Mofiyinfoluwa O. is a writer from Lagos, Nigeria. Her work delves deep into the self, exploring desire, emotional intimacy, and memory.
She is a first-year candidate on the Iowa Non-Fiction MFA as a 2022 Iowa Arts Fellow. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Lolwe and is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review.
By Adedayo Onabade
Q: You previously referred to yourself as a reluctant lawyer-in-training. Why is this so? Did you maybe study law simply out of curiosity?
A: I am so happy I was able to go from a reluctant lawyer to no longer being a lawyer, haha. I was always going to be a lawyer. I don’t even exactly remember when the aspiration formed, but I know in year 6, we had a custom party, and of all the things I could go as, I went dressed as a lawyer. When I got into secondary school, I excelled at debate and public speaking, and every time I won a competition, someone would rush up to me with earnest eyes saying, ‘you would be a great lawyer.' Went to Arts Class and just settled into pursuing law. Never once did it occur to me that I could do something else. Until my first year of university when I fell in love with sociology and decided there was more to the arts than law. Things shifted gradually, but it was law school in Nigeria that made it certain to me that I would not continue with law. I am happy I was right, haha.
Q: It is believed that every writer has a writing story. If the same is true for you, how did you come about your love for writing and storytelling?
A: I have always loved to read. In fact, I think it was how much I read that finally spurred me into writing. I have meticulously kept journals since I was a young teenager. When I was in year 11, in preparation for my IGCSE finals, I practiced a descriptive essay every day with my English teacher, Mrs. Emezue. That was the first time I wrote continuously for an amount of time. I was awarded a prize for the best national results in English that year. I still remember the story I wrote: I described a young girl leaving the airport and describing everything she saw down to people’s faces. That award solidified my writing capacity, but I never paid it any attention because I was so keen on becoming a lawyer, haha! To answer the question specifically, I would say my young teenage years was when I started writing, and the older I got, the more serious I became about it.
Q: Self-introspection marks a significant part of your writing. What are the most important messages you want your readers to learn about themselves from reading your work?
A: I really like this question. I want people to look at their hearts. I want them to check how soft or hard they are - on themselves and others. So much of my work deals with emotional complexities and desire. I want people to confront the self-deprecating views they have of themselves. Especially for fat women, I want them to see their beauty, to understand that all these things we have been told - that we are not beautiful, that we are not worthy of desire - that they are all lies. I want my work to make people take a closer look at the ways in which they interact with their bodies, with hierarchies of beauty, and with the emotional landscapes we navigate with ourselves and others.
I have always been someone who feels things so deeply and I thought of it as a defect. This girl is always talking about her feelings. The older I got, the more I realised that so many of the people around me would not (and could not) do the same. So many of us hide from our emotions and end up hardening ourselves and performing emotional untruths. I want my work to make people aware of the things that have hardened inside of them and to soften it a little bit.
Q: Your writings are delivered with a large dose of emotions that one can almost feel how you felt as you wrote each word. Do you think it is possible to be a good writer without an emotional attachment to your subject?
A: I had not even seen this question was next, and I had already started talking about emotions, haha! For me, it is possible but not enjoyable or particularly consuming. I like to enjoy what I write - even if it's a difficult subject. So long as I am interested and even better if there is an emotional connection I can tap into - the work will just pour out of me in a flourishing manner. So yes, it is possible to be a good writer without an emotional attachment. I’ve had to work on copy for websites and other writing engagements that don't work in the emotional realm. I do these jobs well. But when it comes to my personal work, my heart has to be in it. It just has to be.
Q: Your stunning piece, ‘Abundant,’ in your own words, is ‘an ode to the glory of my fatness.’ What did you want the reading audience to take from the work?
A: I wanted the audience to know that fat women are sexy as fuck. (pardon my French). There is such a widespread belief that fat women should be ashamed of their bodies and that they are not worthy of love, admiration, and desire. We see it all the time. When a fat woman posts a picture of her and her attractive partner, people begin to say all sorts in the comments. what they are really saying is, why the hell would this fine man choose to be with a fat woman. They relate us to the bottom of desire hierarchies, and I wrote Abundant as a vehement rebuttal to such notions. Abundance was an ode to fatness - my rendition to remind everyone that more flesh is not something to be ashamed of. Your abundance is not a curse.
Q: You are currently a 2022 Iowa Arts Fellow studying for an MFA in Non-Fiction at The University of Iowa. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, of which you’re currently a part, a big kudos to you, is a globally renowned graduate program for creative writers. How would you describe the journey that led you to this point? Could you also share what you felt when you first learned of your acceptance into the program?
A: In November 2021, I got posted to Law School in Kano, and I decided I was going to drop out of NLS. I knew that I was doing that to focus on my writing. But to my parents, they needed something concrete to believe in this my writing career. I knew going to school would do that for them. Getting a postgraduate degree in writing (and being sponsored by the school, for that matter) was my sure card out of NLS. I didn't even know there were nonfiction MFAs because most of the ones I knew were for fiction or poetry (I am not at the workshop actually, my program is separate from it). My friend Obafemi got me a comprehensive list of the five funded programs that offered non-fiction. Iowa was the only application I did. It was the only one I could afford. Every application cost $100, and I could only pay for one. God did the rest.
I actually got the email on the 6th of March when I was with my girls (hey, Dupe & Tosin!) birthday party at a restaurant in Victoria Island. Aide was sitting next to me when I got the email, and I immediately started crying. Real tears of joy and astonishment ran down my face. The strongest feeling I felt at that moment was trust in God. God made himself so real to me at that moment. Because He told me to apply, and when I almost quit the application, there was such pressure in my Spirit to submit it. I was so grateful to God because He validated my dreams.
He answered my prayers, and he did not let me be ashamed in front of my parents. He gave me legs to stand on. Quitting law school felt right; I was vindicated. I sent a screenshot to my boyfriend, and we screamed together. I sent one to my friends and to my English teacher. My heart was so full. Fun fact: I got my rejection from Oxford’s Creative Writing Program just the day before. I was so bummed, I cried and got so afraid. I remembered the story of Sarah, I chose to judge God faithful. And He showed himself faithful.
Q: The revered writer of blessed memory, Maya Angelou, said, ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ As a writer, what, in your opinion, is the most challenging part of giving voice to the words inside you?
A: Finding them worthy of life. Sitting down to write something means that you believe in the worth of that idea; you believe that it has value. My initial obstacle is believing that these thoughts have value. Once I cross that obstacle, I begin to carry the stories here little by little. Sometimes I also worry that these thoughts are too insular, things that I do not need to share with the world. Things that are so personal and reveal intimate details of my life. I’m scared that my family might read it or that people will make fun of me. So the second obstacle is really fear. It is the more difficult of the two for me.
When it really comes down to it, what truly helps me combat fear is the Spirit of God. My art is co-labour with God, so when I am too scared to write, I find strength from Him, and then I begin. For those who are not of faith, there’s a Yrsa Daley Ward quote, ‘If you're afraid to write it, that's a good sign’ - your fears might mean you are about to write something deliciously difficult. Either way, go for it.
Q: What important advice would you give a first-time author?
A: Do not try to rush it. Where you are going, people don’t rush to get there. Take your time. This is not an excuse to never do the work. Or to never send it anywhere. You will know inside you when it is ready to go somewhere. Listen to your intuition. Get a solid first-reading group. Solid eyes that will see your work and share critique that can grow the work. Do not write alone. Find your people. Be ready for rejections. Do not let them deter you. Cry, you’ll probably need to. Keep writing. Be patient.
Q: Reading reviews of their work is not something that many writers find easy. Have you ever read criticisms of your work, either objective or otherwise? How did you feel doing so? Are you able to take out lessons?
A: No one ever wants people to have bad things to say about their work. Because I have not put out a book, I have never even had the chance to read reviews of my work. No one is reviewing me now, haha. But I have had to take feedback from editors and my writing peers. People like my friends Ajoke and Obafemi have, in the past, chewed up my work and given me some tough feedback.
When I was in my residency at the Library of Arts and Diaspora in Ghana, our cohort had a weekly workshop to critique our work. I definitely struggled with it in the beginning. Having to hear constructive feedback that was not admiration, corrections given, and probings asked puts you on the spot. But this kind of developmental review is what I find useful. When work is already out, even when the comments are really bad, what can really be done haha? My workshop supervisor told us that as writers, we should learn never to.
Q: From your perspective, what makes a story worth telling?
A: If it is important to you, it is worth telling. If an idea will not leave your mind - if it returns to you day after day begging to see itself on this side of the world. Listen to it. Put it down somewhere. It may just be an idea, so you are free to do more research on it and ask people about it but first of all, honour it by documenting how it has come to you. Writing is such a mindful act - and what I mean by this is that your mind is so heavily involved. so listen to it. Listen to your thought cycles; if something keeps returning to you, it is a story worth telling.
Q: Your works centre mostly on human experiences. Considering that not all such experiences or stories always end on a happy note, would you say that the writing process energizes or exhausts you?
A: A great question. It is definitely both. It can be so deeply draining to write from your life. My first published pieces were me working through a difficult breakup. In particular, my piece in Agbowo was a vulnerable whisper of a girl in pain. I have always worked through my problems with writing. Sharing it with the world is what can be the exhausting part, especially in a world like ours that shies away from vulnerability. It can also be draining to dig deep into unpleasant memories to develop the work. That is something I am struggling with at the moment. Thinking about things I would rather not because I need them for a story to be complete. It's tough work, but hey, it's the life I chose, haha.
Q: If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
A: I would have told her to take her writing more seriously from earlier on. To believe in her words as soon as they come to her. I would tell her to be less afraid of it all. I would tell her to never let rejection cripple her. That rejections and the pain that comes with them are telling me something else, something other than ‘no, this is not good.’ I would tell her sometimes rejections simply mean: ‘ this is not ready yet’ ‘reconstruct the end to be better’ ‘dig a little deeper.' Most of all, I would tell her to learn patience and learn it well. The journey requires it; depends on it even.
Q: Your writings are mostly in a journal-kind-of-format, like a writing to one’s self. What would you say is the fascinating thing about this technique?
A: You calling it a technique makes me a little shy because, for me, this is not technique, it’s the only way I know to write. This is how I started writing - as an offering of myself essentially - so that is often the tone my work takes. Something that is fascinating and something I deeply love about the tone is that it draws people in and makes them engage meaningfully with the work. Which is my hope. It makes people feel, and that is a great joy to me.
Q: Are there any stories that you have written that made you re-evaluate some of your long-term beliefs?
A: There is something I’ve noticed with my work: sometimes it feels like I am writing to future versions of myself. For instance, last year, I moved to Bwari, and on my Medium page, I wrote and published something. When I moved to Iowa this year, I read it again, and it had such a profound effect on me to read my own words back to myself for encouragement. My work causes me to affirm my long-term beliefs, like my belief in abundance and fluidity, two themes that continue to show in my work. But in some ways, I read something I wrote in the past, and my stance has shifted. I realise that I can grow, and so can my work. So I guess the greatest lesson my work is always showing me is my truth and my growth.
Q: According to Robert Frost, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Are there any writers whose work you considered home and constantly find yourself returning to, especially in moments when you’re trying to find your way back to self?
A: Ama Asantewa Diaka is a poet that makes me feel at home, and I carry a copy of her chapbook in every suitcase I have packed. I discovered her in lockdown in 2020, and I have wrapped myself in her words since. There is a naked honesty of emotion in her work that I deeply enjoy and am validated by. Titilope Sonuga is my elder in this work. My very first poems were written after her work. The emotiveness that is observed in my work is something I observed in her work - especially how much it touches me and reminds me of courage. I always say that my first tattoo will be a script, a line from her most important poem to me, ‘Becoming.’ The line says, ‘there is nothing broken here.’ I want it on my body to always remind me that I am whole, even when everything is slipping under my feet. Eloghosa Osunde’s ‘Walk Worthy’ is stuck in my head, particularly these words:
“Most of the things I have that matter were not gifted to me by anybody with a body; they are mine from the inside, mine from my spirit, mine from my destiny.”
Mine from the inside. Struck me with the heaviness of truth. Reminded me of something I have never forgotten since. I am so grateful to exist at the same time as these writers, reminding me of all these blazing truths.
Adedayo Onabade is a Nigerian essayist, fiction, and poetry writer. She holds a B.A. from Olabisi Onabanjo University and an M.A. from the University of Lagos, both in English Literature. Her works have been shortlisted for SynCity's 'Poetry in times of Corona' and #TwitterWritingContest.
Adedayo volunteers with STER (Stand to End Rape Initiative), a social justice organization that works to combat sexual and gender-based violence against women, girls, and vulnerable people. Outside writing, she is fascinated by NatGeoWild, art galleries, reading, and documentaries.