The writer’s faith in what they want to say, as well as his or her ability to use language in ways that best serve the story. As a reader, I find it easy to tell when writers are creating from a true place, versus when they’re writing what they think the world wants to hear. I prefer the former.
Tell us about the first thing you ever got published
Haha! I co-authored a book about emotional self-regulation for Christian teenagers when I was 13 or 14. I still have a copy of it lying around somewhere, but it’s been out of print for over a decade now (thank goodness). I even got paid royalties, because it did surprisingly well. It had two printing runs. My mother was so proud!
What’s your creative process like? How long does a piece take?
It depends on what type of piece I’m writing. Some things, like certain poems, come to me fully formed. Others take time. I had been writing and revising my Gerald Kraak prize-winning essay, Mothers and Men, for three years before I submitted it. Now that I have a full-time job that requires me to write at least one piece every week, I no longer have the luxury of sitting on my writing for as long as I feel like. It’s like training a new muscle; challenging, but extremely satisfying.
Your TED talk, “Who Belongs in a City” was simply awe-inspiring. What was your reaction when your TED Talk went viral?
The world’s reception of that talk is still one of the most affirming experiences I’ve ever had. I put my heart and soul into it, so it was incredibly rewarding to have people respond to it with open-minded interest. When the talk got selected as one of the top ten of 2017 by Chris Anderson, the head of TED, I think I screamed for ten minutes. I definitely scared my family with my excitement.
But one of my favourite memories with that talk was watching it in the offices of the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation, with the anti-forced eviction activists I was working alongside at the time. Their pride and approval meant everything to me; it meant I had done it right.
When did you start speaking publicly and why?
That’s a really difficult question to answer; does the Literary and Debating society in my secondary school count? Haha. The TED stage was actually the beginning of my speech-making career; until then, I’d only done one or two panels and workshop facilitation gigs. It’s one of my humble brags, that I started my career as a public speaker on a platform most public speakers dream of reaching. And aced it. Ka-boom.
I sent my idea for the talk to TED because it was an issue that I was working on at the time, and I strongly believed (also at the time) that more awareness might shame our government into a different course of action, or galvanise Lagosians to be more engaged. I realise now that it was a bit naive and even egotistical to think like this, but we live and learn.
I would say that the talk has benefited me personally more than it has shifted the reality of forced evictions in Lagos. I take consolation in the fact that it helps people to think more expansively about the issue. Having interacted with a few urban planning practitioners in other cities I have visited, I know that the talk inspires them to do things a bit differently. In Lagos, however? The problem remains as intractable as ever.
Can you tell us about “Mothers and Men”?
I was never sure that I wanted Mothers and Men to be published, not even after I submitted it. Most of my essays are social commentary and criticism, but Mothers and Men is such a deeply personal essay that I freaked out a bit when I found out it had been accepted for consideration by Gerald Kraak. In many ways, writing Mothers and Men helped me heal some wounds that I didn’t realise I was still carrying. I don’t know that I would have been able to risk it existing publicly at all if the writing process hadn’t unwittingly helped me as much as it did.
I still don’t think too much about the fact that it is out in the world, but I hope that since it is, it can give people a new way to think about the complexities of being a woman in a patriarchal society.
Any books in the near future?
I keep telling myself I’ll start writing one of the four or five book projects I’ve drafted. I haven’t started. With writing books, I’m equally afraid of both failure and success, so it’s a struggle. If I write the book and nobody wants to publish it, I’ll be heartbroken. If I do, and it succeeds, then I might have to write another one! I can’t win, haha. But I’m considering easing myself into the publishing world by editing an anthology. That’s also a more productive way of procrastinating.
Do you believe writing can be a tool for social justice?
Of course I do! That’s my whole career! And the career of many, many brilliant and big-hearted writers whose work has transformed the world. Writing is my favourite form of magic-making, because it makes whole new worlds real. I finally accepted, about a year and a half ago, that my words are and will always be my weapon of choice. It’s a liberating place to be; to know what my work is. How can you face your work if you don’t know what it is? I’m facing my work now.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Sleep. I sleep as much as I can. I have what I call ‘existential exhaustion’ from being alive in this awful world, so I sleep, or introspect, or read, or tweet. Not necessarily in that order, as people who follow me on Twitter can attest.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
This made me laugh because I was going to say, I can tell my younger writing self things; I do so all the time through my daughter, who is already an excellent storyteller. But she’s a much better writer than I was at her age, so maybe I should actually talk to my self. I’d say, enjoy what you create. And know your own heart, so you can put it in your writing in ways that help other people to know theirs. But I figured that out eventually, and I think I figured it out right on time. So perhaps there’s nothing I can say to my younger self; maybe this advice is for someone else.
How has your success impacted your life?
It has given me options, which I can assure you are in scarce supply when you’re not able to earn a living from your labour. I’m grateful everyday to be able to shape my life in ways that allow me to prioritise parenting, rest, and my relationships. It’s a privilege that I hope I never take for granted.