually, the death penalty for a crime they did not commit. The key takeaway from that story was standing your ground in the face of persecution, and not wavering in the truth. This stuck with me over the years and definitely influenced how I interact with the world today, in some ways. I also read a lot of Francine Rivers and Ted Dekker books when I got into senior secondary school.
These books were my companions. They offered a form of solace and adventure that my environment couldn’t at the time.
What books from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
Probably Yoruba folktale books like Ajapa the tortoise. My first encounter with Ajapa books was in my teenage years but I wish I had delved into African and more specifically, Nigerian literature sooner. I’d like to pass these books on to someone younger, so they can get acquainted with the beauty of African storytelling.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
One book that comes to mind is Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. It is a central text in American political science though it is written by a Frenchman. Written in 1831, the text is essentially Tocqueville’s first-hand socio-political observation of the United States and has been lauded for being a masterful study of the constructive and adverse consequences of democracy, especially in comparison to aristocratic monarchical France. Tocqueville declares that America is such a successful democracy because of the equality of conditions and political equality that pervades it, and owes its successes to the sovereignty of the people over the government due to majority rule. I’d just like to help Tocqueville update that text with the extreme systemic inequalities that riddle the nation today and question whether it could still be considered a democracy as such if that was his key premise. These days, ‘democracy’ seems to be of the one per cent, for the one per cent, by the one per cent.
These days, ‘democracy’ seems to be of the one per cent, for the one per cent, by the one per cent.
What’s the last book/article you disagreed with, and why?
Honestly, I disagree with any text that calls for active ‘humanitarian intervention’ in African states. You’d be surprised how many there are out there. More often than not, the motivations for these intervention missions are hinged on selfish reasons such as the formation of strategic allies and commercial interests and only serve to further the strategically maintained destitution of the continent. Such missions become avenues for powerful states to satisfy their selfish interests and as a platform for power politics. In other cases, motivation for intervention lies in the White saviour mentality and perception of African peoples as being incapable of solving their own problems. These missions are often packaged and presented on moral grounds to gain popular support. Ultimately, the most offensive aspect of these endeavours lies in the overlooking of the foundational causes of the political, economic, or social strife that the destination country faces, which in most cases can be traced to interference by the very nations that are now referred to as first-world, who are intervening to ‘solve’ these very problems they had a hand in creating. This can be seen in the cases of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Biafran War to name a few.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
That would have to be Constructing the Pluriverse by Bernd Reiter. Growing up in Nigeria, ironically, I was taught to understand the world from the prevailing Western perspective and was equipped with tools to facilitate this worldview and approach throughout the course of my education. I am still greatly saddened by the missed opportunities at forming more holistic understandings of the world from a younger age, and the wealth of resources in Nigeria that were overlooked, in an attempt to achieve this proximity to ‘civilization’. I always wondered why all the prominent scholars and notable inventors were White men. Constructing the Pluriverse critiques the hegemony of the postcolonial Western tradition and its claims to universality by offering a set of ‘pluriversal’ approaches to understanding the coexisting epistemologies and practices of the different worlds and problems we inhabit and encounter. I read this book during my master’s programme, and it made me understand the need not only for the inclusion but also the prioritization of indigenous non-Western and feminist thought and practice as valid locations of knowledge production. The text points out the need to understand the relationship between knowledge and power. For too long, non-Western and feminist scholars’ works have been denied recognition and have been side-lined on the global stage, a practice that has served to strip them of credence as producers of valid knowledge and, thus, denied them access to power.
I disagree with any text that calls for active ‘humanitarian intervention’ in African states.
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your reading tastes/habits?
I picked up my first fictional book in years during this period. I am currently reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and have stretched it out over a span of three months because I never want it to end!
What’s a common misconception about human trafficking?
A pervasive misconception about human trafficking is that it almost always involves kidnapping or violent physical force to secure and control the target individual. In reality, psychological means such as manipulation, defrauding, and threats are used by traffickers to obtain commercial sex and exploitative labour. In certain contexts, like Edo State, which I explore in my piece ‘Decolonizing Human Trafficking’, spiritual coercion and control are key tactics used.
Do you mean actual ‘jazz’? How does that work? How do you theorize jazz in your research without things going left?
LOL yes, I mean actual ‘jazz’. Of course, that necessitates my belief in this form of spirituality as a valid locus of understanding and interacting with the world by the people who subscribe to it. It predates even Christianity in Nigerian history so I don’t see any reason why it should not be an avenue for theorizing, just like Christian theology is. It can be a little tough though, distinguishing fact from fiction in writing about this, because a lot of sources of the information I used for my essay are based on survivors’ testimonies about their experiences. So far, I’ve made sure to pull those testimonies from credible sources.
A pervasive misconception about human trafficking is that it almost always involves kidnapping or violent physical force to secure and control the target individual.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I draft first, then I edit. I tried the edit as you write approach, and it was not for me. I would get hung up on the most minute details and be unable to progress beyond that point and lose my train of thought. Now, I just dump my thoughts as they come and sort through them afterwards. There is often a lot of rearranging involved but like a puzzle, all the pieces eventually come together.
What was your process for writing ‘Decolonizing Human Trafficking’?
My primary motivation in writing this piece was drawing attention to the need for inter-epistemic approaches to solving issues like human trafficking. Unsurprisingly, there has been a disproportionate focus on material realities and their influences on trafficking in persons, and an overlooking of the spiritual realities that play a pressing role in this issue in certain contexts.
I selected the case for this study—Edo State, Nigeria—by identifying the region in Africa which has been internationally identified as a key problem area in the trafficking discourse. This particular state is a testament to the after-effects of a destructive colonial system, as well as a beacon in showcasing the ways Western solutions applied to non-Western situations yield futile results.
I determined which anti-trafficking protocol and report are the most influential globally by reading through scholarly articles addressing human trafficking issues, as well as by reading through a plethora of human trafficking reports, to see which two were referenced the most. The penultimate list included the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) global report on Trafficking in Persons, US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report, Polaris Project’s Human Trafficking Report, International Organization for Migration global database on victims of human trafficking and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
I narrowed my results down to the United States produced TVPA and TIP reports. I assessed the structure and development of these documents, paying attention to motivations that led to their formulation in an attempt to isolate limitations to their consideration of non-Western understandings of the human trafficking issue and also to see if they considered non-Western options of solving this problem. This research does not claim to be exhaustive but rather serves to challenge the rigid knowledge regimes that pervade the discourse and sensitize readers to question the politics of knowledge production and contemplate diverse methods and techniques in addressing the trafficking conundrum, especially those that involve a contextual understanding of the issue in specific states.
And what’s one thing you try to do when you write about sensitive issues like human trafficking?
I am intentional with my choice of language and imagery when writing about trafficking, especially sex trafficking. I try my best to avoid reducing survivors to mere flesh, stripping them of their personhood and making them into mere objects of violent and sexual impulses. This act of ‘pornotroping’ unfortunately riddles the human trafficking discourse and is one of many ways Black and Brown people are reduced to their suffering and widely portrayed in the same light. I try to remind readers that these trafficking targets/survivors are regular people like you and me.
I am intentional with my choice of language and imagery when writing about trafficking, especially sex trafficking.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
That you cannot write what you do not know. So more so than spending time writing, spend time reading, having conversations, and immersive experiences. Then, you’ll have something to write about. On the other hand, I would say that it is going a bit too far to say things like ‘if you can’t state your case perfectly clearly in a single page, then you do not really understand it.’ I think there are many things people can know, even deeply, but may struggle to communicate with each other, or on paper. Therefore, there is a way in which a writer has to ‘speak the language’ of their potential audience, which, combined with knowing your subject, represent probably the two main objectives in writing.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
These days I really enjoy reading and writing about race relations. I took a couple of Critical Race classes in grad school that blew my mind. Race, though composed of extremely arbitrary categorizations of people, in many ways is the foundation upon which the modern world was built, and so understanding the way it functions and is wielded is key in understanding the greater workings of the world as we know it. The following are some texts that have helped me formulate my understanding of the phenomenon: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kemdi, The Man-Not by Tommy J. Curry, At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle M. McGuire, Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home by Tameka B. Hobbs, and From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton.
I think there are many things people can know, even deeply, but that we struggle to communicate with another, or on paper.
What can we expect you to write about next?
I don’t necessarily have a plan for my writing; I just kind of write about whatever injustice or exploitation and oppression is ongoing in the world that I can wrap my head around. Unfortunately, there are a lot of those, so I don’t think I’m going to stop writing anytime soon.
Question from Grey Atanda: What is the place of love, kindness, and forgiveness in these global modern cultures (the cancel culture, for example, or the ‘dragging’ culture) that we have created?
Issues like the ‘cancel culture,’ which are highly politically charged, need to be approached with a level of nuance that can be difficult to maintain without a dynamic and precise definition of terms like love and kindness. For example, it should be recognized that there really are some perspectives/ideologies and systems that ought to be cancelled, or that ought to be systematically deconstructed and delegitimized—see Nazism in Europe, or racism around the globe, for example. On the other hand, it should also be recognized that a ‘cancel culture’ can sometimes create an atmosphere in which forgiveness may be unnecessarily disincentivized, even in cases when it may serve a practical function of reintegrating a person into society as a productive, cooperative participant. Thus, a deep, sophisticated, and personal sense of what love and kindness ideally are and how they may apply differently in different contexts should be consistently emphasized, regardless of how it benefits one’s position in any given social group.
I think this question necessitates a clear definition of love and kindness.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
How do you make your voice in your writing authoritative without being overbearing?⎈
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