In May 2018, I had the opportunity to have several imaginary seats at the table of an intellectually stimulating discussion with Tolu Akinyemi. The conversation intended to satisfy my selfish curiosity about his writing process and cover-selection or creation process.
For those who live under a rock, Tolu Akinyemi aka Poetolu was born in Akure, the capital city of Ondo State, Nigeria. His writings have appeared in some notable anthologies such as 'Verses From The Sun,' an Association of Nigerian Authors anthology, 'A Way With Words' (2014 & 2016), a Great British Write Off Anthology and other printed and online outlets. His poetry play 'The Big Society'; written for The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, London was performed at The Greenwich-Lewisham Young People's Theatre, London. In 2017, he was named on the 'Nigerian Writers' Awards' list of '100 Most Influential Nigerian Writers under 40' and also won the 'Poetry Writer of the Year' Award. In March 2017 he obtained an 'Exceptional Talent Endorsement' as a writer, from the Arts Council England.
Tolu currently lives in London, England. He has published 3 books titled; ‘Your Father Walks Like a Crab,’ ‘I Laugh at These Skinny Girls,’ and ‘Funny Men Cannot Be Trusted.’
Tolu Akinyemi is famous for his wit and the humor that he uses to make poetry enjoyable even for those who hate poetry. In addition to being a writer, he is a creative designer, and just like Chioma is to Davido and Folake is to Tekno, Halima is to Tolu Akinyemi. Halima is a character that minds her business until you make it yours. She is a no-nonsense person with limitless shadiness at the tip of her tongue. Just when you say 1, Halima is at 100.
As a fan of both Halima and Tolu Akinyemi, I have always wondered where he finds his inspiration and what his creative process is. During our discussion, he shared that he draws inspiration from many things and experiences, daily. However, he has learned always to find a unique perspective to create poetry and art from such inspiration.
For example, if Tolu was asked to write a poem about ‘suya,’ instead of predictably writing about the wonderful taste of suya, writing from the perspective of the Cow that sacrificed its life to delight the palates of suya lovers would be a more interesting take on the theme.
I also found it very comforting when Tolu said that even if his ideas don’t come out fully formed at first, it is worth penning for a later time. Just in case you are curious, he uses an app named “google keep.”
Tolu Akinyemi also highlighted a stereotype about African writers and their works. As an “African writer” or as a “Nigerian writer” there are unspoken expectations that one should write about the socio-economic and political challenges of Africa; poverty, corruption, inequality, lack of education and health infrastructure etc, This stereotype creates an incomplete story about African countries and encourages outsiders to have a limited perception about Africans. This part of the conversation with Tolu Akinyemi echoes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted talk titled; ‘The Danger of a Single Story.’ As African writers, we must create a balance of perspectives through our stories.
Another effect of the stereotype is that it limits how writers can relate to their readers, within their countries and internationally. Everyone can connect to forgetting to take an umbrella out on a rainy day or eavesdropping on a conversation when they should be sipping their teas or killing a tiny ant that they could have spared. However, many writers are distracted by big concepts and conventional themes that they forget to draw inspiration from small moments which are universal.
At this point of the conversation, I asked Tolu Akinyemi how he chooses and creates a cover for his works.
He mentioned that a writer should identify their priorities before publishing their books. If your priority is to make money, then you can make choices that will align to making money through the book. Note that, Tolu’s titles and book covers approach can only be recommended if your priority is commercial viability. If that's not your priority, then whatever you do differently is okay. You’ll also need to know why you have made specific choices for your book and must be able to explain your reason if asked
Analyzing the book cover:
1. The Book Title:
If you notice, the titles of Tolu Akinyemi’s books are very catchy, so they are in big fonts on the book covers. Humorous and unique titles like: “Your Father Walks like a Crab” or “I Laugh at these Skinny Girls” or “Funny Men Cannot Be Trusted” captures the attention of book lovers and even book haters.
Upon identifying your priorities regarding the book, if your priority is to get your reader’s attention, then you may consider using catchy and unique titles. However, if your preference is to make the title summarize the book’s content, you can consider something different.
2. The Front Cover Image or Art:
I have seen countless book covers of Nigerian authors that have the author’s face or a picture of the author sitting on a chair or standing with folded arms. Every time I come across one of these, I ask; “How does their presence on the book’s front cover help the book?”
Additionally, I have noticed that many writers are fond of having covers arts or pictures that repeat what the title already says. If you understand your priorities as an author, you may not need to follow the crowd. For example, I remember when I finished writing my second book; ‘To Bee a Honey,’ many people suggested that I have bees and honey as my cover art. I remember telling myself that I want a cover that represents, not repeats the title and the book content. Upon contacting Morenike Olusanya, and after she read the book, I told her that I was open to her suggestions, however, I did not want bees or a jar of honey as the cover art. The idea of a cover design is not for it to look the part; i.e. this is what a poetry book looks like, the motive should be to stand out.
Another perspective that I have to cover art/image creation and selection which I shared with Tolu is that I don’t allow someone who doesn’t understand my work or have a vision for it to create my book cover. Morenike Olusanya is an incredibly talented artist, and it is always a pleasurable experience when I work with her. Before creating the cover of my book, she read the manuscript to understand its content. I trusted her artistic process and outcome because I saw that it came from a place of understanding and knowledge of the book’s content.
In response to my perspective and opinion, Tolu Akinyemi shared that the author can also look at the financial aspect. If the author’s aim is to increase commercial viability, the cover art has to be done in a way that allows the authors to achieve that goal.
3. The Author’s Name:
Some developing Nigerian writers make the mistake of putting their names in unnecessarily large font size on the book cover. Except you are Barak Obama, Chimamanda Adichie, the person Jay Z allegedly had an affair with, Kim Kardashian’s surrogate or Drake’s alleged son: Adonis, who have established a large audience or fan base, as a writer, it may not be advisable to print your name in extreemly big fonts on the book cover.
Additionally, from personal experience, I realized that even an author’s name, as an aspect of the book cover can complement specific priorities. I decided to put only my first name, Oyindamola, on the front cover of my second book ‘To Bee a Honey.’ I made this choice because I understood that the only name I own as a woman is my first name. My last name either belongs to my father or my husband. So if as a feminist, and as a woman, I want to proclaim myself, the book cover can only have my first name which represents only me. That way, whether I get married or not, I don’t have to consider changing my name on the covers of books that I have written.
Having only my first name on the cover of my second book can also be seen as a feminist rebellion that acknowledges the female writers who came before me and had to use male pen-names before their books were published and acknowledged.
I was enjoying the warmth of our conversation until Halima interrupted, demanding that Tolu should finish doing her makeup on his current drawings. She did not want the haters to see her with one eyebrow. I couldn’t stand the shadiness, but I heard that Halima also has a gun so, I grumpily excused myself.
It was a pleasure speaking to Tolu Akinyemi which I am very grateful for, and I hope that many writers can learn from our discussion.
Oyindamola Shoola is a writer, book reviewer, feminist, and blogger. She is the Co-founder of Sprinng Literary Movement, a non-profit and the author of Heartbeat and To Bee a Honey. In 2017, she was awarded as one of Nigerian Writers Award (NWA) most influential writer under the age of 40.