Bearded Book Boys (BBB): First let me just thank you for taking the time to chat with us. How has reception been for The Woman Next Door? I know it’s been released for a while in other parts of the world, despite only coming out next week/this week in America.
Yewande Omotoso (YO): Thank you for the interview and your reading and interest.
‘The Woman Next Door’ came out in South Africa and the UK in May 2016. I was really happy and grateful from the responses I received. People really grappled with the story, with the two women and their internal struggles. Many were sure to let me know that they didn’t particularly like the women but several, by the end of the story, experienced having compassion and those were the comments I was the most moved by. This year it’s in the US, Holland and Germany and I look forward to more engagement.
BBB: In the novel, Hortensia is a Barbados born designer, while Marion is a native South African architect. It appears that these characteristics are a mix of your own personal history. Was this intentional or was it just one of those “write what you know” pieces?
YO: I wouldn’t reduce it to “write about what you know”, that’s much too premeditated for the way I work. Marion’s architecture is in fact a machine she employs to survive Apartheid. As I started enquiring into her character this became important, that she was someone who was racist and had needed a certain kind of mindset and vocation to steady herself and justify her choices. Architecture is a profession that exercises an immense amount of power and control over space. It’s telling, for instance, that we speak of “the Architects of Apartheid”. With Hortensia I knew, for the relations between her and Marion to really be tense, she had to play in the vicinity of Marion’s vocation but not quite the same. By Hortensia playing on Marion’s turf she is much more of a threat to Marion. As I delved deeper into who Hortensia was I realised she would also be a designer but one much less involved with controlling space and more involved with decorating it. So yes it’s convenient that I know something of their professional worlds but that wasn’t what motivated their characters and personal journeys.
All that said (!) I’m not scared of putting myself and my stories into my characters. I think the notion that one automatically shouldn’t is too simple. I do interrogate when it happens and if, as in the case of Hortensia and Marion, it fits and works, then I proceed. There is so much that doesn’t survive the book and so a reader can often never know how much questioning occurs between the writer and her story. I find throughout writing I’m asking – Is this really the story? Does this really belong?
BBB: Why would you say Hortensia hates Marion so much?
YO: Firstly the hatred is mutual. I think it’s important not to be fooled by Marion’s hankering after Hortensia for “friendship” as a sign that she bears no hatred. By the time they meet each other both women, with the choices they’ve made and their disappointments, are somewhat primed to hate one another. Which is the same as saying there is no real soil between them for friendship to grow. It’s also important that while they have a specific hateship between them neither is particularly fond of anyone anyway! So it’s not as if they are best friends with other people somewhere off the page. These aren’t women with friendships, they are embittered people, at the end of their lives and waiting death out.
With all that in mind Hortensia does regard Marion as a fake. What Hortensia is able to see is Marion’s lack of courage through life, her entitlement, her “architecture” as it were. Of course Hortensia has her own “architecture” which is the point of the story, but in terms of her take on Marion she doesn’t like her, doesn’t see anything to like.
BBB: Hortensia often seems much more focused on her blackness than any of the other characters do. Do you think that her experience of being married to a white man during times or living in places where that it wasn’t the norm is still keeping her on edge even after all these years?
YO: I disagree with this. But the comment comes from the fact that Whiteness is almost always invisible. I would argue Marion is as focused on her Whiteness as Hortensia might be on her Blackness (I also question that languaging but I’ll address that below) . But because Whiteness is invisible (this is a key mechanism for its dominance by the way) people don’t notice that. The problem was well elucidated in the essay ‘The Feminist Killjoy’ by Sara Ahmed. The problem itself is always invisible (that’s why it prevails) and then the person (the feminist, the black woman, Hortensia) who bears witness to the problem and highlights it becomes the aggressor, the killjoy. Then we look at Hortensia and say “chill out”. This is very important to understand. We can’t dismantle hegemony without this understanding.
I question what it means to be focused on ones blackness. If by that you mean aware of who you are then I wonder if your question suggests that this awareness is problematic. Of course I won’t agree with that. Alternatively what you might be asking is why is Hortensia so angry which is less to do with being aware of ones identity (although connected to it) and more to do with (as the question suggests) having been at the effect of systems and people who wish to discriminate based on your identity. Once again I would champion Hortensia rather than problematise her behaviour. Ironically her persistent resistance and anger is an important catalytic feature of the little change that occurs in the story. This is important, in many ways we are not angry enough.
BBB: How did you decide which of the sub-plots you wanted to focus on the most? Initially we have the land claims and burial piece, but then Hortensia receives some pretty shocking news.
YO: I wanted the politics of the story to be present but peripheral to the personal turmoils of the characters. I see it as the relationship between the macro and the micro and I wanted the emotional worlds to eventually be most central.
BBB: Your first novel, Bom Boy, was released on a small press in South Africa. What was the experience like going from something so small and focused as Modjaji Books to Picador/Macmillan?
YO: ‘Bom Boy’ was essentially my Masters thesis. When I submitted it and Modjaji accepted Colleen Higgs also asked if I had approached other publishers in South Africa. I hadn’t and she invited me to do so. She was honest and said she couldn’t pay an advance and she felt the book was good and other bigger publishers would take it. I remember thinking about her suggestion but ultimately declining to try elsewhere. Each experience, whether going with Modjaji or Chatto and Windus/Penguin Random House and now Picador/Macmillan, has been special and I have deep abiding respect for the various people I’ve worked with in each of these spaces. I must add, though, that the independent publisher is a very important feature of the publishing landscape and, perhaps like the independent bookseller, is sometimes endangered. Independent publishers are often prepared to take more risks, they are known to publish new voices, different voices, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. I also think Colleen may have been mistaken! Possibly no other publisher would have published ‘Bom Boy’ in which case I owe her my gratitude.
BBB: Bom Boy was released in 2011. Have you been working on The Woman Next Door since it’s release or are you able to focus time on architecture too?
YO: Right after ‘Bom Boy’ I started writing another story which I put aside. In 2013 I was a resident of the Ebedi International Residency in Nigeria and I spent several weeks writing a first very rough draft of ‘The Woman Next Door’. But I was also doing other work, some architecture, so I would come in and out of the manuscript and finally “finished” it mid 2014 or so. By 2015 I was working with Chatto and Windus editing the final book. I was also working on a new book. So there are overlaps and necessary absences because sometimes you need to put the work away. Lauri Kubuitsile calls it leaving it to cook!
BBB: What novels are you most looking forward to reading this year?
YO: Chibundu Onuzo has a new book out, ‘Welcome To Lagos’. I also look forward to reading Ayobami Adebayo’s ‘Stay With Me’. And then there are many books from last year I haven’t got to yet – ‘The Sellout’, ‘What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours’, ‘Never Look An American In The Eye’ and several more.
BBB: Any words for your fans and readers?
YO: That you exist at all, that you’re out there reading – thank you.