Yewande Omotoso needs no introduction to African fiction lovers. Her debut novel, Bom Boy, was highly acclaimed, and her second highly anticipated novel, The Woman Next Door, has recently been published. Here she shares some of her measured and astute observations.
After finishing The Woman Next Door, I was struck by how you strive to write in opposition to the phrase, "Write what you know". In your debut novel, Bom Boy, your main character was a young man who was adopted by white parents. Now, in your current story, we have two older women who have survived rather tricky marriages. What attracts you to writing what you don't know?
YEWANDE: I won’t say I set out to write what I don’t know. In fact a current struggle is that I can’t allow myself to write, as main characters, people whose first languages I don’t speak. Since I only speak English with any competence it means (in accordance with ‘write what you know’) I’m, for the moment anyway, caught writing first language English speakers. I hope to get free of this.
Back to the question, while I’m not specifically attracted to writing what I don’t know, I do seek to write what preoccupies me. With Bom Boy the story came out of a preoccupation with solitude and, for whatever reason, the character came as a boy. As in I don’t have a moment when I get to decide what gender race or age the characters are. They kind of materialise and there they are. With The Woman Next Door, perhaps after spending some time with my grandmother, I became preoccupied with (amongst other things) what it might be like to have the bulk of your life behind you.
The other thing is I do feel connection to the characters. I don’t write thinking, wow, these people are so different to me. I write thinking, in some ways we’re not all as different as we’d like to believe. I think part of the important work of life is to get connected, be connected, see ourselves in others.
You wrote, "It saddened her that what she considered the best thing about herself was a puzzle to her husband."
Both your main characters are, in many ways, islands of themselves. The people in their every day – spouses and, for one, her children – do not know them well. Do you think this holds true, in some manner, for most people?
YEWANDE: I couldn’t say, with certainty, what holds true for most. However I do think there is complexity to being human. Do we hide parts of ourselves from others? Or do parts of what we are remain unknown, for whatever innocent reason, even from our dearest? Do we even know ourselves fully? And if we know ourselves or others as one thing does it mean we or they are not (or could never be) another?
This is where my interest lies, in exploring those gaps in knowing, the unsaid. I think that’s where the stories are.
"Hating, after all, was a drier form of drowning."
In South Africa people often become caught up in seeing hate as something that exists in the macro: race, gender, xenophobia and religion. While race and class are present in The Woman Next Door, the biggest examples of hate are in the micro – neighbours, children, husband and, perhaps, employees. Why is the micro important in storytelling?
YEWANDE: I think seeing hate in the macro is the habit of not only South Africans but humanity in general. What we miss is that the reason hate is there in the macro is because it’s there in the micro. And while yes we need to tackle institutions (because in many scenarios hate has no face which is what helps keep it in place) we also need to deal with ourselves and our neighbours, our friends and so on. It’s easier to say corruption and look at big things like Government and the Police Force. When we run a light are we corrupting something? When we drive above the limit are we corrupting?
In my storytelling I privilege the micro. That’s what I’m obsessed with and fascinated by, those minute human-scale details. My hunch is there are clues in there.
For an African writer living and writing on the African continent, you've received a lot of press. Which is, I am sure, great for your career. But is there a pressure, too, at being so visible?
YEWANDE: Not sure what the definition of “a lot” is here. I think there are several writers living on the continent and I also think there is an interest in what they are writing, doing and saying. This is essentially good. Does the attention and visibility create pressure? Well, I think it’s important to always remember what the job is. The job is not to be pressured or even to be visible. The job, before any other, is surely to write and write well. My ideal scenario (and what I believe is most conducive to productivity) is for the work to be visible, the person who made it mostly ought to disappear.
The term "African Lit" sparks many opinions, debates and conversations. Is there a conversation that is being overlooked? What should readers, writers and publishers be talking about in regards to the literature being born on the continent?
YEWANDE: I don’t like to push any shoulds because, who knows, really? But I think we could talk more about language. English, French, Portuguese but more importantly Hausa, Yoruba, Zulu, Swahili, Fanti and so on. We could talk about translation, set up schools and courses. I think we need to celebrate but also breed more critics and reviewers. We could talk about non-fiction. We could talk about how we distribute books across the continent, how do we ensure we’re reading each other – things like that.
On Yewande's Bedside Table
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, Unimportance by Thando Mgqolozana, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, A Bit Of Difference by Sefi Atta
Currently reading Sweet Medicine by Panashe Chigumadzi
Yewande Omotoso is an architect with a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. Her debut novel ‘Bom Boy’ (Modjaji Books, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Yewande was a 2013 Norman Mailer Fellow and a 2014 Etisalat Fellow. She was a 2015 Miles Morland Scholar. ‘The Woman Next Door’ (Chatto and Windus, 2016) is Yewande’s second novel.
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a @ms_tiahmarie
Photo of Yewande by Victor Dlamini a.k.a @victordlamini