Take us through the process of writing Time is Not Your Healer. How easy, or challenging, was it for you working on it?
I began working on Time is Not Your Healer in August 2022 during the week of the 24th anniversary of my father’s death. When I started writing the essay, I didn’t know what I wanted to say, only that this was the singular most defining event of my life and I had never written about it. I want to say, now, that writing it was cathartic and healing, but I would be lying. It was painful and triggering, and the more I engaged with the emotions I felt in the immediate aftermath of my father’s death, the more I realised that “time heals all wounds” is a lie, hence the title.
Actually, the title I pitched it with was “No One Drowns, but Time is Not Your Healer” because my overwhelming sensation, at the time of his death, and again while writing about it, was like I would drown in my own grief. That’s why there was so much body-of-water imagery in the essay. The first draft was a rambling mess of my emotions, unfit for public consumption. But I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. Eventually, I contacted an editor, Deborah Oluniran, and, working with her, we shaped it into the essay it is now. It was my only time working with an external editor for a short piece, but there was no way I could have done this without her input.
At what point in your life did you decide to be an artist?
I don’t think that I decided to be an artist. My background is in clinical medicine, and I was fully immersed in that world, with everything it entails, until about 2018/2019. But I had started writing Rekiya & Z in 2015/2016 as a form of self-care for myself – an outlet for the things I was going through at that time.
2020 was when I decided that I was going to be a writer. I mean, I knew I could write, for what it was worth. I have written most of my life and been commended for it ever since my teenage years. But since the pandemic in 2020, I took stock of my life and decided I was going to be a writer.
2023 had me coming to the decision that my work was going to be literature, in the way people regard “literature.” I vocalised the dream that I will leave behind work that would add to the body of “literature produced by African and Muslim women.”
As for art, I’ll let the people be the judge of that. Hopefully, after I am done and gone and all that is left of me is my work, some people will consider what I wrote art.
How do you know when your work is ready to be published or submitted to editors?
For me, this is an instinctive feeling. Like most writers, I am very self-critical and I have usually done so many drafts of my work before it is ever read by anyone. Before editors or publications, I have a writer friend/beta reader go through my work. After I get their feedback, I go back to it and work on it again, and again…
But somewhere along the lines of the edit and re-editing, there’s an inexplicable feeling that tells me a piece is done, and I think I get that feeling when the piece is saying what I needed to say. What I have found is that when I have a feeling that a piece is complete, I might change its structure and the grammar, but the message remains the same. From that moment of completion, up until publication, my work’s message remains the same.
I’ve had times when editors wanted the piece to go a different route, to change the core message, and I’d rather not publish it with them.
Whose work inspires you, and why?
To understand the writers whose work inspires me, one has to understand why I write. I write to tell our stories, those of women like me, people like me. It is not easy to be a Black African visibly-Muslim woman who loves reading or literature. We do not see ourselves in the world we love. When we do, we see a version of ourselves we do not recognise. The stereotypes are not like us.
Writers whose work inspires me are those who tell the story of their own being unapologetically. Women like Mariama Bâ, telling the stories of Black African Muslim women’s realities in all of its good and bad and ugly; Leila Aboulela, who writes about what it means to be African and Arab and Muslim and in the diaspora, and trying to juggle all of these things while often considered not good enough. Jennifer Makumbi is doing amazing work with African womanhood and our collective desire for autonomy.
I can’t ever forget Amos Tutuola, with his Yoruba mythology and “imperfect” English, or Babas Achebe and Ngũgĩ, depicting the culture and tradition and the violence that was done by colonisation.
Do you think African literature is where it should be today, and where does your style of writing fit into it?
To a large extent, we are a continent that’s still dealing with the most basic survival needs. And that affects how we view life, of which art is a mirror. When writers are unable to make a living from writing, as is the case for most of the world but especially Africa, they either abandon it – leaving arts to be purgative of the independently wealthy – or they write what the laws of commerce dictates. I think we can only agree that neither of these two options propels African literature to where it can be.
The second part of it is, because we are such a besieged continent and everyone’s stuck on survival, most of our writing reflects this reality. This is why there are so many heavy themes in our literature: that’s the reality that most of the writers live, and it’s the reality that the people reading the work recognise. My style fits into this almost to T: I write to reflect the reality of women like myself. The only novelty, if you will, is that there haven’t been that many of us – Black African, visibly-Muslim women writing almost exclusively to our own experiences…yet.
Read and listen to Time is Not Your Healer here.