In the Presence of Shadows
No words could be more pertinent as the ones said by the great Somali writer Nuruddin Farah in his blurb about Yewande Omotoso’s first novel Bom Boy: “This is a novel bursting with elegance, written by a young author brimming with genuine promise. Yewande Omotoso is a stylist with a literary vision.” Yewande has also recently been shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Award and awarded the South African Literary Award (SALA) for the First-time Published Author in English. Divided between her career as an architect and her love for writing, Yewande Omotoso is a successful example of balancing two passions. Born in Barbados and raised in Nigeria and South Africa, Yewande grew up surrounded by a family of artists. Her father Kole Omotoso is a Nigerian writer and intellectual and her brother Akin Omotoso is a well-known actor, film director and producer known to wider audiences for his roles in Blood Diamond and Lord of War.
Yewande Omotoso’s novel tells the story of Leke, an orphaned boy abandoned by his parents on the bench of a park and adopted by a white family. After his adoptive mother dies, he decides to leave home, move into an old garage and start an independent life. The backdrop of Leke’s story is modern South Africa, a country “in between”, a place of social, cultural, economic, and political complexities where life demands courage and responsibility, and identity and consciousness of oneself seem to be difficult to achieve. Cape Town unravels under Leke’s shoes. As he walks the streets, they become a mirror of his own displacement. The boy, incapable of responding to the demands of his society, in the end tells us a different story: a story with more than one ending, a story of possibilities and hope. Yewande Omotoso underlines the thin thread that connects the unprivileged people living on the margins of the South African society. When it comes to identity it seems that the absence of roots becomes an unavoidable quicksand.
Valentina A. Mmaka: Yewande, you have had the extraordinary experience of being a writer across cultures. You’re from Barbados, you grew up in Nigeria and now you live in South Africa. How do all these cultures enter your writing?
Yewande Omotoso: Coming from across cultures, I believe I mostly value difference as opposed to being threatened by it. I do tend to write about people living in a foreign land, people who don’t belong or don’t fit in, visitors to a place, people whose relationship to the setting of the story might be tenuous or contested. For the obvious reason, this is what I know. However, because I have lived the longest in South Africa, Cape Town specifically, that is the easiest place for the stories to take place in. Over time as I gain in knowledge and become braver I hope to set more stories solidly in Nigeria or Barbados but you cannot, as a writer, fake familiarity with a place – I don’t think so anyway.
VAM: Do you think identity leads to the idea of roots in a specific geographical place? What does identity represent for you?
YO: Identity is a complex construction of so many understandings, experiences and projections – hope for the future. And, yes, a connection to a specific geographical place can form part of one’s identity although it could also not. In fact the rejection of a connection to a specific geography can also form identity. I don’t think too much on the topic, in the sense that “identity,” for me, is more like a shadow. It’s something that is organic, formed as a result of my cultures, upbringing, and experiences. You know your shadow is there and at certain times you’re particularly aware of its presence, but you don’t need to dwell on it.
VAM: Edward Said, quoting the twelfth century German monk Hugh Saint Victor, wrote, “The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.” How do you feel about this? Do you feel it fits your own experience?
YO: It reminds me of an interesting dichotomy I often experience, that you can belong and not belong at the same time. “Belonging” is so sought after in the human experience for its benefit of comfort, security and kinship. What’s interesting about the quote is that it proposes the better option of being the eternal outsider, not really belonging anywhere. I can relate to all three men depicted in the quote and while I am fascinated by Said’s ranking, I am less confident about which state of being fits above the other and why. At this point in my life I find this particular issue too complex to be that certain about it.
VAM: You arrived in Cape Town in 1992, just two years before South Africa declared the end of apartheid. How was your first impact with the country as a child? How do you relate to South Africa today? Have you ever felt “different” coming from Nigeria and a mixed family?
YO: Mostly, for an eleven year-old, South Africa was the place where “they didn’t like black people”. After some initial confusion as to why my father would want us to live there, I looked forward to something new. We lived in Belleville, in a Holiday Inn, for the first few months while my parents bought a house and settled me and my brothers into schools. It was culturally shocking; I couldn’t fully grasp what had gone on before our arrival: the pent up tensions, the horror of apartheid and what it left in its wake. We didn’t fit in. I struggled for three years to make friends. Today, South Africa is my home, some of my closest friends are South African and I am interested and concerned about the future of South Africa like any other South African would be. I see myself as someone who can participate in and contribute to making the country a greater place.
VAM: Can you tell me three good reasons why South Africa is a good place to be?
YO: It’s a country with a unique history. As a writer, as anyone really, it is amazing to be in a space that has all the complications you can think of when it comes to human relations; being able to learn from the real-time experiment of South Africa, witnessing where it succeeds and learning from where it goes wrong, and eventually helping make it better. It’s a beautiful country, “lovely beyond any singing of it” (Alan Paton). Even as South Africa grapples with its future, trying to stave off the rot of corruption, there is so much in the country that works: a great infrastructure of roads, hi-tech transportation, and a lot of things I regard as basics (water, electricity) that cannot be taken for granted in other African countries.
VAM: Have you ever thought of living in another place more suitable for your writing?
YO: I think of this often. Currently I have enough of an adventurous spirit to be willing to travel and move. Nowhere specific comes to mind. South Africa is convenient; it is the current home of all my immediate family members.
VAM: When did you start writing? Who do you owe your gift for writing?
YO: I remember writing little books by hand and my cousin drawing the pictures. I may have been seven or eight. The stories were definitely bad! But, yes, I think growing up in a home of writers and readers, the amount of reading my parents did to me and my brothers at bedtime, all the typewriters lying around the house – all of this was a great influence.
VAM: Which writers do you consider your literary inspirations?
YO: I read a lot of Rosa Guy as a young girl, later I got into Toni Morrison in my mid-teens. Books like So Long A Letter also had a huge impact.
VAM: What about African or Caribbean authors?
YO: Zee Edgell, George Lamming, and Martin Carter to name a few.
VAM: We all have a book that has changed our way of seeing life, a book that opened our perspective on life and its complex intersections. Which one was it for you?
YO: Yoruba Girl Dancing by Simi Bedford, I must have read it when I was eleven years old. It’s one of my favorite books. I really felt as if my story was being written.
VAM: When you were young was there someone who used to tell you stories? In African and Caribbean cultures storytelling has always been a great part of daily life. Do you remember any particular story leading you towards becoming a writer?
YO: My parents were great storytellers and story readers. We’d often sit as a family and my dad would read to us in English and sometimes in Yoruba. I don’t know if the connection was that obvious. I don’t remember listening to the stories and thinking that I wanted to be a writer. I remember loving them. But yes, writing really feels like something that was always there and possible.
VAM: Bom Boy has received a great response from critics and readers. Where was Bom Boyborn? When did the main character Leke take shape?
YO: Sometime around 2008 I thought of a character on the edge of society, an odd kind of person. And in grappling with how this character Leke came to be. But things don’t always come easy. Leke only became Leke much later. The character I started with was called Femi, he was a bit violent, and he could even capture and injure young women. Over the years, researching and trying to understand similar characters I renamed him Leke. Ultimately he wasn’t really violent, just lonely and troubled.
VAM: When Leke’s adoptive mother dies, the world becomes too painful for him. What makes us unprepared to face the demands of the world around us?
YO: I’m not sure I know. What makes any of us unprepared for the demands of the world? I think the world was dangerous for Leke, a threat. He strikes us as scary, but in truth he is the one who is terrified and holes away. He keeps life small enough to manage. If his mother had lived, if he had managed to feel safer, more secure, his experiences might have been different. As he learns more about himself and his heritage, he seems to find some semblance of stability.
VAM: Do you think in a complex society such as South Africa there is a risk to have many young people like Leke unable to face the reality they are in?
YO: I don’t really feel equipped to speak for South African youth. In general though, being young is tricky! You are puzzling things out and you make mistakes. A sense of loss of identity, perhaps an absence of role models and a tendency to drift could create a lot of Lekes, unsettled and disconnected from their own history and themselves.
VAM: How does place matter in storytelling?
YO: I think place matters a lot in storytelling. I don’t know if I would have written Bom Boy had I not lived in South Africa but I doubt it. I suppose I would have written something else. Leke’s story is very specific: living on the edge of society and drifting as opposed to living in a recognized community.
VAM: Modjaji Books is an independent publishing company based in South Africa. How did you get in touch with them? Did you pursue other publishers? Was it difficult? Many authors attempting to publish for the first time find the process of reaching out to publishers very frustrating. How was it for you?
YO: A friend suggested Modjaji and I looked them up online. I researched other books they had published and decided to send my summary and manuscript to them. I was ready for a rejection but for whatever reason I was lucky and Modjaji accepted my manuscript – I did not pursue any other publisher.
VAM: How is it being a woman writer in South Africa? What are the main difficulties? Is there a way to be in dialogue with other authors?
YO: It is a difficult question. I am very privileged in many ways, which means I don’t often think of prejudice as the reason for things to happen. I don’t necessarily go around overly conscious of being a female black writer – I am “me” first and those are details about me. That said, yes, more needs to be done especially for younger female writers living in areas far away from cities who not necessarily own dictionaries; women with amazing stories to tell. We need to find more and more ways to harness and nurture those voices. I see this as my responsibility as much as the government, publishers and members’ of the writing community.
VAM: You attended a Creative Writing Group at UCT and last summer you took part in the Farafina Writing Workshop in Nigeria under the guidance of Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina and Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. How was this experience?
YO: Both workshops I attended were after the publication of Bom Boy. The Caine Prize Workshopand the Farafina Workshop are very different in organization. Caine asks that you submit a short story by the end of the ten days. Farafina does not have this requirement. The distinction allows for different lessons to be learnt. Caine does involve a certain amount of pressure, once you submit the work you will no longer be able to edit it, and once published there is no taking it back. So you work long and hard to make sure you present something you won’t regret. I learnt a lot at Caine in terms of editing and re-editing over and over. I also learnt a great deal from the other very talented writers at the workshop. The Farafina Workshop was very special to me, perhaps because of my admiration for Chimamanda, perhaps because it was in my home country. I loved the absence of pressure to actually produce some work; it meant there was time for long discussions about writing, for the practical exercises we were given, and for reading assignments. Also there was a team of amazing writers apart from Chimamanda, who critiqued our work and shared their ideas with us. I learnt immensely and most of all I met twenty-one young writers, many of whom have remained my fellow writer-comrades after the workshop ended. In both experiences the group critiquing sessions are scary but invaluable lessons. A writer friend of mine always says that we should get rid of our ego if we want to become good writers. We should always be willing to be in awe of other writers and to learn from them as opposed to being jealous.
VAM: How do you juggle your work as a writer and architect? Do you think that the two arts influence one another?
YO: Currently I am spending the bulk of my time on being a writer. There is definitely a connection between the two and I have a sense that my architectural training makes a lot of difference when it comes to writing, maybe even in ways beyond my grasp.
VAM: Writers are always asked to give advice to people who want to start writing, and a classic advice is to read and write. Is there anything more specific or personal you would suggest to someone who would like to become a writer?
YO: Apart from reading, reading, reading and writing (read more than you write I would say) you also have to be brave. It’s scary to make anything and present it to the world, particularly if you’ve put your heart into it. Cultivate discipline and some level of organization. Lastly one of the most invaluable things is to find a reader, someone you trust (perhaps also a writer) who can read your work; someone who knows how to give a critique without dismantling the work – these early stages are a very delicate and vulnerable time.
Valentina Acava Mmaka is a writer and human rights activist. She grew up in South Africa and lived extensively between South Africa and Kenya. She has published seven books including Il Viaggio Capovolto (Epoché 2007), and Cercando Lindiwe (Epoché 2007, new edition on April 2014 by KabilianaPress). She has also written the plays Io…donna…immigrata…volere dire scrivere (Emi 2004) staged in different countries in Europe and Africa, and The Cut-Lo Strappo a work on the controversial issue of Female Genital Mutilation realized in connection with the Gugu Women Lab in Cape Town, and that received the advocacy of Amnesty International for being a work that promotes awareness on FGM. Valentina lives between Europe and South Africa. Her website is valentinammaka.blogspot.com