Reforming Our World Through Fiction: A Dialogue with Omotola Adeyelure
Omotola Adeyelure is a researcher, African Literature enthusiast and freelance editor. Her interests include literature and movie criticism. Omotola expresses creativity through her hobbies—baking and interior decoration. She is currently working on her first novel.
BY DR ALWYN ROUX
This conversation took place between a garden desk and a warm patio in the city of Pretoria via email.
Alwyn: I had the privilege of supervising your MA dissertation in Theory of Literature at the University of South Africa (Unisa) for the past two years. You are originally from Nigeria. Could you please tell me in more detail about your life journey up until this stage? Also, what made you decide to move to South Africa?
Omotola: Thanks so much for getting in touch with me. I honestly do not take your guidance and support throughout my academic journey for granted. Your supervision was outstanding.
Looking back over the years, my journey to becoming the present me was not presented on a platter of silver, let alone gold. It was not easy growing up as a young girl and the last child of an average family of six. Nonetheless, I dreamt big, including surpassing the best version of my mother, who was also a teacher and my role model. From her (an African mother), I learned core life values such as diligence, perseverance, integrity, humility, hard work, to mention a few. Although I lost her when I was a teenager, I remain grateful for the lessons I imbibed -which have helped position me well in life.
From a family that values education, my parents ensured that my siblings and I were well trained and educated at all costs. As a child, my passion for arts, literature and creativity was quite noticeable and well supported by my parents. They had me indulge in reading lots of storybooks and even encouraged my rustic writings. I feel this reinforced their decision to allow me to choose my career path rather than imposing one on me.
Later, I gained admission to study at Obafemi Awolowo University (ACE), where I bagged a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Education. After I graduated, I served in a one-year compulsory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) at the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), then worked as a teacher for a few years before relocating to SA.
Alwyn: Thank you, Omotola. Your parents played a significant role in your upbringing. You make a special note of your mother as being “an African mother.” Could you please elaborate on what that means for you?
Omotola: As a matter of fact, African society places more recognition and strength on the role a woman plays in training a child to become a responsible adult. In fact, in the western part of Nigeria, where I come from, there is a popular saying in Yoruba: “Iya ni wura”, which means “mother is gold”. This emphasises that society greatly attributes a child’s upbringing to the mother, and of course, the vices are sometimes attached to the mother too. I am not trying to underestimate a father’s role here. Fathers are pillars in every home and they also play significant roles. However, social pressure is on African women as the custodians of the proper upbringing of a child. This reality is also reflected in the literary works of African writers such as Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and others. I guess this is not far-fetched because a mother is the first contact of a child, the nurturer, cradle rocker, goddess and more. I believe the idea of dedication and self-sacrifice foreground the centrality of motherhood in African society.
Alwyn: You highlight that “the social pressure is on African women as the custodian of the proper upbringing of a child” and that that “reality” is “reflected in the literary works of African writers”. Could you please elaborate on this critical function of literature and provide examples from the authors’ work illustrating your claim?
Omotola: The literary works of African writers are imaginative responses to societal issues. By this, I mean the narratives of African writers are informed by lived experiences or the realities in their society. Hence, we can say literature critically functions as the reflection of life and can also be a reformative tool in society.
As earlier stated, African female writers depict practical realities of women, thereby utilising fiction as a tool to fight against oppression, discrimination, violence and other gender-based vices. For instance, African women suffer unnecessary pressure not only related to domestic issues but generally as it concerns their individuality, gender and even ability to procreate. It is like being a woman is hectic. Nnu Ego in Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood considers that her transition to motherhood optimises her womanhood. Similarly, Efuru, the protagonist whose name is also the title of Nwapa’s literary work, is frustrated by her inability to procreate and as a result, becomes a priestess. Both writers depict how African women in a predominantly patriarchal society are pressured to believe that motherhood is the pinnacle of womanhood and a prerequisite for social acceptance. Emecheta and Nwapa present the conflict between individuality and African traditions or customs, leading to untold miseries and marginalisation of women in their novels.
“When I read a literary work, I connect to the story by relating and learning from the experiences of the characters. Fiction may not only be interesting but also didactic. One learns kindness, empathy, love, emotional intelligence and life lessons.“
Furthermore, Adichie also uses her literary oeuvre to unravel the marginalisation and socio-cultural pressure that women face in Africa and challenge patriarchal imbalances. For example, in Americanah, the female diasporic characters, including the protagonist, Ifemelu, are victims of double-othering. Also, in Purple Hibiscus, Mama is a victim of domestic violence, but she becomes radical towards the end of the novel and fights for her freedom.
These female African writers I mentioned did not emerge from the same generation. However, the similarity in their writings is articulating the subverted voice and breaking the chains of gender discrimination. Their thematic concern is pushing women from the margins to the centre as she confronts patriarchy and other forms of marginalisation.
It is satisfying to know the narrative is changing now as women are more empowered to break all shackles of subjugation, and again, the role of literature cannot be overemphasised here. As the French scholar, d’Almeida says, “literature is a venue through which women portray themselves as actors instead of spectators. They are at the core instead of the periphery. They explore, deplore, subvert and redress the status quo within their fiction.”
I also think literature plays a dominant role as a reformative tool in society. When I read a literary work, I connect to the story by relating and learning from the experiences of the characters. Fiction may not only be interesting but also didactic. One learns kindness, empathy, love, emotional intelligence and life lessons. Channeling this knowledge to our day-to-day living is impactful in transforming our world and making it a better place.
Alwyn: Could you shed some light on the theoretical concept of “double-othering”, please? What does it mean?
Omotola: Okay. First off, otherness is literally discrimination in every sense. The idea of othering is categorising people into two hierarchical groups usually in terms of race, gender and class. The first group values identity while identity in the other group is devalued and subject to discrimination. There is consciousness of acceptance and exclusion, creating a gap of “us” within the dominant group and “them/the other” in the minorities.
In this regard, the concept of double-othering explains a situation where gender is not only the discriminating factor that constricts a female identity but also race. This means both factors are responsible for societal discrimination.
Alwyn: Thank you for an incredibly insightful answer, Omotola. Let’s move from the role of fiction to your love of literature. Where did your passion for literature and, more specifically, for Adichie’s work begin?
Also, recently you obtained an MA dissertation in Theory of Literature at the University of South Africa, with the title “Transgressive space and body in Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah and Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime”. As a Nigerian citizen living abroad, do you find instances where you want to say ‘I am experiencing the same things as Adichie described by her characters’?
Omotola: I have been long stuck with oral and printed literature, from as early as I can remember. I started reading at a very young age, and I enjoyed every storytelling session in my family. I visualised the fictional characters and spatial settings and even tried to recreate each character from my interpretation. During my high school days, I realised that only literature allows the free psychological mobility that no other subject permits. This motivated my change from a Science to an Arts class because I knew I was not for the rule-bound learning situated in science. Instead, arts open my mind to creating my realities. Reading creates an unimaginative route to think deeply, analyse and visit locations to broaden my horizons. With literature, I have a powerful lens for a better perception of my world. So, I will say my early exposure to reading influenced and sustained my passion for literature, especially African fiction.
I was introduced to Adichie’s works in 2003 when I read an interesting review of her debut novel Purple Hibiscus in a local newspaper. Later, I saw the book in my neighbour’s car. I was so keen on reading it that I requested and read it overnight. Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, was a prescribed text in my literature class at the university and subsequently, I have added (and I am still adding) Adichie books; Americanah, The Thing Around Your Neck, We Should All Be Feminists, to my library. I’m also looking forward to reading her latest work, Notes on Grief.
I have explored literary works of other contemporary African writers such as Tendai Huchu, Lola Shoneyin, Sefi Atta, Yaa Gyasi, Taiye Selasi and I really love them. I think there is something captivating about African fiction writers. However, I am drawn to Adichie’s brilliance and style of writing. You pick up her work to read, and you cannot help but admire her intellectual prowess, how she creatively weaves her plot to explore serious issues such as race, gender equality, class, love, identity, tribalism, migration and so on. She is a sentinel of words and a genius of syllables. That said, Adichie employs embedded narrative in her style of writing. Her narrative technique is multi-layered and does not necessarily follow a chronological pattern which creates a complex plot. This is evident in Americanah and Purple Hibiscus. She is that writer who has too many issues to address, many ideas to offload within limited pages.
To answer the latter part of your question, yes. My experiences as an immigrant identify with Adichie’s diasporic characters, most especially Ifemelu. Doesn’t every African immigrant have the initial feeling of displacement and unhomeliness? I think Americanah is influenced by Adichie’s lived experiences as a black migrant who also suffered racism when she relocated to the US. In fact, one may argue that Ifemelu is Adichie’s alter-ego because her experiences resonate with the writer’s.
When I relocated, I viewed myself in Ifemelu’s shoes with uncertainty, loneliness and double-consciousness of my identity in another African country. I became obsessed with unspoken fear, the perception of being a “foreigner”, and the constant struggle of integration into my new home. In the process of migrating, one gets disconnected from families, friends, and the environment one grew up in. While trying to assimilate into the new environment, one’s identity is compromised or altered. Home does not feel like home again, either in the former or the new. However, I am glad that I can channel all the opportunities available to become a better version of myself and thrive against all odds. Obtaining my master’s degree is one, and soon, I will commence my PhD. I am intentional the same way Ifemelu shapes a positive image of herself from her diasporic experiences and rewriting her story.
Alwyn: Could you please tell us about your plans for your future PhD? What are your goals? In which direction are you aiming, research-wise?
Omotola: As you already know, my research focus is on the socio-cultural challenges and conflicts of being black and the reimagining of the black identity in postcolonial society. The Black Lives Matter movement in America campaigns against violence and other forms of systemic racism. In May 2020, George Floyd’s killing by the police triggered a worldwide protest followed by the October 2020 End Sars protest in Nigeria which was a national outcry against police brutality that also generated international awareness. Police brutality is a societal bane that has received a lot of global attention, especially as it concerns non-whites.
I think my research focus will be on it, perhaps utilising a Marxist approach or investigating from an inter-racial and intra-racial perspective. There is an interconnectedness of class and race that interests me to examine extensively.
Alwyn: Lastly, I would like to know what you are currently reading.
Omotola: I am currently reading Sefi Atta’s Swallow a second time. Sefi Atta is one of my favorite African writers. I suggest you read her novel Everything Good Will Come. Quite interesting! What spurs my interest in re-reading Swallow? I watched the thriller of its screen adaptation on Netflix and my viewing anxiety is tickled. For a novel with a gripping plot that recounts the struggles of the lower-class Nigerian women in the 80s, definitely it is worth being adapted to screen. I see myself writing a review on this movie once it is released in October. Hence, I want the story refreshed in my mind so when I watch, the perspective from which the story is projected can be easily interpreted. The movie is produced by a renowned filmmaker in Nigeria, Kunle Afolayan. Because Afolayan is such a brilliant scriptwriter and producer, his works are often complex, which makes them a reserve of the initiates. One must be open-minded in interpreting his works. I am convinced that the conjunction of Atta and Afolayan, an incredible storyteller and a superb movie producer, must be intriguing.
Alwyn: Thank you for your insightful and intriguing answers, Omotola! It was such a great honour and privilege speaking to you.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Dr Alwyn Roux is a senior lecturer in the Department of Afrikaans and Theory of Literature at Unisa. His research interests include Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, phenomenology, landscape phenomenology, object-oriented ontology (OOO), Afrikaans and Dutch poetry, and narratology. He specialises in the poetry of Breyten Breytenbach.