Using Taiye Selasi’s TED Talk as a launching pad, Wana Udobang opened the panel on Defining Home: Place and Displacement in African Writing by asking Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Yewande Omotosho and Teju cole about what home is to them.
Sarah said, “Home to me is quite a fluid concept.”
“I think mother and home are very connected for me,” Yewande said, “just from a personal perspective. And home has always been complex, or fluid.
“When I lost my mother, the concept of home got a lot more complex.”
For Teju Cole, “Home is where your people are. …People who share certain sympathies with you, but also have certain general broad bases on which to think of what society should look like.”
Wana directed the conversation towards hyphenated identities, and Yewande said, “I think we all have hyphenated identities, actually. It might be specificity around body; or there might be other things distinct from nationality.” Her characters are always hyphenated in some way, she said, without minding what race they are or if they are from two countries.
Teju Cole co-signed this: “The hyphenated identity can be a bit of distraction just because it’s obvious.”
Sarah and Yewande spoke about imagination and how that goes against the constant talk about authenticity. Yewande illustrated this with how a character in her book spoke about wanting her children to say good things about her that required a jewish friend to translate as the character wanting her children to say ‘Kadish’, something she didn’t discover in her research.
Using an anecdote about listening to traffic radio in Lagos on arrival for the festival, Teju talked about coming into the “forest of accents” of Nigeria, which he describes as intimate in some way. He spoke of belonging and said, “There’s something in the infinite varieties of Nigerian Englishes that I consider home to myself also.”
Sarah describes the anecdote Teju gave as being at home in stories, and tied that to the power of literature and how “we can all find belonging, we can all find home in literature.”
Teju gave another anecdote about hearing a woman say “se o ti jeun?” (Have you eaten yet, in Yoruba) that brought tears to his eyes, a moment when he was ambushed by something breaking through his default stance of being engaged in the present and still quite connected to the past while avoiding sentimentality.
On the burden of being expected to comment on social situations, Sarah Ladipo Manyika spoke on writing ‘Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun’:
“As I was writing this particular story, I found myself wanting to put in stories about race, you know, issues from following the news in America, shootings of black men and women reported, captured on video and so fort. I found myself torn between wanting to write a story about race and wanting to write a novel about my main character...”
On that, she concluded, “I don’t want to burden my fiction with everything that’s in my head. Knowing the place and time to write and tell particular stories is something that I’ve learnt and continue to learn over time.”
Mirroring the same thoughts, Yewande said, “Propaganda really makes bad fiction and you can bury what is really beautiful about fiction by putting in message and message.” She referenced Ama Ata Aidoo in saying the ability to blend fiction with the message is a thing of the imagination. If you have a poilticised imagination, then it’s possible to write the messages into the fiction with nuance.
“Your freedom is what you have to offer,” said Teju. He spoke of the responsibility that comes with the privilege of having an audience and pointed to the possibility of bringing freedom and duty “closer and closer together and to not give up on either of them. Maybe to redefine the duty in a way that it comes out of a free wave.”
IfeOluwa Nihinlola edits and writes essays and short stories. He blogs at ifenihinlola.wordpress.com.