On Not Fitting In: An Interview with Yemisi Aribisala

Yemisi Aribisala has written about Nigerian food, feminism, and Nigerian Christianity in different spaces, one being the Chimurenga Chronic and the now defunct 234NEXT. In the introduction to her first collection of essays, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, Aribisala writes:
“I tell people that the world has not met Nigerian food. They are immediately incredulous, protesting without giving the idea a chance, afraid that they will turn up at the meet and no one will be there, no one of significance anyway.”
At the time of this interview, Enkare Review could not send Sanya Noel over to Sommerset, Capetown, to conduct it. The conversation therefore took place between Sanya in Nairobi and Yemisi Aribisala in Somerset, Cape Town via email.
SANYA NOEL: The first time I encountered your work was in the Chimurenga Chronic. Sister Outsider. In this era of social media, speaking, or writing your mind comes at a cost. Reviewers shy away from giving books bad reviews for fear of backlash. Yet here, in Sister Outsider, you were standing your ground, even if alone. I would like us to start from there. The art, if we can call it that, of standing your ground. How do you handle it in todays environment?
YEMISI ARIBISALA: I wouldn’t call it art at all. Compulsion is the word you want. You have to see me do long multiplication to understand. My brain often does what it likes. I can pretend that my mind works like everyone else’s, and I think that this is a difficult impersonation to pull off, or I can be myself and work with who I really am. You might guess that for many years I tried to ‘fit in’. There was that time when I had to walk on stage to collect my Master’s degree certificate at Cardiff university (It was ceremonial really- a roll of cardboard was what you were handed). We’d been hastily coached on how to walk on stage from one end and walk off at the other. Very simple. When my name was called, I walked on like everyone else, shook the master of ceremonies’ hand and then turned around and walked off in the direction that I had come. My mother was furious. She was sitting in the audience with her sister. She said at the end when we were taking photographs…and I didn’t want to take photographs…
“Why can’t you just do things like everyone else? You walked off in the wrong direction and to make matters worse you were the only black graduating student so ‘EVERYONE’ noticed!”
I don’t keep many friends. I can count my friends on the fingers of one hand. I enjoy my own company and I love long silent days when I get them, so I don’t have to answer to an in-crowd like many people consciously or unconsciously have to. Most of the abuses I received over Sister Outsider—the accusations of being unstable, intentionally being contentious, being cantankerous, looking for attention, betraying my sex etc. came from women who I cared nothing about, felt no obligation to please or answer to, so I just carried on. In any case, I had got a very effective vaccine that time when I wrote Men of God and Superstars. I realised over the decades that it is indispensable to my work and who I am to listen inwards rather than to follow the cabals and cliques and subscribe to all the available universal understandings.
S.N.: Early this year, Victor Ehikhamenor was in Nairobi with poet Koleka Putuma. I went to that reading, after which I talked to Victor. Hed just mentioned 234Next during his talk. At that time, I was reading Longthroat Memoirs and 234Next was still fresh on my mind. I didnt know the connection between that newspaper and many of the Nigerian writers I know today, so I wanted to ask him what it was like being there and working with you. Victor was kind and mentioned that you two were in fact friends beyond 234Next. However, you were writing way before 234Next and even Chimurenga Chronic. How did you get latched onto the writing that you do now, how did you end up down this road? Why essays and not the other forms?

Y.A.:Victor is indeed being kind because, like he said one time, I hit him over the head with a big stick in an article on his work The guy no be ordinary published by Chimurenga Chronic. I am honoured to call someone as talented as Victor Ehikhamenor a friend. I love his work. And he is very gracious. We do go back to the early days when Muhtar Bakare created Kachifo and Farafina magazine and had that vision to provide a platform for writers and artists that had never existed in the Nigerian context. Many writers, thinkers, artists today—Ikhide Ikheloa, Akin Adesokan, Kelechi Amadi Obi, Don Barber, Tolu Ogunlesi, Ike Anya, Chimamanda Adichie, Igoni Barrett…an endless reel, will talk about that Muhtar connection and that Kachifo office situated with great cultural consciousness on the upper floor of a corner-piece—an old building on Lagos Island: At 25 Military Street, Onikan. The office was a stone’s throw from Ghana High and had the delicious aroma of brewing coffee and old New Yorker magazines. These people will point back to it and not to 234Next as la pointe of that community coming together – of minds raring to go, meeting and bouncing ideas against one another. I bought my first Victor Ehikhamenor off Muhtar Bakare’s office wall.
I was hired at Kachifo as editor for the Farafina magazine. Not a very savvy decision on Muhtar’s part because I might have had an eye and a good ear for a piece, but I was a bad editor. I had no copy editing skills, didn’t know when to use a semi colon or a full stop, and I couldn’t spell either, another set of tricks my brain regularly plays on me. My competence was/is writer who thankfully was born in the time of spellchecks and autocorrect.
I had a few years back forced myself to return to Nigeria. A decision made with great apprehension after my Masters degree in Cardiff, and after spending 7 months cooking for the mother of a friend, Barbara Page Phillips, in Somerton, Somerset. She had loaned me one half of her house to write in. I didn’t write one word that counted in that time because of the immense pressure coming from Nigeria on the issues of my ageing ovaries and how quirky old ladies like me would very soon run out of men willing to take them or have them or marry them…however one puts it. Believe it or not I was told that I was spiritually holding up the line of marriage for my three younger sisters like I was some rickety old car at the petrol station holding up the queue… That utterly ridiculous prediction played out to my annoyance with my younger sister marrying my husband’s friend, their courtship very visibly building momentum during my wedding ceremony. I was 27.
Before going to work at Kachifo, I had run a bakery, managed hall rentals, worked for IGI insurance as a claims officer that spent half her working day typing letters and going across the road to buy meat pies…and for Growing Businesses Foundation. I had peeled potatoes in a kitchen in London. I had cleaned offices in Soho, had taught an art class in Lekki. I had worked for the British Journal of Cardiology in Tyers Gate and at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Islington. I had done everything but write because I was attempting to do what my family told me to do. I was trying to find something else acceptable…than writing. I couldn’t write in any case because I associated writing with very strong feelings of anxiety.
My first published article was written in Military Street on Muhtar’s bench, inhaling his coffee, drinking it too, under the strong influence of powerful muses stalking the place. At least I started it there. I had been to church and witnessed something that created conflict in my heart and in my head. The worship leader and another lead singer in the church choir/band had been having an affair. The man was married.
One day in church, the lead singer, the woman, had been brought out on stage and chastised by the pastor in front of everyone with great audacity and in terms that just made you cringe with horror. The worship leader had been spared the public rebukes, ostensibly because he was married and his wife and children were being protected. It was painful to watch and I found myself sitting in the audience, my insides hurting from the effort of remaining in my chair. I didn’t want to be part of what was happening and I wished that the church programme had read we were throwing stones that day so that I could have left early and not been forced to witness or participate in what was happening. The woman just stood there and absorbed the shame. I thought she was incredibly courageous, but in her shoes, I would never have agreed to do that. I would rather have been ex-communicated from the church, which is what happened soon enough after the article I wrote was published. But you could see she was eager to remain part of the community that had put her on that stage. Anything but the state of pariah-hood. That church was her home. That fact made it all the more heartrending.
From that day, I guess I didn’t want to be there, and I should have left quietly. But my long-multiplication problem set in and I wrote something about what I was experiencing in church especially because the pastor, at some point in putting this woman on stage and shaming her, had said that anyone who spoke against him or against ‘his’ church was going to be cursed. I suppose there was a part of him that knew that what was happening; what he was doing was wrong, and he didn’t want his congregation to question him about it. I considered the whole affair a challenge to what I knew about God and decided that I needed to test the premise being presented—just that God has a problem with the truth. I wanted to test it for myself and possibly for all the other sinners and fornicators in the house who were expected to stand in judgment of that woman. I didn’t want to play a guessing game for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be so afraid of exclusion that I joined the bandwagon. That particular bandwagon was 5000 members strong. Best to know there and then whether God was in the service of these witchcraft propagandists.
I wrote that article for one year and six months and gave it to Farafina magazine. It almost never saw the light of day because some members of the church turned up at Muhtar’s house at 5:00am once the copies returned from the printing press offering him one million Naira or thereabouts to not sell one copy. They said “the boys”, and I thought that sounded so much like the mafia, had gathered the money together to buy every single copy before it hit the streets.  Muhtar called me on the phone and asked me whether the grief that was coming was worth it. Whether I could weather the trauma that would hit my family. The call was mine. I decided the grief was indeed worth it. And you must know that that answer was not an ‘informed one’. It was stubbornness maybe. Was I too afraid to now publish what I had spent so long writing? Did I no longer believe what I wrote? Was I a coward? Was I just going to go on with my life like one year and six months never happened? What about that woman on that stage? I had no idea how bad things would get.
That was how, as you say, I ended up on this road. That article was true to the compulsion to be as truthful as I can be. Like everyone else, I’ve probably told hundreds…hundreds of pork-pies in four decades, but I feel very uncomfortable in the vicinity of untruths. Fiction has been difficult for me to write because it is easier for me to talk about what is happening in reality around me even if it is expressed sometimes with detours into fantasy…than for me to write new worlds where I have to fashion integrity to suit that which I have by the way created. I need to be anchored by facts. I know this is a simplistic way of thinking of and representing fiction. I feel incompetent at reading fiction in the first instance because my mind gets derailed by the tiniest detail that feels untrue to the rest of the story. Rarely do I find that fictional work that helps me lose self-consciousness. Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting my time on something that isn’t real in the end. I don’t want to invest my emotions in it. I find non-fiction more compelling.
S.N.: How did you get to know of Muhtar’s Kachifo?
Y.A.: Muhtar was studying a postgraduate degree in University of Ife as it was called then when I was there for an undergraduate in Law. My memory of him is quite vague from that time. He was very serious. His car was serious. His clothes were serious. And worst of all, he and a few friends had started this forum where they discussed politics and philosophy and very serious things. Maybe I said two words to him in all that time. I had a friend who was determined I must be her eternal sidekick, and she helped to ensure I never spoke at that forum. She came back from one of the meetings and said
“They were asking for you today. They asked why you never say anything. They were speculating that you are very clever and the quietness is intensity. I told them you don’t say anything because you have nothing of importance to say.”
I never went back and I believe I never saw Muhtar again until Lagos when I came back from my Masters degree, after I had served at IGI and worked at Ndidi Nnoli Edozien’s Growing Businesses Foundation. He might remember it differently. He was collecting stories for Farafina magazine and asked me if I had any fiction. I had some badly written pages that were unfinished and showed them to him. I remember him suggesting that my titles be Nigerian names and words. I don’t remember the conversation about me coming to work at Kachifo even though it certainly happened. I do remember him encouraging my writing and repeating that life was short and if I was going to write, I better get on with it. Like one or two other people, attempting to push me past the crippling anxiety they knew I was experiencing. He read a lot of my work in those days, and he was someone who I felt comfortable showing even the worst put together pieces. He also published my longwinded articles before I met Ntone Edjabe of Chimurenga. It would have been the most natural thing in the world to have my first book published by Kachifo. It looked like that was what would, should happen. But my food writing overtook my other writing at some point and when I offered the compilation of food stories to Igoni Barrett who was at Kachifo at the time, he refused it, so I offered it to Bibi Bakare Yusuf who built a relationship with the words over the next few years. I believe Igoni felt there was more value in my other writing; my non-food essays and many people found it difficult at that time to get their heads around food-writing, especially Nigerian food writing. The popular consensus was that there was nothing to say about food. In any case, Muhtar and Kachifo are in the roots of many many Nigerian writers’ histories like mine. That isn’t said quite often enough.
S.N.: From the jobs you mention before Kachifo, you seem to be quite comfortable working while on your feet, and getting your hands moving.
Y.A.: Absolutely. I’ve tried the office job where I had to sit in meetings and file documents and wear suits and smile on demand. It never suited me. All my best ideas come standing over a kitchen sink. Hands in warm soapy water; chopping onions. There is often a scruffy pad that I scribble/draw on quickly somewhere in the vicinity of the sink. I find people moving around in rooms with fluorescent bulbs above and doors opening and shutting, people talking on phones…distracting. Too distracting to get any real work done. Too distracting to think. And I hate the sight of office files, and the smell of closed rooms with air-conditioning. Any job that leaves me alone to get on with things, in a room with open windows, is my ideal job. And I have no qualms doing menial work. I love working with my hands. It frees my brain to walk the room. If I had to go out to a job where I dealt with people all day in an office, dressed up, made up, trussed up…I would never write. I would be so drained from interacting with people, from all the stimulation and keeping up appearances and the pinch in good shoes. I know that some children with special needs are now allowed to sit on large therapy balls in classrooms because the motion stimulates their brains, the bouncing up and down aids cognition.  I think it might work similarly for me. I do my best work on my feet.
S.N.: Youve written that your son, Aziba, was the inspiration behind Longthroat Memoirs. Were there other inspirations?
Y.A.: I just always ended up in the kitchen you know. And some people, maybe that’s their fate in this life. I can’t count the number of times people have come round to my house (especially in Nigeria) and asked me where the Madam is and I know they won’t believe me if I say I’m the one they are looking for because I’m standing in the kitchen in an apron with rubber gloves on, wearing old jeans.
Once in Calabar, I could hear someone coming toward the kitchen from the front door and he was saying at the top of his voice how he had always wanted to meet me. He got to the kitchen door and I saw the look of shock seize his face. His wife was at his heels, right behind him coiffed to perfection. Bright yallo complexion, high heels, long weave, painted nails, layers of make-up, designer bag…It was obvious he was expecting an exact replica of his own shiny Madam.
I was tempted to respond sotto-voce that Madam is asleep in the boudoir and can’t receive any visitors especially without an appointment, but my children could have come along and rolled their eyes and my cover would’ve been blown and I’d look like some kind of mad eccentric and felt like an idiot. Nigerians living in cities can be too invested in their superficialities.
Inspirations? Well everything–Food, Obasanjo, an aunt whose husband threw a toaster at her head (I don’t remember if he wrapped the cable and plug round the toaster first or if she was double-whammed in the head with toaster then plug, then crowned with flying cord); … life, pain, rejection, love, peppersoup, human nature. Everything.
S.N.: Many people cook, but very few can write even recipes, let alone essays. How was your research process for this book?
Y.A.: I apprenticed myself to some old hands. People like Aunty Thelma who owns the restaurant Le Chateau in Calabar and who has cooked enough for two lifetimes. Barbara Page Phillips when she had her health was an avid cook who kept boxes of typed-up recipes. There is one crumbling page of recipes in Longthroat Memoirs that she showed me and somehow it ended up in my things, came back to Nigeria with me. I spent 7 months in her kitchen.
My grandmother loved to cook and I spent long holidays as a child soaking in details of her relationship with food and utensils and special spoons and toothpicks and drinking glasses we weren’t allowed to touch. She baked and aged fruitcake and gave us small pieces at Christmas. That is in fact one of the most powerful memories of my childhood. In Oke-ado Ibadan, glittering lights around a live Christmas tree and that cake with its powerful alcoholic aroma and the warmth inside your stomach. A small piece of cake that always left you wanting more. I can’t walk past good fruitcake without thinking of her or feeling something that I can’t quite put my finger on. Emotional might be the word. I instinctively found myself replicating her table arrangements—buying the very same kind of forks and knives from Memory Lane Antiques on Main Street in Somerset West, Western Cape.
I went and sat in people’s kitchens and asked lots of naive questions when I was writing food articles. I was the first daughter so my mother was under this off and on commitment to make sure I didn’t embarrass her when I got to my husband’s house. I had a make believe kitchen at the back of the house as early as probably 6 years old. When you say research process for the book, I can only answer by saying that it feels like I’ve been thinking about and cooking food all my life.
S.N.: What was your childhood like?
Y.A.: Complicated. My eccentricities as my family saw them were a problem so I found things more than a little difficult. In the typical Nigerian family, you just have to fit in. You can’t be different. I was often called anti-social. I concluded as I got older that the word was misused. My family meant introverted, owning the ability to enjoy my own company, reading too much and probably thinking too much, and admittedly owning more than a few unusual, perhaps disturbing, character traits and facial expressions. Anti-social is more appropriate in describing people who only accommodate one kind of person—their kind. The happiest parts of my childhood would be at my grandparent’s house in Oke-ado, Ibadan. I didn’t feel odd there or out of place and there was an upper room above the first floor filled with books and just the right kind of muted light. There were no rebukes earned in that house for reading too much. There was the comforting aroma of old and ageing books, and December months with the Harmattan were beautiful gifts. You felt enclosed and contented and drifted easily between sleep and words. My grandfather would often also talk to me in a way that suggested that he saw a quality in me. And that quality was most certainly not eccentricity. He was interested in me as a person who he could have a conversation with. Ibadan where a lot of my holidays were spent was a strong contrast to Lagos where I lived with my parents and siblings. I loved being in Ibadan. The life was slower and less strained. As you can imagine I hated school, and school was in Lagos. The parts of my childhood situated in Ibadan were very happy and unconflicted.
S.N.: Were your parents and siblings readers during your childhood?
Y.A.: My older brother is one of those people who has the capacity to read…is interested in technical details and textbooks and consultancy manuals. He is the only other person who I remember reading. Who reads still. He will say he doesn’t read for pleasure but because work requires it. I don’t understand the distinction because if you don’t enjoy reading I don’t believe you will do it. I can’t remember anyone else in the house reading for pleasure even though they are all academically accomplished.
S.N.: What makes a well-written essay for you? What kind of character makes for a good essayist?
Y.A.: A well written essay has got to be engaging and has got to do its best to be truthful. I think you have to feel at levels deeper than most people do, and want to get to the bottom of things to be a good essayist. Lots of questioning and thinking about why life is the way it is and why things work the way they do and why they don’t work and fall through. And you have to have a perspective that is exceptionally askew or exceptionally dead right. It has to be an interesting perspective. It can’t just be walking in the middle of the road or sitting on the fence. You can’t be afraid. Can’t afford to be concerned about what everyone else is thinking about you or what everyone else is thinking about anything. You must acknowledge people alright, but you must have strong boundaries of thoughts and opinions. The essayist has to be opinionated. She is always exposed. She can’t pretend that it isn’t her in the piece. I think a lot of writers of other genres get away with a lot of things that essayists can’t get away with. That posture of vulnerability and exposure necessary to writing good essays means you have to hone integrity alongside everything else. Real integrity. You can’t bullshit your way through a well written, well thought out essay. Because in the end you can’t renege on what you said or pass it off as poetic language. You can’t hide. You can’t be self-indulgent and you have to write for the future. You have to be able to see into the future.
S.N.: When you sit down to write an essay, do you do so with the structure already made? Do you have the essay worked out before you write it?
Y.A.: No, I’m not that organised. I usually have an idea, lots of ideas. And I’m not sitting. I’m moving and scribbling notes and doing housework or sewing or driving somewhere. Sometimes I get the gift of an opening sentence and that determines the way the whole piece sounds. That is all I know at that point. I know how it will sound. So I hold on to that. I usually spend many weeks and months moving the words around in my head like a puzzle. Putting parts in and taking parts out. Repeating sentences to myself. I don’t have essays worked out before I write them. I can’t remember one time that the essay has not come piecemeal. I can write a paragraph and not move past that paragraph for a few weeks. If I get stuck, and I get stuck all the time, I leave it and go and do something else. Work on something else. Sleeping on work helps. Looming deadlines too. It isn’t the pressure because I hate pressure, rather, that extra motivation to commit. I have pieces I have been working on for years. If they don’t sound right, then I can’t present them. I can’t force structure, and that puts a question mark against its significance. It means that I must be thinking about words constantly and must document the fragments to make up for the inability to force structure. I never mentally switch off from the writing process. I find that time, the passage of it, is a wonderful tool in writing a good essay. In smoothing those maddening kinks out. And they can drive you mad. You’ll be knocking your head against an idea for months and it won’t move. In its own time, it will shift effortlessly and you’ll sit and pour out. That amazes me and helps me trust some of the aspects of the craft to unpredictable insights arriving when they want. The back-burner work, the cogitation that we disregard as unstructured is probably more than 50% of the work.  It seems the more time you give the words, the fatter they become.
S.N.: Does self-doubt ever affect your writing process?
Y.A.: All the time. Every day.
S.N.: You have a degree in law and a masters in legal aspects of Maritime Affairs and International Transport. Do you practice law?
Y.A.: I have never practiced law. And I never will.
S.N.: What should we expect your next book be about?
My next book is a compilation of essays previously published in the Chimurenga Chronic plus a few new ones. On snobbery in the Nigerian use of the English Language, Nigerian Feminism; Identity, Immigration, Pentecostal Christianity—on a form of domestic violence that involves the denial of access to words, written ones, validating ones, basic articulated ones. The essays represent a 12 year journey from the first article on Men of God. That one that started it all.

Yemisi Aribisala’s first essay collection on Nigerian food & culinary culture was published by Cassava Republic Press Abuja/London in October 2016. Longthroat Memoirs Soups, Sex & Nigerian Tastebuds tells the story of culture through the belly & digs into the core of the Nigerian psyche. Her book won the John Avery Award in the prestigious Andre Simone Memorial Fund Food & Drink Book Awards 2016. Her second book of essays on Nigerian feminism, pentecostal christianity, migration, identity, the political, philosophical and personal of Nigerian contemporary life will be published this year by Chimurenga, Cape Town, South Africa.