Ope Adedeji is an intellectual property lawyer and creative writer. She’s the Managing Editor of Ouida Books and co-founder of Arts and Africa journal of African literature. Her story Women Who Bleed Colours was shortlisted for the 2018 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction and Finding Something Like Certainty in the Crowds of Kampala, her recent (Oct. ’18) Catapult publication, has received wide acclaim both for the brilliance of its style and the relatability of its narrative.
I engaged Ope Adedeji in a conversation about the mystery of uncertainty, the pleasure of new places and the significance of tears.
We usually see people just the way they present themselves to us, and we close our minds to the possibilities of other attributes they could have, and when eventually they begin to exhibit these other attributes, we quickly conclude that they have changed.
TOPE AKINTAYO: You wrote about your trip to Kampala as if the entire journey was a psychological adventure. Have you always been certain about what your psychological expectations for your trip to Kampala were, and have you always known you were going to write about your journey this way?
OPE ADEDEJI: No, I haven’t always known I would write about the trip from a psychological angle. I don’t preempt my writing in that way and well I’m not exactly psychic; I didn’t know how the trip would turn out. What I knew for sure was the fact that I needed a break and Kampala was going to give that to me.
How would you describe the audience you have in mind while writing, not just Finding Something Like Certainty in the Crowds of Kampala but all your other works, and what impact do you visualize them having on your audience?
Honestly, I never really think about audience when I write. Perhaps because when I write, I’m thinking of myself first. I aim to please Ope, to stun myself as if I was reading someone else’s work. While this may sound limiting, not having an audience has served as a way not to limit myself, not to think of the ways in which my work may be accepted or not accepted by any demographic. With Finding Something like Certainty, though, I wanted it to have a wide reach of young people across the world, because this issue of adulthood and certainty is something we are always talking about. I wanted to encapsulate the universality of the problem. I guess in some ways, audience will depend on the work.
You reflected on uncertainty as a curse–(and do you agree it’s a curse?)–of adulthood. I often tell myself that the only thing I’m ever certain of is my uncertainty, which I guess you might say about yourself too. How do you feel about lingering uncertainty as an inexplicable aspect of growing up, and how have you been able to cope with uncertainty while moving on with the everyday?
I reflect on the problems of uncertainty in the essay when I say: certainty is “too specific,” “too exact”, static; “it can do little but endlessly reassert itself”. It can be boring and predictable, I agree but don’t take my word for it, I barely experience any form of certainty, not even when I’m trying to order a meal. I think uncertainty is something we can’t escape. I circumvent thoughts of uncertainty in my daily attempts at being more present than futuristic. This entails a lot of meditation and mindful exercises. But even at that (and at the risk of coming off as cliché), I make plans: short term and long term plans that may be vague or as precise as possible, just to protect myself. It’s never enough to just make these plans, I work actively towards them especially with reference to writing. So even in uncertainty as to what works or won’t work, I’m shielding myself from an obscure future, creating endless possibilities and still trying to live in the now.
I’ll love us to adopt these terms—certainty, solace, home—into our relationships with people and places. A major feature that characterizes the beginning of new relationships, whether casual friendships, formal acquaintances or romantic partnerships, is satisfaction in the newness of things. You wrote about this kind of satisfaction: “My lover was right, this trip was what I needed. This place, with the newness of its names and streets, the warmth of a stranger’s arms wrapped around my body, and eyes smiling at me…”
The satisfaction found in newness and freshness. Sooner or later, we discover that the satisfaction we find in these persons, in these places, reduces as we become more familiar with them, with their many unbearable flaws and excesses. You wrote about this reality in relation to home: “Home is far, longingly waiting even though I no longer want it. I ascribe its familiarity to the uncertainty that no longer bothers me. Going back to it would be to drown.”
You sounded like there was a beginning with home, a time when you wanted it, a time when it was everything to you. But then the satisfaction you have in the home reduces in inverse proportion to the level of familiarity.
What do you think about our interests waning as we become more certain about the place that people hold (or couldn’t hold) in our lives? You wrote about “walking to Esther at Cafe Javas in darkness on my first night and not getting mugged…it feels just right”. Do you think that if you decided to live a little bit longer, say for several years, in Kampala you would become familiar with the place/place and eventually start feeling “maybe this place is not so great anyways and maybe these people are not so sweet”? How do you feel about this possibility?
Very interesting question. I hope I can do justice to it. I remember once in Kampala, Dami, Kea, and a couple of other friends went to grab dinner. We talked about different things, but one thing that struck me was a discourse around beginnings. We described beginnings as something very profound and beautiful. We started to speak about it in terms of relationships, but as discussions go, the generality of the subject expanded. I find truth in this, and have thought about it often. Dami was very particular about the importance of documenting beginnings. In that moment, I remembered an essay I read about how we see people (when we meet them and usually in the contexts of relationships) in only one way — which is usually the way they present themselves to us, and close our minds to the possibilities of other characteristics and attributes which they would usually have — sometimes negative (an example, the tendency to get angry quick) and when eventually they exhibit these so called negative attitudes, we quickly conclude that they have changed.
The beginning in that case is always rosy. To draw a straight line between this and your question on new places and people, I think that what helps, is to keep an open mind that nothing is exactly ever one particular way or possesses just one narrative. There are usually a multifaceted range of faces which you may only be able to see as time goes. I haven’t lived in a new or different city long enough to answer your question with a reference or example. I agree totally with you that in the long or short run, I may lose satisfaction with new places and new people. But it might not be a problem if I keep an open mind. This is in fact a limiting answer. To answer a question like this, experience might be key. I feel that unless I experience it long enough, I won’t be able to give a satisfactory answer. This is all hypothetical.
I also think that this is where being present can come into play. I think that with being present, mindful and observant, we can create and discover newness in what has always been familiar. By doing this, we retain some of form of unfamiliarity to the already known. We continue to see things with fresh eyes and by some degree boycott the dissatisfaction that comes with familiarity and boredom.
In Home you wrote: “I like things that stayed.” I think that this is a shared human desire: for a thing or person that can maintain their place in our lives forever, a home we can be certain is ours forever, “home is my body… it belongs to me alone.” But life does not appear to be compatible with permanence, even life itself is only for a while. How do you feel about, and deal with, this unpleasant reality that there’s is no assurance of permanence in any place, situation and person?
I don’t think it is necessarily an unpleasant reality. Just a reality that we have to deal with. The fact that there is no permanence is even beautiful in a sense. You watch flowers bloom, trees grow, caterpillars become butterflies. The absence of permanence can equate the beauty of growth, a revelation of the transformation that we all undergo as breathing things.
On the flip side, we are constantly being told that change is the only constant thing and everyday we experience it in our bones and skins. In a way, we are not the same people we were yesterday and this is as scary as it is fascinating. It is very easy to be sentimental and clingy to old things, or to the idea of permanence. That’s why I can relate to the fear that comes with letting go. Like my problems with certainty, I don’t think I have any logic on how to deal with it; I think coming to terms with it heads on can help. That people will die, structures pass away, we grow and get older, transcending people, places, institutions and things we once owned. It helps to confront each situation uniquely with the mindset that this is inevitable. It helps to “feel the feelings” — cry, grieve, mourn, laugh, dance — whatever there is that should be done.
My grandmother, Alice lived with me forever. I never really thought she would die, until she fell sick. That was perhaps my first confrontation with loss and the temporal nature of life. I tell people I have not gotten over it, and see the shock in their eyes — she was after all just your old grandmother, they think. But it’s hardly like that. When we build connections with people, there’s something spiritual that goes into it. I’m not speaking of spiritual in terms of religion, but a kind of spirituality that comes with love, the meeting of minds. When that person dies, a part of you chips off. It’s a lot to deal with. It will take years to process, to find healing which I hear might never even come. I take one day at a time. We’ll be alright, last, last.
It’s amazing how sensitive you are to your surrounding, which is very evident in your writings. You wrote about a tree you saw that has the appearance of a pregnant woman, perhaps to you alone. Then you were drawn by the choir singing in a nearby cathedral. In the airport while heading back to Nigeria you were particularly concerned about orange stains on the tiles. In Home you concentrated on the stain on the cab man’s cap. How have you been able to cope, undistracted, with everyday life with such level of sensitivity to your surrounding and how much do you think this has influenced your creative life?
I’ve mentioned being present previously and I’ll reiterate that being present, or at least trying to be, observing and just moving beyond the distractions of your personal life especially when you’re in a new environment is a very important tool for writers. One of the more important things I was taught when I started to take my writing seriously was to challenge myself to be more observant. There’s so much we miss in terms of character, plot and even setting when we are holed up in our heads. A writer needs to be more aware of the world. Even if your story is set in a utopia, you need some level of understanding of this world to be able to navigate that. I think this is something ingrained in me, something I try to do as often as I can. This transcends the physical to the terrain of the emotional, and perhaps even the spiritual. So I think that I am only this level of observant, because of what it does to my writing. I don’t think being sensitive to my surrounding is a personal trait I’ve always had.
Let’s discus crying. I’m interested in this because discussion around the act of crying has increased in the past few years, and I believe that crying is an important part of the human makeup, and you seem to be consistent in making reference to this act in your works one way or the other. In Home, you cried in your dream, in The Shape of Guilt, smells made you cry, but it’s really interesting how you wrote about it in Finding Something Like Certainty in the Crowds of Kampala: “I sat on my bed crying about nothing”. Crying seems, to me, to be one of our weirdest abilities–I’m torn between calling it strength, or weakness, or both. What has been your relationship with crying?
Crying is an interesting act of expressing emotion for me. It’s something I have carried with me for years, even before intellectual and honest conversations about it and our mental health. When I was younger, my mother called me a crying machine because I cried a lot. It was a way to shame and reprimand me for crying, but now, I just find it hilarious. It was as easy as breathing. Now, maybe I do not cry as often as I used to. I’m learning now to experience all emotions — this includes the profound sadness of loss and heartbreak, to not resist them, or continually only cleave to happiness — of which the cliche line is “Life is not a bed of roses” (of what use is a bed of roses to a creative, even?) There’s an amazing children’s story featured on BrainPickings, Cry Heart but Never Break which is supposed to help young people understand the meaning of loss and its part in life (I feel everyone can learn from it though). There’s a part of it that goes: “Let your tears of grief and sadness help begin new life” and while I do not know the exact psychological impact of crying, I find that statement to be true. I feel that tears when they come as a result of pain or hurt open us up to new possibilities. And sometimes, there is a clarity that comes with it. More than anything, I put tears on the same pedestal of language. When there are absolutely no words to express the complexity of the emotions we feel, we allow ourselves to cry.
I notice you usually mention drinking directly from the bottle. I’m not implying that everything a creative writer writes must be explained, I’m just curious as to what special feeling you get from drinking directly from the bottle that makes it so noteworthy?
Drinking from the bottle? I haven’t even noticed that it is something I mention often. Perhaps I don’t trust cups enough? I’m not sure there’s anything so noteworthy about it. Or perhaps, in a way it attacks “feminine stereotypes” Regularly when I am out drinking with male friends, the waiters would offer me a glass cup and a light alcoholic drink and offer the man or men I am drinking with something stronger, and maybe without even a glass cup. Many female friends share this experience. It seems to boil down to the fact that because we are women, there are certain things expected of us. Perhaps in some ways, I am subconsciously trying to interrogate some of these seemingly harmless norms. In the grand scheme of things, this is what I like to do a lot in my work. I like to confront harmful stereotypes and practices that are saliently inbuilt and normalized into our systems and society.