People

“My repression is as legitimate as your freedom”: A Conversation with Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà

Image: Helena Krige via Wikipedia Commons

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà, formerly Yẹ́misí Ogbe, is a food memoirist – a title that attempts but fails to cover the reach of her imagination and the influence of her work. Her piece “Nigeria’s Superstar Men of God”, for instance, boldly went where many wouldn’t dare: examining the business of Pentecostalism in Nigeria where the so-called men of God trade in more than the kingdom of heaven for their own pockets and egos. However, it is her reputation as a writer of food and “food matters” (the latter was the title of a column she ran for two years in the defunct 234Next Newspaper) that has brought and kept her in our attention for all these years. Her debut book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and the Nigerian Taste Buds, (Cassava Republic Press, 2016 – Review here) recently won the John Avery Prize at the André Simon Book Awards.

My first personal contact with the author came in 2014 during the Cassava Republic’s Valentine Anthology, which featured a collaborative writing and translation effort by a number of important Nigerian and African writers. Yẹ́misí and I worked on Sarah Ládipọ̀ Manyika’s “A Woman in the Orange Dress”. While I had translated the work into Yorùbá, Yẹ́misí had brought it to life through an animated reading preceded by a song. We have collaborated on a number of other projects since then.

In this far-ranging conversation focusing substantially on her new book, we talk about her work in general, her influence and experience, and a number of other issues. Enjoy.

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Kola Tubosun: Permit me to start from the meaning of your name: Aríbisálà, which means one who has found a place to escape to in order to survive. Do you know the story behind it?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: Yes I know the story very well. It is my story.

There is a suggestion that Aribisalas are not originally from Ibadan. My response to that is “Who is?” Ibadan’s history is similar to Lagos’ in the sense that it grew out of a settlement that came together for atypical reasons. Lagos was a major centre for slave trade, and Ibadan was a settlement of old warlords, both I imagine might have difficulty tracing ancestry as far back as other South-Western parts. “They” say we came from somewhere, probably Ondo, with some trauma at our heels and that Ibadan was that place of safety and survival. I did not have the presence of mind to confirm the true story from my grandfather. He died before I became interested in these kinds of fundamental questions. It might be relevant that at celebrations like weddings, my extended family often sing a song that goes:

N’ Íbàdàn ni wọ́n bí wa sí o

Baba wa pẹ̀lú wọn ló ni’ lẹ̀.

I always thought with amusement that the song was too strong a protest – apology that went out of its way to become song and dance. Purely on the basis of that song, I am sure we are not originally from Ibadan!

I claim the story as mine because I understand intrinsically running from trauma and renaming oneself in order to escape, and survive, and be safe. When I lived in Calabar, I met people with mystifying names. “Ifume” a name from Northern Cross-river that means “Trash” or “Dustbin”. Someone’s parents had given her that name. I met people called “Poverty”, “Trouble”, “Wizard” and “Reptile”. When I enquired about the origins of the names, I was often told in a carefree manner that the person was named for someone else. In time, I found that the carefree answers were code for mind your business. In a family where there were many infant-deaths, a child that survived would be called “Trash” to repel the spirit world from taking her too. A child called “Trouble” had had her life read at birth and because the parents had been told she would become great and travel very far away, they had given her the name to shackle her and keep her close to home.  Children need to stay close to their aged parents to be able to care for them. The intentions behind a name aren’t always clear nor benevolent nor wise. If parents name a child “Hunger” because they want to make him a workhorse that provides for his family for his whole life – catering to everyone’s needs, siblings, parents; second, third cousins and their children. If his whole life is about sending near and far family members to school and paying hospital bills for sick aunties and uncles. If the hunger expressed in his name is the bit to keep him in check, then there is no benevolence in the giving of the name, no grand wishes. The child is a kind of business investment. This is the way many Nigerian families have thrived by projecting into the future of children and using names to influence where they can. Parents have a lot of professing power over their children. Praise and admonishments are crafting tools like names. Yet names are such sentimental emblems, we bear them whether they are shackles, doors, incantations, or death wishes. We readily agree to be martyred to protect a family name or a husband’s name.  Why would any sane adult agree to be called “Dustbin?”  As a writer, I don’t know anything that exists in the world, no charms as powerful as words, spoken-written-thought. The arrangement of letters and words you are called daily must determine who you are, no question.  So not incidentally Aribisala is the name that I was born with and bore for 28 years until I married. When I found my life closing in, and needed a creative outlet and an emblem for the outlet, it was the name, and the door that I opened. It hasn’t failed.

Kola Tubosun: That is fascinating. I realized just a few months ago that the Yorùbá have a similar naming culture. Children are called Ajá (dog) for the express purpose of using it to ward off the believed spirit of àbíkú which is believed to them be confused as to which child it had come to kill, hearing Ajá, and then leaving, disappointed. We migrated to Ibadan too, so I can relate to that story. There was also a part of your book where you talked about your family once being worshippers of Èṣù. The chapter made for an interesting reading, which complemented your long tirade against my seeming flippancy about the evil in the deity when after we changed the translation on Google. Are you now totally free of the expectation (if there ever was any) to be religious, and how has it affected your outlook in life?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: I don’t know if as a Nigerian you can ever be totally free of the expectations of religiousness. It is like makeup and high heeled shoes that many Nigerian women in the professional world are compelled to wear to work to be taken seriously. It is a dress code that makes people comfortable with you, even if not necessarily you with them. If you are Pentecostal, go to church every Sunday and speak the lingo then you slip into the cracks of large portions of Nigerianness and people accept you as “one of them”. I imagine my mother’s family also worshiped esu in Igbajo because it was the religion of time and place. I’m not sure if they dissected the personality of esu and decided based on what they knew of him, whether they wanted to worship him. I have a strong intimation the investments of their hearts was not particularly relevant to worship. You worshiped because the god was the accepted deity of the place you were from.

I hate uniforms, aso-ebi, or any dress of compliance whether it is Pentecostalism, Catholicism or feminism. In the same vein, I won’t agree that esu is a harmless deity or that his mischief is a pathway to wisdom because I am attempting to be forward-thinking, erudite, or culturally compliant. I don’t treat my belief in God like a liturgy. I ask questions every day, of myself and of God, so why should Esu be exempted from questioning because Yoruba culture says so, or because some people are trying to protect equal-opportunity allegiance or worship for an “indigenous” deity.  I find that in the community of writers, when you say you believe in God, believe in Jesus, people scoff and turn their noses up as if one’s belief needs permission or acceptance from a roomful of writers. I believe in God. I believe in Jesus. I scoff at esu. These are not beliefs that I wear to be accepted by anyone. They are not on the table for discussion or negotiation, not even with my family. They are not everyman’s beliefs. They are mine. I am involved in relationship with a person. Every thriving love affair needs a commitment to privacy contrary to our new-world penchant for advertising everything from the colours on our waist beads to details of the neighbours sexual encounters heard through our walls.

Kola Tubosun: Now, how does a lawyer and a full-time mom find the time to write, and about food nonetheless? I read in one interview that you had to rent a place to complete work on this book. Was it easier when it was just a weekly column?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: I have never been a lawyer. In order to earn the professional title, I would have had to come back from Wales after studying my Masters degree then go to Law School in Lagos. You can’t be a lawyer without going to law school. I never went because I was being asked to invest two more years in a direction I never really wanted to walk in. Then I was told I couldn’t come with my natural hair. It had to be straight permed or covered up or cut, and I don’t mean covered with a lawyer’s wig. So I didn’t go, and am therefore not a lawyer. Full-time mother with natural hair is what I am.  How do I find time to write? There is no time to write. I write outside time. I step outside it and write sentences in my head while washing dishes and cleaning spots off floors and loading laundry, and wiping children’s noses and bottoms, and doing school-runs. I string words together in my head and forbid my children from speaking to me. They’ve informed me that I’m always talking to myself.

I fashion sentences over long months, reciting them. Opening sentence “…I had no intrinsic fuckability. I was always the sidekick of the intrinsically fuckable…” that sentence took me a few unyielding months. They were an act of aggression I had to convince myself to take. I told myself, Yemisi, you are going to get many retaliatory slaps. Can you take it? I steeled myself and moved on to the next sentence. The rest of the article took me more unyielding weeks and months.

I question the words and rearrange them in my head. Like a woman who can’t read and write and has to memorise long market lists. I write in my mind then on the occasion where I can sit, I pour out. It isn’t efficient, but it’ll have to do for now.

It might have been easier and faster to write a weekly column for 234Next but the writing was like making sketches or writing quick abstracts. I don’t like to explore writing themes if I can’t say everything that I want to say. Which is why I always end up being long winded. Those 234Next columns were like summaries that still had to be worked on for a few years and fleshed out for the expansive room of a book.

Kola Tubosun: You have written a very Nigerian book. The work takes me to very many places in my early childhood and growing up memories. What was the primary motivation for writing the essays in that way that seems to prioritize speaking to the Nigerian first before anyone else?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: I wanted to connect with other people. Connecting with people is something that I am awkward at in real life. Being often misunderstood because of the tendency to think out of the box is my reality, so I’m not the person who will enter a room and start to banter with strangers. I’ll gravitate towards my own people or the other awkward person in the room. Let us say my personality provides the motivation to always keep close to home; to Nigerians, who don’t need an explanation of every nuance or facial expression, because my deepest motivation is an elusive acceptance of who I am. My favourite books or people aren’t necessarily intellectually gruelling, not hot off the best seller’s list, not morally beneficial. They have to have a sense of humour, and I have to be interested. The words have to be engaging and have to be pointed roughly in my direction. I have to be somehow acknowledged in the words. My least favourite books are the condescending kind. The ones in which Nigerians are portrayed as school children that need to be flogged into global timetables and the writer is “one of” few intellectuals out of the dark continent interpreting his fellow Nigerians to the Western readership. He is “Lomagi” the court interpreter to those who understand who that is. I’ve managed to get to the end of a few of such books. I detest the writer’s condescension and gravitate towards the warmth of my own people, to our imperfect humanity. I commit to never writing such words, or placing myself in such a position where I contrast my own intelligence against a whole nation of people in order to draw attention to myself. I will always write for Nigerians first. It is only fair because the stories belong to them, to us. And I am only a kind of trustee. In any case, there are so many of us everywhere, we are a formidable market of readers. It makes sense to write a book for Nigerians. It will fly off the shelves – which Longthroat Memoirs has done.

Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire talks about how “African Intellectuals” are always calling everyone “stupid” That is other Africans or other Nigerians if we scale it closer to home. In essence the perfect reader for the African or Nigerian intellectual writer is from the West because the writer is not-stupid just like his Western readership. If this sounds vicious, one still needs to give strong credence to the fact that Nigerian writers often write about Nigerians and deliver us up whole-heartedly to magazines and newspapers in New York and London. The average Nigerian is portrayed in the writing as rudderless and simple-minded. A moron.  I am not interested in writing these kinds of words, or in that kind of simple-minded writing. I am unequivocally writing for the Nigerian.

I sat with my father in front of CNN one day. It was in those days when a quiz like “Where is Mount Vesuvius?” Would come up on the screen and after a few seconds of Mediterranean music, you were told it was somewhere in Southern Italy. After the question came up, my father unexpectedly kissed his teeth and asked the television,

“Do you know where Oke-Ṣápátì is?”

We both laughed because it was the perfect answer to that presumption of engagement, a right to our admiration for the varnished tourist destinations exhibited on CNN…when CNN does not reciprocate with simple engagement with our hills and valleys, our romantic ideals, often only with our traumas. And everyone in the world has trauma. If you know where Naples is or Mount Vesuvius, then you are clever. It is the kind of triviality that people want to nibble on while sitting in airport lounges with friends on the way to very important business meetings, their sophistication secured around them neatly like expensive hand-luggage. The converse is that there isn’t only one kind of sophistication in the whole world. It is about time other worlds were interested in our sophistication, our power, or landscapes. The Nigerian is that person I don’t have to tell that Oke Sápátì is in the direction of the Lagos Ibadan toll gate, then 100km or so away from the coastal lands of Lagos. He is the person who gets my jokes the first time. I can’t think of anyone that I would place in front of the Nigerian as the perfect reader of my words.

Kola Tubosun: Who were your most favourite (or memorable) writing influences?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food. This book taught me an enduring lesson on trusting the reader’s mind, and assigning it work to do. Nigella’s prose is engaging but the book restrains itself in its use of images so that the reader’s thoughts are free to pirouette over the words. If you have a written recipe and a photograph of a bowl, a single lemon, a few Brussel sprouts, a clean egg, nothing more, then your mind easily puts the ingredients in the bowl and takes a whisk and moves them around, then checks for seasoning and puts things in the oven. The end product is also entrusted to you the reader so that you feel liberated whatever the outcome. You are not reprimanded by a beautiful photograph that you can never cook up to. I love Maya Angelou’s autobiographical work because of their truth telling and intimate storytelling. Her voice is beautiful, enduringly beautiful. It made me want to be as truthful as possible because of the intrinsic power in openness and honesty. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was such an intoxicating reading for me – a rollercoaster of laughing and mourning, it helped me conclude that fiction can never be as interesting as real life. Never really. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast represents the kind of mélange of food and history that I find irresistible. I’ve told the story of how I stumbled on a 1956 version of Guy Endore’s The King of Paris, on the life story of Alexandre Dumas, in my grandparent’s home twenty years ago. Dumas was a lover of food and an extravagant cook. There is one story in the book about ordering a bearsteak with butter sauce in an inn in Switzerland. How Dumas was well into devouring his steak when his server felt the need to tell him about the bear and how it had recently eaten a man. The inn was therefore raising money for the man’s widow. By the punchline of the server’s unfortunate story, Dumas was near his last bite of steak but the true punchline of the story was that Dumas gagged on both his last bite and the end of the story and said to the server – I can do better than a donation, I’m going to give the woman back her husband… Everything about this story – the accusation that Dumas made up the whole thing and he was never in an inn in Switzerland eating bearsteak in butter sauce: The story and its twists, the way it is told in mischievous development so that you can never imagine where the matter is going…what a story and what a twist in the tale. It made me want to write and tell a good story. Something that seems easy until you are in the throes of doing it.

Last but not least M.F.K. Fisher’s food writing and Isabel Allende’s Aphrodite among many other brilliant writers and writing.

Kola Tubosun: From column to book chapters, what kind of process did the pieces undergo over time?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: I can’t count the number of edits the different chapters had to go through, before going through another set of edits as a book. I wrote 800 word essays that I struggled to keep to word count, then I needed to put in more details for the book. Many of the essays were discarded because they weren’t up to standard. Then I had unwittingly set a very high standard by writing an introduction that impressed Bibi Bakare-Yusuf. It felt true to where the book was going. All the other chapters had to be worked on to the same standard. Then the book was given to an editor who had to go over everything line by line and ask infuriating questions. Many of them rather annoying because the editor was not Nigerian and the questions were to be frank… There was a lot of quarreling at this stage over the form of the book and I had to insist on keeping the ramble rather than the neat procession that the non-Nigerian editor wanted. It was a rather frustrating period that peeps out of the book in places that you Kola noticed “An old buka and a new buka” instead of Obafemi Awolowo “old buka and new buka” We got past that stage then on to deciding on images and a cover and text and how the recipes should be presented among the prose…It was a longwinded often excruciatingly tiring process. I believe Bibi Bakare Yusuf’s natural instinct for creating a good book and her brilliance and Nigerian sensibilities kept the process together. If I had had to work on this book long term with someone who wasn’t Bibi, wasn’t Nigerian, the book would never have happened.

Kola Tubosun: I am curious about how you found the English names of some of the leaves/vegetables you wrote about. For instance, you called “Ewé ẹran” Thaumatococcus daniellii leaves. “Efinrin” was bush-basil. I’d never heard of either called in those ways before. I’m ashamed to say that I actually didn’t know what “Ewé ẹran” was either until I read the book. So, did you have a botanist friend help out or was this part of the research you personally did?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: I had made the mistake in my Food Matters days of calling Ewe-eran banana leaves. I mean that is unforgivable. It is why I say I am learning all the time and often from being corrected. Making a lot of mistakes because many of the things I am writing about aren’t documented. Nsala as is presented in the book has palm oil in it. Nsala in real life is thickened with pounded yam, tweaking aside. The palm oil is completely superfluous. The chicken in the recipe after all is giving some oiliness to the soup. That was a true to God oversight.

I searched for many months for an English name for Efirin. It was after that time I discovered that it was a kind of cross between the mint and basil. I hit my head against the wall before it settled. The aroma isn’t mint and it isn’t basil but you can taste both. I brewed it as tea. I ruminated on a friend’s mother’s recipe where it replaced the greens and it was said to be very good for detoxing the stomach.

I had to visit my friend Andrew Dunn in his office in Calabar to look through his books for a photograph of the locust bean tree.

My obsession with putting cinnamon in ogbono…it was many years after I had instinctively decided to do so that I found out that the finely ground cinnamon at the bottom of my coffee cup had the same behaviour – the same exact character and look and movement of “draw” that ogbono and hot water had. In essence a bit of research and a lot of instinct. A lot of things unconsciously stored in my memory brought up when the need arose.

Kola Tubosun: Something else I’m curious about: What is the difference between ekoki and ẹ̀kọ (tutu) for instance. The name cognates, and the way you described it’s making, plus attitudes to it (very cheap to buy from old women), reminds me of our own ẹ̀kọ, which are also wrapped in leaves. Are they the same?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: For one thing the temperatures at which they are eaten are very different. The eko is eaten at room temperature but because of the way it is made, where it is kept and the material (Ewe-eran/kolobo) that it is stored in, its palate temperature feels cooler than room temperature. This very purposeful and clever harnessing of coolness-the simulation of it is very clever and needs a level of skill Ekoki does not. Ekoki is eaten warm or hot. I like it hot. The making of it is quick and rough. There are special grates sold in the market for making Ekoki. They are not special at all. They are quite crude and are meant to take off more than the corn – parts of the cob is also grated into the mix and the texture in the mouth is gritty as opposed to the smoothness of Eko. That smoothness of eko comes from passing the corn and water through a white clean cloth.

Kola Tubosun: I realised, while reading the chapter called “Institution of Stew” and your description of having to go blend pepper at a public mill, that your experience mirrored mine and many of us who grew up in the South West. I then realised that I haven’t read any other book that I remember which faithfully details this part of growing up in Ibadan. Have you read any?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: No I haven’t. I didn’t grow up in Ibadan by the way. I spent long holidays there. The area that I refer to in Institution of stew after talking about my parents’ relationship with Ibadan is Surulere in Lagos. What used to be UTC shopping centre and its environs, Onilegogoro, behind our house in Pilot crescent, off the increasingly commercial street known as Adeniran Ogunsanya. These were the areas that a ten year old could safely crawl at that time – be sent on errands without fear of being abducted. There was a book shop next to the meat shop in UTC shopping center, so when I was sent to buy meat for the house, it could be taken for granted that I would go next into the bookshop. One time I reversed the visits and took my new books into the meat shop and someone stole them. An accomplished thief he must have been for the room that was the meat shop was quite small, and my books were right next to me. I have a feeling Nigerian writers are afraid to elevate the mundane, maybe because the urgent points on the itinerary are making a lasting impression with all the elements – thunder, lightning, sex, violence, red blood: Talking about all the important themes very quickly in order to confirm one’s position as a critical writer in one’s generation. Being clever. And that is perhaps the reason why describing these slow meanderings of place and time are not a priority in our contemporary writing. That’s ok too, writing loudly. Somebody has got to write the explosive urgent stuff, but commonsensically, not everybody should.  It is what to my mind distinguishes Longthroat Memoirs – I’m talking about quite unremarkable things as well as food. The pressure on writers in writing on Nigeria has been to be dramatic and political; to right all the societal wrongs and show one’s passionate awareness of one’s history and environment, worst of all, to interpret the Nigerian for foreigners. I believe we are also interested in the girl who took her books into the meat shop and got them stolen otherwise how do we explain the utter pervasiveness of our engagement with the mundane on social media?

Kola Tubosun: It’s interesting you would bring that up: the idea of dwelling on “unremarkable things” because it was something I dwelt on in my review of the book as something that delighted me the most about your writing. It successfully delights the perfunctory reader who just wants to glance and go, because the major facts are there, but it deeply satisfies the patient reader who is able to better appreciate the beauty in these so-called unremarkable things capable of stimulating vivid memories and smells. This brings me to a question I asked you on Brittle Paper; how does one train to be able to successfully write of food in a way that evokes not just the taste and smell of the food, but also the overall essence of that food? Like sex, it can’t be easy to write.

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: It is certainly easier to write than sex. The interaction with and adoration of food is a pastime that isn’t wholeheartedly regarded with judgement by others. Or worst case scenario the person passionate about food is called a glutton – a word that is quickly gaining inverse connotational regard with every photograph of fried hot puff puffs uploaded on social media. The person who makes it a life-calling to sleep with as many people using as many gadgets and imaginative twists as he can is at best and at worst a variety of pervert, and as he progresses in age, he doesn’t become a connoisseur, or a revered old hand, not virtuoso but dirty old man whose hands are fishy…an objectifier of good, clean people.

The secret is no more sophisticated than handling, smelling, eating food all the time. The more handling of a wide variety of food that one can manage the more open one’s mind and palate. I haven’t experienced that many cuisines as I would like to. I suspect that my sense of smell and my palate are very sensitive. I remember on a trip to New York with my Uncle and Aunt in 1983.  I sat on the subway next to someone wearing strong perfume. I became physically sick. My stomach turned itself upside down and I had to do my best to keep upright, keep my food down, keep fingers away from holding my nostrils (aided by dirty looks from my Uncle and Aunty) till we got off. I am often the first to smell burning wires in the house. Writing food in an evocative way is just writing well with deep knowledge and respect for the subject. When I started to write about food, my writing was only accepted on one Nigerian forum. The others wanted more serious topics. They wanted me to be “public analyst” not “gourmand”.  They expressed the possibility that I was wasting my skill on writing food. I think they should have first found out whether the subject matter was being written on to the best of my ability. I also think one has to take food very seriously. So if one puts oneself under the same requirements of turning out good writing on the subject matter of food, carrying out due diligence in the building of skillful and respectful relationship with the subject matter, never turning one’s back on an opportunity to try something new and unfamiliar (unless it is dog-meat) it just might yield a kind of technique…which is what I suppose you are asking for. I have no more formal answer to the question.

Kola Tubosun: Let me ask you something else then. You are originally from Ibadan and grew up in Lagos, for the most part. Reading your book easily shows the reader that you feel unimpressed by the creativity (or lack thereof) in South-Western cuisine. Tell me if I read that wrong. How would your writing have been different if you hadn’t lived in (married into) Calabar? But more importantly, which one came first: the curiosity about food outside of your immediate environment or the writing, serendipitously invented to express a delight at encountering something different and surprising in a foreign land?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: Sometimes I agree that if I never went to Calabar, I would never have written Longthroat Memoirs. Sometimes I must admit to myself that I started to write about food in Lagos, in that tiny kitchen that had no cross-ventilation and was often dark because there was no NEPA. Therefore, writing about Nigerian food would probably just have gone in another direction – the focus would have been on another part of Nigeria. To be truthful, I don’t know the answer to the question. If you moved any of the elements of the context that produced the book, things would probably have been very different. The only constant is that I am writing about Nigeria. So maybe food was just the lens that I needed. My most popular writing before food was on Pentecostal pastors and that caused such an explosion, I think food was a safe way of engaging the country I lived in. I don’t believe Calabar is “foreign land” I just always have a way of being on the fringes of things and places.  One of the pastors whom I wrote about in …Nigerian men of God and superstars accused me of being a foreigner. He said to me if I was not a foreigner (and this was meant to offend me) I would understand that you couldn’t get up and write an essay on a man of his stature. The word isn’t curiosity; it is a quirk like a pair of glasses that distorts the “normal” view. So it seems I am always the foreigner even in familiar places.

Kola Tubosun: There is a part of the book that I found fresh and satisfying, perhaps because it approached an old problem from a different perspective. But, more importantly, because it directly challenges accepted conventions in African fiction writing, and names names in the process. I speak of The Snail Tree detailing an experience at the Farafina Writer’s Workshop in 2012. How long have you been peeved by the progressively liberal nature of sexuality writing in African literature?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: It isn’t the liberality of writing in African literature that I am peeved at. I don’t believe that sexuality in our literature is liberal at all. What does liberal mean anyway?  Is the sex informing the writing in the first instance liberal? I know this is a very general question. Our manifestations of sexuality seem mostly dysfunctional. In writing, in the media, it is mostly titillation and misunderstandings. Are there some things that the application of words disfigures? Obscures? We all seem to be grasping at straws in private lives but bragging about our involvement in liaisons on public platforms. So if we are going to be real and honest, “liberality” should be prima facie the admission of incompetence and fumblings and disastrous encounters. The chapter was me saying, look I’m not going to pretend I’m good at this, that I apprenticed with Cirque du soleil. If I’m going to be truthful and free in my writing about sex, I’ll have to talk about my confusion and incompetence before anything. Everyone else can write titillation if they want.

I even doubt the so-called liberality of sexuality in Western literature and in Western living with all its loud declarations of female empowerment and freedom painted in loud colours of exhibitionism.  The editor Lauren Smith and me were at loggerheads from the beginning of editing the book because she had a problem with my saying that sex was being mostly showcased like a badly printed primer – a basic blunt instrument that had no joy or genuine passion or creativity in it.

No love.

I think she was saying that people should be allowed to speak and write about sex fullstop. As badly, as untruthfully, as pornographically as they want even if there is the overhanging threat of creating rules, or creating hyper-awareness with no real depth of understanding about something that touches us so deeply. The hyper-awareness makes us hungrier and hungrier and provides the obsessive stagnant environment that produces the good the bad and the ugly, the deformed, the dysfunctional. It is like the argument about whether violence viewed increases violence replicated or whether there is no correlation. …People break into delis at night to satisfy the hunger. As a global society we are still arguing the legalese of stealing to satisfy sexual hunger. We end up with stunning conclusions like – stealing is legitimate because nobody can prove what we took wasn’t public property. Lauren’s point of view was-better the freedom to speak than the repression. Me I was just looking for the humanity in the whole thing. And I do believe that what we see affects what we do.

I say there is room for repression and if there isn’t, we need to give it plenty of room.

I bring up the Farafina Writers workshop 2012 because there was a similar divide which seemed to be me on one side and the rest of my colleagues on the other.  My issue is mainly with growing public ownership and confinement and mutilation of what is private. And when I say private, I don’t mean that I’m telling people to shut up and not speak about what they do in their private lives if they want to. I mean private as in autonomous. As autonomous as the appetite for food. This means that the people who don’t want to speak are respected in their offerings of silence. And when speech is offered, we encourage the expression of the mind, the brain and heart behind the sexual act. We acknowledge that we don’t know the full effect of the meeting of parts. We don’t know how far life extends when our sexual acts spark a flame and create a human being. We usher in all the unsexy questions – perhaps we shouldn’t have sex if we don’t want to make babies.

I question the word freedom. It supposedly means we do what we want that makes us feel good. Fine. But I’m questioning where our freedom ends and where others’ start. I don’t want to ignore this fundamental question and decide that a child or an unwilling adult is the righteous focus of my sexual desires. Because I am free and liberal. People cringe when you say things like this and declare that the man who abuses a child (for example) is sick. I think we have to be cautious about these kinds of knee-jerk, rote responses. Sometimes he is the man who hasn’t limited his “liberality” in a world where we all want to get what we want.

In the sphere of freedom of expression, a lot of things are out of balance. Being able to describe sexual experiences in words can be freeing, but those same words can become prison bars for thinking – a manual with numbers and how-tos. Cosmopolitan magazine’s seven ways to ensure you get an orgasm. Pornography which is one of the highlights of freedom in the West might allow people to do and view what they want but it has also suppressed the sexual imagination. It is like a very compelling cookbook that is so full of pictures, it has limited the imagination of the reader. I’ll take Nigella Lawson’s “How to Eat” with its one or two pictures over a full colour book any day.  Pornography dims the light on my own humanity, on my superpowers – for example the profound power in touching another human being. Just touching them. In pornographic terms, a woman like myself with three children and a soft belly can never be a lead character. I don’t in the first instance want to be a pornographic lead character. I also hate pornography because of the damage it does to the sexual mind. In real life, all its precepts are violent lies. But how many people can tell the difference any more. Yet we are liberal and we are in a position to influence impressionable minds with our liberality.

The chapter was a strong protest against the imprisonment of what I do in private ‘in words’. Sex in real life is messy, full of angst and heartbreak and people fail miserably at it, abuse their partners and recoil in shame, hiding folds of skin and deep scars. The fact is it is also a gift, restorative, bringing two people together in a way that can’t be cloned. You can see I am quickly running out of original terms of references…I’m going to be quiet soon.

Sex expressed in the media has often encouraged us to de-humanise the other person and to make them just a body that satisfies our need to be pleasured. Where are all the layers in the liberal writing? The constant exposure to sexual content in media hasn’t saved us or healed our hidden pain. It hasn’t made the mysteries or the spirituality of sex more available. I really wanted to express that and to say whenever someone brings up sex, and starts to giggle there is room for the stick in the mud overthinkers like me who go all serious and say – hold up I don’t want to talk about this. And if I do talk about it, I don’t have to do it by script. My repression is as legitimate as your freedom.

Kola Tubosun: What did you set out to achieve while writing the chapter, if any purpose was set out anyway. And do you think having it in the book will help achieve it?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: I wanted to point out obvious and not so obvious parallels between appetites. I admit my reluctance to address certain topics, the discomfort of doing so; call it repression again if you like. It prompted me to borrow the more accepted language of food, of satisfying stomach hunger. The personality and personal jurisdiction of that place called the stomach. Private places like that in the human body where there are mysteries tied to your individuality. And this isn’t exceptional in the context of the book since I borrow food to talk about everything Nigerian. I want people to think about all the parallels of appetite – gluttony, fasting, eating out, eating in, fidelity to a pot, etc. In Queen’s College Lagos, a certain principal used to say to the girls during the morning assembly – “Now don’t forget to wash your little pots!” It was a rather uncomfortable analogy but there was nothing you could do to avoid it. You had no power to make her stop applying it.

I wanted to offer the perspective of seeing something better by not looking directly at it. I had a cousin called Kemi who had to watch television out of the sides of her eyes because of some kind of optical imperfection. You couldn’t argue with her that she saw the TV better by watching it like the rest of us. Her point of view was what it was.

Kola Tubosun: What has been the most surprising response to your book so far?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: First shipment to Nigeria sold out and people were looking for the book all over Lagos and Abuja

Kola Tubosun: When one writes a book that becomes hugely accepted, the challenge is to create a better and bigger one. How do you approach that challenge?

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: I have no idea. I’ll most likely hide under the compilation of my non-food essays until I can figure out what I’m doing. I really want to write a book for children.

Kola Tubosun: I look forward to reading it. Thank you taking the time.

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà: Thank you.

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