Unusual Griefs And Unusual Happinesses Literatea 09: Yewande Omotoso.

Literatea is an interview series which brings together prominent and emerging voices in African writing, editing, publishing, translation, marketing, distribution, and retail to discuss the craft of bringing African storytelling to the continent and the rest of the world. From award-winning novelists and poets to literary agents and editors, from indie publishers and booksellers to prize juries—Literatea pours the first cup and stirs the conversation.

In this conversation about grief, loss, mourning, and motherhood Yewande Omotoso talks about finding momentum and unusual happinesses in her writing journey.

Yewande Omotoso trained as an architect and holds a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Cape Town. Her debut novel Bomboy (2011 Modjaji Books), won the South African Literary Award First Time Author Prize. Her short stories include “How About The Children” (Kalahari Review), “Things Are Hard” (2012 Caine Prize Anthology), “Fish” (The Moth Literary Journal), and “The Leftovers” (One World Two). Yewande was shortlisted for the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature and was a 2015 Miles Morland Foundation Writing Scholar. Her second novel The Woman Next Door (2016 Chatto and Windus) was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Literature Prize. It was a finalist in the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction and has been translated into Catalan, Dutch, French, German, Italian and Korean. Her third novel An Unusual Grief (Cassava Republic) was published November 2021 (UK) and January 2022 (Africa).


RÉMY NGAMIJE: What’s a good place to start with this interview? Perhaps our meeting at the Cape Town Book Festival in 2019. It was a different time–before the pandemic. I think I first heard you speak at a panel in which Daughters of Africa, a publication to which you contributed, was being discussed. In that talk, you spoke briefly about your work-in-progress at the time (I think it was An Unusual Grief) and your writing process. Of course, these are topics we shall come to later; for now I would like to ask a strange question: how do you feel about meeting your readers, or any readers, in general? I am not sure it is something I have gotten used to. There is a strange duality of desire that exists between wanting to know who reads my work and also not knowing. What are your thoughts on that?

YEWANDE OMOTOSO: In thinking of my answer the first thing that came to mind is meeting people who think they are my readers! I was in Abeokuta and someone approached me–breathless: “I loved Ghana Must Go,” she beamed.

RN: Well…damn

YO: Luckily such things are inoffensive to me. I quietly let her know that I loved it too but that, alas, I hadn’t written it. Another time, across the continent in Soweto someone accused me of being Tsitsi Dangaremgba.

RN: *Rick Ross voice* Allegations! Spurious allegations!

YO: My favourite was at a private party of my brother’s where one of his guests assumed I was Chimamanda Adichie…and kept insisting, listing book after book, none of which I could take credit for. I’m deliberately calling these memories up for fun but, of course, I meet folks who have actually read the books I wrote. How do I feel? I must say this isn’t something I think about. I guess I’m slightly embarrassed (or shy?); I’m flooded with gratitude and feel a bit out-of-body in the sense that I feel disconnected, but that might be because I’m very much the introvert (I’ve learnt to be the opposite when needed). I tend to have more heart-fun at book events that don’t involve me! It’s interesting what you say about “knowing” and “not knowing”. I’ve heard that said of readers about writers they love (not sure if to meet and know them)–interesting to hear it in the reverse. I covet authors I love. With readers I’m always intrigued. It does feel revealing (of something…what?) when you meet a reader. What age are they? Do they always present as the same sort of person? I think nothing of “the reader” when I’m writing as in I’m not consciously writing for “a reader”, more writing to resolve the story-dilemma in my head. So at the end of that process when the book is out and someone who’s actually read it approaches I’m somewhat tickled by that, and I think: “Of course, you without whom there is no book.” Conscious or not we’re contracted somehow; there’s a real intimacy in the act of reading, a window into one another.

RN: The intimacy of reading–this strange communion between two strangers, the writer and the reader–is something I have always treasured. I think it is one of the things that has stayed with me the longest in the literary game as my role has changed between writing, editing, publishing, promoting, and organising various literary projects. Do you think that the distance between the reader and the writer has been reduced, in part, by things such as social media and the more in-person activities needed to promote one’s writing? Or is this just a normal consequence of the times? Being confused for other writers is one thing, for sure, but what about being recognised all of the time? Would more or hyper visibility hinder your ability to write in any way?

YO: I think the distance you mention oscillates like almost anything else governed by the principles of relating. The modern changes in how we communicate and how we can communicate over distance certainly would give a sense of access or connection but who’s to say that’s not simply an illusion.

Considering my predilection for privacy and observer-status, visibility is a little jarring. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced “hyper” visibility but it’s certainly not something I desire although, as you say, there is a sort of necessity for it in sharing and promoting one’s work. Give me fortune over fame though!

RN: The hallmark of a true writer: choosing money over everything. Haha.

YO: On recognition, I have had the experience of growing up with two people who were on television screens and were being recognised in public. Observing it up close–although my father and brother were always gracious–I did realise very early on that I couldn’t write with too much of that going on. But all of this is fantasy (nightmare?!)–I don’t really have that problem.

RN: The ability to observe is certainly something that disappears as one becomes more visible. It is a fine balance, no? To be seen and to see without being seen. I am yet to master the balancing act.

How important is privacy to you as a writer? By this I mean the small hours of your day, your family life, what you think about, where you go, what you do, and when you do it. I find myself quite protective of my privacy, as outlined above, because the public knowledge of some facts are sometimes used to discredit a writer’s imagination in many ways. 

Like, oh, I remember reading that she went through such and such so clearly this incident on the page harkens to that real life situation. 

Which makes me wonder: do you think fiction, in some ways, depends on the reader not knowing too much about a writer’s life?

YO: I separate my privacy as a person from the need to do the work, the writing. As a person I enjoy and desire privacy. I assume, as it is for most people, I want the power to decide what gets revealed when, how and so on, invasion is always a breach. Despite my personal need for privacy I write and while I mostly don’t write straight forward autobiographical texts (I do think of my fiction as hiding in plain sight though) I know I write (or aspire to write) from my psyche’s depths and so of course I’m on the page. I have to be. What people do with that, what they surmise in the privacy of their own minds is part of the contract–I don’t worry about it. If I were to write with the primacy of my personal privacy in the forefront and a need to protect it I won’t be doing the work. This is why I admire writers that do straight autobiography or memoir.

I remember being in Stockholm–my nephew was born–and taking the opportunity to go to a talk by Jeanette Winterson. She’d just released Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? (title-goals!)–RN: Faaaayah!–and she’s an incredible speaker. I’ve been lucky to hear her read since at the Edinburgh Festival but on this occasion I asked her: Aren’t you scared to write about your life like that, so open. What of those still alive, what do they think? Isn’t it frightening? She answered (I paraphrase): “But that’s exactly when to write, when something is at stake. Writing isn’t a safe activity.”

She said it in completely different words but in essence she was saying: you need skin in the game.

I am currently working on a piece that draws heavily, primarily, from real events in my life. If it survives the rigours of editing and gets picked up I will try to remember what Winterson said.

RN: I agree with Winterson. There has to be something important at stake in writing: in the story for the characters, in the language for the readers, and in the telling of the story for the writer. I love writing that does all of the above, where everything–the characters, the plot, the sentences, and the publication–feels as though it is do-or-die. I am with Yoda on this: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

If you can cast your mind back to writing the first draft of Bom Boy, what was at stake for you? For me, with my first novel, I had reached the point of personal frustration where the writing thing was going to work or not work. I remember how focused and hungry (maybe even angry) I was when I started writing it. It had been in my mind for years, you see, and I had to get it out. My personal stakes were quite high at the time. What were they like for you?

YO: Bom Boy was my thesis. I was working as an architect and had taken myself back to school to do a creative writing MA; I had finally worked up the courage to say this is what I want to do and I need some support. I couldn’t really afford it. I paid my fees with a credit card the bank saw fit to furnish me with. I knew I couldn’t take long to do the degree, I was on the clock. I’d sought the degree out because I wanted a committed community around me, a structure to support my ambition of writing a novel and the amazing guidance of a supervisor. There was an immense amount at stake for me personally and existentially.

RN: I can relate to your personal and existential stakes of writing a debut novel. When I started penning mine I thought I would have all the time and resources in the world. The reality, though, was that I did not. I had a full-time job, I had no access to residencies, or a supportive literary community. I figured out as much as I could online and then started chopping a trail through the writing as best as I could. I look back at the work now and think about its scope and ambition and realise that I did not know any better. I feel as though if I did I would not have written that specific story. Is it the same for you when you think about Bom Boy?

YO: I wrote Bom Boy like hacking through a wild forest thick with vegetation ten feet high with my eyes closed. I was utterly raw and had no idea what I was doing. I still write that way, I often don’t really know what I’m doing when I set out with a novel besides some unassuming ideas and notions. Then I start to hack.

Now, three books along the road (working on a fourth) I’m less panicked about this way of working. I still get anxious, depressed, lost–but I know it’ll all pass. I’m constantly quoting Nuruddin Farah when he says something to the effect of: each time I sit down to write a new novel I realise I don’t know how to write a novel.

RN: Fam.

YO: With hindsight I like to think the imagery of hacking through the thicket is really me delving into my unknown, my unconscious from where I believe stories emerge; and part of our task as writers is to work out what the hell has bubbled up from those depths. When I think back on Bom Boy and the very few times I go back and read a paragraph or two (it’s excruciating!) I think it still carries something of that rawness and flailing about. Considering my ambition has always been to create a body of work it seems right that Bom Boy (the first steps of a hopefully long journey) has that, as you describe, quality of innocence (not knowing any better) to it. Don’t get me started on how important I think that quality is! Another person I like to tell a story about is one of my teachers in first year architecture. Paul Righinni. Again I misquote but towards the end of the year when it was time to pin up work, all the different years were pinned up and you could walk through the school (each year was on a floor of the building) and look at the different projects. Righinni, who was notorious for being a bully and had some methods I may not have liked, said something that I’ve never forgotten.

He said to us, newbies: “Go upstairs and look at the work of the thesis students in sixth year. What’s wrong with their work? Their lines and drawings were perfect, the print-outs could possibly be sent straight to the builder to start constructing but there is also something tight and stale. And that’s because they know. You, here, are still learning. Yes, you need to work on your perspectival drawings and so on. But there is life and excitement in your ideas. And that’s because you don’t know. As you climb up the ladder, year on year, and learn more, try to keep that with you, don’t lose it.”

RN: There are times I wish I could have a template for writing my stories–I delude myself into thinking that the process would be easier. When I started, I was shocked by how the architecture of one chapter of a story would be useless in the construction of another. How drafting and completing one short story would not be as useful as I thought in the writing of another. The jungle hacking analogy you use is spot on because that is how it actually is: you hack left and right and forwards and hope you are heading in the general direction. 

I heard another analogy that is really good: writing is like driving down a dark and winding road at night, you cannot see far but, little by little, you arrive at the end.

RN: Bom Boy had mad momentum when it was published. It did, in some ways, reward the risk of its writing. How important was the success and recognition that came with the book for continuing your writing?

I ask because literary awards seem to play an important role in the career trajectories of African writers–they amplify their work in important ways. After publishing Bom Boy, can you recall the opportunities that came your way as a debutant and how those helped to keep the writing fires burning?

YO: I was heartened and pleased with how Bom Boy was met. I remember getting a sense of a kind and generous world and being very grateful, I didn’t take that for granted, I felt lucky. In my case it seems that kind of reception was formative because I gathered enough confidence to “quit my day job” and attempt to write another book but this time devoting most of my time to it, versus Bom Boy which I worked on in the margins. There is a way in which this decision launched me into a new kind of life, I took even bigger risks, I moved cities, I hustled on the side to manage basic expenses and focused on the new work. This was the time I connected with my agent Elise Dillsworth, I also spent a lot of time in Nigeria during that period, I took a residency at Ebedi.

If the book had not been met with as much warmth would I have had the courage to proceed in those ways? I like to think I write because I have to and so regardless of reception I have always and will always write but I do think the force and scale of the kinds of actions I took were buoyed by the recognition. I didn’t at all feel like I’d arrived or made it (such a deceptive concept!) but I felt I could continue with my experiment, which is what I called it. I told myself, continue writing until you can’t–that was over a decade ago.

RN: I think there is something about recognition that adds a little fuel to the fire when it comes to writing. Perhaps it is like seeing the results of a good physical training program. It encourages renewed efforts in some way. But that is not to say that without recognition one stops writing. I agree: if you are going to write, you will write. Full stop. Point blank. Period.

Although it is over a decade ago, can you recall the transitional phase you had to go through in order to pen The Woman Next Door. It is, in my opinion, a more mature work–a flex, so to speak. You were in full literary flow when you wrote that book, I feel. Which leads me to think there must have been some changes in your writing process that were necessary to make that work possible. Already you mentioned moving cities and making writing the focus. What were you reading, watching, or listening to? What were you scared of or facing head on in your life?

YO: I can’t think of any single thing that changed except the most important, I had been through the process and written one book. I think there is a hard-to-describe kind of threshold between the first and the rest. I was reading wildly, no specific loyalty to an author or style and I was travelling a lot. I was lucky to receive several residencies and fellowships that put me in touch with other writers paying careful attention to their craft–I learn so much from other writers, from listening. I’d left my day job, although I wasn’t advertising it, so in many ways I had taken bold actions that put fire underneath me. I don’t think I was scared–it was a wonderful and freeing time–but I was serious and absolutely committed. I threw my life at writing. I remember making that decision. I was thirty-one or so, single, no dependants; I remember thinking this is the only time you will be able to do something like this with almost no one to suffer from the consequence but yourself.

RN: I think your firm commitment to writing shows in The Woman Next Door. It is, I think, a book that could only be written with creative maturity and calmness. Bom Boy was blasting with the debut bravado. I loved it. But The Woman Next Door was more composed (perhaps as a result of the residencies and less turbulent writing environments and the abundance of time from having fewer commitments). The themes doubled in weight, the issues were pressing and urgent, and the setting was immediate (to me, at least, having lived in South Africa). It was the first book I read that you wrote. At the time, in 2016, I was still feeling my way through the writing thing. My reading list consisted of books that were longlisted or shortlisted for major literary awards. The Women’s Prize gave me some great reads (it still does). From the 2017 longlist I read Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, The Power by Naomi Alderman (the eventual winner), The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, and Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, and The Woman Next Door. Yours stuck out because of its familiar setting (Cape Town!). But the characters and their challenges were beyond the scope of my limited experience (and imagination, perhaps). How did you approach Hortensia and Marion’s character creations, their politics, their blind spots, and their humanity?

YO: It seldom feels like an “approach”, as in a conscious “walking towards”. I hear the voice. I heard Hortensia–caustic, sharp. And I wondered why, what had happened. And then I got busy interrogating that, checking, dreaming. And the other characters filled out around her, slowly. I try to sit “in the person”. Always their stories are specific, it’s a specific scene, something smells a particular way, a sensation in a specific moment. And that feels true when it comes to knowing and being known. If I think of being known (the way a character might need to be known in order to be accurately rendered) it is those specific even intimate instances–the things you couldn’t possibly assume about me; the things that once you know, forge an access to me–or to whoever–in a way that’s profound and startling. I don’t always make it but that’s what I’m going for.

RN: Is this the same process you followed when you created Mojisola for An Unusual Grief? I think, now that you have mentioned your process, that I can understand how the complexity of her character was birthed.

Closely following on from that question is how you were able to map grief for the novel. I think H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald was my gateway book into reading and writing about grief and loss. When An Unusual Grief was released, I gravitated towards it because of particular events in my life that made it a magnetic read. Its current is engulfing, jarring in parts, sad throughout, and devastating (to me, at least) in the end. I wonder, truly, if Mojisola, or anyone else who has lost, finds the closure they need and want, or if they continue hurting forwards into the unknown future. This process of writing about grief, how did you manage to accomplish it?

YO: It is the process I seem to follow, at least in my fiction. For me story is character or at least my doorway is through character. The nature of that entryway is magical but also frustrating. I continue to struggle to write characters whose first languages I don’t speak. And I think the reason I struggle is I want to enter their thoughts–not translations of their thoughts–without which I don’t feel fully equipped to write them.

I think closure is a misnomer when it comes to grief. When we lose someone we talk about finding or getting closure but I don’t think that’s correct. I’m not even sure it’s something to aspire towards. I recently lost my father and strangely it was an opening moment (not a closing one) that brought me relief. It was the pressure of feeling like I needed to find closure that brought me anxiety. I wasn’t feeling this pressure from anyone in particular, just a general sensation, perhaps a societal expectation. It was in a quiet moment when I made some decisions about actions I’d be taking in the next several months to a year–all connected to my father and his memory–that I relaxed. His body is gone but I don’t want to close anything with him, I rather want to be reassured and to reassure myself that despite the absence of his physical body our relations continue.

The acute pain of loss, maybe that’s what closes? But also there I’ve noticed how a decade after a death I fall apart again, something opens it up again. So even that quest for a final closure just doesn’t seem true to life, to the experience of loss. It feels more like a template we’re trying to fit on ourselves all geared towards something neat and tidy which of course is not what we truly understand life (or death) to be.

I often say all I write about is: mothers and death, death and mothers. My mother died when I was twenty-three. That loss coincided with me gaining in my conviction to be a writer, me gathering myself. Motherhood and death soaked into the soil of my writing ground and I feel have shaped me ever since. Any attempts to write about grief and loss come from this inevitably formative and life-shaping experience.

RN: The title for An Unusual Grief is quite catchy; it posits that the grief in question is unusual. My experiences of it–the sensation, the feelings of loss and directionlessness–although quite personal are not special in the grand context of life. After all, it is something that we shall all face and have to deal with sooner or later. Why did you settle on that title?

YO: I’m not the best at titles and it usually ends up being a group effort. The early title of the book was Sleeping, Not Dreaming which features in the story–Mojisola’s hasty explanation to Yinka’s question of what death is. As the book came into itself (at least that’s how I think of it) and the full shape of the story was formed I wanted Mojisola’s story, her journey, to lead in the title. I remember the moment I realised that, really, it’s her story. This might be surprising to a reader holding the finished book but in earlier versions of the novel, Yinka was a lot more prominent, Titus too. Mojisola only properly took a major hold of the story very deep into the writing process. Because of the way I write this happens often and is actually how my writing develops, part of my process is to search for the story by writing it

I think I came up with something like The Uncanny Grief of Mojisola Owolabi and someone sensible–possibly my agent(!)–suggested we pair it down a bit and play around with other adjectives. But the move towards the title came from an understanding–a dawning–of what was actually at the core of the story which is, even as grief is commonplace, this strange, even bizarre path a mother takes in mourning her child.

I think ultimately we read the story of Mojisola’s grief because it’s familiar (that loss) but we also read because it’s utterly unthinkable. Part of what’s so devastating about our loss (versus someone else’s) is while we experience it in all its poignancy we must also allow for its commonness; and somehow that commonness gives something that needs to be sharp and acute without the threat of being watered down. We fight for our special grief even as we realise it’s as regular as mud.

RN: Bars!

YO: I think Mojisola’s scenario plays on that. I imagined people would see the title and think – what could be so unusual about grief. The title promises something and then if you’re game, you read the book in search of that promise.

RN: Do you think grief provides a better understanding of the deceased? In An Usual Grief it posits the idea, I think, that through excavating through the things someone leaves behind that a measure of it is possible. Is this something you agree with or thought about as you were writing it?

YO: I don’t think grief intrinsically does anything apart from maybe sadden. But the question of what grief coupled with the intent of the one who has lost can do feels expansive. Often, because of the pain and discomfort involved, we might bury grief, smooth over it, sanitise it, rush it, minimise and so on. What if we carried an intent for our experiences, even ones such as grief, to open us somehow, to what I’m not even sure. That’s what I think happened for Mojisola. Without knowing what might lie ahead she instinctively understood, with Yinka’s death, that she now had a job to do, either that or, once more as she’d done for most of her life, turn away from life, hide, pretend. She stumbled towards the former.

RN: It is very subtle, and sometimes not so, the way grief is carried in the sentences in the writing. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been smeared on the page like too much butter on too small a slice of bread. 

There has been a lot of literature in recent years that focuses on grief, trauma, and loss. Our own submissions pool is inundated with writings that focus on those subjects–so much so that we have had to caution writers submitting such work to only do so if what they are sending us explores the subject matter in an interesting way. In An Unusual Grief, what techniques did you employ to keep the sadness within restraint to prevent the work becoming a millennial autofiction debut. (Hahaha. I am a troll!). I am certain not being a millennial was key to the enterprise.

YO: Very funny – the obligatory millennial dig! I don’t know of any conscious techniques I used specifically regarding grief apart from a healthy suspicion of sentimentality. I also love and worship restraint which doesn’t mean I always get it but I know the value of that in a piece of writing, the grace as a reader of not being badgered by “the point”.

RN: I think reading is pleasurable, more so than writing. In reading An Unusual Grief I was reminded that even the saddest subjects offer a sense of peace and oneness with the world. After all, with death as an inevitability, there will be many strange and surprising griefs.

What are your unusual happinesses?

YO: Knitting. The way my heart jolts when I realise a bud is forming on anything in my small garden. Plucking a cape gooseberry and choosing to unsheathe and eat it right there rather than save it for my kids.

A shower. Dancing naked in front of the mirror just because, happy or sad, alone or together, excited or deflated, tired or energised, dancing anyway. Feeding children. A whole punnet of blueberries just for me. Admiring the curls in my hair. The rhythmic sound of the keyboard when something is flowing, the knowledge that me and my ideas are making that sound happen.

Wishing my mother were alive to hug my babies, knowing my father’s hugs stood in for hers too. Mothering my indoor plants, admiring but also apologising to the fern ’cause she’s dying. Walking barefoot on grass.

There are so many, aren’t there? It’s a great question and a wonderful inventory not necessarily to keep and monitor but to just have there, playing in the background–like a soundtrack–while we live.

Sometimes the unusual griefs and unusual happinesses intertwine and maybe that could be peace.

Cover Image: Suzy Bernstein