Molara Wood is a multi-vocational writer. As a journalist and critic, she has written for The Guardian (Lagos), and served as Arts and Culture Editor of NEXT Newspaper. Her short stories, flash fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including African Literature Today, Chimurenga, Farafina, Sentinal Poetry Online, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories. In 2008, she won the inaugural John La Rose Memorial Short Story Competition, and received, in 2007, an award from the Commonwealth Broadcasting Corporation for her fiction. Indigo, her collection of short stories was published in 2013 by Parrésia.
Indigo is a type of blue—neither the hue of carefree sky nor brooding moonlit sea, but something inbetween. Molara Wood’s collection of short fiction is aptly named, not just because of the title’s eponymous nod to the collection’s first piece, but because of the liminal worlds portrayed within. Wood tells stories of people who inhabit inbetween ‘indigo’ spaces: the borderland of immigration, the no-man’s-land of multiculturalism, the frontiers of social mobility. These worlds spiral into one another, and their inhabitants spin along, negotiating extremes of human circumstance—barrenness, the (fated) pursuit of glamour, madness, death—struggling, all the while, to plant roots in shifting sand.
For all the cosmopolitan sensibility of Wood’s writing, for all the worldly wanderings of her characters, for all their cultural adaptability, there remains a conceptual mooring in African worldviews. The spiritual inclination towards home, expressed in oral lore such as the Yoruba proverb ile l’abo isimi oko (home is where we return to rest after labour), replicates itself in Wood’s storytelling. This inclination drives her characters to seek native soil, however far, or long, they’ve travelled. Rayesha, an African American woman married to a Nigerian man, physically returns to her roots when the couple moves to Nigeria; Idera and Jaiye have recently relocated to Nigeria when their saga begins. But the return home isn’t always literal. Sometimes homing is symbolic, enacted in wedding parties and other mundane events through which those who live abroad [re]create “home away from home.” Crises erupt in the lives of some who, scheming and suffering to stay planted in foreign soil, resist home’s insistent tug. Deportation looms, and xenophobic epithets are hurled. Even in death home comes calling, adamantly inserting itself into one character’s British epitaph. These peregrine lives etch trail marks in the shifting landscapes that Molara Wood conjures, like the lined patterns on the Yoruba indigo dyed cloth featured on the collection’s cover art.
Having travelled and lived in three continents: Europe, North America and Africa, Molara Wood recently returned home, to Nigeria. She lives in the capital city, Abuja, from where she corresponded with Ake Review.
Indigo features both short stories and flash fiction. Can you share some of the pleasures and challenges that you were confronted with when writing in these two genres?
The traditional length short stories in ‘Indigo’ were not always as easy to rein in as the flash fiction. Some had me scratching my head for weeks, wondering what to do about some plot turn or character; one or two needed major surgery in terms of reworking. But when it all starts to hang together or the characters begin to assume a life of their own, one cannot but marvel. I particularly enjoyed writing dialogue, for the way it enhanced the fleshing out of distinct characters and voices.
Your stories touch on a wide range of themes, from polygamy to immigrant life, mental health and slavery. What inspires your writing?
I’m inspired by all sorts of things. It could be a piece of music or smell that’s evocative of another time, another place. It could be something overheard on the London Underground or bus (one reason I miss public transportation in the UK). For example, there’s a story in ‘Indigo’ that’s inspired by a line in a Vanity Fair article from the 1990s, about some girl in a war ravaged African country; the line always stayed with me, haunted me. Many years later I started weaving a narrative, building a different life around it. There’s one story inspired by someone’s name; another has whole lines that came straight from a dream. In other cases, a title dropped in my head and I decided to write stories to fit.
The bulk of your stories are set in Nigeria and London. They narrate the lives of Africans negotiating their way across a multinational, multicultural terrain. When you write, who do you consider to be your primary audience?
My primary audience is anyone anywhere who can be bothered to read my work.
Many of your characters grapple with finding a sense of place and identity away from ‘home’. You lived in England for about 20 years and moved to Nigeria about 5 years ago. To what extent has that experience influenced your thematic treatment of dislocation and re-integration?
I have lived a fairly peripatetic life. Even long before my UK days I had lived in Northern and South-Western Nigeria as well as Los Angeles—all by the age of eleven or twelve. There’s a sense in which you’re always out of time, out of place—and the years in Britain merely compounded that. The feeling doesn’t go away with return to Nigeria, it merely mutates, as people remark about me coming across as someone from ‘away’, even when I’m trying to blend in. I am therefore pretty sensitive to the permutations of dislocation and re-integration, and London was a huge tableau for me to observe this theatre of human experience as far as Nigerian immigrants were concerned.
Quite often, your stories connect the difficulties of immigrant life to racialised attitudes towards ethnic minorities, especially Africans. To what degree do your portrayals mirror the experiences of Africans living abroad?
I would say the stories mirror the experiences of Nigerians living overseas—in this case the UK—to a reasonable degree. Not for no reason is London called ‘Little Lagos’, and I saw how our people lived, their motivations and the pressures they were under, the things that were done to them and the things they did to themselves. There are a thousand and one stories; I have merely presented a few in ‘Indigo’.
In ‘The Scarcity of Common Goods’, Aduke’s mental illness becomes a sort of survival mechanism in the face of bereavement, estrangement and extenuating poverty. This is fascinating, considering the fact that mental illness is a taboo subject in Nigeria. Some readers interpret Aduke’s insanity as a metaphor for a more existential Nigerian condition. How would you respond to this notion?
It’s important for readers to be free to arrive at meanings that are not necessarily anchored to whatever I might have consciously intended—death of the Author and all that. So for me the readings you’ve related are quite valid. What I know is that I wanted Aduke to say the unsayable, to give voice to what the supposedly sane characters cannot express. I also hope the portrayal of Aduke says something about how the mentally ill should be cared for within our communities. The stigma surrounding mental illness should be a matter of regret to us all.
In ‘Girl on the Wall’, Aramide has been living in Ilemo where, as a child, she was left by mother as bonded labour. Her brother finds and liberates her many years later, but, ironically, it is the town where she was enslaved that she ultimately associates with freedom. Are you exploring the broader narratives of the Atlantic slave trade and the subsequent cultural alienation of the Black Diaspora?
I was not consciously exploring the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade or the Black Diaspora in this story. After all, we do have all kinds of homegrown slavery even here among us in these times. Shocking as it may seem, Aramide’s story is loosely based on a real incident, with the girl concerned liberated from some town that time forgot as recently as about twenty years ago. I tried to take the basic story in new directions, to examine notions of love and freedom as undercut by certain factors. For me, it’s crucial that the fictional Aramide never felt like a slave.
Most of your stories revolve around the lives of African women negotiating what many in Africa tend to think of as primarily women’s concerns: barrenness, polygamy and widowhood. Your characters benefit from your empathy, which leads me to ask: is there an agenda at play here?
No agenda as such, beyond the fact that these are the writings of a womanist, a feminist. I have a great empathy, a well of feeling for what women go through. I don’t feel these are given adequate treatment in the writings of male writers, so it’s really up to us, the female writers, to privilege the voices and experiences of women.
Even when the narrator is male, his role seems to be that of a soundbox, adding resonance to the much more compelling lives of female co-characters. For example, ‘In the Time of Job’ isn’t about Job at all, nor is it about Ben (the narrator). As a writer, at what point during the writing process do you assign hierarchies within the the gender politics of the story?
Well, ‘In the Time of Job’ may not be about Job, as you say, but it is definitely about Ben’s transgressive relationship with his mother, so it’s both their stories. My intention was actually to write Ben’s story; the mother just muscled in, in the backstory of why the son’s life has followed a certain trajectory. ‘Night Market’ is more Adigun’s story than it is Rayesha’s. He is to me the most compelling character in the story and I felt for him a great deal. Same with Amugbo, the flawed protagonist in ‘Smoking Bamboo’. Let me allude to Milton: in my stories, they also serve who only watch and narrate.
Confounded that his dead mother Emily Segall has requested cremation in a foreign land, Ben requests that her native name, Adambo, should also be inscribed on her memorial plaque ‘…just so people know she may have come from elsewhere’. How realistic is this in exploring African attitudes to death and internment?
I think the challenging matter there, for Africans of our extraction at least, is perhaps the cremation, as is evident in Ben’s reaction to being told of his mother’s wishes. Her native name on the memorial plaque in a foreign country to me merely points to the universal human desire to leave a trace, to have something that says ‘Lagbaja was here’. It’s like Rupert Brooke’s ‘Soldier’: “There’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” That sort of thing.
‘Written in Stone’, ‘Smoking Bamboo’, and ‘Night Market’ unfold in a world in which the supernatural exists side-by-side with tangible, day-to-day realities. Is magic realism an important device in your stories and why?
I suppose the novels that have had the greatest influence on me have been the magical realist kind. It is also in those works that I have found representations closest to the world of the Yoruba. The mythopoetic world of the Yoruba, their way of seeing the world, is very magical realist indeed. In Femi Odugbemi’s D.O Fagunwa documentary, Gbemisola Adeoti is quoted describing the Yoruba world as one which “admits fluid inter-relations between the human and the superhuman.” And being deeply interested in Yoruba mythology and cosmology, I cannot but explore all of this. Also, for me as a writer, I have to say that generally, realism alone cannot capture the full breadth of the Nigerian reality. Magical realism on the other hand allows extra layers of meaning, other dimensions of being and seeing.
Your use of mythology often appropriates indigenous folklore. In ‘Written in Stone,’ for example, Ibi-ile is reminiscent of, but not quite, Ile-Ife. What do these departures from traditional mythology represent?
I see ‘Written in Stone’ as a dreamlike narrative, and in a dream you see yourself in your house, but it’s not quite your house. On a practical level, I wanted to allude to ‘the source’, Ile-Ife—steeped in Yoruba history and myth—without necessarily ascribing to the ancient city-state the character of certain diabolical acts in my story. I don’t want some reader thinking these high-level intrigues happened for real in Ile-Ife—and that’s where Ibi-Ile comes in handy; it reinforces the idea that this is fiction. In general terms, departures from traditional mythology are necessary in fiction in order to arrive at new meanings, otherwise you’re merely rehashing old stories.
You were editor of the Arts and Culture section of Next Newspaper and built a career as one of the eminent voices in the Arts in Nigeria. How has your work as a journalist influenced your fiction? Do you miss journalism?
Nothing prevents me writing journalistic pieces here and there, as and when, so there’s really nothing to miss. Journalism instills useful discipline and precision into one’s writing; not to mention a predisposition to fact-checking, research and so on.
You fall quite squarely into third generation Nigerian writing. How comfortably would you say your work sits within the existing literary canon in Nigeria?
I don’t really know and it may be too early to tell, and even then it would be a matter for the critics to decide, not me.
Much of recent sub-Saharan African fiction is by writers who live in the West, a departure from the practice of first generation writers who were largely based in Africa. Do you think this has influenced the stories being told, how they are told, and to whom they are intended?
I think there’s a lot being written by African writers everywhere, it’s just that the most prominent have largely been those based in the West and celebrated there, either through publishing deals or award systems. The jury is still out on whether there’s an anxiety triggered in home-based writers as to what the magic formula of international writing success is, and what impact, if any, on literary production. What is clear is that since the writer engages with his or her environment, the author’s location cannot but seep into the work. I doubt I would have written as many stories set in London if I’d never lived there. What concerns me sometimes is how a story is told and who the implied reader is. We see an over-explaining of our world in our stories sometimes, all in an effort to lay it all on the table for some international reader. An American author writing about Chicago does not have this problem; he or she writes a story set in some little café in some obscure corner of the city and the world takes it as so. Yet we have to explain ourselves, make it plainer, mitigate our otherness, and overcome the presumed difficulties that prevent the world ‘seeing’ us. What’s more, some international journals will have a story turned virtually into, say, an American reasoning before publication, which is regrettable. An intern at a US journal wanted to know if the “catapult” in ‘In The Time of Job’ is same as a “slingshot”—I said kinda—so she insisted I change it to “slingshot”. I said no, because “slingshot” was not true to the world of my story. I found many of their proposed changes intolerable, so I let go of the opportunity to be published by them in the end—a decision that’s not always easy to make.
Africa has been plagued by political turbulence, not unlike the upheavals that unfold in ‘Kelemo’s Woman’. How do you think writers should situate themselves within the political landscape of the continent?
I think those writers who are minded to write about politics in an overt way, should do so. And those who don’t want to, should be left alone. My personal take is that the very act of giving expression to one’s inner life and reality, is a political act in itself. Writing about a flower, in certain societal contexts, can be protest, can be a revolutionary act, can be subversive and dangerous.
When you look at your library, which books make you say: ‘I feel so blessed that I got a chance to read that’?
So many, but I’ll list some. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier; Midnight’s Children and Shame by Salman Rushdie—sealed my induction as a writer and reader into Magical Realism. I’m grateful to have read theoretical works likeDecolonizing the Mind by Ngugi wa Thiong’O, The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, Orientalismby Edward Said, and Imaginary Homelands by Rushdie. Some of my favourite novels: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy; The Famished Road by Ben Okri; The Outsider by Albert Camus;Native Son by Richard Wright; The Trial by Franz Kafka; So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba; To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee; The Voice by Gabriel Okara; and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.Captain Correlli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres I love for its narrative inventiveness; The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, for its memorable portrayal of a sexual outsider; The Remains of the Dayby Kazuo Ishiguro, for its subtlety and evocation of a closed world in a bygone era; and Atonement by Ian McEwan, for the wondrous tyranny of its narrator. In Poetry, I loved the famous anthology West African Verse by Donatus Nwoga; the First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al; and Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy is always among the books by my bed. A fair percentage of my reading is in the Yoruba language, and D.O Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare and Ireke Onibudo are among my most cherished. I also love the lyrical power of Bibeli Mimo, The Bible in Yoruba.
Ake Review: (Nigeria)