I first heard of Olaoluwa Oni four years ago. She took part in Brittle Paper’s I LOVE AFRICAN LITERATURE WRITING CONTEST and won! Prior to reading The yNBA, I had never read any Nigerian legal fiction. I dare say, The yNBA by Olaoluwa Oni is the first of its kind. And guess what? It doesn’t disappoint. The genre of legal drama/legal fiction remains largely unmined in Nigerian and African literature and I’m grateful for the gift of Olaoluwa for bringing this genre to life! It was Toni Morrison who said ”If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Olaoluwa has written a book most of us as young law students wanted to read! And now that it has been written, we must all read it!
I hope you enjoy my conversations with Olaoluwa and I also hope that when you’re done reading this interview, you will purchase a copy of her debut novel.
1) THE AFRO READER: Who is Olaoluwa Oni?
OLAOLUWA ONI: I find that one of life’s ironies is that this most common of questions is one of the trickiest (at least for me) to satisfy. Who am I? I recently had a friend say me, “Laolu by any other name will still be Laolu.” I hope he meant to suggest that I present a core of something distinct and transcendental. I am still interrogating identity and the answer that feels most true is, a person is/can be many things, and those many things are constantly changing and evolving. So, if life and identity is fluid, can/should we ever satisfy the “who are you?” question? A summary of the past? A reading of the present? Hopes for the future? I realize that this non-answer avoids the question – I’m sorry. If it helps, my Twitter bio reads: “iSpeak!”.
2) Why was it very important for you to tell this story?
Because the story is true and important. This story started as small observations I noted while sitting in the hot and stuffy courtrooms of Lagos waiting, as they say, “for my case to be called”. I remember thinking, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares the Nigerian law student for life as a lawyer. Not the moot competitions we participated in as law students, not the Grishams we read, and definitely not the legal drama TV series we watched. This book is my grains of sand to fill up that gap. Future lawyers need to know, Nigerians need to know, what if feels like to be a lawyer. Maybe it will help manage expectations or maybe it will help start a conversation for change.
3) Should we expect a sequel or an entirely different novel? Do you plan on towing the legal fiction path completely?
I can see a sequel happening. I can also see a completely new legal drama novel happening. And perhaps it could be work in an entirely new genre. The thing about writing, especially creative writing, is that the story and characters take you exactly where they want to go. The writer’s role is merely to record a true account of the character’s experiences. I have come to learn that attempting to manipulate the story or characters to the writer’s will never ends well.
4) When did you realize writing fiction was it for you? Can you describe the first time you felt you could really create beautiful stories?
I don’t know that I’d say fiction is “it” for me. I also really enjoy writing and reading essays and scholarly articles. But yes, I definitely enjoy writing and reading fiction. I have read for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory of writing (outside of classroom assignments) was when I was about seven and I wrote this story about a family’s summer picnic out in the country. No, my family had never had a “summer picnic out in the country”, but I had read a lot of Enid Blyton. My dad was gracious enough to help me “publish” the book (by which I mean he had his secretary type it up and staple the loose A4 sheets together.) I was so proud of that first book!
5) In writing this book, what was the writing process like and how long did it take?
The process was doubt-filled, with many stops and many starts. It helped that I had a long stretch of time and the quiet of the NYU Law library to immerse my self in the work. I started the story sometime in 2013 and finished the first draft in 2017. It took two more years of re-working and editing to get the final product.
6) The cover of this book is quite unique! Kindly gives us a breakdown.
Oh, the cover! I have received a lot of feedback on that aspect of the book. I had hoped the meaning of the cover art would be obvious, my beta readers all seemed to get it. It is a play on the popular philosophy of the three wise monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. I think there is a way we perpetuate, or at least allow, oppression if we choose not to see, hear or speak of evil when it’s happening. What the monkeys in the cover art are doing is seeing evil, hearing of evil, and then speaking out against said evil. It is what the book purports to as well. I should add that I am very thankful to Joseph Ogbeide who brought the cover art to life. I gave him a rough idea and an even rougher sketch of what was in my head and his result was splendid!
7) Why do you write?
You ask this as though it is a choice. I can’t not write. I am thankful that we live in age where writing and publishing have become more democratic. You only need an internet connection and a laptop to share your ideas. But even if I couldn’t share my ideas, I believe I’d still be writing – typed up and stapled stories about picnics out in the country, or that high school story I wrote while in secondary school which was printed out and passed from one classmate to the other; this was during the days of my Babysitters’ Club obsession.
8) What keeps you motivated during writing slumps?
I leave the story alone. I do lawyer things and do other things until the story decides to come back. It is great that I haven’t had to work with any hard deadlines, at least not with my creative writing and so I can afford to work with the story’s own pace. That may change and maybe I’ll have to figure out a way to force myself out of writing slumps. But these are still the happy days.
9) The general rule is that for you to be a great writer, you must be a greater reader. Growing up, what books did you read? And how did they shape your ability to tell stories?
I read Enid Blyton and Babysitters Club. I read the recommended texts for English and Literature in English. I read (and continue to re-read) the Harry Potter Series. I read Grisham and every law/crime novel I could lay my hands on. I went through a romance (Mills and Boon, Harlequin), novels and Nora Roberts phase. When I think about it. I read pretty much everything I had access to. I remember I spent my post Junior-WAEC holiday reading, one sometimes two books a day. It was pure bliss!
I’m pretty sure all these books in some way or the other influenced my story telling. But, I vividly remember reading Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus in secondary school and being very excited that a Nigerian girl’s teenage angst could also occupy space in literature. Long story short, Adichie’s work did for me what she says Achebe’s work did for her – made me realize that people like me could live on the page.
10) What are some of the struggles you face when you write?
My struggles are mostly internal. I worry about being true to the story. I worry about the audacity of storytelling because it does take a level of conceit to write with the expectation that your writing can change things. I sometimes worry about the type of blow back I might receive for writing what I write, work that is critical of power. But on some days, my struggles are banal – time, a broken computer, slow Wi-Fi.
The yNBA is a commentary on law practice in Lagos that is anchored on its very relatable characters and very real stories. It tells of the oppression that pervades the legal profession and captures the very familiar conflict between old and new.
11) What writers are you friends with and how do they help you become a better writer?
I live in somewhat of an echo-chamber in the sense that I share similar interests with most of my friends and acquaintances. So, while they may not all write professionally, I can always rely on my echo chamber to serve as sounding board for my ideas or to be beta readers for my drafts.
However, here are some Nigerians who write professionally and whose work I appreciate: Kenechi Uzor, Ope Adedeji, Afopefoluwa Ojo, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, Kola Tubosun, Tolu Daniel, Ayo Sogunro. This list is, of course, not exhaustive.
12) What is the most liberating thought you have ever had and what did it liberate you from?
Quitting (I had the option to take a study leave) my first job out of University and moving to New York for school. The experience taught me that I don’t always have to map-out the entire journey to take the next step. There were definitely moments where I regretted that decision but right now, I am happy with the road I took. That might change, but I hope it doesn’t.
13) Packing for a journey and allowed to take one book. What will it be?
I have this collection of the Harry Potter Series that is so compact I could convince security it’s technically just one big book.
If that doesn’t work, depending on the length of the journey and how much time I’ll spend away from my library, I have Akwaeke Emezi’s new book on my “To be read” list. Or this academic text on Law and Literature I have been studying.
14) Recommend 5 books you think everyone should read.
That’s hard. I can’t speak for everyone. I can tell you 5 books that really matter to me though: Purple Hibiscus by Adichie, The Artful Edit by Susan Bell, The Harry Potter Series by J.K Rowling, The Education of a British Protected Child by Chinua Achebe, Ake by Wole Soyinka.
15) How would you describe the Nigerian legal system?
Deeply unsatisfactory and leaving a lot to be desired. I can’t think of any aspect of our legal system that isn’t deeply flawed. From the making, to the enforcing, to the adjudication of laws. We are a broken system refusing to acknowledge the PTSD we have developed from our colonial history. Even the way the legal system is taught in schools, with outdated texts that suggest that British common law is still a valid, enforceable source of law for our independent democratic republic. Again I say, “Deeply unsatisfactory and leaving a lot to be desired.”
16) Advice to young and up-coming writers and lawyers, and best advice you have gotten?
To writers, “Write. Just write. Then get a brilliant editor.” It is advice that has proved very helpful to me.
To young lawyers, “Fit and proper means nothing when the system is designed to break you. Fit and proper is an opium contrived to keep you compliant. You know the law, nothing should stop you from using it to advocate from your own interest!”
17) Describe African literature in one word!
18) What is the message in your book and what are your readers’ reaction to it?
Rebel against the system! Anything or anyone that tells you to shrink yourself before you can be accepted should not be abided.
The yNBA simply articulates sentiments that already exists. The dissatisfaction among young lawyers in palpable so I’m not surprised that many of the readers identified with the characters’ struggles.
19) Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Depending on what point I am in the writing journey, I feel either energized or exhausted. That light-bulb like spark of an idea definitely energizes but the editing and re-writing process could be very exhausting.
20) What did you take out of The yNBA – Did you have to remove anything? Do you think you did justice to the story?
I had to remove quite a number of things that, for legal reasons, I can’t discuss. But yes, I believe I did justice to the story.
Ọláolúwa Òní practices law in both Lagos and New York. The yNBA is her first book.
If you enjoyed this interview, visit Kawe Books to purchase a copy of The yNBA
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