Sylva Nze Ifedigbo in conversation with Nancy Adimora – “We should be careful with how much emphasis we place on external validation.”
On January 20, 2020, HarperCollins announced the appointment of
Nancy Adimora, “founder and editor of online African literary magazine,
AFREADA, which features emerging writers from across the continent, as Talent
and Audience Development Manager, Diversity & Inclusion.” The statement
from the company noted further that “This newly created,
permanent role will initially report to HarperCollins CEO, Charlie Redmayne.
Adimora will work across the business to help attract new authors and will help
reach and market to new audiences and deepen engagement with communities that
are currently underserved in publishing.” thelagosreview.ng contributor, Sylva Nze Ifedigbo interviewed Ms Adimora and they spoke about
Chimamanda, Biafra, Harry Potter, Aminatta Forna and sleeping 8 hours every
Nancy Adimora:My name is Nancy
Adimora. I am the Founding Editor of AFREADA, an African literary magazine
featuring fiction and creative non-fiction from emerging writers across Africa.
I recently re-joined HarperCollins Publishers as Talent & Audience
Development Manager where I will be working across the business to help attract
authors and reach new or currently underserved audiences.
Sylva Nze Ifedigbo:
I know you are a lover of books and stories. When would you say you fell
in love with books? Can you recall your earliest encounter with a story that
made an impression and which has lasted till date?
NA: I remember being obsessed with Biff, Chip and Kipper books in primary school. Anyone who’s around my age and went to school in the UK will know exactly what I’m talking about. They were full of adventure and wonder, and I’ve probably loved stories since then. But I haven’t always loved reading – I remember when Harry Potter came out, I was hooked like everyone else but the size of those books made me physically sick at one point – I took one look at The Order of the Phoenix and I thought “Nah. Nope. Sorry.” And with that, my love for books disappeared for some years, but then it picked up again in secondary school when my friends and I started passing around African-American literature and started to read about characters that felt familiar. Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree changed the game for so many of us. But the book that I’ll always credit for changing my life is Half of A Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I received it for Christmas when I was in Year 9 and the rest, as they say, is history.
SNI: AFREADA which you founded is one of the more vibrant platforms publishing
African stories from writers across the world. I have had my
story published by you and have also read many interesting stories
there as well. What was the vision behind AFREADA and what has the experience
NA:We’re in a very interesting season with
AFREADA where the vision is in the process of evolving. I started the platform
with no experience in publishing, I had no formal editorial training. I was
just a Nigerian girl in north London who was intrigued by an entire continent
but couldn’t afford to travel around that entire continent so wanted to explore
the possibilities of doing so through stories. I came across an Aminatta Forna
quote that says “if you want to know a country, read its writers.” and that
really resonated with me because, if you want to get to know the capital city
of Botswana, you could open a text book, read scholarly articles, or Google
some facts and figures – but if you *really* want to get to know Gaborone, you
have to engage with the stories of people who live and work there, even if it’s
story by Siyanda Mohutsiwa is a beautiful example of that. So, for a long time travelling through
stories has been our vision and it’s been fun for me to get to know the
continent through some of the best emerging writers, from Uganda to Guinea
Bissau. But now, with a growing team and expansion into creative non-fiction,
we’re in the process of re-evaluating our mission statement. We’re exploring a
few new ideas, and we’ll be communicating our revised vision in the coming
SNI: Wow.That’s interesting to
know and I guess this is a TLR exclusive. LOL. Tell me from your experience and
the submission you receive, what’s your assessment of the state of creative
writing by Africans? Alive & well, comatose or just there?
NA:I would say it is alive and well –
without a shadow of a doubt. What I see in our submissions inbox is a lot of
enthusiasm. Accessibility is key for us, so our submissions guidelines are
intentionally more relaxed than some other journals and publications. We want
to encourage everyone to feel like their stories are worth being read and
reviewed, and the quality of our submissions is a reflection of that decision.
So, whilst we get a lot of submissions from new writers who probably need more
time to hone their skills, we also get a lot of exceptional submissions from
writers who are a little further in their creative journeys as well. So I’d say
our submissions inbox is broad, in terms of quality, but it definitely fills me
with a lot of optimism.
SNI: Talking about our writing being alive and well, we recently lost one of
our writing greats, Prof Chukwuemeka Ike who influenced a lot of book lovers of
my generation. Did you encounter any of his works which you are happy to share
NA: It feels crazy to say, but I didn’t know much about Prof Chukwuemeka
Ike before his death. I had heard his name a couple of times, but the first
time I really engaged with him wasn’t through his writing, but through a
documentary called “In the Shadow of Biafra” that was screened in London last
month. The film explored how creative writers grappled with the history of the
Nigeria-Biafra war. In it, Prof Ike spoke about a number of things – but one
part that stood out for me was when he recounted how Igbo people figured out
how to refine crude oil during the war. The fact that we built oil refineries is
interesting in itself, but I was particularly drawn to how he told the story. I
made a note of some of his books when I got home later that evening so I’m definitely
going to go back and read some of his work when I get the chance.
SNI: What two novels by African writers would you recommend to someone who is
just discovering African writing?
NA: It’s impossible to pick two and my bias is
really popping out but I’d say:
NA: It doesn’t really have an effect on me if I’m honest. When the news
came out, I loved the banter on Twitter and I enjoyed going through the list of
additions and learning the history behind each word – but I switch off when I
read articles that positioned it as somehow “legitimizing” words and phrases
that have been part of everyday life in Nigeria for decades. From an editorial
standpoint it may be useful for writers who are fighting to keep “chop” in a
sentence when their US editor doesn’t quite understand it, I understand how
it’s a huge development for linguists and people who have dedicated their lives
to the study of words and languages, but on the whole I think we should be
careful with how much emphasis we place on external validation – I don’t just
mean in relation to this particular instance, but with reference to our culture
SNI: Staying on that, what’s your opinion on telling (writing) our stories in
English vs in our local languages and then translating to English?
NA: I’ve heard a lot of conversation around whether we should be writing
in local languages – I know the great Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a big advocate of this, but what I’ve always found
interesting is the assumption that everyone who speaks Twi or Lingala or Shona knows
how to read and write in Twi or Lingala or Shona. There’s a difference between
telling a good story over the phone, and writing a good story in a letter. In
both cases, words matter but in the latter case, everything matters.
Punctuation, grammar, metaphors, adjectives, – everything. And whilst I think
it is more than possible to write a beautifully and expertly crafted story in
Swahili, a lot of the African writers we know and love were taught the British curriculum
so they have perfected their writing skills and developed their various styles
One of the reasons
I hold Half of A Yellow Sun so close to my heart is because it was the first
time I saw my language written down in a book – it was probably one word at the
end of an English sentence, but it meant so much to me – so I do appreciate the
power of incorporating local languages into our literature, but sometimes I do
find the call to write exclusively in local languages a bit unrealistic for
writers who don’t have the skillset to do so.
SNI: I do share that opinion really. Now going a bit personal, you describe
yourself on your website as a Nigerian-Londoner. Tell me about that. What’s
your relationship with the African continent like? Where is home to you?
NA:Lol I’ve actually slightly amended that
description. I think of myself as a ‘Pan-African Londoner’ which speaks to a
lot of different parts of your question. Why Pan-African instead of Nigerian?
Well I remember having a conversation on a podcast a few years ago and making a
point that to be Nigerian means so many things that it almost doesn’t mean
anything. There are so many rich and beautiful expressions of Nigerian culture
which is great, but it means that I can attend a Yoruba friend’s traditional
engagement, observe the elaborate ceremony in awe, but still have no idea on
what was going on half of the time. Although I may spot a similarity between
their ceremony and an Igbo ceremony, I also spotted countless similarities when
I read about the matrimonial traditions in this story about a
Ugandan wedding engagement. So the idea of having one static
identity because of a meeting between colonial powers in 1884 is still tricky
for me to reconcile in my head but, having said that, when the Olympics come
around later this year, I’ll definitely be Nigerian. My Green White Green will
be flying high.
Where is home? Whew.
That’s a big question, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’m
still trying to crystallize my thoughts on this and hope to explore it further
with AFREADA but for now, my go-to response would be to point people towards this TED
talk by Taiye Selasi.
SNI: I will be checking that out surely. Now, besides Ofe akwu, what other
Nigerian delicacy will you possibly be caught day dreaming about?
NA: Lol Seafood Okro. For sure.
SNI: Finally, besides AFREADA and the new role at HarperCollins, what other
interesting projects are you up to.
NA: There is one more actually – from now until the foreseeable future, I
shall be focusing on a new project where I try to sleep for 7-8 hours a night. It’s
not going as well as I’d hoped so far but I’ll keep you posted on my progress.