Our most recent guest is an award-winning writer, foodie, and lawyer. Nigerian born author, Yemisi Aribisala is best known for her thematic use of food to explore Nigerian stories. Her first book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex & Nigerian Tastebuds uses Nigerian food as a literary substrate to run commentaries about Nigeria’s culture and society. Longthroat Memoirs won a Gourmand’s World Cookbook award, was shortlisted for the 2018 Art of Eating Prize. It also won the 2016 John Avery Prize at the Andre Simon Book Awards.
Her second book, Wait! I’m Bringing a Bird Out of My Pocket, will be published by Chimurenga, Cape Town. Her articles on food and Nigeria can be read in Popula: The Alt-global Magazine of News & Culture.
Below is the edited transcript from our Monday chat session.
Syncity NG: Why food? Why was writing about food the medium by which you expressed yourself?
Yemisi Aribisala: Food chose me. I was sitting at home minding my business when Jeremy Weate Bovenga & Ebun Feludu called me from 234Next to ask me to write a food blog ー restaurant reviews. It wasn’t my original idea. I had a long think and suggested Food & Culture. I really had no idea where I would land about 11 years later writing on food.
Syncity NG: So after food chose you, what next? How did you go from being a food blogger to being an award-winning author?
Yemisi Aribisala: I wrote for two years and about three months. Every Thursday I sent my blogs into an editor at the paper. Most notably the seasoned journalist Amma Ogan. 234Next didn’t live very long but I had a compilation of what I thought of as sketches. I sent them to Bibi Bakare Yusuf. Bibi had the insight to edit the sketches further; In actual fact, she tore them up with highlights so much so that I was terrified for months every time I went to work on them. It took me a couple of years to really flesh them out and hone them. Tough! The back and forth took us to 2015. 2016 November when the book was published. January 2017, it was shortlisted for the Andre Simon Awards. It fell into the lap of a wonderful food historian Bee Wilson who was judging the prize that year. The rest as we say is history.
Syncity NG: I read your interview with Diane and I saw how difficult it was for you to go back to your manuscript after Bibi ‘tore it to shreds’. At that point, did you feel inadequate as a writer or did you feel she was being ‘wicked’?
Yemisi Aribisala: Bibi Bakare Yusuf…I will eternally hold the utmost respect for. A lot of people didn’t see nor get the book. It flew over their heads. I trusted her judgment I just had zero confidence. This might sound unbelievable but anyone that knows Bibi ought to ask her. I had a mindset coming from a family where I was told in no uncertain terms could I consider myself a writer. I had a small business. Small children. No confidence. No spare time. I was exhausted. Add that to Nigerian wahala ー electricity, stress, pressure. It felt “totally” insurmountable Yet there was also that potential that was so very visible. I often blamed Bibi Bakare Yusuf that it was entirely her fault because I was ready to consider the book finished until she raised the standards. So yes I felt completely inadequate. The work was overwhelming and the circumstances were difficult.
99% of editors I have worked with have very quickly adjusted to the fact that they are dealing with a lot of original ideas.
Syncity NG: I read that you go back and forth a lot with foreign editors especially about things that should remain in your works: things about the Yoruba culture, food or personal conviction. At what point do you draw the line and say: Dear editor, “#NotToday! I ain’t removing anything!”?
Yemisi Aribisala: Interestingly enough that battle was with the Cassava Republic Press editor! Not a foreign editor. 99% of editors I have worked with have very quickly adjusted to the fact that they are dealing with a lot of original ideas. It is an interesting balance. I have had a lot of rejection so perhaps I should switch the perspective the other way and say that with those who accepted my work, they were already primed to take risks Chimurenga and Popula are those kinds of innovative platforms.
Syncity NG: That’s a surprise. For a moment, I thought it was a foreign editor giving you wahala. So, you escaped Nigeria. Why did you leave us here?
Yemisi Aribisala: Good question there. The kind that I can only answer with half my mouth. I cannot escape Nigeria because I am Nigerian, but for all kinds of personal reasons I had to leave Lagos, for the Western Cape, and then London. As a writer who writes about Nigeria, it would be very foolish of me to “escape”. Every inspiration I have is from Nigeria. Every story that has an iota of power comes from there. Yet, as I admitted to someone recently, I am like those fake comrades sitting in some leafy suburb far from the war, drinking gourmet coffee and writing encouraging letters to the war front. Having said that, I have to admit how “hard” it was for me to write in Lagos and Calabar. It is a very peculiar balance. Maximum respect to Nigerian writers writing out of Nigeria.
Syncity NG: ‘Fake comrades sitting…far away from the war.’ Aha. Very catchy. Okay. So, as the Nigerian poster child for food writing, do you think you get away with a lot of things because ‘there is no one else’?
Yemisi Aribisala: There are lots of others o. @ExecMamaPut, @Kitchnbutterfly, @LopeAriyo, Chef Michael Ade Elegbede, Emeka Ogboh. Lots and lots of people. Just yesterday talking about @Jfodiotodd The groundnut boys. This is far from a complete list. Also must not forget the brilliant Tunde Wey (@detroitbfd) for his food and activism.
Tade Ipadeola: My question for the author of the veritable Longthroat Memoir is: have you been tempted to write about drinks as well at length? I now spike my coffee with atare because of you.
Syncity NG: Whaaaaaaat? Coffee and atare? Y’all, this is too extreme na!
Yemisi Aribisala: Wait for it. I just finished an article for Popula where you are quoted very heavily. “…but this night is a ground coffee and alligator pepper night. Bí ọmọ atare bíi mẹwa tí tó. Coffee náà yóò gbá yáá lọ́fun yóò sì jẹ́ kí ara yá gágá.
Tade Ipadeola: Barista things from Ibadan.
Mystique Synn: You never talk about your degrees in law. Did law show you pepper (pun intended)? Two. You are supportive of other writers. Who’s your fav. Writer, and do you ever feel threatened by other people’s writing success? Three. Are you a #GOT fan? (very important).
Every inspiration I have is from Nigeria. Every story that has an iota of power comes from there. Yet, as I admitted to someone recently, I am like those fake comrades sitting in some leafy suburb far from the war, drinking gourmet coffee and writing encouraging letters to the war front.
Yemisi Aribisala: I talk about them all the time I just never did anything with them. Law didn’t show me pepper you know, but it also just didn’t do anything for me. I was so so so bored. Threatened is not the word I would use. Envious. Yes. For sure. I’m very envious of writers with money. That one I can’t lie about.
Syncity NG: ‘I am envious of writers with money’. Ah. May the Lord of Light butter our bread and give us plenty money from our writings.
Yemisi Aribisala: Amen. And oh, I’ve never ever watched Game of Thrones.
Syncity NG: Our beloved Yemisi Aribisala has not seen a single episode of Game of Thrones! Whaaaaat? Off with her head! Dracarys! Anyway, let’s talk about your second book, what to expect and where we can purchase of course.
Yemisi Aribisala: My second book belongs to “my people” Ntone Edjabe is just one of my favourite people. Ever Wait, I’m Bringing a Bird out of My Pocket is about Nigeria; the essays that I have written for a longer period than food, on Nigerian Feminism, Birthing American Babies, speaking Nigerian English, walking the Streets of Lagos, being called Agaracha for whistling in my own kitchen, why Nigeria is in my blood and I can’t get it out. Etc. Etc.
Syncity NG: Yemisi, before we round off, please encourage some writers who are sad because this writing business hasn’t clicked for them.
Yemisi Aribisala: Write from somewhere truly individual. From a place that only you know about because then you will have no competition. No one else will have a map of the land and everyone will gravitate towards the rare commodity that you have created. Don’t give up.
Syncity NG: Yemisi Aribisala’s book Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex & Nigerian Tastebuds can be gotten from @bookpeddlerng @PAGEBookstore @SerenadeMe @dainzbooksng @CassavaRepublic @OuidaBooks @Lagos_Tout and other reputable book dealers worldwide. Beautiful prose. Ode to culture and food. Masterpiece.
It has been a great pleasure hosting Yemisi Aribisala. I’m sure we’d all like to talk about food all day but we really have to go. (Aunty Yemisi has light in London but sadly we don’t over here. Lol!) Thank you so much for honoring our invitation, Yemisi.
Yemisi Aribisala: Thank you so much for hosting me. This was fun. Wonderful. Shame it is over already. Thank you, everyone.
We’re bummed that we have to end this, but our watch has not ended Join us next Monday @SyncityNG for another engaging conversation. While we wait, you can check out this lovely speculative story by Haku Jackson that we published recently.