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.” contributor, Sylva Nze Ifedigbo interviewed Ms Adimora and they spoke about Chimamanda, Biafra, Harry Potter, Aminatta Forna and sleeping 8 hours every night. Excerpts.

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 been like?

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 fictional. This 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 weeks.

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 briefly about?

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:

Half of A Yellow Sun ­— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Fishermen – Chigozie Obioma

SNI: Shifting away a bit to other themes, the Oxford English Dictionary recently added some Nigerian English words and phrases. It was trending on twitter and all. How did that make you feel as a Nigerian and as an editor?

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 more broadly.

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 in English.

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.

SNI: LOL. Thank you.

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