2020 African Writers Award for Creative Nonfiction: A Dialogue with Oluyemisi Oladejo
Oluyemisi Oladejo holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Ibadan. She is a classroom and virtual teacher of English language. Some of her publications are available online here.
Oluyemisi is the founder and the coordinator of Teachers’ Tribe, a Facebook community of educators who are intentional about professional and financial growth. She blogs at www.teacherstribe.net.
She is the winner of the 2020 African Award for Creative Non-Fiction.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation took place between Kenya and Nigeria, via email and WhatsApp.
Edith: It’s such a privilege to finally have this conversation with you! First of all, congratulations on winning the 2020 African Writers Award for Creative Nonfiction.
Tell me, when you heard your name announced as the winner, what thoughts that went through your head. Did it occur to you that your essay would win?
Oluyemisi: Thank you, Edith. I must say that the only thing better than winning this award is being caught unawares by the news of my win. I found out on the sick bed. I had been hospitalized for one week. I recall finally having access to my phone that Sunday afternoon and finding that mail. It was such a pleasant surprise. It was just the day before yesterday that I found out there had been a long list. Perhaps because I didn’t follow up, or I missed the mail to that effect—If I had known that I had made it to the long list, I probably would have anticipated my win.
Entering that competition in the first place was just one of those random things I did to add purpose to my existence. Who knows what will work?
Edith: I am so sorry to hear about your health! How are you feeling now?
You know when I read ‘Each Little Win’, I was totally floored. It’s like someone took the wind out of my lungs. I finished reading it, paused for a few moments and was like ‘wait, what?’ in a totally awestruck dazed way, then I had to go and read it again. I was breathless. Tell me about this story.
Oluyemisi: I see that piece as my weak attempt at translating my unsavory experience with Sickle Cell Disorder to something presentable. You know, just as pharmacists would coat a bitter pill with a thin layer of sweetness. The coating doesn’t take away the bitter taste. The same way ‘Each Little Win’ doesn’t take away the multi-layered pain that accompanies Sickle Cell Disorder. But at least, it did make you (and whoever has read that piece) look my way and probably stop to consider the plight of sickle cell warriors. I struggled with stigmatization a lot. But I have evolved so much that I have now made peace with who I am, and I am making the most of it. I want to motivate people. I want others to draw strength from my story. You know that saying about making lemonade when life throws lemon at you.
Edith: Yes, this story made me stop. Literally! And it made me aware too. Because as much as there are many wars going on around us, to the point that we sometimes become apathetic. We truly never get to walk in, and around the shoes of the people in the battlefield.
And I must confess, I hate that saying about lemons; I mean how many lemonades will I make before I’m absolutely fed up with it? I always say ‘when life gives me lemons, I throw them back at it.’ I get the reason behind the saying though. Which is like what you say, ‘the pharmacist coating a bitter pill with a thin layer of sweetness.’
I find your story very profound because you take away that layer. It’s like you are saying Here I am. See me. Look at me. See the pain, the scars, the struggles, the good days, the bad days, see all of it. That vulnerability is powerful!
And this line ‘Here, we don’t celebrate the ultimate victory; we celebrate each little win while the battle cries still ring.‘ This line keeps coming back to me because like most people, my focus is usually on winning the war, and disregarding the small battle wins. How did you arrive at knowing that each little win was as important, and worthy to be celebrated? The discharges from the hospital, the baby, the birthdays. What made you take your eyes off the ultimate victory, to now saying, ‘you know what, these little wins are worth celebrating.’ Was this a conscious decision?
“Miracles are misconstrued. We often look for it in the product, whereas, it can sometimes be in the process.“
Oluyemisi: If you live with sickle cell, you have to be intentional about being happy. Happiness is somehow elusive for a sickle cell warrior. Someone said, ‘Living with sickle cell is like sitting on a cactus chair and trying to feel comfortable’. Many sickle cell warriors are bitter. I have come across many who blame their parents for their misery.
I spent many years running from pillar to post. As far as sickle cell is concerned, the ultimate win is not exactly feasible. It took me so many years to realize that. Once I did, I began to be grateful for the little wins; they are the only wins available. As a sickle cell warrior, you are either grateful for the little wins or you are perpetually miserable. So, my gratitude for the little wins is a conscious decision.
Edith: And being grateful for the little wins is important. In a world where ‘the grander, the better’ is the mantra, it’s so easy to be miserable, especially if we start comparing ourselves to others, and what they are doing.
In the essay you write about Tosyn Bucknor, who was celebrated not because she won the battle, but because she ‘held the microphone skillfully’ Its because of her ‘other landmark achievement’ that she was acknowledged. Reading this reminded me of Chadwick Boseman, who after his death there were so many comments of ‘look how strong he was,’ ‘he didn’t let cancer put him down’ etc and people were celebrating him for being ‘strong.’ I felt these comments were triggering for people with disabilities because one would now feel the pressure to be like Tosyn or Chadwick. Because if Tosyn or Chadwick could do it, right?
Also, reading the last paragraph of your work made me appreciate the extent of your personal journey; and it also made me realize that validation doesn’t need to be external. Are there other discoveries in living with sickle cell that you’ve made that you were not able to share in the story? Even in writing this. I always say writing nonfiction is like undressing in front of people. And that vulnerability takes courage. How was the process of writing this piece like for you?
Oluyemisi: The reference to Bucknor and Boseman reminds me of my conversation with a friend. I used the word “complacent” and she got angry; and was trying to make me see how much of negativity “complacent” projects. But I told her, “See, the word is not as bad as you have painted it. For some of us, it is the secret to inner peace. Some of us just have to learn to be complacent so we can have peace”. If you lived with disability, you had to know your limits. People say I am very productive, but most of these activities that I engage in are those that do not involve the exertion of physical energy. Many of my activities are mental activities. They are tasks I can carry out while lying down or seated.
In answer to your first question, I will say I have found that healthy nutrition is key. Its potency is unparalleled in the management of Sickle Cell Disorder. Many of us, like the woman with the issue of blood in the Bible, have “suffered many things of physicians”. The physicians in our case are those who claim to have the cure. Imagine, people claiming to have herbal cures, substances and processes unrelated to genetic modification! They have milked many of us dry! People hardly talk about healthy nutrition, yet, it is very effective in the management of sickle cell. By healthy nutrition, I mean plenty of fruit, vegetables and water.
Now talking about undressing in front of people, at this point in my life, it is no longer difficult, not a bit! In my almost 35 years of existence, my blood disorder has undressed me in front of many people. Now, it’s easy and more dignifying for me to undress myself in front people. Many years ago, it might have been difficult. In those days, all I wanted was to be a regular human being, but my blood disorder had a way of showing everyone how clearly different I was from them. One episode of crisis or the other would expose me. These days, I don’t wait for my blood disorder to expose me; I expose it first. I have found this to be an effective mechanism for coping with stigmatization. I earn admiration instead.
Edith: I’m trying to imagine it, literally. Being undressed in front of people, or, undressing myself in front of people. And you are right, there is dignity in undressing one’s self as opposed to being undressed. Because no matter the circumstances, we always still want to have some sort of control. Not to be, or feel completely helpless.
And that’s why when you write about the sentiments by the professor of genetics, or people saying you are the ‘hole’ in your father’s bag, why your ‘mother is clothed in rag’ I really felt it. It reminded me of the book The Fault in Our Stars, when Hazel Grace says “It occurred to me that the reason my parents had no money was me. I’d sapped the family savings with Phalanxifor copays, and Mom couldn’t work because she had taken on the full-time profession of Hovering Over Me.” Its feeling like one is a burden, and there is nothing you can do about it. And I guess that’s why there’s a subtle pressure to achieve more, or be more. So that one is not defined, or only remembered by their disease.
I also thought about the reference you made to the poems, Abiku. Or rather, the reference some people have made to you. How is this? I mean in the poem, Abiku is portrayed as spirit child that goes and comes back; so how is this connected to you? And when you write about having your baby after ten had come and gone, was it the miscarriages that made you think of these two poems?
Oluyemisi: I doubt whether there can be uniformity in our conceptualization of “abiku”. On the one end are those who, like you (Forgive me if I am wrong), share Soyinka and Clerk’s sentiment about the “abiku” being a child for whom the boundary between life and death is blurred and migration is so easy they can do it as often as they desire. On the other end are medical enthusiasts who link such mortality and rebirths to the SS genotype. They show us the significant reduction in cases of “abiku” as more people learn about genotype compatibility in marriage and fewer children with sickle cell are born.
I do not wish to bring my personal opinion to the fore; it’s inconsequential, anyway. But what I am certain about is that anyone living with sickle cell in Nigeria has at one time or the other been called “abiku” or “ogbanje” or “emere” or “alara igbo” or other names linking sickle cell to deaths and rebirths, and spelling out their ignorance of our medical condition. None of the ten babies I lost previously was “abiku”. The losses (still births and miscarriages) were connected to my blood disorder.
Edith: You know there has been quite a lot written about cancer; in books, stories, movies etc., and we sort of know a lot about it, and understand it. However, we have diseases like sickle cell where public knowledge is not as vast. Apart from being always asked “Why are your eyeballs yellow?” as you write in the story, do you find that generally people do not understand sickle cell? In writing ‘Each Little Win’, and also in other forums where you write about your battle with sickle cell, do you see it as a way of ‘teaching’ the reader who doesn’t understand this disease? or is it a writing for other sickle cell warriors who will say ‘yes, this is what I am going through’ and helping them identify themselves in the story, or is it a writing that is just for you, as a form of expression in writing what is going on in your world.
Oluyemisi: Compared with what obtained decades ago; we have come a long way as far as awareness about sickle cell is concerned. As of today, some churches will not solemnize couples whose genotypes are not compatible. On social media, I have read stories of lovebirds who decided to part ways because of the possibility of having children with sickle cell. But beyond associating the SS genotype with ill-health, many people know next to nothing about sickle cell.
People still confuse bone pain crisis in sickle cell with rheumatism or arthritis. Someone would look into a sickle cell warrior’s eyeballs and say, “Your eyeballs are yellow. You should cut down on your palm oil intake”. People have children with sickle cell and mismanage them out of ignorance.
I went somewhere with someone who supposedly knows about my health status. We had to pass the night there. The next morning, everyone was bathing, and I decided that I wasn’t going to bathe because I had no access to warm water. Then, she began to lecture me about personal hygiene (lol). She insisted I bathe in spite of my plea and explanations. Well, I bathed and went straight into pain crisis. Only a negligible fraction of the African population can boast the knowledge of other genotypes apart from AA, AS and SS. Genotypes like SC, CC and AC for example, also have sickle cell. It’s disheartening that some people even confuse genotype with blood group. It’s 2020 and someone still believes that sickle cell is contagious! I honestly hope that my writings about sickle cell educate non-warriors as much as they resonate with warriors.
Edith: This is true and sad also, and we need more writers like you, not only sickle cell warrior writers, but writers that are brave enough to write about whatever issues they are facing, because other people can identify themselves through our words. As writers we are curators of the present moment, and if we don’t write about our pain, or joys, our struggles, our wins, we are doing a disservice to the readers. And even in this conversation with you, I am already learning and unlearning a lot.
When I read this from your essay,
‘They say miracles happen, that it is at the Cross and at the Crescent Moon, even in the Rusted Metals at the African Shrine. I read their testimonies in the news. On TV, I see them standing in overly decorated altars before an audience of eager listeners who chorus “God is great”. I tell them that I know another example of a miracle’
It reminded me of a friend who is on a wheelchair, and she was talking about her frustration with meeting all sorts of people who either want to ‘pray for her healing’ or take her to people ‘who will heal her’. What you said earlier about suffering many things in the hand of physicians. This friend told me of the story in the Bible where Jesus only healed one man by the pool, yet there were tens of sick people there. Do you think exceptional miracles are overrated? So that it’s either, if you are on a wheelchair, you have nothing to celebrate, or if you have sickle cell and aren’t healed yet, you have nothing to celebrate? or you don’t have enough faith, that’s why this is happening? Why is religion so obsessed with exceptional miracles?
Oluyemisi: Miracles are misconstrued. We often look for it in the product, whereas, it can sometimes be in the process.
Alaja Onikoyi died recently. She died an octogenarian. No, she didn’t get a cure. She lived all her eighty-something years with sickle cell. She had five children or thereabouts. She made pilgrimage to Mecca several times and fasted during Ramadan. She had grandchildren. If that is not a miracle, what then is? Miracles come in sizes and mutations. As I said early on, we should always look out for the little wins.
Edith: This is powerful Oluyemisi, that we should not just look at the product, but the process. And yes, our little wins are miracles.
Finally, what are you currently working on, that is, if you are working on something? What little wins are you focusing on right now?
Oluyemisi: I have two titles in the pipeline: ‘Premium English Grammar’ and ‘A House Built of Ice Cubes’. The former is a comprehensive grammar guide, and is due for publishing in January 2021. The latter is a novel, and should be out towards the end of 2021.
Edith: How exciting! I can’t wait to see and read them. Do let me know when they are out. I look forward to having another conversation with you.
Oluyemisi: I feel honored. Thanks for considering me for this interview. I’ll definitely let you know when each book is out. Best wishes!
Edith Knight Magak is a creative writer and a 2020 Writing Fellow at African Liberty. Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Jalada Africa, Meeting of Minds UK, Jellyfish Review, among others. She lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. Find her on Twitter @oedithknight