The Relevance In Our Stories: A Dialogue With Adams Adeosun & Damilare Bello

THE RELEVANCE IN OUR STORIES

A DIALOGUE WITH ADAMS ADEOSUN & DAMILARE BELLO

Adams Adeosun’s work has appeared in Litro Magazine, Catapult Magazine, Transition Magazine, Arts & Africa and a scattering of others. He participated in Goethe-Institut’s Literary Exchange workshops in Cameroon and Nigeria and was shortlisted for the Awele Creative Trust Awards in 2018.

Editor. Essayist. Human. Oluwadamilare, who writes under his first name Dami Lare, is a graduate of two schools of his choosing and a doctoral researcher at another. Writes from somewhere in South-western Nigeria, with works previously published nowhere but can now be found online and in-print. Co-founder of Lunaris Review and of Magenta Initiative, a Masterclass in writing and editing, and editor at Pan-African University Press. Recipient of some Awards.

Tshepo-interviewer

BY TSHEPO PHOKOJE

This conversation happened through an exchange of e-mails and Whatsapp between Botswana and Nigeria.

Tshepo: Good morning Dami and Adams. Firstly, thank you for availing yourselves for this interview. I have had such a thrill going through the essays in Thursday’s Children, which I must mention is an amazing anthology. Please share the motive and inspiration that propelled the idea for it.

Adams: Thank you for having us Tshepo. I am glad you liked the book. Like I have said elsewhere, the big picture of Thursday’s Children is to contribute to the renaissance of creative nonfiction in Africa. We hoped to further the good work that was started by editors like Ellah Wakatama Alfrey. There is an ocean of brilliant writers of creative nonfiction out there, but the opportunities in the genre remain scanty. This was our way of contributing to the project of making the genre more accessible and perhaps, attractive.

The more modest intent was to put out stories of the relationship between individuals and the world. Consider it a conversation between the realities of humans of different casts and experiences. It is similar to gathering people in a room and each of them is saying “Hey, let me tell you about this thing that happened.” That’s why it’s an anthology of ‘personal essays,’ instead of the all-encompassing anthology of ‘creative nonfiction.’ And we did so that readers who find themselves between the pages will be able to say, “This thing happened to me too.”

Dami: In an era where being young is almost considered an automatic index of inexperience, or as a certain president once claimed ‘Laziness,’ it became quite necessary to alter that narrative, by any means necessary. After the success of the first anthology, and I use this relatively, we realized that the buck shouldn’t just stop there. I spoke with Adams about it and we decided to do something about making a nonfiction equivalent. Africans are great story-tellers, masters of the personal tale, and voices of the generic self. From the West African griots to my grandmother, you are bound to hear of tales spiced up with personal, self-reflective visions and communal ethos if you hang around long enough. But in modern-day writing, the fiction writing seems to be the top dog. We would be documenting youth culture without any pretensions, affording it some measure of agency, devoid of the encumbrances of fiction made into fact. It is like having the proverbial horse speak for itself however it wanted. It sure seemed like a good idea. More so, the (confessional) therapy nonfiction, as a genre and activity, affords those who deal in it enough incentive to engage it.

Tshepo: Thank you for your interesting responses.

Dami, the personal essays in the anthology are by the youths (aged 18-35 years). I applaud you both for coming up with Thursday’s Children. How much impact has there been by being particular about just them being the ones sharing their stories and not the 35+?

Dami: Much of the cultural formation in Africa, to put it simply, patterns after a Hegelian synthesis model, that is, you have a thesis and an antithesis perpetually in conflict, with the latter trying to outdo the big dogs. Typical African structure. Apply this simple construct to much of the African life and knowledge firmament and you would be astounded by the level of uniformity that unfolds. Wisdom is believed to be under bellied by experience, and because experience, quite regrettably, is fallaciously moored to ageism in its many fluctuations, you find that channels of impact are made the sole preserves of the old.

The very premise of the anthology is to break this current. In the age of Netizens and Internet of Things, knowledge itself is being perpetually liberated from and by itself. So, on one plane, the anthology as a knowledge cosmos is a necessary addition to the push for the agency of the young. On another level of significance, it actually fixes youth experience within the epistemological frames of the present age. It legitimizes it, molds it as an understanding category. Some have called such engagements like this a documentation of the experiences of a confessional generation, but that would be only a case of translocated or borrowed adjectivization, considering that the confessional generation/tradition only started with mid-20th century American poets like Plath, Sexton and Snodgrass. In all implications, what is happening is decolonization. A decolonization that refutes all categories, such as the label “Confessional” itself. So, yes, I would like to think that we thought of this impact while constructing that boundary.

And at the very least, in the age of multiple decolonization, if you subscribe to the Cartesian philosophy of “I think therefore I am,” you would be made aware that the avenues of self-expression, especially to the ever-restive antithesis, the youth or the cultural underdog, can never outlive their exigencies. And if you add the Ubuntu impulse to this, then the impact you speak of comes full circle: after all, the lives and experiences of a few, in a proper African firmament, affects and effects that of many, those to come and vice versa. So, by just being about those in the age bracket, the anthology has leaned itself against the postures dividing the lines.

Tshepo: Adams, creative fiction is quickly gaining popularity in the literacy world, which I think is a great thing. I read all the stories and could relate with most of them, some denied me sleep, some shocked me and some definitely made me take deep breaths in between reading because of someone’s reality which I had never experienced. From the reviews that you have received so far, what has been the general feedback about the anthology?

Africans are great story-tellers, masters of the personal tale, and voices of the generic self. From the West African griots to my grandmother, you are bound to hear of tales spiced up with personal, self-reflective visions and communal ethos if you hang around long enough.

Adams: I must say that my attraction to creative nonfiction is what you have described in your response to Thursday’s Children; the witnessing of the relativity of the human experiences, the emotive agency and the mental transportation. I feel like we, both the writer and the reader, seek the genre out for its range. For instance, Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life marinated me in melancholy. Zadile Smith’s Joy had a similar effect. It’s been almost a year since I read Teju Cole’s Known And Strange Things but I currently still feel illuminated from within by the goodness of it. I am still in awe of “Fugee,” the opening piece of Safe House. The readers’ response to Thursday’s Children has not been any different.

Tshepo: This really has been a well-thought idea and the boldness of what inspired you to follow up your previously successful fictional anthology, into a creative nonfiction collection that is Thursday’s Children, was not only bold but relevant. I have found myself admiring the contributors for their guts. Purging is not easy, but once done, the relief is worth it.

In my preparation for this conversation, I had to read all the stories and felt every emotion. At some point, I recall feeling unwell emotionally, like I was sad or something to that effect. It was only after a short while that I realized what caused that. I was never prepared for the vibrations that were aroused by the stories. The nightmares from reading Thursday’s Children or the familiarity of domestic violence highlighted in “Catharsis”. I found myself questioning a lot of things after reading “The Singularity”. I have felt the chills down my spine.

How did you, as editors, process all the emotional turmoil and vulnerability that came with selecting stories from the many submissions to the final 14? Please take me through the process.

Adams: Otosirieze Obi-Young, in his introduction to Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction, writes, “Through emotional honesty as raw as it is brave, they are taking the genre to places their predecessors shied away from, leading important conversations about trauma, sex and sexuality, about depression and vulnerability and private shame.” Damilare put this in simpler terms when he referenced in an earlier response that, “The (confessional) therapy nonfiction, as an activity and genre, affords those who deal in it.”

The above two statements are proof that Thursday’s Children does not exist in a vacuum. The “emotional turmoil and vulnerability” is a signature of the crop of young writers working in the continent today. It is almost as if we, as writers, have been saddled with the responsibility to make the world more open, to expunge shame (at least the conventional perception of it), to court visibility for the sake of our experiences.

All this is to say that, I am familiar (not to be conflated with comfortable) enough with the chaos of CNF by younger African writers to be able to anticipate the maelstrom that I, by taking up the duty of editor, had invited upon myself. My go-to phrase in pitching the anthology, in fact, is “Dear friend, we are reaching for chaos.” So, you see, we knew what we wanted to curate was a collection of ghastly honest essays. There was no set figure for the content in the start; we only took the 14 that hit us the hardest in the end.

Dami: There is a popular saying used by my sister that hits me every time, it goes this way: “Ẹni ọ̀ lógùn arìnya kì ń jẹ ayán.” A rough translation means that “You don’t do what you are not prepared for.”

Just as Adams said, we anticipated the chaos of the age, courted it, made it the premise and the scaffold of the anthology, and because we did, we were in a better position to understand the complex channels, arresting pathways and destinations of the essays. These are crucial anchors to the anthology, and while there were no set parameters for selection, we allowed the process to speak the truth to power. This means that through the back and forth between us and the contributors, to better understand one another, our motives and how best they could be framed without losing allure, originality, intensity and truth, we allowed the process to even things out. The process itself was eventually beneficial to all.

Tshepo: Trusting the process always yields great results. To add on to my previous question, because CNF is the real, truthful and sometimes sensitive version for the writers, as editors, please take me through the whole process of how you dealt with the pressure/ emotions that resulted from compiling this anthology, any debriefing, breathers in between, did you discuss with each other how you felt? All of it.

Adams: The process was a long one. I mean, we started editing in 2017 and kept tweaking until the moment of publication. We went back and forth with the writers, but we went even further between ourselves. The essays hit us really hard, so hard that Dami and I would constantly disagree. There were moments in the essays where we knew were either genius or unnecessary and we had to debate these between ourselves.

There was a time I had to travel from Lagos, where I lived at the time, to Ibadan, where Dami lived, for some days so that we could reach a compromise on the essays in order to break the stasis. There were paragraphs that we archived until a few days before the publication because they were so raw, and we were unsure about their effect on the entire body of work. My essay, “Catharsis”, for example, was kept out of the collection for a long time because I didn’t want to sully the works it was in conversation with. We had these things to think about, but we also had to consider the readers; we knew what the essays did to/for us, but what would they do/mean to the reader?

Dami: Well, literature generally, is an artefact, and every creator is protective of his/her product. Natural principle. One can argue that the creator’s effect is doubly heightened, if not more, for introspective art like the nonfiction or personal essay, because it trades in more private provinces. Now we know this, references to the thin textures of the writer’s emotion with regards to creative pieces outweigh a myth. Some of us have at one time exhibited this trait.

Being acutely aware of this, we were careful to apply tact in our dealings. The editing and compilation process took on intensive and several back and forth processes between us and the contributors. Every suggestion we made was backed-up by detailed explanations for many reasons, chief among them being to establish sturdy bridgeheads between what we think of the work as critical readers, how we think it can be improved as editors, and why we think contributors should entertain our suggestions. We wanted each essay to fill up its contours, because we could spot truths that were not properly birthed or needed to be forcefully ushered, among other things. The detailed reasons opened up a world of possibilities for the writer and each essay.

Of course, every writer was not mandated to take up our suggestions, and any contrary opinion was discussed and examined by both participants during that process. So, not only was the writer aware of the possible avenues of improvement, he or she knew why we had indicated them and was better positioned to make informed decisions. We were not really concerned about the mechanics of each essay at first as much as we were about the agency of each story. Other things followed up logically.

It was tough work; we ended up dividing the work countless times, and then exchanging roles at intervals to have a comprehensive handle on the whole process. We didn’t want to miss anything; plus complementary strategies end up being aces in the process. Editing took many months, spanning over a year, because the nature of the art demanded it. Eventually we would still step on toes and because of the detailed and tasking process, some contributors withdrew their pieces. All was in good faith; we understood, so did they.

Yes, we did talk about it, several times Adams and me. He visited not less than twice, spending days, if I recall well, and those were sleepless nights. We shared ideas about each piece, strengths, weaknesses, arresting moments and all. We deliberated on strategies, trusting each other’s judgment at several points, because at the end, the important thing was each piece itself and what was good for it.

Compiling was a different process entirely as the submissions didn’t tumble onto our laps at the same time. If editing spanned over a year, compilation took longer. We took breathers in between to allow for clarity and fresh eyes, so as to identify points of intrusion, if there were any. The anthology desired that. Desired, because at some point we had to let the whole thing itself out while we learnt not to struggle with the inevitable. We wanted the chaos to retain its force, while also allowing it to assign the truth to the emotions weaved into each word in each essay. It really was a long process, but we are happy that the anthology speaks for itself now.

Tshepo: What you have just described about the process was no easy task, I can’t even imagine how depleted you have felt and to finally exhale once the publication was out. Wow! There is a Setswana proverb that goes; “Setshwarwa ke ntsa-pedi gase thata,” which loosely emphasizes the importance of collaboration and how more than one set of hands are more effective. I commend you both for the work that you have put into this project once more. The more I know about what you had to endure is the more I remain in awe. Writers and artists in all aspects of Art need to come together and combine their individual forces for the mutual benefit of both them and the industry.

What are your future plans for the anthology? Any possibility of calling out for submissions for another one, maybe with a theme this time around? I am fan of hard copy books, the sound of paging through and page marking. Any plans to avail Thursday’s Children in a paperback form?

Adams: Curating A Mosaic of Torn Places and most recently, Thursday’s Children, was great but it was exhausting too. I’d like to see Thursday’s Children fulfill its potential before starting on another journey. So, while there will be more in the future, we are not in a hurry. Like you, I love hard copy books; the smell, the feel, the joy of seeing them on your bookshelf is one the beauties of this world, I believe. Thursday’s Children is available as a paperback from Amazon.

The choice of Amazon as a publisher resulted from the aversion of traditional publishers to anthologies and collections. They don’t want to see a manuscript before they decry anthologies as unmarketable. However, Amazon is not exactly a great market for Africa or African books and we are working tirelessly to see the book published locally, at least in Nigeria. We have received quotes from a number of independent publishers and the process is quite costly, so we are hoping for sponsors and partners to champion the publication.

Tshepo: Publishing costs are still a challenge for most African Literature writers unfortunately, but that should not deter writers from their initial great intentions. I am very proud of you both and thank you for your relentlessness. I would also like to thank the contributors for letting us in to their world. There are still more issues that African nations are either battling with, fighting against or few times, celebrating. I am of the thinking that writers are “The chosen ones,” so with that comes great responsibility; to listen, to pay attention and pen down our thoughts and suggestions, sometimes to bleed out or purge if need be. I wish the anthology great success and hopefully, the sponsors will make your dreams become a reality. Thank you both for your time.

Dami: Well, it is Thursday today, and I would like to believe this is a cosmic response to everything. Yes, I hope, believe and know that someway and somehow, the dream will be actualized. Thank you for sparing the time to do this. The interview has been immensely exciting and instructive.

Adams: Thank you Tshepo, for engaging with the book and for having us. Thanks to the writers who trusted us with their works. Writers are indeed the chosen ones, the self-appointed evangelists of the world. It is beautiful to watch how seriously writers of my generation have taken the responsibility of truth-telling, of documentation. The African literary industry keeps growing in sophistication. I hope it grows enough to match the sophistication of its banner men. Again, thank you Tshepo.

Tshepo-interviewer

Tshepo Phokoje is a 37-year-old writer from Palapye, Botswana. She writes both Fictional and Creative non-fictional short stories as well as Poetry. Her first fictional short story was published as part of 36 Kisses; an Anthology of Short stories & Poems by Botswana Society of Human Development, which was aimed at promoting commercial tourism. Her poem Battered, Bruised & Abused, is part of Silent No More, a PDF anthology about Gender Based Violence. Her poem “FEAR” has been featured in the May 2018 edition of Writers Space Africa, an international online magazine. In her spare time, she edits her fellow writers’ works. She is an overall lover of Arts and hopes to start her own blog, which will focus on Mental Health, Gender Based Violence, Loss, Motherhood, the ripple effects of unemployment and/or liquidation of mines and Survival stories.

TSHEPO PHOKOJE

INTERVIEWER FOR CREATIVE NON-FICTION

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