Tolu Daniel is a writer and editor. His essays and short stories have appeared on Catapult.co, The Wagon Magazine, Prachya Review, Expound Magazine, Bakwa Magazine, Elsewhere Literary Journal, Saraba Magazine and a few other places. He serves as a Nonfiction Editor at The Single Story Foundation Journal and Panorama Journal while also serving as an Associate Editor with Afridiaspora.
This dialogue happened between a green bedroom in the sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and an ancient fortress carved under the Olumo Rock in Abeokuta, Nigeria.
Gaamangwe: Tolu, your recent creative non-fiction stories have been wonderful to read. I was particularly moved by The Old Man Who Fought Boko Haram. I found the language and your inner reflections breathtaking. How was your process of writing these personal experiences? And what lies, for you, in the weaving of your intimate memories scattered across time into such creative work?
Tolu: Thanks for the compliment about the work. I wrote that particular essay on my sick bed. You see, I was ill with the Chicken pox and my body was breaking in ways I had never seen it before, like I wrote in another personal essay. My joints were aching, my skins were scarred and itching, my face was blowing into something I didn’t imagine could get healed. I felt like a molten wax imagining the impossibility of ever becoming a candle again. Some members of my family were around and I could see in their eyes a kind of fear that had become somewhat familiar after the death of my brother-in-law just two years before. Their fear was infectious.
The possibility of my death at that moment dawned on me and then afraid, I began to internalize about my life viz a viz my environment while doing everything the doctor asked to get better. It was somewhat difficult. Three days into the illness, news that the old man in my story had died was served to me and writing about him somehow was my way towards a kind of healing. Not my body, but my mind which was getting its dose of depletion by the minutes with each new symptom that arose from the illness. I finished writing that essay the same day I started. The same day I was told that the man had passed.
I can still remember how my back ached for sitting still for an extended period having been on my back mostly throughout the illness. But like I said earlier, I wrote that essay, not just as an ode to the man who died but as a reminder to myself about the possibility of surviving. In the moment of writing, I can still remember thinking what if you died now, you’d have died leaving the earth with nothing. So this was another motivation for me to have finished it in a stretch because in my healthy days, I think a lot about dying so when the illness came, my mind went into an overdrive.
With regards to your second question, I think it is my friend Socrates Mbamalu who usually says this to me, I owe nobody the truth but myself and I will like to adopt it in reference to your question. The truth is usually many faceted and in dimensions but the easiest way to confront the many dimensions of the truth is by tackling it head on. And as I have found, the truth is easy. What is not easy is people and their perceptions of your truth. And so to answer you about what lies for me in documenting these memories in creative work, I can’t think of an answer suitable enough in this moment. Maybe because I am still in the process of documenting.
Gaamangwe: I read that essay too. I loved it. In fact I am currently working on a project about the history of my family traumas and mental illness. So I deeply resonated with this work. However, I have never come close to thinking about the possibility of my death in the way you probably did. It has just always been an existential theory that I am aware is inevitable but as long as my body is physical well I really don’t have to think much about it. So I cannot imagine how that experience was like for you.
That “what if you died now, you’d have died leaving the earth with nothing” is everyone’s fear I think. I wonder why we think it’s important that we leave something behind? What does it matter to us? When you think about it only a few people who lived in this planet two hundred years ago left things that significantly affect our daily lives now. I mean except the fact that their blood thrives in us. The quality of human life is not really measured by the things we create or accrue or leave behind right? But of course while we are aware of this, right now it seems to achieve and create things is important to us. I find it fascinating.
So you are there dancing close to death, holding on to the possibility of surviving. What do you discover about yourself, writing and life? What do you want to leave behind?
Tolu: Before now, I spent most of my early adult life doing the same thing I did in my late teens. Going to church and reading the Bible and also trying out a number of things and failing. So I guess in a way my philosophy about life and living was somewhat formed around these judeo-christian themes of living a fruitful Christian life.
After my illness, I came home to myself for the first time in years. I had quit church about a year before then but somehow, I still lived as though the doctrines of the church in which I had swarm for years still held me underwater. I started challenging and querying my motivation for my approach and philosophy to life. It changed everything, most especially my writing, I dare even say it fueled my resolve to publish some of my more personal writings.
Some time ago, I would have easily told you the things I would like to leave behind but not any longer. These days I just want to live my life with zero apologies, to do the things I am capable of and to seek happiness in every form.
Gaamangwe: I am excited for you. It’s always important for us to question our philosophy of life, especially the parts that limit us in someway. Evolution and change seems to demand that after all. I also resonate with seeking happiness in every form. We have a tendency of creating walls around us on how happiness should look like, what happiness is for ourselves and others, and where and when to experience happiness. So much limitation really. It’s not good for our spirits. So big up to you on living your life with those terms.
Now let’s talk about your personal writings. Which aspects/experiences of your personal life are you drawn to exploring in your works? What is important for you when you write your personal writings?
Tolu: The most important thing like I said earlier is the truth. In whatever form I am able to channel it. So one of the things that coming home to myself has done for me is that it has given me a kind of second chance to reexamine the things that were once important to me and the ones I discarded because I didn’t think too highly of them at their initial instances. This includes and isn’t in anyway limited to my relationships and the choices I have made with regards to my career.
Now, my quest for truth is helping me unwrap different memories that I thought were lost forever and helping me find closure amidst the many regrets I have had in the past. It hasn’t been as easy as the words I have written down because I have also had to confront the possibility that my truth and those of the other actors in my past may not necessarily be the same but nevertheless I try, for my own sanity sakes.
Gaamangwe: I am also interested in interrogating what is true for me and what is not true. As you said, the line is not as clear as one might imagine. Memory is an interesting thing. We do not always remember things as they are, we often remember how things made us feel. But exercising that is definitely an important process especially for writers.
You also write fiction. What kinds of truths come up for you here in this genre? How is the aesthetics of your fiction writing?
Tolu: So for me, I don’t really worry about the truth when writing fiction because of its laxity with regards to how to present what is fact and what is not. Nonfiction somewhat insists on a precise account of the truth in whatever manner that truth is being delivered, whether the truth is yours or not. To the extent that even the metaphors employed must also bear the burden of being exact.
But in my fiction, there is no insistence on the forms the truth must take and as such fiction is easier. So I have written about many things in my fiction, things even I have not experienced yet, so the approach to truth here is somewhat different. It is dictated usually by how the story wants to be delivered. Because for me, whether I am writing nonfiction or fiction, I am firstly worried about delivering writing that passes the kinds of tests I subject the writings of those who I consider my mentors to. Is it believable, is the writing special enough to be worthy of my time? And so eventually, the believability of the work takes the premium and thus it becomes the channel through which I encounter and engage with the truth in this form.
With regards to my aesthetics for writing fiction, I don’t think I have given much thoughts to it before now perhaps because I assume that things like aesthetics will become identifiable with time, with more of my writing that is out there to engage with. I am very conscious of how I feel readers engage with my work but I also don’t care much about what they gleam from the writings itself because I believe meanings are residents in experiences and most readers use these experiences to chart the courses of their engagement with any piece of work.
Gaamangwe: I get this sense of deliberateness with your approach to your writing. I hope to add that to my writing in time. I am interested in the artistic process of your writing. How is your process from concept to final draft? What tools or techniques do you use to ensure your writing passes the tests you talked about? And what kinds of stories/narratives are special enough to be worthy of your time?
Tolu: For most of my early years as a writer I read books with a certain curiosity, a certain deliberateness if you’d call it that. I was interested in how language works, how the best sentences were written or created, how literary devices sit in sentences and make them beautiful but yet, it would seem that I kept missing the point. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t pull them off in my own writing. I would consult several writing manuals and yet nothing seemed to work.
And so much later in the years that followed, after fumbling my way through most of my essays and short stories, I finally understood all those points I had been struggling with for all those years when I encountered Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing. It was through reading her that I began to experience the mind shift which gave birth to the writer I am becoming. I would learn also around that time, a famous Steven Pinker quote that good writing must insist on fresh wording and concrete imagery over the usual verbiage and abstract summary. I learnt also to write as if I had something important to show. And this changed everything for me.
So naturally, this became a sort of mantra, every book I read needed to have sentences that fed my imagination and sentences that could open my eyes to the images and the persons in the narratives I read and not abstractions. In time I found that this new knowledge enriched my reading experience. I became interested in the metaphors of showing which implies that there was something to see. The characters in the books I read became multidimensional and it seeped into my own work also. Finally.
To an extent, I must admit that I still struggle with many things in my writing because I somewhat always want to insist on these things that I have mentioned. With regards to my process from concept to final draft, I don’t have a specific ritual. I just write and try to infuse the work with all or most of the knowledge I have amassed through the years deliberately and leave the rest to my editors. Usually, between the first and final drafts of any essay or short story, I could have exchanged up to fifteen drafts of the same work with my editors. So in that way, what usually comes out and looks close to perfect is just something that has been chiseled to perfection by a number of eyes.
Gaamangwe: Oh how I love and appreciate editors! It’s only in recent years that I have truly started to understand the importance of editing a story over and over again. The perks of growing with the writing art. You are also an editor for a couple of amazing literary platforms. How has your role as an editor enriched your experience with the art-form and your personal work? What kinds of stories do you particularly enjoy editing?
Tolu: Oh I have benefited richly from the privilege to edit. If for nothing else, at least for the amount of incredible work I get to read free of charge and the ones I get to be a part of panel beating to shape. I think until my foray into editing, I was rather average as a writer (I probably still am).
Reading and interacting with the works of other writers alerted me to the different possibilities available out there. It also taught me how to engage any piece of work, even the out-rightly difficult ones, the ones whose language and delivery isn’t very accessible.
I like to think that I am drawn to editing the kinds of stories I like writing. Stories about people whose existence do not necessarily fit into banal story arcs. Lidia Yuknavitch would call these types of people misfits. Editing these kinds of narratives gives me immense pleasure because it helps me push a personal agenda that every story deserves its place in the space in which it was created.
Gaamangwe: I completely agree. There is both pleasure and learning when it comes to reading and editing other works. I recently started reading short stories and it has significantly altered how I look at my own writing. I have since learnt that there is reading as a reader, reading as a writer, reader as an interviewer and reading as an editor. And each reading significantly affect how one arrives and experiences the writing.
You are currently working on your manuscript. How is the experience of writing a full-length manuscript coming along? What and who is influencing this specific creation? And what lessons are you gaining from the project?
Tolu: In the last few years I have attempted a number of manuscript projects but this is the first time I am not attempting, the first time I am actually putting some efforts into ensuring the work is worthy of this time and season and perhaps even out last me.
In honesty, the lessons have been immense. Writing long form is a difficult task as I am coming to learn. Specifically because of the development of my own writing aesthetics, because of how I find myself agonizing over how my sentences must be, the quest for uniqueness and the quest for quality. Also, writing a novel as I am coming to learn also comes with a lot of biographical elements. And then there are things you learn along the way in the manner of research.
With regards to influences, I can’t say specifically who but I remember sitting by a friend around 2016. I remember him telling me a story about his mother and how he didn’t want to see her when she came to visit him. I remember thinking back then, about the reason a child would refuse to see his mother and eventually these thoughts of mine would seep into the beginnings of the narrative that would make the manuscript. Of course, the narrative has taken several turns since that idea, but that was how it began.
Gaamangwe: That is an interesting narrative. I cannot wait for the final completion and publication of the manuscript. I wish you all the best with it and other writing projects. Thank you for engaging with me in this dialogue.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and interviewer from Gaborone, Botswana. Her poetry has been published in Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Poetry Potion and Expound Magazine. Her interviews have been published in The Review Review, Praxis Magazine Mosaic Magazine, Alephi Magazine and Peolwane. Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is the Founder and Managing Editor of Africa in Dialogue.