Writer and author of ‘Egba Women Unite!’, Lanaire Aderemi, wants to correct the misconception that African revolutions revolved around elite individuals: ‘It is important to acknowledge the role the masses play in liberation movements because, so often, the history that is written in the now is so obsessed with celebrities.’
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 and which female characters stood out in the books you grew up reading?
In my primary school, we were encouraged to read all kinds of books. There were competitions for people who read and reviewed the most books and I was part of informal books clubs that emerged in school corridors and during playtime. The girls in my school read a lot of Jacqueline Wilson and so I read books such as The Suitcase Kid and Dustbin Baby. In secondary school, I read the books that were taught as part of the curriculum: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Alan Patton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I also read an anthology of poems titled Songs of Ourselves and dramatic texts like An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The female character that stood out to me in the books I read growing up was Enitan from Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come because of her feminist spirit. I was really young when I read the novel. I don’t think I had heard of feminism, but I always questioned injustice, especially the injustice women were told to endure. Reading Enitan’s experience of being a woman in Nigeria allowed me to understand that the personal really is political.
If you could rewrite a female character in a classic book/text, which character would it be and why?
In July, I listened to a lot of Dave. In one of my favourite songs, ‘Heart Attack’ (We’re All Alone in This Together, 2021), Dave says: ‘you can drown for your king/ you don’t know about Ophelia’. His reference of Shakespeare’s character, Ophelia, instantly brought back my memories of Shakespeare’s presentation of Ophelia in Hamlet—passive and silent and only outspoken when she becomes mad. Ophelia was mainly described as Hamlet’s lover and Polonius’ daughter. Like many female characters in texts, her identity and destiny were linked to her ability to serve the men around her. After Hamlet rejects her, declaring ‘get thee to a nunnery’ and her father, Polonius is killed (ironically by her lover), Ophelia runs mad. In my rewriting of Ophelia’s character, I would provide her with a soliloquy that explores her feelings, thoughts and dreams beyond Hamlet’s unreciprocated love and grief. What were her thoughts about Denmark? What were her dreams (both fulfilled and unfulfilled)? What were her fears? Finally, I would rewrite her character so that she lives but does not drown. In my story, Ophelia would fake her death and conspire with Gertrude who would report her death as true. The two lovers of Hamlet would show up dramatically in the final scene and poison Claudius (the King), Hamlet (Ophelia’s lover and Gertrude’s son) and the other royal members of the court. They would then both leave the rotten state of Denmark.
In my primary school, we were encouraged to read all kinds of books. There were competitions for people who read and reviewed the most books and I was part of informal books clubs that emerged in school corridors and playtime.
What’s a book everyone should read before leaving university?
The ‘leaving university’ aspect of the question feels limiting. I assume the question is asking what book might mark one’s rite of passage or evidence of their personal or intellectual growth. In that case, I would suggest Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault because of its examination of power and surveillance through the brilliant metaphor of the panopticon. Although, ultimately prescriptions of what people ‘should’ read or not read seem to cause more harm than good.
I would suggest reading Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault because of its examination of power and surveillance through the brilliant metaphor of the panopticon.
What’s the last book/text you disagreed with, and why?
I disagreed with the ending of Hamlet. I felt that there was still some ambiguity between whether Hamlet faked his madness or was mad. Although not every book or text needs to answer the reader’s question, since his madness was unresolved till his death, my feelings towards his death were also ambiguous. The lines between tragedy and comedy are so blurry which might explain why I found the way he died (through a poisonous sword) amusing but I also wonder whether Shakespeare was also unsure of what to do with Hamlet, the protagonist. By the end, I felt nothing.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
I read an essay called ‘Making, Knowing and Judging’ from The Dyer’s Hand by W. H. Auden which changed my mind about imitation. While writing a short story, I was starting to feel as though my voice was beginning to sound like the voices of writers I had read; I found this worrying. Auden, however, wrote favourably about imitation. He said the budding writer: ‘will realise how important is the art of imitation, for he will not infrequently be called upon to imitate himself’. I was always wary about imitation because it felt like copying and plagiarizing—imitation felt dishonest. Auden made me understand that imitation requires attending to other writers’ ‘diction, rhythms and habits of sensibility’. I have become convinced that spending time studying other writers’ habits of sensibility isn’t always a bad and dishonest thing. In fact, it is an admirable thing.
Which authors would you say have influenced how your writing ‘sounds’?
I think some of my writing reflects my affinity for certain words and syntax that I might have encountered in other texts. With essays, I think I share Saidiya Hartman’s reflective and intimate narrative style and her interest in terminologies around ‘archives’ and ‘silence’. With poetry and plays, I share Ntozake Shange’s musicality and imagery of food and joy. Ultimately, I hope to sound like myself but I believe it’s up to the reader to recognize any reverberations of writers that they have read.
Overall, how has the pandemic affected your reading?
I procrastinated less. Before the pandemic, I added several books to my reading list but rarely read them. From October 2020 to September 2021, I was studying for an M.A degree in Creative Writing and so, I read a wide range of literary texts. I became more open to reading other genres such as magic realism and dystopian fiction. I also read a lot more plays, short stories, and poems, although I think this is because I was reading what I wanted to write.
I was always wary about imitation because it felt like copying and plagiarizing—imitation felt dishonest. W. H. Auden made me understand that imitation requires attending to other writers’ ‘diction, rhythms and habits of sensibility’.
What’s a common misconception about women in African revolutions / anti-colonial movements?
A common misconception about women in African revolutions/anti-colonial movements is that their organizing was led by one person or historical figure. Most anti-colonial movements I know such as the ‘Aba Women’s Protest’ and the ‘Egba Revolt’ were led by the masses. It is important to acknowledge the role the masses play in liberation movements because, so often, the history that is written in the now is so obsessed with celebrities. In fact, I have noticed that even when people reference anti-colonial movements, they often glorify one person (often elite). I believe revolution is a collective act. So, when history acknowledges women in anti-colonial movements, it is important that we remember that there were other people involved beyond the heroes that we sing about in songs. To erase the imaginative acts of resistance and solidarity of organizers, writers, thinkers, and demonstrators is violent. No woman danced by themselves even in revolutions. We danced with each other. And when we dig through the archives, even the soil has traces of a collective dance.
How did you first realize that women were insufficiently represented in African history?
I first realized this during a General Studies class in secondary school. Every week, we were taught about Africans that made history. I remember in year nine, after several weeks of learning about war and military rule, my teacher randomly recounted events from the Aba Women’s Protest of 1929. I remember he described the women as rebellious and barbaric because they burnt colonial buildings. At that time, being ‘rebellious’ was a very dirty word. I remember after the class, I rushed to the library, determined to read more about the Aba Women. I remember asking the librarian: ‘Where are the history books about women?’ and I remember she was silent.
Which three books should be on everyone’s bookshelf?
It is important to acknowledge the role the masses play in liberation because, so often, the history that is written in the now is so obsessed with celebrities.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I write a brain dump first. Then I edit this brain dump and watch it slowly become a first draft. I step away from my first draft for at least a day and then edit again. I watch this first draft slowly become a second draft. When this is through, I change the colour and size of the font and edit for the final time.
What font colour and size do you start with and why does this change by the end?
I start with black 12-point font. I change the colour and size of my texts so that I can easily spot errors in my work as I edit.
What was your process for writing ‘Egba Women Unite!’?
In Bibi Bakare Yusuf’s essay, ‘Beyond Determinism: The Phenomenology of African Female Existence’, she encourages African feminists to examine the lived experiences of the people around us. My essay, ‘Egba Women Unite!’ was inspired by a conversation I had with my grandma on the Egba Revolt. Although she was only a child at the time, she recalled the modes of organizing Egba women used, such as songs, strikes and protests. Following our conversation, I read Judith Byfield’s seminal essay, ‘Taxation, Women, and the Colonial State: Egba Women’s Tax Revolt’, which taught me about the ways Egba ‘women detonate[…]and go around patriarchal mines’ (Obioma, 2004: 378). From reading Byfield’s work, I also discovered the ‘intricacies, nuances, contradictions, and potentialities’ (Bakare-Yusuf, 2003: 10) of Egba women’s creative and innovative forms of organizing which was grounded in anti-capitalist framework. After researching, I gathered all my ideas into one document and edited the essay for months. The Republic offered rigorous feedback which nurtured my writing. From the reading, recording, recollecting, writing, drafting, and editing process, I learnt the value of being pruned and refined, much like the branches Jesus talks about in John 15 of the Bible.
You’re also producing a play inspired by this essay. What’s one thing you thought about as you developed the play?
I thought about pushing the boundaries of storytelling by using the body’s language and movement as mediating devices. In my play, the Black body recognizes, remembers, and resists state violence through embodied language(s). And this language is not just words. It is poetry, song, dance and movement. In my play, the body speaks. And so, I used poetry, song, and dance to articulate Egba women’s engagement with resistance and solidarity.
My essay, ‘Egba Women Unite!’ was inspired by a conversation I had with my grandma on the Egba Revolt. Although she was only a child at the time, she recalled the modes of organizing Egba women used, such as songs, strikes and protests.
What’s more important to you: the story or how it is written?
The style in which something is written is more important to me. My mind rarely forgets a writer’s stylistic modes and approach to form. I tend to remember when writers obey, disobey, subvert, and rework language even if I sometimes forget the details of a story.
What’s your favourite stylistic choice or quirk that you’ve found in other writers?
I really like Bernardine Evaristo’s fluid and free-flowing form in Girl, Woman, Other. Evaristo’s absence of speech marks and indirect speech immerses the reader. When I read her work, I feel like I am swimming in words and worlds. I read in an interview that she calls her form, ‘fusion fiction’ and this form has particularly influenced my play with language and decision to rule-make and rule-break in my poems, plays and short stories.
One of my favourite poems is ‘Love after Love’ by Derek Walcott. Although Walcott’s stylistic choices vary from poem to poem, I admire his use of second-person narration, short lines and single words in this particular poem. In ‘Love after Love’, originally published in his poetry collection, Sea Grapes, Walcott skilfully plays with timing and repetition. His poem gently reassures the reader but never feels patronizing. It’s remarkable.
And do you think of writing as a talent (something innate) or as a skill (something we learn)?
I think of writing as a skill since it can be developed with practice. Writing requires being imaginative and I think we are all born with the same imaginative ability. Although, I believe some people are predisposed to certain ‘writer traits’ which make being imaginative easier, such as: memory retrieval, problem solving, visualization, drawing connections and being observant. Of course, these ‘writer traits’ can be developed over time.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
In my first year of university, my tutor, Sivamohan Valluvan, wrote some feedback on an essay I had written, that the most skilful writers ensure the transition between their paragraphs are seamless. Although his advice was on an essay, I have applied this to the plays, music, poems, films, and short stories I make. I pay attention to the ‘in-between’—the ‘in-between’ is the interlude between two songs or the transition between two scenes of a play. It might seem small and insignificant but absence of care for this will be noticed intuitively by the reader or listener.
I tend to remember when writers obey, disobey, subvert, and rework language but I sometimes forget the details of a story
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I love reading reviews—reviews of books, films, plays, art, and music. I love Ope Adedeji’s newsletter, Books and Banter, because of its conversational tone and diverse curation of ideas and insights of many, many worlds.
What can we expect you to write about next?
I just finished co-writing an audio play for my next project, ‘story story’, a four-part audio series that explores forgotten Nigerian history. The first episode premiered on the 7th of October and was produced by lanaire aderemi productions and Loopify Media.
As we end the year, which text(s) would you say shaped your 2021?
Archival Fever by Bibi Bakare-Yusuf; Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine; ‘No Place for Self Pity, No Room for Fear’ by Toni Morrison; Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson; ‘Venus in Two Acts’ by Saidiya Hartman; Bezalel: Redeeming a Renegade Creation by Chris John Otto.
And this time next year, what’s something you hope to have changed, or hope has changed in your life or work?
I hope to have a poetry pamphlet published and my play on the Egba women commissioned. Both projects document personal, cultural and collective histories and I am certain they will resonate with people.
Question from Tosin Osasona: Do you finalize your research into a theme before you start writing or do you do your research progressively as you write?
I finalize my research into themes first. I am a visual learner, so I use mind maps to plan my writing. Each cloud in the mind map is dedicated to a theme which I develop through plans and drafts.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What song best describes your writing style?⎈
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