Author of ‘Shielding the Spirit of a Continent: An Existential Argument for the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage?’ Desola Olaleye, wants people to understand that fighting for the restitution of African cultural artefacts is not a misplaced priority: ‘I wish more people would understand that the people fighting for the restitution of African cultural artefacts are not doing it because they are bored or because of misplaced priorities. This movement forms a crucial part of the decolonization process.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized. Editor’s note: This interview is available in our print issue, A New Chapter for African Artefacts?. Buy the issue here.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
As a child I was surrounded by business books and self-help literature with a particular focus on finance and emotional intelligence. My father worked as a banker and later as a strategy consultant, and my mother owned a bakery in Lagos. So, they cared a lot about business and management and believed their children should read books that would teach them how to think smartly and cultivate habits necessary for fuelling profitable endeavours. Because of my parents’ desire to raise children who could become productive individuals, I found myself unable to escape books like Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within. Beyond self-help books, I read Nigerian storybooks. My grandfather would take me and my siblings to Baba Odu Bookshop on Adelabu Street in Surulere where we lived. There, I would find stories about young Nigerian characters.
As a teenager, while attending high school in the UK, I started reading books for myself. At one point, I was very interested in European history and read books such as Frederick Redlich’s Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet and Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Woman Who Shot Mussolini. I quickly moved onto an interest in philosophy, mainly moral philosophy and the philosophy of religion. I remember reading Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life at 16 or 17 and I enjoyed it so much. One saying by de Unamuno that I still love today is: ‘A miserere sung in common by a multitude tormented by destiny has as much value as a philosophy. It is not enough to cure the plague: we must learn to weep for it. Yes, we must learn to weep! Perhaps that is the supreme wisdom.’
I didn’t read much fiction as a child. In my first or second year of high school, I borrowed a copy of Mary Monroe’s God Don’t Like Ugly from the local library, only because I was struck by the title. I can’t remember reading it until the end because I was distracted. Eventually, I opted to study English Literature at AS Level and I came to fully appreciate fiction. I enjoyed The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Outside of school, I read the poetry of Andrew Marvell, Gwendolyn Brooks, Wendell Berry, Elizabeth Bishop, Czesław Miłosz, and Conrad Aiken. I have always considered poetry books to be dictionaries of the soul. Sometimes, I experience feelings I cannot explain on my own, but I know there is a poem out there, waiting to guide me through the translations.
Now I realize that, as a child, I was always searching for something in books, something that would help me make sense of myself or the world. I had a lot of questions and fears. But there were times when I wasn’t so interested in reading books but in being near them because they comforted me.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
I think the text that represents me at this moment is Avram Alpert’s The Good-Enough Life, published earlier this year. It’s a book I’m still making my way through, but it already resonates strongly with me. The main message of this text is that it is fine to not aspire to greatness but to live a good enough life, a life that is ordinary and far from being glittery. Not all of us can be famous and not all of us should be famous. I think many people crave fame and ‘bigness’ without fully understanding what they entail. They want to ‘blow’, as Nigerians say, without grappling with the potential consequences of blowing. Many celebrities have struggled with the anxieties and burdens that accompany fame. Yet, people still crave fame. Alpert suggests that such desire is a major contributor to the mental health crisis in our societies. This desire for greatness makes us anxious, unsettled, and never fully satisfied because the void within us is only momentarily filled until it is once again emptied.
The question, ‘To be or not to be?’ does not quite capture the conundrum of being human today. I think the question that seems to rattle us—at least those of us who have chosen to be—is: How to be? During the peak periods of the COVID-19 pandemic when lockdowns were inevitable, this was a question I posed to myself. People will respond to this question in different ways depending on their dispositions, worldview, and circumstances. For me, however, I have found that, at this moment, living a good enough life is how to be.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
It was something I read in Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit’s book, The Spirit of Cities. It was in a chapter they wrote on Oxford as the city of learning. To aid their argument that the University of Oxford is an institution that produces scholars as opposed to researchers, they present what I feel is a dubious dichotomy between researchers and scholars. They claim a researcher is someone who seeks to ‘explore’ and ‘unearth the unknown and show it to the not-knowing’. On the other hand, a scholar is one who aims only to accumulate knowledge; such an individual is not concerned with learning anything new but is rather focused on training themselves to teach students about established frames of knowledge. They describe natural scientists as researchers and intellectual historians as scholars.
While I don’t disagree that researchers and scholars do the things Bell and de-Shalit say they do, I don’t agree that there is a fine distinction between ‘researchers’ and ‘scholars’ and their ways of working. I think there are researchers who do all that scholars do, and scholars who do all that researchers do as described by Bell and de-Shalit. My view is that it is an unnecessary distinction to make.
I am more moved by the ability to make readers care about the bland and quotidian through enthralling writing.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I recently read Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and I’ve since been thinking about how he discusses social interaction. He says the following: ‘If we treat an interaction as a dialogue between two teams, it will sometimes be convenient to call one team the performers and to call the other team the audience or the observers, neglecting momentarily that the audience, too, will be presenting a team-performance’. In most social settings, almost everyone is performing. Goffman claims that one group may belittle itself to sustain the superior status projected by another group. He argues that observers play a role in protecting the status of others. In other words, one’s status is validated by people who choose to attach a certain value to that status.
This is a significant point as it implies that we have the power to disrupt and dismantle social hierarchies. It raises this question: If it is the case that everyone is performing, is it not then feasible for us to challenge social hierarchies through a collective decision to stop performing? Goffman’s claims have improved how I think about the practicality of revolutionary change. Contrary to what sceptics of social change want us to think, an alternative and more equal social system is possible if we want it.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
For me, it will always be how a text is written. Understandably, the subject matters. When you think about the fact that there are topics that may be deemed taboo subjects, you realize just how important the subject of a text is, how bold an author is for choosing to discuss such a topic. But I am more moved by the ability to make readers care about the bland and quotidian through enthralling writing. Attention is key. People are more likely to remember something that holds their attention and I think being able to hold another person’s attention through captivating writing is powerful.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
My writing process is unregulated and still taking shape, but I have observed a pattern. I usually start by reflecting, reading, and taking notes to construct my argument or the key message I wish to relay in my writing. When I think I have a good grasp of what I want to say, I start writing but I never stop reading—that happens alongside writing. I also edit as I write, even before I produce a first draft. This is because I feel motivated by reading sentences and paragraphs that sound good to me. Having written at least two paragraphs, I edit them to make them better. Witnessing improvements to my writing pushes me to continue writing. If I ever get stuck, which I sometimes do, I pause the writing and focus more on reading to help stimulate ideas. I think a large part of writing is reading, and many writers have said this so it must be true.
What was your process for writing ‘Shielding the Spirit of a Continent: An Existential Argument for the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage?‘
It was a very straightforward process. I first created a plan for my argument, highlighting the key literatures I sought to engage with and draw on. I was already familiar with Heidegger’s philosophy, but I felt it was important to read his works carefully and with fresh eyes to ensure I was interpreting his theories correctly. I’m sure many people who have studied Heidegger already know this, but he wasn’t a very good writer. His prose was unnecessarily complex and obscure. (Although I have heard a few staunch supporters say he was simply a victim of poor translations from German to English.) So it was essential for me to read Heidegger alongside interpretations of Heidegger. I am grateful to Hubert Dreyfus for his extensive work on Heidegger.
Once I figured out how I wanted to use Heidegger’s theories, everything else came together nicely. Due to a longstanding interest in African art, I already knew a lot about the politics surrounding African art. Some of the texts I refer to in the essay were already in my home library, so I knew how to weave them into discussions in the essay. I completed the first draft within a week. I edited as I read and wrote, but I stopped at some point to let the text grow cold before returning to do a series of more intensive edits.
My writing process is unregulated and still taking shape, but I have observed a pattern.
Why was it important that you took on a philosophical argument for the movement to reclaim African cultural artefacts?
In his book, How I See Philosophy, Friedrich Waismann describes philosophy as the ‘piercing of that deadcrust of tradition and convention, the breaking of those fetters which bind us to inherited preconceptions, so as to attain a new and broader way of looking at things’. Therefore, by philosophizing, we can renew our practices and beliefs; we are able to improve our understanding of the world.
In line with this characterization of philosophy, I felt it was important to use a philosophical argument for the reclamation movement because I believe philosophy offers us tools for building a nuanced understanding of social movements and struggles. I had seen many arguments for the reclamation of African cultural artefacts, but I hadn’t read any that drew explicitly on philosophical theories to make a case for restitution. And because philosophy has had a constructive impact on how I think about life’s complexities, I felt it would be useful to show how philosophical theories can be relevant to a debate as complex as the restitution of African cultural artefacts. While I acknowledge the epistemic importance of African philosophy, I also wanted to show that continental (European) philosophy can be usefully applied to Africa-specific debates and dilemmas.
I felt it was important to use a philosophical argument for the reclamation movement because I believe philosophy offers us tools for building a nuanced understanding of social movements and struggles.
What’s one thing you wish more people understood about the movement to return stolen African arts and cultural artefacts?
I wish more people would understand that the people fighting for the restitution of African cultural artefacts are not doing it because they are bored or because of misplaced priorities. This movement forms a crucial part of the decolonization process. People insist we are in a postcolonial era, but the truth is we are not quite there yet. We remain troubled by the ghosts of colonizers and many Africans remain trapped in a colonial mentality. There is so much work to be done, so much work. And this movement is extremely important for loosening the hold of colonialism over us.
I wrote ‘Shielding the Spirit of a Continent’ because I believe intellectual labour should accompany the work being done by cultural activists on the ground. European thinkers such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and G. W. F. Hegel produced arguments that were essentially endorsements of slavery and colonialism. Through my writing, I echo the voices of intellectuals like Emmanuel Eze, Sophie Oluwole, and Olufemi Taiwo who have sought to expose and challenge the falsehoods spewed by racist European thinkers. One barrier to the restitution of African cultural artefacts is the disagreeable attitude of Africans who see no value in the movement or the artefacts; they agree with claims that Africans are less intelligent, less responsible, and less important than Europeans, and thus consider the movement to be reckless and futile. The negative perceptions Africans have of themselves, and their continent, is a traffic in the decolonization movement, and we need to clear the pathway to freedom. By highlighting the positive qualities of African culture and calling for more Africans to support the reclamation movement, I do not seek to undermine the fact that African societies have imperfections or that African leaders have contributed to social disasters on the continent that need urgent solutions. Indeed, we have the issue of corrupt African leaders and growing inequalities to deal with but all corrective interventions matter; one liberation struggle shouldn’t have to cancel out the other.
What makes African art different from other arts?
This is a tough question; one I feel unable to answer in a straightforward manner. Today, what we refer to as African art takes multiple forms so I’m reluctant to essentialize African art or potentially ‘other’ it. I think artists of African heritage should be free to make art that doesn’t necessarily bear a certain connotation or fit into a box labelled as strictly African and nothing else. African artists shouldn’t carry the burden of representing their continent through their creative practice unless, of course, they wish to.
That said, of all types of art, I don’t know of any that has been abused as much as African art. By this, I don’t just mean the looting of African cultural artefacts—artworks of other cultures or continents have also been looted by Europeans. What I’m referring to here is the way European artists like Pablo Picasso built or accelerated their careers by appropriating themes of African art but failed to challenge the disparagement of Africans and their cultures. In 1914 the photographer Alfred Stieglitz held an exhibition of African art at the 291 gallery in New York. His intention was to put a spotlight on African art, yet he named the exhibition ‘Statuary in Wood by African Savages’. Similarly, his acquaintance Marius de Zayas observed how much African art was shaping European art in the twentieth century but still described Africans as brutes whose brains fail to develop fully. African art has played a foundational role in many of the modernist artworks we revere today, but it is not duly recognized. We don’t tend to highlight the stylistic influence or contributions of African art in the way we do of other arts. In mainstream art criticism, African art is not discussed enough which is a shame. I think the American critic, Olu Oguibe, is one person who has tried to correct this problem. Through his textured reflections on art, he shows us what African-sensitive art criticism looks like. So, coming back to your question: If I really had to highlight something that makes African art different, I’d say African art stands out as having a long history of being underestimated. It is a type of art that is yet to receive its flowers while other types of art, especially European art, remain covered in petals of adoration.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your writing?
I once shared with my partner something I had written and mentioned that I didn’t think I had much of a voice or style to my writing. He told me I did, that I often sought to criticize something, anything. It was interesting to hear because I hadn’t been aware of this tendency. But having reviewed all I have written so far, I can’t deny that there’s often an element of critique or attack (not the vicious kind). That said, I still don’t think I have an established voice yet because my writing is still growing.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t feel like I can choose or share just one. I’ve received many pieces of great writing advice from friends and established writers. But I’ll share something that Audre Lorde once said: ‘Don’t wait for inspiration…You don’t need to be inspired to write a poem. You need to reach down and touch the thing that’s boiling inside of you and make it somehow useful.’ I used to think I had to wait until I could miraculously write. I held the belief that writing was a gift, and I just had to wait to see if I had been blessed with this gift. But I soon realized I got it all wrong and, if I’m honest, I was being lazy.
Writing is a grind. It won’t always be exciting or magical. I realized I shouldn’t wait for exciting revelations and aha! moments because mundane efforts make the masterpiece. Lorde’s advice helps me see writing as something very ordinary and achievable. This understanding of writing helps me get the job done. Inspiration won’t always come, but I know ideas will make a frequent appearance if I invest time into reading, observing, and thinking critically.
Jenny Boully’s Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life is also packed with brilliant pieces of advice, including those that manifest when you read between the lines. A major takeaway from this book—a book I hold close to my heart—is this: to be a good writer is to live fully. Living fully doesn’t mean living extravagantly or accumulating experiences simply to check off a bucket list. Living fully is about engaging wholly with events and outcomes that the wind pushes in your direction. Living fully is about letting yourself feel things all the way, breaking boundaries with yourself and maybe others too. Because of the message in this book, I try to make a conscious effort to interpret my experiences differently, to appreciate them even though some may be painful. Who knows, they may one day act as useful writing material.
One barrier to the restitution of African cultural artefacts is the disagreeable attitude of Africans who see no value in the movement or the artefacts.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Sarah Ladipo Manyika inspires me. She seems like a writer who is in this line of work not for the accumulation of bylines or to appear extremely productive simply for the sake of it. She seems committed to writing high quality texts and supporting communities of Black writers. Her novel In Dependence is a great love story, one I will never stop recommending to people.
I am equally excited about Ayobami Adebayo’s work. She wields words delicately and confidently. She writes moving stories, and you can tell she understands the complexities of human relationships. I thoroughly enjoyed Stay With Me and I’m looking forward to reading A Spell of Good Things.
Percival Everett is another brilliant writer whose work excites me. His most recent novel, The Trees, impressed me very much. I love that he wrote about racism and hate crime—very heavy topics—but laced the narrative with humour. Still, he doesn’t let the fun silence or obscure the message of the novel. I suppose it makes sense because he once said in a Paris Review interview that he wants his readers ‘to read things because the work is difficult, not because it’s only fun. I want the fun to be in figuring it out.’ The Trees was definitely a fun and challenging read—it left me questioning what retributive justice should look like. It raises questions about how we should respond to racism and the extent to which we can maximize the (social) benefit of any response we choose.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
These days, my favourite topics or themes to read and write about are race, gender, and cultural politics. I’ve been enjoying Katherine McKittrick’s edited book on Sylvia Wynter, and Charles Prusik’s Adorno and Neoliberalism which is filled with great material for thinking more critically about the culture industry. I’m loving academic literature on culture and politics in Nigeria. Recent favourites include Daniel Jordan Smith’s book, To Be a Man Is Not a One-Day Job: Masculinity, Money, and Intimacy in Nigeria, and Portia Roelofs’ article, ‘Urban Renewal in Ibadan, Nigeria: World Class But Essentially Yoruba’.
I’m also enjoying reading African literature. Stories I recently read include Bisi Adjapon’s The Teller of Secrets, a novel about a young Nigerian-Ghanaian girl called Esi who struggles against patriarchy and double standards in her family and wider society. Earlier this year, I read Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger and since reading it, I have searched for other texts he wrote. I like his essay, ‘Soyinka, Dostoevsky: The Writer on Trial For His Time‘ which was published in the journal Zambezia in 1987, the year he died.
I have been so moved by Marechera’s life and work that I decided to write a blogpost about him around the same time I finished reading The House of Hunger. I first discovered his work last year and I was surprised by how little I knew of him and his life. His writing is exceptional. He was a troubled person and this comes across in his work. I appreciate just how open he was about his troubles; how unmistakable his vulnerability was. And I like that he didn’t follow rules, not in his life nor writing. As someone raised to follow rules without question, I am fascinated by rule breakers and somewhat envious of their freedoms. But I now consider myself to be on a path to slowly breaking rules and cages of expectation, especially those that have stifled my creative freedom. It is a long road ahead.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on essays about race and migration, as well as essays about class politics and social hierarchies in Nigeria. I’m also developing a project about neoliberal subjectification in Black women communities. I can’t say too much about these projects because they are still taking shape, but they keep me happy and occupied.
…European artists like Pablo Picasso built or accelerated their careers by appropriating themes of African art but failed to challenge the disparagement of Africans and their cultures.
Question from Helon Habila: Why do you write?
Put simply, I write because I have things to say, because I have thoughts and feelings that deserve a means of escape. Another reason I write is because I have been nurtured, by my loved ones, into believing that my way of seeing and interpreting the world is valuable and worthy of being documented.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
Would you say that your writing—the practice and method of it—is shaped by your personal character?⎈
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