Yewande Omotoso is the author of ‘Bomboy’, her first novel, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2013 and won the prestigious South African Literary Award (SALA). She spoke to Sabinews about her new novel ‘The Woman Next Door’ and her experience at the Etisalat Fellowship at the University of East Anglia.
Sabinews: In 2013 you were on the Etisalat Prize shortlist and finally came out as the runner-up. Looking back now, how would you say that experience affected you?
Yewande Omotoso: It brought recognition. I got the opportunity to travel to Nairobi for the first time and connect with writers whose work I love and respect. NoViolet offered up the fellowship which was kind and my time in Norwich gave me the solace and relative seclusion one sometimes needs to write.
Sabinews: Were you surprised when ‘Bomboy’ made it to the shortlist and how did that make you feel?
I was really thankful and I felt acknowledged for my work. I of course wanted to make the shortlist but had no idea. Prizes and shortlists and things like that are hard to predict.
Sabinews: What was the most enjoyable part of the time you spent at the Etisalat Fellowship at the University of East Anglia?
I enjoyed many things. Walking around Norwich, learning a small and curious town. The design of the actual university I found engaging, plus there is a Norman Foster building on the campus. Being at university again felt good. The people I met and interacted with, students and staff, were generous. A lot of laughter and sharing of ideas and debate. I loved having access to a huge library. There was a Literary Festival on while I was there and the department gave all the Fellows free tickets to attend. Norwich is a UNESCO City of Literature. I’ve never been to so many readings in such a short space of time. I made a strong bond with the other Fellows, we continue that friendship beyond the duration of our fellowships – that’s very precious. I recall taking the train up to Cambridge and listening to a lecture by Ben Okri, this was at a very meaningful point in my trip and the experience was edifying.
Sabinews: A lot of young African writers see prizes as the only way to ‘make it’ as writers. If you met such a writer what would you tell them?
The young writer might not be wholly incorrect. They would be drawing that conclusion from looking around their environment as well as the writing world even beyond Africa. In other words I don’t think such a concept is the sole thought of young African writers.
Now, writing is very time-consuming. A person can spend 2 to 10 years (or even more) writing a piece of work, depending on their circumstances and how fast they work. So prizes, particularly generous ones, are amazing because they reward all that work already done. And prizes get attention because we live in a world where “the best” carries a huge amount of valency, sometimes too much I think but that’s an even longer answer. Another thing to remember is royalties and other forms of payment from the book can be low at times and so prize money is like a huge and sudden pay-out.
So yes, prizes are, if not the only, definitely the most obvious and most coveted way to “make it”. I would agree and I would suggest that since prizes are so few and far between though, and since the chances of winning any are so haphazard and illogical anyway (you can be very very talented and be ignored and win nothing) then perhaps the concept of “making it” should be re-evaluated. I’d suggest they keep the winning of the prize as extra versus main and consider other values the writing of their books can provide them with. Peace of mind. Fulfilment. The opportunity to make a difference. Pleasure. Prizes are elusive but more and more there are organisations that will support you in completing your book, fellowships, residencies, grants and so on. Look and apply for these, work really really hard, write. And until someone insightful awards you with something, give yourself a prize. Don’t ever beat yourself up for not winning a prize. It’s hard in a world where value and popularity are so dangerously intertwined but still, fight it. And when you do win the prize eventually, don’t succumb then either.
Sabinews: What for you is the best thing about being a Nigerian and how does it reflect in your writing?
Identity is complex. I love being a Nigerian, I love belonging to that identity even if my belonging is complex, due to my multiple identities and migratory life experience. I’m very proud of being Nigerian, we have so much in our cultures and traditions, in our ‘knowledge commons’. And these are seldom the things in the media, seldom the things that form the many stereotypes out there so it falls on us to celebrate and really trumpet what is phenomenal about our nation and our people. At the same time I am also deeply saddened by the endless failures of my country to fulfil on at least the most basic level of being a country – provide the citizenry with standard amenities; afford all the basic human rights to the people. It sounds like rhetoric but I don’t know how else to put it, Nigeria in many ways still remains a country of immense possibilities versus an equitability in the realisation of dreams. We are also at a very difficult time in our history, battling the cancer of deep-seated corruption (decades of it) and the horrifying threat and reality of terrorism.
How does it reflect in my writing? That’s like asking, how does the apple I eat appear in my bloodstream. It’s immersed, indistinguishable, undetectable at times but surely present. If what I write is of me, and I am Nigerian (however complex my version of that identity) then what I write is Nigerian.
Sabinews: Could you share a little about your soon to be published novel ‘The Woman next Door’?
It’s the story of two octogenarians. Their hate-ship and their bitter pasts. It’s a story about difference, Hortensia is Bajan, Marion is a non-practicing second-generation Lithuanian Jew. It looks at prejudice. And it’s a story that looks critically at the possibilities and hiccups of redemption, especially one that comes at the end years of life. But it’s also about friendship and the power of connection even between such unlikely candidates.
Sabinews: Nigerian music is currently the toast of the continent and beyond. Do you see a time when Nigerian books, whether as hard copy or e-books will enjoy the same kind of success?
We aren’t doing too badly! Think Lola Shoneyin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Think of titles like ‘I Do Not Come To You By Chance’. Think of all the Nigerians that pop up when the Caine Prize is mentioned. Think Achebe and Soyinka. Sefi Atta, Teju Cole, Chris Abani. We’re not reeling off names from writers in The Congo or The Gambia which is a pity because we should be, it can only enrich our continent to have access to stories from all its corners. However these names are perhaps not as main-stream as Flavour and D’banj. Will books by African authors ever be as ubiquitous as Afropop music? I don’t know but for the sake of our collective futures, I hope so.
Sabinews: Would you be willing to do a video advert for your book?
Sabinews: What is your favourite way to relax?
Reading. Sitting with my family, particularly the babies, just watching and playing with them. Sitting with my friends. Dancing.