1st Oct 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Yewande Omotoso
Born in Barbados, Yewande Omotoso grew up in Nigeria with her Nigerian father, West Indian mother and two older brothers. She and her family moved to South Africa in 1992 and have lived there ever since.
She is an architect; space and buildings being a passion of hers, second only to words and literature. She currently lives in Johannesburg, South Africa and works as a designer, freelance writer and novelist.
FBS: Your debut novel, Bomboy, is set in South Africa while showcasing the tradition of Nigerian story telling – what similarities between the two cultures did you see that made the setting and the theme work so well together?
YO: While similarities can always be found between many different cultures that was not my primary aim here. A large part of the book and most of the protagonist’s experience deals with otherness and strangeness. I think this is heightened by telling Yoruba folklore in a Cape Town setting.
It is the stark differences that we first notice and only later come to understand that regardless of culture, human experience is the common denominator.
FBS: Another theme that features heavily in your book is family. To me, the emphasis seems to be that blood isn’t what makes a family but can even hinder it at times. Is this a theme that is particularly close to your heart?
YO: Family is something important to me, the bond of family, the codes, the quiet understanding between family members and shared suffering. I am fascinated by the complexity of relationships and families are a great microcosm within which to study this.
Family seems to dictate a specific way of loving/hating distinct from any other relationship and this, more than blood, is what characterises it.
FBS: The protagonist in Bomboy, Leke, is unlike any main character I have every come across. Some would say he is socially awkward, others would say he’s downright weird. How did you develop his character? And is he based on anyone you know?
YO: Leke, like any character from an imagination, is based on various thoughts, made-up encounters and actual incidents. His intense sense of isolation is really what has him occur as weird. In reality I like to think that his life is simply a drawn-out series of any human being’s most lonely and desperate moments.
I developed his character through really coming to grips with what happened to him and how he got formed through childhood experiences he’d had.
I took myself back to my own moments of isolation as a new girl in a South African school when my family moved from Nigeria in 1992. I found it very easy to relate to Leke, he perhaps exhibits what most of us have learnt to hide.
FBS: Beyond Leke, the male characters in your book all have their own character flaws, while the women are by-and-large independent and a little bit fierce. Did you develop these characters on purpose or did they, like with many authors, come into life of their own accord?
YO: None of it was on purpose, most of it, in fact, feels very accidental! However I don’t necessarily agree that the women are without character flaws. Yes they are strong women – I hope I never stop telling their stories for that part of my writing that is about activism and combating dangerous stereotypes that occupy television and magazines.
Mostly, though, I want to write about flawed heroes. We, as a planet, are too obsessed with perfection and I think we’ve misunderstood the purpose of failure.
FBS: Your story has so many layers to it – from family and storytelling, to relationships and curses – what do you hope readers learn from reading your novel?
YO: I don’t specifically expect that they would learn anything! Primarily I would like them to experience a good story that captures them and that even moves them. I have a belief that if we find something striking or moving we will pull from it whatever lessons we need to.
I try not to prescribe my writing with lessons but trust that if I’ve done my job properly, great stories will make a difference for people in a myriad of ways.
FBS: Bomboy received praise from all corners of the literary world – including being short-listed for the Sunday Times 2012 Literary Award for fiction. Did you expect it to have such a response?
YO: No I didn’t but was very pleased and grateful for the response it did receive. It would be dangerous, I think, if one wrote for accolades and yet it is always consoling to be publicly recognised.
FBS: You are something of a renaissance woman with your interest in architecture – how does your profession influence your writing?
YO: I enjoy writing about space and form and how human beings experience places. I consider the make-up of a city and really painting a clear picture of this as important in storytelling. I probably end up describing the house in more detail than I describe the person!!
FBS: Nigeria has a long history of outstanding novelists and you come from a very creative family yourself – including your father Kole Omotoso, an award-winning novelist and eminent academic. Do you count your family or any of Nigeria’s other celebrated authors as influences in your work, and particularly, the creation of Bomboy?
YO: The various members of my family have had the biggest influence on my life and I credit my upbringing by writer and reader parents for my own love of literature. I was lucky to grow up around a community of celebrated Nigerian writers and poets and admired them and what they did from a very young age.
In terms of the creation of Bomboy I got the idea to write about Leke and then developed it during my masters in creative writing at UCT with the support of my teachers and fellow students.
FBS: With your first novel taking the African literary world by storm, how are you going to follow it up?
YO I don’t know if Bomboy has taken “the African literary world by storm”. If it has though I, myself, am ecstatic and I’m also happy for the book! Regardless my job is to not get too distracted, to keep writing and mastering what it is to tell great stories. I continue to work and I hope my second novel is an improvement on the first – that’s the idea.
(Photograph of Yewande Omotoso by Tolu Talabi)