On Writing a Canvas of Extremes: A Dialogue with Ademola Adefolami
Ademola Adefolami is a storyteller, curator, and content strategist. He has published in Anathema Magazine, Olongo Africa, Just Preachy, New Orleans Review, and Entropy Magazine. Mostly, he is interested in documenting stories that grow larger than the tiny cubicles where they unfold. He is @Lagos_Tout on Twitter.
BY AISHA KABIRU MOHAMMED
This conversation began with a letter electronically sent via WhatsApp from Zaria to Lagos.
Aisha: Hello, Ademola. Thank you for accepting our request for an interview.
Ademola: The pleasure is mine.
Aisha: Your piece in the Selves Anthology revealed really deep parts of yourself. Was this difficult for you to do?
Ademola: At no point during the entire writing process was it ever easy. Initially, it started as bullet points of things that have and somehow still make me sad. 2015-2016 was arguably the most depressing period of my life. So, having learned how writing helps us to make sense of even the darkest and deepest part of our core, I wanted to try something different from therapy (because, in my opinion, therapy doesn’t end grief, it only dilutes it), like documenting these things that cause me pain, things that hurt me, basically make sense of the inexplicable sadness that had taken hold of my soul. It wasn’t easy—many pauses and stops and refusal to continue, and moments of just trying to finish it. I do not like to leave things half-done. But then, no one said it would be easy
Aisha: Indeed the process of unearthing yourself is the hardest thing to do when writing non-fiction. Why did you pick this particular topic?
Ademola: It is. Nonfiction is somewhat tedious—the whole mental gymnastics of being selective with the truth you want to tell, and also juxtaposing that with how you feel internally, revealing so much. I didn’t exactly pick the topic, so to speak, because I never planned to publish it. I was just making notes, documenting how I felt, and why I should feel that way. I always believe that the knowledge of the past demystifies the past, clarifies the present, and illuminates the future. So, for me, I wanted to trace when ‘this feeling’ started, what might have triggered it, and if there was a way to manage it, going forward. It wasn’t a deliberate topic I picked to write an essay about. It started as rants and scribbles, and then it just developed into what it eventually became.
Aisha: The theme that stood out for me was your exploration of sexuality when you were younger. Yes, you mentioned it was hard writing the piece but what about writing this was different or harder?
Ademola:That part took a whole lot of courage to write. I haven’t told anyone else, but the original piece was weightier than that. After I submitted it to Basit Jamiu for the Selves Anthology, a friend and editor had read it and asked me if I was ready to put out some of the details in the piece. At that time, I was unsure, so I scrapped them. Also, Bassey Ikpi read the modified copy (when I sent it to Catapult Magazine) and told me something was missing, and that she wanted that missing piece. So, again, I just decided that I wasn’t ready, so you could say that I ‘forgot’ to send the copy to her. In this part of the world, exploring sex and sexuality is such a big deal, especially for an emerging writer. So, it takes a lot of guts to put some things out. So, yes, that part of the essay made it assuredly more difficult.
Aisha: Do you think it is important to talk about sex and sexuality when writing our own stories?
Ademola: I don’t think there’s a right way to answer this. I can’t speak for how much writers should share. I do not know to what extent sharing might be therapeutic for some. One thing I always believe is, share as much as you feel comfortable sharing at the time. I mean, sex and sexuality are essential parts of the human (and non-human) existence. If anyone feels comfortable talking about that, then I don’t see a problem. What we will not tolerate is the glorification of criminal and illegal sexual fantasies under the guise of literary expression. If people can write about their mental health issues, their divorces, their miscarriages, how then is sex and sexuality different? I think it’s just this ridiculous hypocrisy we have as a nation.
Aisha: Why do you think this hypocrisy exists?
Ademola: I honestly don’t know. Religion? Cultural conservatism? And just plain denial, maybe? For instance, in Africa, we pretend like queer people have not always been with us. Like they only just resurfaced when the colonizers came in. That’s pure nonsense. Even our indigenous languages have always had names for people they perceived to be “unusual.”And then everyone is a Christian or Muslim, so we act like no one ever has sex. Or abortion is a sin like Marie Stopes doesn’t daily come to the rescue of young people with a pregnancy they do not intend to keep. Rather than just accept these things as parts of our lives (because they are), we just pretend like they don’t exist. When we should create an acceptable society and healthcare to mitigate HIV in queer people, we demonise the health care systems against them. The irony is, for Christians who claim that being queer is a Western import, how do they not see that being so domesticated into subservience for a god whose representative doesn’t look like them, is silly. I’m sure it’s not just in this part of the world, though. I think humans are just generally pretentious. And this pretence, deceit and hypocrisy always finds its way into our lives, affecting some minorities in the process.
Aisha: When you were writing that piece, did you in any way feel like you were addressing these issues?
Ademola: No. Not really. (Laughs). The idea was not to address issues. I was merely writing what I would call my truth. Or, at least, my version of the truth—which in itself was an aggregation of my experiences, the realities I had lived through, and some of the things that happened to me as a person. In a way, revealing these parts of me might have made commentaries about some of our social issues, especially with regards to sexual liberation and sexuality. But these commentaries were not deliberate attempts to address any issues. In all honesty, I wouldn’t have wanted my life to be used as a case study for such a “fragile” issue. I especially did not think that I had enough rounded experiences to be a mouthpiece on some of these issues. Yes, we cannot discredit anyone’s experiences, but, for me, I wanted to write a document about life.
“My life has always been a canvas of extremes, so to speak. I have always wanted my writing to express people’s extremes and edges, to extract the core of their humanity. I hope that my essays have tried to show that.“
Aisha: Did this commentary ever get misunderstood when the work was published?
Ademola: Definitely. I know I had a couple of readings and chats, and people just went on and on with the questions. It was overwhelming at some point. Some people misunderstood it. Some people understood. Some were indifferent. But reactions to literary works are always diverse. I got questions about why I was so proud of being emotionally detached. I told people to read the essay again. Here I was, trying to make sense of this emotional detachment and indifference that had caused me so much pain. And people were telling me that it wasn’t something to be proud of. Like…did you even read the piece or are you just looking to talk? But, one particular reading with Tolu Daniel and TJ Benson in Abuja was so interesting. The audience was receptive, and we had a fruitful back and forth. I loved that particular reading. But I think the reality is that many people will misunderstand your work. Some will get it. Some won’t even care about it. But that’s how it is. But you won’t exactly tell people how to engage with your work, no?
Aisha: No, there’s no guideline for engaging with the work. That’s the essence of such pieces. People finding different meanings.
Ademola: Exactly. People are going to relate to the work based on different reasons; their experiences, their understanding of literature, moral biases, religious differences. So many boxes.
Aisha: Yes. What has been the most interesting response to your work?
Ademola: You mean this particular essay?
Aisha: Yes, this particular essay.
Ademola: It’s probably the fact that some of the people whose pieces I looked forward to in the anthology told me how stunned they were by my essay. Like, are you joking? I love your essay. But, personally, the most interesting response has been Bassey Ikpi’s. She saw beyond the language and sentences, and noticed that something was missing—like I had changed the direction of the essay. That was flattering. She saw that. Although, that also told me I needed to rework the entire piece so it reads like one narrative. But I appreciated that particular response.
Aisha: I think I can relate to that feeling. Admiring someone’s work to discover that they’re also admiring yours. How was the essay meant to go?
Ademola: What do you mean?
Aisha: You said Bassey Ikpi noticed you changed the direction of the essay.
Ademola: Yes, she did. The idea was to rework it, to make it complete and whole. But then, I was left with two options: to fill in the gaps and, in the process, expose too much, or to work on blending the edges so that it reads whole, without eventually revealing the things I wasn’t ready to reveal
Aisha: Oh. So what did you end up doing?
Ademola: I think I just trimmed some edges and blended it (I hope I did). But I did not eventually add that bit. I think I have it somewhere in my drafts, as a stand-alone essay, of course. I enlarged it, added some bits and I am just hoping to publish it someday, or not.
Aisha: I hope to read this soon.
Ademola: I hope so, too.
Aisha: What effect did writing poetry have when it came to writing non-fiction?
Ademola: It gave me a sense of order. No matter how experimental a poetic form is, or how much of the lines are hinged on enjambment, you can still always sense structured chaos—the order in how disorganised it appears. So, for me, poetry just helped me figure out how to paint vivid pictures with sentences, and how to place paragraphs and sentences so that it has a progressive direction. I mostly write insanely—two paragraphs on my laptop, some 300 words on my Samsung Notes, and maybe three pages on a jotter or notebook. So, it’s important to bend these different thoughts written at different intervals, reflecting different moods and perspectives, into one complete piece. That’s where the acute sensibilities of poetry are, for me.
Aisha: Do you think your writing would be different if you didn’t write poetry?
Ademola: I can’t say for sure. I think it might have taken a different turn if I previously wrote short stories, for instance. But then, even while writing poetry, I read a lot of fiction, so I think that might have all culminated into what my writing is at this point, which, by the way, isn’t where I want to be yet. But yes, writing poetry was important to my earliest essays. And maybe it still is now.
Aisha: Could you tell us a bit about those earlier essays? Was the subject matter similar?
Ademola: By earlier essays, I meant Dying in Installments, Approaching Thirty-Five or A Pedagogy Of Departure, A Half-Formed Thing and The Lines. The Selves Anthology essay was my first published personal essay.
Aisha: Oh, They all have very striking titles. What goes into naming your pieces?
Ademola: I used to think I had the shittiest titles.
Aisha: Not at all. They’re really good.
Ademola: Tolu Daniel once told me about the importance of naming things just how we feel them. So, for me, the titles are given from how I feel internally. Sometimes, I don’t even think that the essays encapsulate everything I want to say, but I make sure the titles help to augment the essay, in that way. I don’t have a method for titling. Sometimes, it comes from a line in the essay, like Dying In Installments. The title was the last editing process. For some other essays, I have the title even before writing. It’s not exactly a regimented process. It’s as chaotic as the essay writing process. Thank you.
Aisha: Which do you prefer naming: poems or nonfiction? What’s the difference between the two?
Ademola: Both. Sadly, I haven’t written a poem in years. But I don’t think there’s much of a difference in naming both, at least for me. Titles reflect what the piece is about, or exactly what the author wants to convey. So, it’s the same process, in my opinion.
Aisha: It’s sad to hear that you haven’t written a poem in so long. Did that happen because you were busy?
Ademola: I wouldn’t say that. It was an intentional switch. I didn’t personally think that poetry could give me the freedom to tell the stories I hope to write. I’m drawn to larger-than-life stories; stories of everyday Nigerians, ordinary people, disregarded people, stories that mirror, stories that are distinctly individual but ineluctably universal. And I thought I needed more words, more freedom to explore and blur lines. So, I stuck to nonfiction because it helped. I considered it better suited for the temperament and texture of the things I want to write about.
Aisha: Oh, poetry limits you in that way. Going by this, would you say that writing a particular genre depends on temperament?
Ademola: I think so. But then, you get writers who can juggle different genres, different temperaments, different forms, and whatnot. Those are the real GOATs. Although, I wouldn’t say poetry limits. But I needed more dynamic flexibility. I didn’t think I could achieve that with my poetry. Of course, there have been writers who have done this, and are still doing this well. A very good example is Wale Ayinla’s chapbook, To Cast A Dream, which tells a profound story of migration and its accompanying disaster.
Aisha: Do you consider yourself someone who could juggle different forms?
Ademola: Yeah. I can juggle different forms. I mean, every essay is different from the next. So, yes, I can and have juggled different forms. Only that, for now, I’m mostly experimenting with nonfiction. There’s a level I want my writing to attain before I take on another genre. I would also love to write a collection of short stories. Chimeka Garricks’ A Broken People‘s Playlist has been giving me some ideas. Maybe. Maybe not.
Aisha: We hope to see that soon.
Ademola: We’ll see.
Aisha: Would you change anything if you had a chance to rewrite the piece?
Ademola: Of course. No piece is ever complete. So yes, I would change some things.
Aisha: What would you change?
Ademola: Maybe the entire narrative. I mean, so many things have happened since then that have opened me up to different things. In retrospect, I might have changed how I wrote the piece.
Aisha: One theme that struck me in the piece was that of defiance, of leading a life on the fringes of society’s expectations. Could you tell us more about this, and writing about it?
Ademola: Yeah. For me, I think that I’ve always known that there’s a part of me still struggling to find happiness. And I knew that would be tortuous, so I always wanted to live on my terms— to just do things that I believed made sense, even if our common sensibilities do not agree with them. My vow has always been to try not to hurt anyone with my actions. So, if my actions do not negatively affect someone else, I just go ahead, if it makes sense to me. Mostly, my essays reflect these edges. My life has always been a canvas of extremes, so to speak. I have always wanted my writing to express people’s extremes and edges, to extract the core of their humanity. I hope that my essays have tried to show that.
Aisha: Was this difficult for you?
Ademola: It is. That’s the brutal honesty of it all.
Aisha: What effect did sharing it have on you? Knowing a lot of people will read your secrets?
Ademola: That’s something I’m honestly still trying to get used to.
Aisha: How did you feel when it was accepted and published?
Ademola: Elated, I think. I mean, I get the fact that, sometimes, yes, we want to document our ordeals, to make sense of the things we go through, at particular moments in time, but then, there is a sense of accomplishment that comes with realising that you’ve documented your trauma (as Oris might like to say) and, somehow, people consider it a story enough in an anthology of new nonfiction. So, trust me, I felt cool. (Laughs). But then, there was always the nervousness, the apprehension and uncertainty that comes with knowing that you’ve put something out, about yourself, that you will never be able to take back.
Aisha: Do you feel this way every time your work gets out there?
Ademola: Yeah. It’s almost like a personal question I have to ask myself with every personal essay, do you want to put this out? Are you sure? And, honestly, sometimes, I’m not sure. But I just feel a personal need to put them out.
Aisha: Was there ever a time when putting them out wasn’t an option?
Ademola: Yeah, I think. There are still essays somewhere in my drafts I still am not sure if I want out yet. Or if I want out at all. So, there’s always that hesitation, especially with some particular details.
Aisha: Do you think your work comes with a certain power? What kind do you think it is? And what else do you think needs to be written by you in the future and what power does that hold?
Ademola: In all honesty, I’m just figuring that out. I understand that there’s power in owning our narratives, and just telling our story how we want it to be told, which is what I’ve always done. If power means resonance—people relating with my piece even beyond what I envisioned, then I think I probably have accomplished that. But, I don’t even think I’ve written the stories I want to write. Stories that have power and influence in the sense that it doesn’t just reflect the ordinariness of existence, but also cause a shift in perception of even the most mundane. I want to tell stories that have the potential to change the world, even if that means just one minute fragment of Lagos. Power, in my opinion, is the change that your piece champions.
Aisha: Indeed. Thank you so much for talking to us, Ademola. This was a very insightful conversation.
Ademola: Thank you so much for your patience and understanding.
Photo credit for featured image of Ademola Adefolami: Victor Adewale.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Aisha Kabiru Mohammed is a law student at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Kaduna state is her home town. Aisha is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her pieces revolve around identity, feminism, and the African mind and body as political and spiritual entities. In 2019, Aisha won the inaugural Andrew Nok Poetry Prize, awarded by YELF. She later judged the 2020 edition of the prize. When she isn’t studying law and writing, you can find her drinking tea, reading, stroking cats and volunteering to spread mental health awareness and to end SGBV. Aisha currently hosts a podcast segment for Ayamba LitCast called Poet Box Series.