Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is an experimental writer of Yoruba descent. His work explores Black realities and the diverse ways his people navigate the world. Find his work in Al Jazeera, FIYAH, Popula, Harvard University’s Transition, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the 2023 Don F. Hendrie Jr. Prize in Fiction, 2020 Speculative Literary Foundation’s Diverse Writers Grant, 2020 K & L Prize for African Literature, 2022 OutWrite Chapbook Prize, 2022 Best of the Net Anthology selection and a Truman Capote Literary Trust Scholarship, among others. He was a finalist for the 2020-2021 Glass Chapbook Series Contest, 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize, Jerome K. Phipps Prize for Poetry (2022, 2023) and 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. He was nominated for the 2021 Pushcart Prize and 2022 AWP Intro Journals Awards in two categories: Poetry and Nonfiction. He earned Honorable Mentions for the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest (2020, 2022) and was longlisted for the 2019 Short Story Day Africa Prize and 2020 Toyin Fálọlá Prize. He has published two chapbooks: In My Country, We’re All Crossdressers (Praxis, 2018) and Shakespeares in the Ghetto (neon hemlock, 2023). He is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, where he is working on a voodoo-inspired novel.
BY UCHENNA EMELIFE
This conversation took place between Lagos, Nigeria; Sokoto, Nigeria; Atlanta, USA and London, UK; via email.
Uchenna: Your story on the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize Shortlist, “The Women in My Life Are Unfinished Portraits” had me glued right from the title. I like how in a few pages, it is able to tell multiple stories and is not that the beauty of the short story? Covering so much in just a few words?
Before we discuss it, can you share a backstory? What did writing the story feel like? The writing process and how it came to be.
Kanyinsola: I must have written this two or three years ago. And at that time, I was experimenting with different voices, challenging myself to inhabit different kinds of bodies and speak through them in ways that I found refreshing. I had had this story in me for a while, but I believe I was really prompted to get to the actual writing when I heard a verse from Megan Thee Stallion’s “Make A Bag”. I loved the energy she had on that song and from there, I started imagining going with a voice that bold, that charismatic and so the writing began. It was very stream-of-consciousness which is why it doesn’t read like a proper narrative. The initial drafts were very, very rough monologues but I managed to get as close to a sane presentation as possible.
Uchenna: It was quite interesting the style of narration you adopted in telling this story. It is completely told in the first person but is still able to paint a picture of each of these unfinished portraits. Your narrator takes us through these paintings and we see the characters through her eyes- but we get to understand them individually and not just in relation to the narrator.
How did you pull this off? And why did you decide that it would be told in the first person when each of these women could tell their own story themselves using multiple points of view?
Kanyinsola: The aim of this is to highlight how limited we are in telling other people’s stories. The narrator is attempting, and failing, at understanding the interiority of the lives and motives of the women around her. I thought it was a beautiful thing to reflect upon: how we struggle to give accurate depictions of others from our own skewed perspective. To make those other women take over the narration of their own stories would alter the whole point of the piece in the first place. I wanted them addressed from the angle of a flawed observer.
Uchenna: And it did turn out beautiful.
I like how you made this inability of her to completely understand, as what sets the course for the painting of her own personal unfinished portrait. Of course, I do not like this for the character herself due to the tragedies she faced as a result, but it added layers to the story.
What would be the first of many dents in her portrait is losing her sister at such a young age to a mysterious death, and then have everyone doubt what she had witnessed. We learn how the same loss leads her to Kaka who rapes her after saving her from drowning. This in turn leads to her first self-harm attempt. More dents would be watching her parents become strangers before her eyes. Losing her father to the same water that stole Kehinde away. Losing her grandmother whose final words to her thickened her confusion. Losing favour in the eyes of her mother. Losing ‘The Boy I Love’. Losing Aunty Rosemary. All of these while still struggling to hold the paint brush with which she painted every other portrait but hers.
The first time she acknowledges her failed attempts to understand these women in her life and how it has resulted in her own unfinished portrait. She confesses “I am failing at this” but decides to make sense of it regardless. When she finally understands, it is ironic that it is in the very water responsible for her losses.
This attempt of mine to paint a portrait of your protagonist doesn’t even begin to capture her essence. Like her, I’m helpless in the comprehension of the many layers that form her and so I’m curious as to what writing her felt like. What informed her? What did it feel like to write her?
“The only reason I was able to tell this story is that I told myself at the start: succumb to the chaos, ride the wave, let it take you to unexpected places.“
Kanyinsola: The only reason I was able to tell this story is that I told myself at the start: succumb to the chaos, ride the wave, let it take you to unexpected places. I knew that capturing a complexity that pushed the boundaries of what I considered logical, normal behavior would be challenging, so I decided to allow my impulses to run wild and not tame whatever chaotic explorations of her mind I embarked upon. And, if I am being honest, I believe most people are just like that, full of layers that even they will never fully peel off in their lifetime. She is chaos. Writing her was chaos. And I am thankful for it.
Uchenna: She is chaos is such an apt way to describe her. If I wanted to use another word, it would be water. In the words of Bruce Lee, “shapeless, formless like water“. Little wonder, Maami says to her to look to the same water, the cause of her chaos and the very thing that eventually soothes it. The irony. Being water. Losing to water. Finding peace in water.
Water is at the heart of this story and plays a symbolic role in the story. Shortly before Maami dies, she says to Okan, “Forgive me, child. I did not understand it until now either. But now I know the truth: your whole life, you will be followed by it, that same thing that follows everyone. To find it, you have to look to the water and claim it as yours. It is not your enemy. The water is always hungry. Give yourself to it or it will take you by force.”
And I wonder. like Okan, what is this “it”? The calm? The peace? Is it the same “it” that drew Kehinde to the water and took her with it? Was she suffering her own chaos and needed its soothing? Was silence too deafening for her that only the waves of water could give her “it”? Did Maami go back to it? Is Osun it? Can you talk about your usage of water in this story and how it is both villain and hero?
Kanyinsola: I had initially imagined this story as having a sequel. I did not want to expand it into a novel or novella or anything like that, but this was going to be the first act of a sort of duology or trilogy. I thought that would be fun to experiment with. But I later decided against it and chose to keep the mystery alive, the ending unsatisfactory. I wanted to situate the reader in the same mental state as the character, right? To give them the same sense of existential limitations as the narrator. I have always loved the idea of water in my stories. The biggest atrocities in myth and history are linked to water: slavery, colonialism, the 1931 Yangtze-Huai River floods, the Gilgamesh disaster, the very existence of the cursed Sharknado movies…and I am fascinated with the story of the goddess Osun as my father was devoted to her during his lifetime. So I went with water as the source of her suffering and, hopefully, her redemption. What is truly going on is a mystery I think is best served by not being revealed.
Uchenna: Interesting and I actually like my stories unexplained. Which is why my favorite endings are open-endings. I find it more realistic because life doesn’t always offer us closure to the many weird things that happen to us. They just do and somehow it is we who have to adjust. So, when stories body this, they resonate with me and I am taken by their wonder. I liked that your story never lost that wonder.
In an earlier response, you talked about how the story was you experimenting with different voices and challenging yourself to speak through them. At what point did you decide that water was going to be what tied these different voices? Or did the story happen to you with water from the get-go, or was it as you wrote that you decided to take a spiritual route and centre water?
Kanyinsola: I think at that point, I was writing a lot of poems about water, so it was natural that it would make its way into this particular story. But I do not think I started the story with the water motif in mind. It all started with the character, really, and I built everything around her. The water came rushing in after, but, like I said, it was inevitable due to the space in which my craft was operating at that time.
Uchenna: And yet, look how it came and tied everything up. The title, “The Women in my Life are Unfinished Portraits” automatically builds this suspense and intrigue in the reader that I found myself unable to resist reading the story. What was the titling process like? And generally, do you have a titling ritual? I spoke to a writer recently who said that even at the first draft, she already has a title for the story? Is this same for you?
Kanyinsola: Actually, I never begin anything unless I have a title. For me, titles are like guiding lights. Without them, I would not be able to decide the tone, voice and scope of the story. The title exists long before a single word of the story does. I might later change it, though that rarely happens.
Uchenna: For me, it is quite different. I tend to know what my opening would be even before the direction of the story or the title. The title is usually the last thing I figure out and sometimes takes longer figuring it out, than even the writing. This cuts across all forms of writing I engage in. I have my opening, then the story happens as I write on and then a title comes afterwards usually after several bouts of imposter syndrome
Let’s talk about your writing generally. In my research for this interview and other stories of yours I have read, there is a speculative feature that cuts across most of them. This penchant for telling stories like this and in this way, is there a story behind it you don’t mind sharing? Or is it just your genre choice?
Kanyinsola: Speculative fiction, for me, is a rather recent trend in my writing, really. It began about three, four years ago. My fiction had been exclusively realist up until then. But I decided to explore other forms of storytelling, push the boundaries of where I allowed my story to go in terms of logic, setting and the realities I interrogated. I write a mix of everything now but I suppose the speculative has become the most frequent element in the stories I tell these days.
Uchenna: Yes, it has. It even extends to your essays. Like in The Case for Black Utopia, for example. It is one essay I find myself coming back to for its takes on black expression especially Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism. You write: “I am very wary of a black utopia steeped in Eurocentric cultures and narrative traditions. By this, I mean a form of narrative that only seeks to assimilate black people into spaces that have historically been occupied by white people, thereby only making us grateful guests inhabiting the rooms of a civilization built by our oppressors. We do not need a black Superman or black witch-queens in Medieval Europe or black Norse gods. All of this only validates whiteness as the center of cultural expression into which we hope we are allowed in the name of ‘inclusion‘.”
This is a conversation that is long overdue. Centering black people in Eurocentric spaces entirely defeats the idea of inclusion, because it means that you’ve failed to recognise what you’re including. You go on to say: “We can look to Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism to create new forms of black expressions…”
I love how in the earlier parts of the essay, you tackle this unspoken pressure on Black creators to tell only facts in their creation, leaving them no room to explore speculative elements because it’s considered unrealistic. You suggest: “Perhaps our focus should be less on compelling black utopia to reduce itself to something as pedestrian as reality, and more on demanding a wider entrenchment of black history in the mainstream that allows for art to be art without feeling the responsibility to work overtime as a history lesson and didactic medium” making a case for your suggestion to turn to Afroturism and Africanfuturism to create new forms of black expressions.
I would like to talk more about this and if your recent consistent engagement of the speculative is also you creating new forms of black expressions.
Kanyinsola: Thank you very much for those wonderful, wonderful observations. I have not had that many people talk to me about that specific essay, so I am deeply grateful for this engagement. I have tried, and I am trying, to live by my own laws. To apply my creed to my craft. In the novel I am working on, I am making sure to pull almost exclusively from afrocentric sources of inspiration. If something eurocentric inspires me, then it is by accident. I believe our people have such vast, untapped history that has been ignored for far too long by us. I am trying to create a body of work that celebrates my people without paying heed to the literary or artistic legacy of the West or, to be more direct, of white people. I want to push the limits of our imagination of what sort of world black people could inhabit, what sort of realities could be accessible to us, if that makes sense.
Uchenna: Speaking of drawing strictly from afrocentric sources rather than elsewhere, especially as an African, one could make the mistake of concluding that it is a no-brainer, effortless, but it isn’t. It requires conscious effort. Maybe it is owing to years of consuming Western content? I really do not know but I struggle to not make Western references. In your novel, do you struggle with this too? Are there moments where you find yourself alluding to some eurocentric ideology that you have to fall back and rewrite?
Kanyinsola: Ah, yes. I have failed at it many times. That is certain. I was discussing my novel at length with a classmate recently and he noted some similarities between the details of my story (the weaponry, narrative structure etc) and the Western works he primarily engages with and I felt very upset. Like I had failed terribly, you know. I am not sure if it was a subconscious influence or just an innocent coincidence. Either way, I went back to the work and decided what works best for my story. I wouldn’t necessarily butcher my own story just to prove that it bears zero similarity to Western works. That is unrealistic. I can only make the conscious effort of pulling from my own people. Now, if in the end that leads to a work with sprinklings of Western tradition here and there, then I am fine with it. I think it is enough success that I attempted to center my own people’s history in the first place. Even that, small as it is, is radical these days.
Uchenna: Indeed it is that deliberateness that counts, that conscious effort. But come to think of it, when you consider the similarities between both cultures, especially our mythology, doesn’t it lessen that guilt? Take your story for example where you write of Osun, the Yoruba goddess of water who shares some semblance with the Greek god, Poseidon. Does that then mean your source was eurocentric? This also speaks to how rich our mythology is and how sadly untapped it is by African writers and filmmakers. We’ve seen how others have attempted to retell these stories for us and have failed woefully because they end up looking at them in the same context they do Western mythology. And in telling stories like these, more than the source, it is the context, the delivery, and the presentation that matters most. Thoughts?
Kanyinsola: I think you have phrased it much better than I possibly could! What’s there to add, really? I do worry that the kind of representation I am asking for, the kind of celebration of African mythological figures, for instance, could lead to a new form of syncretism or…better put, whitewashing. I worry that we will see Sango presented as the Black Thor or something like that or Osun as you say Poseidon, a Black Female Poseidon. And that would be, excuse my French, bullshit. It is important to make sure we are not introducing these figures and then doing it in a Western context that makes them look like exotic display in the museum of public consumption. There has to be an acknowledgment of or respect for the culture they come from, from the context that birthed them. But we can only take one step at a time, I suppose.
Uchenna: Yes and your worries are valid because if these representations are done in a way that still appeal to the West, what would happen is that African mythological figures for example, people begin to fail to recognise their peculiarities and trope them into their supposed Western ‘equivalent’ and overtime even their origins become blurred and associated with what is considered the ‘superior’ culture. We’ve seen this happen too many times. Authentic African ideologies in pop culture representations paying tribute to the West, the concept of Afropop, Afrofuturism, etc for example. But like you said, we can only take one step at a time I guess.
Speaking of worries, do you also worry that in calling for better representations, what you’re doing becomes some kind of gatekeeping, delimiting that creative freedom and putting responsibility on the creator, introducing a ‘do and don’t’ in the creator’s personal creative journey? Even in your essay, you say the focus should be “more on demanding a wider entrenchment of black history in the mainstream that allows for art to be art without feeling the responsibility to work overtime as a history lesson and didactic medium”
Like the (I admit this isn’t exactly the same) recent outrage about the too much Africanness in works written by Nigerians in the Diaspora, or does the general intent for these calls nullify the gatekeeping argument?
Kanyinsola: I think it is perfectly acceptable to call for art rooted in a specific cultural climate to be respectful of said climate. Calling for more conscious representation is not necessarily the same as insisting that one’s imagination be limited. It is, in fact, the opposite. To center the West in one’s writing is not an exercise of artistic freedom; it is doing the expected. You are playing into the existing norms. It takes a lot of artistic integrity and bravery to explore the often-overlooked treasury of African art, histories and mythology. Where is the imagination in creating a Black Superman? You are using a template already celebrated in America. But to take the time to explore rarely celebrated cultures on the continent and let your creativity roam wild while doing that, that is artistic freedom for me. I am not at all a purist. Every form of art should exist. I am only saying we should put more effort into exploring more of our own heritage.
Uchenna: This has really been lovely, Kanyinsola. Could you recommend other African writers who in your opinion, explore this often-overlooked treasury of African art, histories and mythology? And maybe some of their works they do this through?
Kanyinsola: Off the top of my head, I can think of Dare Segun Falowo, Innocent Chizaram Ilo and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. I also love the works of Oluwabambi Ige, Pemi Aguda, Ope Adedeji. They are really amazing writers and when they finally unleash their novels upon us all, the world will not be able to handle all that heat!
Uchenna: Great lineup here. Thank you so much for this conversation, Kanyinsola.
Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, and a bookseller. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’Clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. In 2022, he was selected to attend the maiden Sharjah International Booksellers Conference in UAE and was shortlisted for the Ashoka Africa Changemaker Prize. He curates conversations for Africa in Dialogue, Isele Magazine and Book O’Clock Review.