Monday, 11 February 2013

From South Africa, Yewande Omotoso, an interesting author across cultures

“This is a novel bursting with elegance, written by a young author brimming with genuine promise. Yewande Omotoso is a stylist with a literary vision”.
No words could be more pertinent and representative as the ones pronounced by great Somali writer Nuruddin Farah about Yewande Omotoso’ s first novel, BOM BOY, published by Modjaji Books. Yewande has also recently been shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Award and awarded with the South African Literary Award (SALA) for the English First-time Published Author. What a great introduction for a writer at her first debut on the literary scene! Yewande is most certainly a talented novelist as well as multitasker, considering the fact that she also has a career in architecture. Here is undoubtedly a successful example to follow, to those who despair in following their dream – in her case, being a writer.
Born in Barbados and grew up in Nigeria and South Africa, Yewande sets her novel in Cape Town, and in the novel you can feel the city under Leke’s shoes, the protagonist. His walking through it, feeling insecure while trying to fit in a suitable role for the situation and the context he lives in, all reveals his interior dislocation. The background is modern South Africa, a country still ‘in between’ its past and its future, experiencing a present with all the socio-cultural-economic-political complexities; where life demands a certain amount of courage and responsibility; where identity and the consciousness of oneself are too difficult to achieve. Leke, who at first conducts his life trying to hold on to a very small and firm inner world, incapable of responding to the demand of his society, in the end tells us a different story, a story with more than one possibility, which means “hope” .
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Yewande, you carry an extraordinary experience of being a writer across cultures. You’re from Barbados, grew up in Nigeria and are now living in South Africa. How are all these cultures reflected in your writing and what heritage did they leave you?
YEWANDE OMOTOSOComing from across cultures, I believe I mostly value difference as opposed to be threatened by it. I do tend to write about people living in a foreign land, people who don’t belong or don’t fit in, visitors to a place, people whose relationship to the setting of the story might be tenuous or contested. For the obvious reason, this is what I know. However because I have lived the longest in South Africa, Cape Town specifically, that is the easiest place for the stories to take place in. Over time as I gain in knowledge and become braver, I hope to set more stories solidly in Nigeria or Barbados, but you cannot, as a writer, fake familiarity with a place – I don’t think so anyway.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Do you think one’s identity leads to the idea of roots of a specific geographical place? What is identity for you?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – Identity is a complex construction of so many understandings, experiences and projections – hope for the future. And, yes, a connection to a specific geographic place can form part of one’s identity, although it could also not. In fact the rejection of a connection to a specific geography can also form identity. I don’t think too much on the topic, in that sense ‘identity’, for me, is more like a shadow (versus a gown for instance). It’s something that’s organic, that’s formed as a result of my cultures, upbringing and experiences. You know your shadow is there, at certain times you’re particularly aware of its presence but you don’t need to dwell on it.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Edward Said, quoting a XII century German Monk, wrote in his beautiful book “Orientalism”: The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.” How do you feel reading this quote? Does it fit you?
YEWANDE OMOTOSOIt reminds me of an interesting dichotomy I often experience, that you can belong and not belong at the same time. And “belonging” is so sought after in the human experience for its benefit of comfort, security and kinship. What’s interesting about the quote is it proposes the better option as being the eternal outsider, not really belonging anywhere. I can relate to all three “men” depicted in the quote and while I am fascinated by Said’s ranking, I am less confident about which state of being fits above the other and why. At this point in my life I find this particular issue too complex to be that certain about it.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – You arrived in Cape Town in 1992, just two years before South Africa declared the end of apartheid. How was your first impact with the country as a child and how do you relate to the South Africa of today? Have you ever felt “different”, coming from Nigeria and from a mixed family?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO - Mostly, as an 11-year-old, South Africa was that place where “they didn’t like black people”. After some initial confusion as to why my father would want us to live there, I looked forward to something new. We lived in Belleville in a Holiday Inn for the first few months while my parents bought a house and settled my brothers and I into schools. It was culturally shocking; I couldn’t fully grasp what had gone on before our arrival, the pent up tensions, the horror of apartheid and what it left in its wake. We didn’t fit in; I struggled, for three years, to make friends. Today South Africa is my home, some of my closest friends are South African and I am as interested and concerned about the future of South Africa as any other South African would be. I see myself as someone that can participate and contribute to making the country greater.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Can you give three good reasons why South Africa is a good place to be, according to your experience?
YEWANDE OMOTOSOIt’s a country with a unique history. As a writer, as anyone really, it is amazing to be in a space that has all the complications you could ask for in terms of human relations, and learn from the real-time experiment of South Africa. Witness where it succeeds and learn from where it goes wrong, help make it better.
It’s a beautiful country, “lovely beyond any singing of it” (Alan Paton)
Even as South Africa grapples with a future, trying to stave off the rot of corruption, so much in the country works. A great infrastructure of roads, hi-tech transportation, a lot of things I regard as basics (water, electricity) that cannot be taken for granted in other African countries.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Have you ever thought of another place to live, that could be more suitable for your writing?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – I think of this often. Currently I have enough of an adventurous spirit to be willing to travel and move. Nowhere specific comes to mind. South Africa is convenient; it is the current home of all my immediate family members.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – When did you start writing? To whom do you owe your gift of writing? Nigeria, your father or something/someone else?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – I remember writing little books by hand and my cousin drawing the pictures. I may have been 7 or 8. The stories were definitely bad! But, yes, I think growing up in the home of writers and readers, with the amount of reading my parents did to my brothers and I at bedtime, with all the type-writers lying around the house – all of this was a great influence.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Which writers do you consider your literary mothers and fathers?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – I read a lot of Rosa Guy as a young girl, and then I got into Toni Morrison in my mid-teens. Single books like So Long a Letter impacted me.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – And among African or Caribbean authors, who do you refer to?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO - Zee Edgell (Beka Lamb), George Lamming, Martin Carter the poet, are just a few.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – We all have a book (perhaps more than one) that has changed our way of seeing life, a book that opens our perspective on life and its complex intersections. Can you recall at least one of these books and tell us why is important to you?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – Yoruba Girl Dancing by Simi Bedford. I must have read it as an 11-year-old. It is one of my favorite books. I really felt as if my story was being written.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – In African and Caribbean cultures, oral storytelling has always been a great part of daily life. Was there in your childhood or teenage years someone who used to tell you stories? And do you remember any particular story that made you feel you wanted to be the author of that story or to become a writer ?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – My parents were great storytellers and story readers. We’d often sit as a family and my Dad would read to us, in English and sometimes in Yoruba. I don’t know if the connection was that obvious. I don’t remember listening to these stories and thinking I want to write too. I do remember loving them, and writing really feels like something that was always there and possible.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Bom Boy has received great response from the critics and the readers. Where was Bom Boy born and when does Leke come in your life as the main character of this book?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – Sometime around 2008 I thought of a character that is on the edge of society, an odd kind of person. And in grappling with this character, Leke came. But things don’t always come easy. Leke only became Leke much later. The character I started with was called Femi; he was a bit violent; he could even capture and injure young women. Over the years, researching and trying to understand this person, I found out his real name was Leke and that he wasn’t really violent, just lonely and troubled.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Was it difficult to write about a male character?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – No. I wasn’t writing overly concerned with the fact that I was writing about a male character. I was writing about a person and he happened to be male.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Leke is a kind of person we can really identify in any modern society. When his adoptive mother dies, it’s like the world outside becomes too big for him to face, like the only ‘language’ he knows is being associated with the lost people of the society in which he lives. What made Leke not to have the tools to face the world as a man?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – I’m not sure I know. What makes any of us unprepared for the demands of the world? I think the world was dangerous for Leke, a threat. He strikes us as scary but in truth he is the one who is terrified and holes away, keeps life small enough to manage. If his mother lived, if he managed to feel safer, more secure, his experiences may have been different. The suggestion is, as he learns more about himself, his heritage, he finds some semblance of stability.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Do you think, in a complex society like South Africa (I would say this is now a worldwide problem) that has not yet solved its own socio-economic problems, that there is a risk that young people would easily become Leke – not being able to face the reality they are in? Or on the contrary, do you think the South African youth is positive about his future?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – I don’t really feel equipped to speak for the South African youth. In general though, being young has always been tricky! You are puzzling things out, you make mistakes. Add to that a sense of a loss of identity, perhaps an absence of role models within your reach to interact with, a tendency to drift and yes, you could see a lot of Lekes – people unsettled and disconnected from their histories and as a result, from themselves.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Would you have written Bom Boy if you were not living in SA? I mean, would Leke’s story fit in a Nigerian setting, for example? How does ‘place’ matter in storytelling, and does the confidence of a certain place come necessarily from having lived in that place?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – I think ‘place’ matters a lot in storytelling. I don’t know if I would have written Bom Boy if I wasn’t living in South Africa, but I doubt it. I suppose I would have written something else. Leke’s story is very specific to living away, living on the edge of society, as opposed to within a recognized community.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Did you propose your manuscript to other publishers before you signed up Modjaji Books (an independent publishing company based in SA)? Many writers experience frustration at getting their works published, knocking on many publishing doors. What was your publishing experience?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – A friend suggested Modjaji and I looked them up online. I researched other books they’d published and decided to send my summary and manuscript to them. I was very ready for rejection but for whatever reason I was lucky and Modjaji accepted my manuscript. I did not pursue any other publishers.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Bom Boy won the prestigious South African Literary Award (SALA), and great Somali author Nuruddin Farah praised your novel. How do you feel about these recognitions?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – I take it all as an honor and privilege, and I am humbled.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Following apartheid, South Africa still finds it difficult to promote new authors, especially black women authors. How is being a female writer in South Africa?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – It is a difficult question. I am very privileged in many ways, which means I don’t often think of prejudice as the reason why or why not something. I don’t necessarily go around overly conscious of being a female black writer – I am ‘me’ first, and those are details about me. That said, yes, there needs to be more done especially for younger female writers living in areas far away from cities, not necessarily owning dictionaries (in whatever language), women with amazing stories to tell. We need to find more and more ways to harness and nurture those voices. I see this as my responsibility as much as the government’s, publishers and members of the writing community, as well as part of corporate social responsibility.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – You attended a Creative Writing Group at UCT, and last summer you took part in the Farafina Writing Workshop in Nigeria, together with other African writers under the guide of Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina and Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. What was your experience in both workshops?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – Both workshops I attended post the publication of Bom Boy. The Caine Prize Workshop and the Farafina Workshop are very different in organization. Caine asks that you submit a short story by the end of the ten days; Farafina does not have this requirement. The distinction allows for different lessons to be learnt in each situation. Caine does involve a certain amount of pressure; once you submit it will no longer be edited, and once published there is no taking it back! So you work long and hard to make sure you present something you won’t regret. I learned a lot at Caine in terms of editing, re-editing, and re-editing another five times! I also learned a great deal from the other very talented writers at the workshop.
The Farafina Workshop was very special to me, perhaps because of my admiration for Chimamanda, and perhaps also because it was in my home-country. I loved the absence of pressure to produce work (as in Caine); it meant there was time for long discussions about writing, practical exercises we were given, a lot of reading assignments. Also there was a team of amazing writers besides Chimamanda, who critiqued our work and shared their ideas with us. I learned an immense amount and perhaps, most valuable of all, I met 21 other young writers, many of whom remain my fellow writer-comrades after the workshop has ended! In both workshop experiences, the group critiquing sessions are scary but invaluable. A writer friend talks about doing away with your ego if you want to become a good writer, being willing to be in awe of others that are better than you as opposed to jealous, and just being willing to learn and learn and learn.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Do you have a specific time for writing?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO – No, I have no specific time.

VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Being an architect as well as writer, do you recognize that the two ‘arts’ somehow influence one another?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO -Currently I am spending the bulk of my time on being a writer. There is definitely a connection and I have a sense that my architectural training makes a lot of difference to my attempts at writing, maybe even in ways beyond my grasp.
 
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Writers are always asked to give advice to people who want to start, and of course the best advice in my opinion is to read and write. As a writer, is there anything more specific or personal you would suggest to someone who’d like to become a writer?
YEWANDE OMOTOSO - Apart from reading, reading, reading and writing (read more than you write, I’d say), you also have to be brave. It is scary to make anything and present it to the world, particularly if you’ve put your heart into it. Cultivate discipline and some level of organization. Lastly, one of the most invaluable things is to find a reader, someone you trust (perhaps themselves a writer) that you can show your work to; someone who knows how to give critique without including destruction – these early stages are a very delicate and vulnerable time.

Originally Published on Authors in Africa

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