Barry Ronge Prize Shortlisted Author, Yewande Omotoso Advocates for the Invisible Economy
Yewande Omotoso is the author of Bom Boy and The Woman Next Door. Her formative years have spanned the countries of Barbados, Nigeria, and South-Africa. She is now based in Johannesburg, simultaneously practicing as an architect and writer. In this interview with NMADIUTO UCHE, she identifies commonalities shared by the two professions, dishes advice on how to choose a publishing house, and discusses what the creative economy needs. Read on to discover the insightful responses she gave to seven questions asked.
You write and still practice architecture, do these two crafts feed off from each other and how do you juggle everything you do?
I am often asked, what are the similarities between the two? Both endeavors seem to be about making something where there is nothing. As an architect, the design is imagined then executed. Similar with stories, you have a material and you create a product such as a novel. Also, in method. In architecture, it is about having a concept and constantly refining the concept. In my writing, it is like I am constantly working with layers of tracing paper, drafting, and trying to pull out the essence of the story.I have been trained to think like an architect, so when I go to the story, spatiality is important, the descriptions of cities and characters within them.
In practical terms, it is useful for me to have other things and not write every day. There are times when I am doing more writing than anything else; Freelance and Script Writing. Sometimes, it is more of architecture like right now. There are times when my writing is internal as I work on architectural projects and engage with clients. Creativity is a strange thing, you can approach it directly or obliquely. Many things get resolved in an indirect way when I use the oblique approach.
The subject matter choice of aging was explored by Sarah Ladipo Mayinka in Like a Mule Bringing Ice-Cream to the Sun. Is this the age of reflecting on the fringe groups in literature? Are witnessing the start of a trend with the inclusion of the elderly demographic in narratives?
We are often best placed to mark trends after time has passed. As writers, we are interested in writing what we see in the world, what we don’t see, what we imagine, and what we don’t imagine. The world is made up of all kinds of human beings and people who are towards the end of their lives are part of that community. What I hope is we tell these stories from an understanding that the world is made up of all kinds of people, all with valid stories.
I am not trying to correct anything or address the absence of something. I write from a deeply embedded not always conscious impulse. When the characters in The Woman Next Door occurred to me, they were older women. It is true that these people are not often written about, but it was not a premeditated political project.
What mood should readers be in to delve into the story properly and enjoy the plot?
A range of moods are required of a reader to read anything including this. It is true that we invent the therapies that we need sometimes and what the characters are doing can be useful with what we are dealing with. In writing some of the dialogue, there was something really gratifying derived from writing about two people arguing, cutting, and being mean to each other. Sometimes, I am caught up in that polite training and it can be stifling, something refreshing about saying things simply as they are and not being diplomatic. There are certain parts of the book that require the generosity of the reader to show compassion.
On publishing, The Woman Next Door is your US publishing debut with Picador. From your experiences, in what ways does a publication house influence a novel’s reception?
My first book was published by Colleen Higgs of Modjaji books here in South Africa. I was surprised and happy that a publisher wanted to take on the book. With my second book I had an agent, Elise Dillsworth, and she was instrumental as I worked to complete the book and of course with the sale to Chatto and Windus who bought the world rights. I feel I have been really fortunate to connect with committed people and publishers in this vast industry.
I think many things combine to influence how a book is received, I certainly don’t understand all of it and I’m not even certain it is all Science, it’s more alchemical. That said, by what measure who knows, but sure a publishing house would have influence. Firstly with the manuscript, the editing process to ensure the best version of the book gets produced. And then, once it’s published, the work involved to ensure people know the book exists – a lot of careful thought and work goes into this and I’ve often felt quite humbled by all the activity and effort.
You have been busy with festivals such as the Pen World Voices Festival, longlists and nominations from The Bailey’s Prize to The Sunday Times Barry Ronge 2017 Fiction Prize. How do these multiple layers of recognition make you feel?
I am thankful of course and honored. When you work hard at something it is always a good feeling to receive recognition for that. I do think though that Literature and Art Prizes take on a really difficult almost impossible task, comparing one work to another, judging creative output. I think it’s possible to both appreciate prizes and acknowledge the difficulty and even strangeness of this task. For this reason if I’m ever on any list or win something amongst many other sensations I also feel lucky.
When it comes to arts and the economy or finances, people don’t often see the connection. What has your experience been with this?
I think about this all the time. Here is the thing about economy, a lot of arts and creativity are excluded from the economy. I am constantly asked to do things as a writer and it’s this strange circumstance where people acknowledge the contribution is valuable but put no monetary value to it. This relates to a bigger problem as to how world economy works, what gets monetized and what does not. It is similar to how we don’t put a value to domestic work, the partners that stay back to care for the home and children. In this way a sort of invisible economy exists but is never accounted for.
I have had to relate to myself as a writer but also as an entrepreneur, an innovator – at the heart of the talent I am nurturing is the ability to make something from nothing. Somehow if you’re making art you’re not supposed to be concerned with money, this is such a trap. Instead I’ve become very interested in understanding money and understanding my relationship to it.
Are there ways or solutions you can proffer to collectively change this attitude?
For one, and I realize this might sound contradictory, but prizes are important. As an artist I am deeply grateful for prizes but I try not to take them as the ultimate measure. However, within an ecosystem of creativity, these rituals of gathering, acknowledging certain works, celebrating and rewarding them matter. Certainly for the writers that get selected the prizes provide a direct economic benefit. But there are impacts that take place at an even wider level. I was just in Nigeria and attended the Etisalat Prize for Literature Award Ceremony. Micro economies have sprung up from this one single event. You have the writers that wrote the books and performers who reenacted excerpts from the books on stage, the directors who directed those performers. There were several film vignettes showing in the background and I was amazed at the economy resulting from The Award Ceremony. We need to open our eyes and see how the creative economy connects to other economies in a symbiosis.
We must keep expanding and exploiting this symbiosis. Certainly people who have projects and need writers to do something should pay them. Paying people for their contributions should not be a revolutionary thought.
I cannot pretend that the scarcity of resources is not there. In hard times, the first thing that gets cut is the arts, people have no arts budget and so on. But we need to use our networks intellect and imaginations to push back against something we mostly just shrug and accept. We can change the way we’re conditioned to regard artists as the ones that never make money. We can question these notions that are so deeply embedded and connected to a global attitude and way of doing business. I don’t have illusions that change will come quickly but I feel it’s a worthy thing to push for nonetheless. Creating a new language and culture to account for the value of something takes time, but I think we should begin.
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