From Bom Boy to The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso has established herself as a writer that grapples with the complexity of human experience with warmth and grace. I had the opportunity to interview her last week, and feel that I am a better person for it, now you can be too!
I believe there are stories that a writer chooses to write, and then there's the story of the writer herself, and the topics she chooses to explore. With that in mind, tell us a bit more about your journey as a writer.
Firstly, my father's a writer, and I grew up in Ile-Ife, Nigeria on the University campus where my dad taught and my mom worked. So I grew up around my dad and his colleagues who were renowned Nigerian writers and poets and playwrights. These were people who would come to the campus and to our home, so I grew up with no doubt that this was a profession for kings and queens. My brothers and I were creative and encouraged to write, so we wrote as kids. We'd do little plays and perform them and do little stories that were probably very bad and we read intensely.
So writing was always there. Writing and reading have always been part of my experience of life. Very early on I knew I wanted to write, but to get to write took a bit longer. I was always writing short stories but when I finished my matric exams in South Africa I wanted to study English, as that seemed to be the best course to follow if I wanted to write. My dad dissuaded me. No money, no way. That's how I ended up studying architecture - the teachers looked at my marks and saw I was good at maths and the arts, so we found something that combined the two. So I studied architecture and worked for five years, but was always haunted by something I should have been doing that I wasn't doing. Somebody told me about the Masters in Creative Writing course at UCT which you didn't need an English degree for. Friends encouraged me, I applied and got in. BomBoy was my thesis, with Joanne Hichens as my supervisor. She was tremendous - kind, attentive, ruthless when she had to be. While Bom Boy isn't crime as such, there's something about crime writing that is tight and disciplined. She applied that to working with me. But she wasn't just a good writer, but a good supervisor too. We would sit for hours going through my manuscript.
Once I'd done that, I submitted to Modjaji and they liked it! Afterwards I wanted to write more but felt I needed a bit of time to do it. I looked at my money had, thankfully, I had been saving some of my earnings from my corporate job and managed to buy a flat. I arranged my finances in such a way that I could take two years off.
You don't need much to live really...
If you want to write, you don't need much to live. When you're desperate to write you change your priorities. I was leaving a corporate ladder job, I was taking a pay cut, but I would do it all again in a heartbeat. You can't give anyone that advice, I had to come to that myself. They tell you, don't leave your day job...
I think you have to come to it at the right time...
And also with the right sentiment. I didn't do it with my eyes full of stars. I more did it to get it out the way. I rationalised it by saying, "Do it now. Fail terribly, and then come back. Do it now while you have no kid, no husband etc. Do it while it's just you." That attitude helped me because I wasn't putting pressure on myself to make it big. I just wanted to have no regrets and know that I tried.
And see what the best version of yourself is when you give yourself that opportunity
Exactly, take the risk. So those two years were when I wrote The Woman Next Door. I moved from Cape Town to Joburg to live with my dad. That was part of my setup - bless him! Around the same time, I had signed with an agent, Elise Dillsworth, and she worked with me generously as I wrote the book. She sold the book at the end of 2014 and it had taken about 2 years. I used that as positive feedback to work on my next book, which I am doing now. I'm flying by the seat of my pants a little bit and going book by book. I am ambitious but I also have a sense of reality. I think that helps me keep moving and not be too disappointed when things don't work out and be really happy (but not unrealistically expectant) when things do.
I think that the illusion that when things work out your life will change in some way is dangerous...
Yes, and that goes for everything. We always think that about the simplest things: marriage, having a baby, having a boyfriend, not having a boyfriend. We're human beings so we often think, if I could just do that, then everything would be sorted. It's the biggest con.
I try apply that to my own writing, and try relieve myself of constantly striving to reach a place I haven't yet...
Yet it's a fine balance because there is nothing wrong with ambition. I want to write awesome books, and I want lots of people to read them. But that should also come with the knowledge that it's not going to make you happy, and that you might not do it and you'll still be fine.
You're right. I think these days if I can just say that I am improving in my writing then I am content.
You make a good point. The key lies in getting better. Sometimes success and getting better are at crossroads. Sometimes, you might gain in success but not write better books, which for me is my worst nightmare. I would rather the better book than the success. I'd rather be both quite frankly!
Your latest characters in The Woman Next Door are (superficially) very different to you. How do you approach writing in a different race, gender, age to your own in a way that is graceful and consultative? And what is your view between your own lived experience and writerly curiosity?
It's an important question, with so many ways to answer it. The popular view, 'write what you know,' is valid and accurate and important. There is the view that if you don't write what you know, you are taking something that isn't yours or even misrepresenting it or being condescending. I think your question is interesting because you use the word 'grace.' How do you maintain grace and integrity, and are those things important?
If I am writing novels, I don't have a lot of leeway in terms of what I write. Let me explain. I do experience that stuff presents itself. I try engage with myself and the content that comes up. I'm talking about a conversation with my own sub-conscious, almost a form of engaging with the images and characters that bubble up. Who knows where they come from. I don't go, 'It's 2018, I must write about Zuma this year.' The books I write present themselves. Bom Boy presented himself and the character was a young man. The Woman Next Door presented itself as these women. If something happens to present itself, I try to rise to the challenge. Even if she happens to be Jewish and 80, I try to do it anyway, bearing in mind all the pitfalls of stereotyping.
In terms of appropriating cultures, I don't know where I stand on that. There was this whole debate on Shriver, and I did take umbrage, but that's not a fait accompli. I actually saw her speak at the Edinburgh Festival when I was there. I read We Need To Talk About Keven and I think it's a brilliant book, but I didn't like the way she used her character and her character's knowledge of Africa, they were too easy and stereotypical convenient details. Those pages smarted a bit, so I was curious to meet her. So even though I haven't read The Mandibles, I think it is interesting that there was that critique because I always had this sense of dis-ease about her writing.
I don't know if I have some big, massive conclusion, but it's something we need to keep talking about. Another way to answer it is to acknowledge that it is very difficult to say 'I'm creating, and these are the rules.' We're in a profession that is about imagining and trying stuff out, so in a way do what you want. You'll do it and people will respond.
If I apply this to myself, I know there are some things I can't do imaginatively just yet. I really struggle to write anybody who has a first language that I don't speak. This is problematic because I live on a continent with many people that I would like to write who don't have English as a first language. At this stage, if I took a first language Zulu speaker and made them the main character of my novel, that would feel like cultural appropriation and that would feel very difficult. I don't think I have enough grasp, not of the culture but of them and the way they think. This is because I believe our languages shape us...maybe I'm wrong! The relationship between lived experience and writing is complex, and I'm always navigating it. It's a challenge, but it's something to grapple with, not something to avoid.
That's how I feel. As a white, African writer, do I tell a white, African story my entire life? That is so limited and untrue. I need to extend myself beyond that to write of my world, which is why I used the word consultative in my question because I try talk to as many people as possible.
It is delicate and I see what you're saying. The other issue you have to deal with in terms of race that I may have to deal with in terms of, say, class, is power. Whether we like it or not, if I write a white person, and you write a black person who is a beggar or a gardener, your writing opens up a cesspool of politics in a way mine might not. There's something about power and being aware of your power when you write all characters but especially when you write certain characters. You can't escape it. You have to somehow grapple with it and understand. That being said, I think writing is a healer.
Maybe it's an opportunity to engage with people and really empathise with them...
When I was doing my Masters in Creative Writing at UCT, Prof. Njabulo Ndebele came to talk to us and told us a brilliant story. He was writing a book about an Afrikaans-speaking man in the 80s who was conscripted to the border to protect the country. He came home from the army, and at the point that Ndebele had to write the scene where this man greeted his mother he stopped writing the book. He couldn't imagine it. He experienced himself so culturally distant from what that ritual would look like that he didn't even want to try. I was so humbled by that, because it's important to know 'what can't I write yet.'
Maybe Lionel Shriver was not aware of her own limitations when writing the Mandibles?
Or maybe she gave herself too much permission. The bit about the black woman on the leash - in some kind of sterile world, that is an interesting piece of literature, but we live in the world. To put that out there is odd and problematic. Should fiction be politicised? I don't know. I politicise some of my fiction but do we apply that to all fiction? Or as Ama Ata Aidoo says, "I cultivate a politicised imagination."
As a white writer I feel it's my responsibility to interrogate my fiction. With privilege comes the need for interrogation.
Precisely. If you interrogate your fiction, I believe you are interrogating yourself and what you created.
You have probably has this question before but it is irresistible. As an architect, how do you find the disciplines of architecture and writing intersect?
The first time they intersected was in the middle of my architecture education. I was hating it for political reasons and personal reasons. I wanted to quit and my dad gave me Arundhati Roy's book The God of Small Things, making sure I read on the back that she was an architect too. That was the first time the two looked like they could collide, and it was an important time.
Having written, I think there are some fun places where it collides. We talk about drafting as architects, as do writers. In practice, architects have a concept that they layer over and over to pull the essence of it out. When I'm writing I feel like I'm doing that. I can write 10/15 drafts of a book and that works for me, each time rolling through it and hopefully honing what the thing is supposed to be and shedding what it is not. I think that mirroring of process is interesting.
Somebody once said they could see I was an architect when they read my book, and now I realise that the way I work may lean on structure and design quite a bit. Once I've produced the bulk of the work I start to design it and fit it in. I draw a lot when I'm writing - I draw the houses my characters live in, the other day I was drawing a plan of them eating dinner, I use a lot of graphs. Somehow when I sketch, I access another facet of my creativity.
For architects, they have to plan every aspect of a building, it's a series of details. The same thing goes for writing. It is a myriad of details that the reader can almost be blissfully unaware of. You need to think in detail and then swing out to macro level as well. There are many wonderful parallels and some quite poetic.
You've been at the receiving end of some amazing residencies and scholarships. Why do you think these are important for fiction writers?
Purely because they are a source of support. Writers need help. The world is skewed, so we have this notion that artists must be poor. This isn't fact. Many things have conspired to create a society where we don't think that art deserves monetary value. We consume it. We enjoy it. We appreciate it. Our labour is worth something. I don't buy into this idea that you can't have money if you are an artist. This is surrendering to a world order I do not accept.
Then there's this wonderful ecosystem of philanthropists and organisations that fund the arts. Those people are fantastic and they are important. When writing The Woman Next Door, a lot of those initiatives helped me write the book. The Miles Morland scholarship helped me write the book I am completing now. It was ridiculously generous to be given a year and it made a huge difference.
Both Bom Boy and The Women Next Door are set in Cape Town - how important is that sense of place to your writing?
For those two books it was important. In both those books the characters are not immediately identifiable as me so I am in unfamiliar territory. I'm in the body of a boy, I'm in the body of an old woman. It was easy and comfortable to set these stories in Cape Town, the place I have lived the longest and feel like I know the best. It's been important for me not to be too adventurous in terms of setting. Look, Cape Town is a fantastic place to set stuff. It's so sexy yet fraught in other ways.
There's a darkness that undercuts Cape Town...
There's a complexity to it that I enjoy in fiction. Definitely for The Woman Next Door it was important to set it there. The book deals with Cape Town's dilemma and it's strangeness. We're all post-Apartheid (and all that means and doesn't mean) but Cape Town is post-Apartheid in its own special way. In this new book I'm writing I've pushed it out to Prince Albert of all places and visited there a few times.
I've heard it's lovely there...
It's very beautiful but also very interesting in the way these small towns preserve old social laws.
Which writers or books are important to you at the moment?
I really love Siri Hustvedt's writing at the moment. Her writing is very important to me because my current book deals with art and her novels create painterly vignettes within her stories. I am also intrigued by her interest in psychoanalysis and how she conveys that in character. The last person I read as incessantly was Toni Morrison in my teens. Diana Evans is someone else I am really enjoying. I read a book a few years ago that amazed me called Three Strong Women by Marie N'Diaye. Another writer that really inspires me is Helen Oyeyemi - I just find her imagination incredible. At the same time I am reading a huge amount - mostly African female writers - and there is just an amazing amount of work coming out that is brilliant and exciting.
What excites you about the African literary landscape at the moment?
Many things. Certain festivals are important and exciting. The Ake Festival in Nigeria gives you a sense of what it means to be part of a community of literature on the continent. The sense of fun, excitement and joy really lights me up. The Abantu Festival is incredibly important for the country considering where we're at and what we're dealing with. Thando Mgqolozana and Panashe Chigumadazi gave birth to it, and now there is this wonderful little child out there. I think publishing is exciting - Cassava Republic is bringing out pioneering titles. Writivism is very exciting, as is LongStoryShort, which is the brainchild of Kgauhelo Dube.
Speaking of Writivism, I always felt that the initiative and the writers from other countries that I worked with gave me support long before South Africans did. There was a culture of support I never experienced back home.
You're accurate. Here's the thing: every place has its complexities and South Africa's includes deeply embedded levels of exclusivity. Apart from the element of race, Apartheid was a study in specialness. This is what's special, this is what's not so special. This disease is still here and we do it with writing. There are cliques and there are divisions and we must do the work to stop that because it's poisonous and unproductive.
It takes time, and who knows how I contribute to it, but I am definitely interested in breaking down this notion of specialness and exclusivity and the idea of what is literature and what isn't. Who gets to read and who doesn't? If you look at the cost of our books, it immediately tells you that reading is for people with money. It's this quagmire of things to pick through. We're getting the muck out, so what's hard in coming is the sense of warmth that's in other places. At the same time, I feel lucky and included in South Africa. People have been very generous to me so I want to acknowledge that. What's exciting is that it is possible for South Africa, but it's going to take hard work and ruthlessness. Overall, I'm excited about the brave, hardworking people behind our literature and literary initiatives.
Get Yewande's books, The Woman Next Door and Bom Boy, at your local independent bookstore. Or, visit her Amazon page here.