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Yewande Omotoso: Mastering my father-tongue is important to me

In this TIA exclusive, Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, had a chat with architect, author and University of East Anglia fellow, Yewande Omotoso, about writing, architecture and identity



BM: Are you at University of East Anglia at the moment, for the Etisalat Fellowship? Did you expect or even imagine that NoViolet Bulawayo would gift her fellowship, that came with winning the Etisalat Prize for African Literature to you? How did you feel on receiving the news?

YO: Yes, I am at UEA. Surprise doesn’t cover it, I was really thrilled, unbelieving and moved by NoViolet’s gesture. Without question, being here is making a big difference to me as a writer. Not because it’s the UK by the way – to reference other debates. I would go practically anywhere if it involved someone/some institution paying me, for several months, to sit down and read and write. That is what the true blessing of this opportunity is and I am and will remain very grateful.

BM: So, what is the fellowship about? Are you writing a follow-up to Bom Boy in the period?

YO: The Fellowship is an opportunity for me to work on whatever I want to work on with regards to my writing. I am working on a new novel, no not a follow-up to Bom Boy!


BM: Let us talk about Bom Boy itself. With a couple of prizes won, you must be proud of your debut novel already. It is a very sensitive story. Leke is not the ordinary, common-day person. I am an only child on my mother’s side, and live alone the larger part of the year, and find myself doing things others may call strange so in some ways I feel I know something about what Leke goes through being single and all. Tell me, is this based on a true story?


YO: Thanks for saying that, about the sensitivity. My feelings about ‘Bom Boy’ are mixed. I mean sometimes – perhaps this is an affliction of people who make up things – I’m not sure it was the best book I could have written, this is also to do with having unrealistic expectations, it’s not a sane part of myself that feels this way. Other healthier times I am very proud, because I know I worked very hard at it and dug deep. Mostly I feel lucky.

The story isn’t based on anyone. Leke is an invention but some of the materials I invented him with comes from my own personal experiences of being a young person in Cape Town, 1992. My family life as a child is very distinct from Leke’s but my experience of navigating primary and high school in South Africa taught me a lot about isolation, about misfit and a lot of the loneliness Leke experiences in his life.

BM: James Murua, a literary blogger has compared Leke to Julius of Teju Cole’s Open City, are there any influences on Bom Boy you can point to?


YO: I feel everything is an influence, especially the things we’re unaware of. At this stage, I find it very difficult to isolate influences. I read as widely as possible and keep receptive to learning and getting better.


BM: I read Bom Boy, just after reading Kintu, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s novel that won the 2013 Kwani? Manuscript Prize, and it explores issues of a family generational curse and also goes into cleansing the family of the curse through African spirituality. Niq Mhlongo’s Way Back Home also goes into spirituality. I am not sure African writers of our generation, or should I say your generation have explored this Spirituality and curse thing for long. May you know where it is coming from?


YO: Part of the thing in ‘Bom Boy’ is the ingredient of faith in all of this. So much of these spiritualities, even religions, are moved along by belief, by faith. The fact that, if we’re really rigorous with ourselves we’ll accept that we don’t know what is truth except the things we decide, agree on and say are true. In this way we are the ones with the power, the belief is the real engine. The thing, whatever religion or spirituality one follows, is only made powerful because we’re powering it…or maybe not! Either way, I enjoy all that kind of ambiguity and uncertainty. And the fact that these beliefs and histories (for instance with Kintu) are present in the stories written is inevitable. Storytelling like so much other art is a kind of mirror and our societies are full of beliefs and faiths. Not just in deities but in money, in images, in people, love and so on.

BM: You live in South Africa, but you are also Nigerian, and I read that you were born in Barbados. I will not ask if you identify with any of your homes more than the others, unless you want to tell, but I want to ask about the straddling of various worlds, or are they actually one world? There are specific life experiences that I, born in Uganda to both Ugandan parents and living in Uganda may not have, obviously. What are these? And do they influence your writing?

YO: The straddling really started with the move to South Africa. I think having a Badjan mother and a Nigerian father, or having parents from two different places, that is quite common. Moving to South Africa and now having lived in SA the longest and yet still feeling Nigerian and still claiming Barbadian, that now becomes interesting. In the sense that firstly identity is often policed. So, “What makes me Nigerian?” someone might want to know. How can I claim that if xyz (lists are always part of this policing!). And when I was younger this bothered me but I’m learning to be true to what makes sense to me. It is not sufficient for me to say South African or Nigerian or just Barbadian when answering that sometimes-dreaded sometimes-welcome question. It is important to me to acknowledge all the spaces that have had an influence on me.

Writing is even more interesting. I feel geographically I “know” Cape Town the best. Although I know Ile-Ife, where I spent the first twelve years of my life, too. And just recently I started being interested in setting a story of mine in Ife. Language is also something here. I feel really mastering my father-tongue, Yoruba, is important to me.


I also feel if I write a South African character I would need to have a grasp of their first-language and if it’s Xhosa and I can’t speak Xhosa I struggle with that, feel inauthentic in a way. For now I seem to steer clear of writing these characters. It’s not a forever rule, I’m just sharing my own process as a writer at the moment. A lot of my characters, for now anyway, are straddlers because I “know” that really well.

BM: Nigeria has such a huge population, oh my God! Are you considering, or have you already put pen to paper, re: having Bom Boy published there? Or is there an efficient distribution network that you do not need a Nigerian publisher for Nigerians in Nigeria to read your book?

YO: Ha ha! You’re funny. Bom Boy has been published in Nigeria by Bookcraft. Distribution is a challenge though. Also, quite frankly, I think Bom Boy isn’t for everyone. I don’t see it as a book for the masses in the way a crime novel might be. It’s a quiet even odd book (said with the most affection) and I know several people that found that a bit frustrating. However I think particular people connect with it (some have told me so) and I’m happy and grateful for that.

BM: I told you I connected with it too. Architecture. How does that go, with the writing? I know almost nothing about architecture but I am thinking that you must look at books and stories in the same way, or with the same eyes as you look at design and architecture? Or is it the other way, that you look at design as literature? It must be a beautiful world you have there in your head, I envy you.

Yewande the architect on a drawing board. Photo: Yewande Omotoso/Facebook

Yewande the architect on a drawing board. Photo: Yewande Omotoso/Facebook

YO: I guess it’s a tempting comparison to make. I believe we can draw parallels with almost anything though! As far as architecture is concerned, as I said I am currently working on a new manuscript and deeply involved in the structure of this story, plotting it out in a way I haven’t done before, designing it. The same way one would work through a concept for a building and then in putting it together be mindful of the structure – the thing that will ensure it stands up. In fact my supervisor frequently refers to the scenes as “rooms” and encourages me to tap into my process as an architect. I don’t overstress the metaphor but it’s useful at times.

One thing I like is how, in architecture, when conceptualising, you use tracing paper and keep sketching over the drawing until you find the essence in the design. I like to compare that to drafting (draughting, hee hee). To be honest I’m not sure these comparisons are valid or ridiculously helpful but they are fun to make. Like crossword puzzles 🙂


BM: Thanks for speaking to me, Yewande.

YO: Thank you