When I suggested on Instagram and Twitter that you will love Yemisi Aribisala’s book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, to my surprise, the author herself answered me.
“I once wrote you a long long time ago,” she said. “I tried to find the email but couldn’t. I believe I sent you Fish Soups and Love Potions after reading and being inspired by the 2010 Will Write For Food. I still have it… and it is just amazing to be chatting with you via Twitter.”
I immediately asked to interview Aribisala, because I so enjoyed her fresh voice and storytelling ability. She said yes, if she could write her answers.
Okay, she is not concise, but who cares? Her writing is sensuous, entertaining, and educational, like a conversation you’re having with a passionate, intelligent friend. This is exactly how she sounds in the memoir, so I’m thrilled to have her written thoughts.
Recently Aribisala won the British John Avery award, the first black African to win it in 39 years.
So here are Yemisi Aribisala’s thoughts about Nigerian food, her eight-year process to write her memoir, the horrors of being edited, and writing about risky topics:
Q. If someone has never eaten Nigerian food, how would you describe it?
A. I would describe it as the taste of home. The vernacular of Nigerian food is starchy richness, heavy-handed oleaginousness, mucilaginousness: Soups, oil, starch, colour, dark greens – an omnipresent blush on the face of the food from red peppers or/and palm oil.
A Nigerian friend who doesn’t like Nigerian food once noted how everything on your plate could have one carroty patina. I must admit I never saw it like that, or thought of it like that. I love the redness, and if food lacks colour – specks of thyme, black cumin, black pepper – I instinctively mistrust it. But she is right about looking at your plate and seeing red: Red jollof rice, red stew, red moin-moin, reddish beef fished out of the red soup, reddish-brown fried plantains; robust reds and greens and palm-oil orange. Even thinking about it makes me salivate.
Nigerian food leans towards full-throttle spiciness, dense savouriness, especially from fermented seeds and beans and sometimes mushrooms, and a determination to make the glands overreact with heat and/or aromatics.
We love our meat and must have different varieties on every single plate of food. We have the ubiquitous Suya (barbecued meat) sold from evenings into the night in every Nigerian city, with fresh slices of onions and tomatoes and groundnut-flavoured ground pepper, testifying to our passion for red-meat. We have no dessert-eating culture and our palate preference is naturally occurring fruit-sweetness balanced with tartness. We have a high palate tolerance for tart foods.
Up north, milk gets inserted in the equation, with lots of dairy flavoured with spices, tiger-nut milk with sun-dried sweet potatoes and karampanu (cloves). Ground rice served with soup. Sorghum made into lovely velvety soft pap, served with milk. Pan fried rice cakes – masa, a staple in homes in the North – eaten with everything. Festive coconut rice with smoked fish in the South-South. Yams and cocoyams.
This isn’t an all-encompassing description. It is really quite impossible to give one.
Q. Which ingredients should Americans know about, if we want to cook it?
A. The Nsala spices from the Delta region of Nigeria, minus the hot peppers. That is the made-up bouquet of grains of paradise, cubeb or tailed peppers, calabash nutmeg, alligator peppers and selim peppers. These are what I sometimes classify as fragrant peppers, for the sake of those people who will see the word ‘pepper’ and immediately run in the opposite direction.
They are not so much about heat as fragrance, and they are also beneficial to health in their different combinations with other ingredients, like onions, ginger, fermented locust beans, and giant smoked prawns. There are different kinds of Nsala soup, for example, for women who have just had a baby or for a husband or lover or love interest. Some Nigerians might say this is an overstatement. But the consciousness is there in the background, quietly informing what one cooks for a lover, different from when cooking for other people.
The Nsala is a great canvas for creativity. At its simplest, it is a suspension of fragrant spices in water with a thickener, most likely yam. It has an awakening effect on the senses, causing excitement, release, chasing away the blues or flu among other secret reactions. This is also I think a dish that one can use to insist on one’s identity in the kitchen. I like when people who know me say, ‘This is Yemisi’s stew!’ My Nsala will be different from your Nsala because your palate and intentions will drive you in a different direction of handling spices and cooking. I love all the possibilities and the invasion of spices, heat, and perfume on senses.
Q. Your book has been described as part cookbook, part cultural history, part travelogue, part intimate confessional. Was it hard to get your book down to one sentence, as is required for pitching and marketing?
A. It wasn’t hard at all because the goal was not one sentence, never ever something so abrupt and serious, and you will testify from reading the book that my sentences tend to run on.
You should ask about the battles with the editor who wanted a book that worked like straight non-fiction, without all the stopping to smell the roses. She was constantly questioning my fantasies. Is this real? She would ask, and I would answer defiantly, “Does it matter?” We fought about and around this a lot, and I was determined to win because after all, it is my book, my language. I think I knew instinctively that people were ready for the love affair, the dragging of feet, the longwinded conversations and the lack of commitment to a way of telling the stories. Especially where it concerns food, where eating is much more than the functional putting of morsels in the mouth.
I had one powerful tool, which was that Nigerian food did not have the national and international platform before this book, so people were genuinely curious. Potential readers wanted to know that it wasn’t a straight cookbook. Nigerian men especially! How many cookbooks can one own or be invested in, passionate about? And the Internet is the greatest, most ambitious cookbook in existence. Access to it is free. A food book has to do a lot more these days.
A food writer said that the future of food writing is the memoir, the longwinded perambulating paragraph that works like a meal dotted with conversation going on from early evening late into the night, lots of wine and laughter and trifle, small and solemn talk. Who complains about that kind of hedonism?
Readers wanted more than recipes and I made that a priority by taking my time and using my words, and not committing to a sentence. Many people afterwards expressed to me in emails and in conversation, “We didn’t know we wanted this book but we want it, and love it.” So marketing and pitching had to be out of the box of ‘one sentence’ by instinct and in execution.
Q. You’ve written an unusual kind of food writing. Do you want to stay in this area? Or can you write anything?
A. I already do write different things, but I can’t write everything, and have already made peace with my fiction not being at its best. I can work on my weaknesses, except for poetry, because I know for sure I will never write a book of poems.
My next book has food in it, but as a way of looking at Nigerian history and culture. Food moves off into the sidelines and feels like a welcome guest or charming asides, rather than the focus. I don’t want to attempt another book like Longthroat Memoirs unless I’m sure I have more to say, and somehow can match the quality.
I also don’t believe I would be using all my potential or skill as a writer by focusing only on food writing…food feels like a kind of overarching theme. Perhaps it is because I am always thinking about food.
Q. Is there is an impulse to fetishize voices of color within food media now? Or should we just celebrate that these voices are being heard?
A. It is something I’ve thought about a lot without being able to conclude. Not the impulse, but the necessity to overstate a long-ignored point as a way to make up for lost time, lost significance. People address sex in the same way. It has supposedly been repressed in art and now needs to be expressed and overexpressed to entrench its rightful place.
Time weeds out the pretenders. Human beings are restless in their giving of attention in the first instance. A few more food memoirs by people of colour and the strong gaze will move again to something else. The gap fills and we search for another gap and begin the same patterns of fixation.
As a person of colour, I hope that doesn’t happen any time soon, because I don’t believe enough words on food have come out of my continent. But I know it will. People will inevitably cluck their tongues and say, ‘Oh not another African food memoir.’ For now I believe that narratives of people of colour are fundamental to our understanding of the world. To combat the international mood of intolerance, to humanize people who are searching for a better world, deserve it as a basic human right and are losing their lives and dignity striving for it.
There is a lot of emphasis on food and migration, especially in London where I live now, and I love that I can eat so many different countries’ cuisines by hopping from the tube to Uber. That is one advantage of the present focus on voices of colour. Interpretations in the European context might not be perfect, but imagine trying to visit these countries in Africa, especially with wars and tensions going on. Can one afford to do so, just to eat their food? I can’t even go to certain parts of the North in Nigeria at the moment, without possibly endangering my life. There is an openness that interacting with other people’s food stimulates.
I don’t know anything that pulls down people’s guards and tensions like food. In the presence of food we are willing to give the other person’s humanity a chance. If this is what fetishizing achieves, I’m willing to give the fetishized food memoir, podcast, magazine column, person of colour an attentive ear and a lot of attention.
Q. Do food publications speak to an audience that interests you? Do you intend to write for them?
A. The question rather is if food publications like me, and want me to write, and will accommodate the possible explosions in my writing. A few have approached me with excitement and retreat stealthily. As a publisher once said to me, ‘You are uncontrollable.’
Q. In the U.S. it’s difficult to write a book based on past columns or blog posts. How much did you change them from the originals? Did you write new essays?
A. It was difficult to write a book based on my blogs in Nigeria. I had to build credibility over two long years. At the beginning, some people wrote in the comments, ‘This is a non-issue. Why write about it? No one cares.’ The original column I was offered was restaurant reviews. Some lady said in a comment that hurt at the time, ‘I don’t understand what you are going on about. You can’t write!’
I was writing food articles for 234Next, the newspaper, for free. Which is why discovering Will Write For Food in 2010 was such a big deal, because it was justification after the fact of so much rejection: a burst of energy at the last bit of a marathon before I got a book deal.
After two years and a few months of writing the blog, I put all the articles together and sent them to the founders and publisher of Cassave Republic Press, Jeremy Bovenga Weate and Bibi Bakare Yusuf. Jeremy was one of the few people who got what I was doing, and was open minded enough to give a Nigerian food memoir (unheard of) a chance. I have to extend credit past that, to the fact that Bibi is vegan and had real problems reading the book because of all the meat in it.
She went through the body of the book and tore it apart. So much so that I couldn’t look at it again for months. There were long months where the sight of those snaking red lines of editing and the boxes popping up with questions were like cuts and wounds. It was unbearable. And it is hard to say how much and why, except to say that I really had no confidence and was swimming against the current.
She kept calling me for the work and I just couldn’t do it. At least a year went by where I would open up the edits, see those lines and boxes and shut them down again.
I also had a difficult domestic situation: young children, special needs, a small business. I lived in a city where people were always dropping by and you had to entertain them. They threw tantrums if you didn’t feed them or didn’t sit chatting for hours with them. It felt like the book would never be written. I must have given up a few times. At least in the US, people regard writing as a profession, an honourable way of spending time and existence. They respect the space and temperament that produces the work. You don’t have the psychological battles of feeling that you ought to be in a law firm somewhere so you are not wasting your life.
In Nigeria, writing was like crocheting or stamp collecting. You would say to people you were writing a book, a ‘real book,’ and they would scoff in your face. They would ask about your real job. They wouldn’t wait for your back to turn. And then when you said you were writing a food book…
The articles were originally 800 words because that is what the newspaper could accommodate. For the book I had to expand and fill in the ideas, mind-visuals and context. I took a lot of photographs myself, but they weren’t good enough in quality. Towards the time of publication, I had to pay a photographer to help me skillfully interpret what was in my head. And yes, I had to write new articles that made the book feel whole. I would say the originals felt like summaries or introductions to the finished articles in the book.
Something else happened that created a good dilemma. To help me think of the body of the book I wrote a stretched introduction. I sent this in, and it was such a hit and considered such high standard that the rest of the book became shoddy in comparison. So again I had to go back and try and raise the rest of the chapters to the same standard. That took another year at least. This whole process started in 2008 and ended in 2016.
Q. You made Nigerian food a character in your book. How would you describe that character, and what is the advantage of this technique?
A. This is something that might tie in with your question on fetishizing. Does the original intention count? At the beginning, when the idea of a personality called Nigerian food occurred to me, I realized how effective it was. Yes of course, food has a personality and people love stories about other people.
It worked to counter the argument that what we eat did not count and was not interesting. But with constant use, problems arose. In almost every interview I have been asked about this personality as if he/she isn’t a technique. As if he/she is one person living in one place at one time. Some people even took me up on my saying he was a man and not a woman. It was hardening into something it isn’t.
So a device that was meant to stretch the imagination was limiting it. I’ve tried, on different occasions, to point out that I also am just getting to know this person well. At the very least I want people to recognise the omnipresence of the person of Nigerian food in Nigeria, that great big diverse country. I was hoping that instead of people concluding that I knew everything about the fellow, that they would ask me to describe him, or tell me something titillating about him.
Q. Did you intend for locals to make the recipes, or people who had never eaten Nigerian food? I ask because it could be difficult to find authentic fresh ingredients such as snails or particular kinds of fresh chilis.
A. I hoped they would entertain the possibilities. One book that taught me the advantages of giving the reader a higher quotient of pleasure than assignments was Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. You were neither inundated with images nor felt pressure to go and get a pan out and cook. She gave you enough honeyed prose to allow the work to happen in your head. It was a satiating experience that needed no more commitment to doing anything other than read. More importantly, you didn’t feel reprimanded by finished dishes you couldn’t cook.
I remember reading my mother’s cookbooks for pleasure when I was little, because it was her job to cook, not mine. All I had to do was use my imagination and enjoy the reading. I have a disclaimer at the beginning of the book that the recipes are imperfect. They really are. I’ve had people write me and say the Akara recipe didn’t work. This is proof that Longthroat Memoirs is truly a love affair, because I just recommended an alternative recipe from someone else’s cookbook and we moved on.
Q. Most food writers don’t write about feminism, sex, homosexuality or abortion as you did in your essay The Snail Tree. What would you say to encourage them?
A. The essay Snail Tree was one of the most difficult ones to put together because it touched on many sensitive subjects. And because I combined the personalities of a few women including myself into two women conversing. I also allowed the conversation to have its way and encouraged the reader to eavesdrop.
Even if I was brave enough to identify the stories that were mine in the mix (I certainly was not) I could not expose my friends and those who had entrusted me with their stories. I hoped people would understand the undercurrents and would trust that this was a true conversation that needed the vehicle of food to carry it gracefully.
It was a risk. In my experience the risky pieces are the ones that penetrate the cynicism. They are the ones that people remember. I read one or two reviews accusing me of homophobia, of denigrating the brilliant writer Binyavanga Wainaina, of exposing myself in a self-indulgent, sneaky way. A close family friend resentfully accused me of being the true subject matter of the piece. My response to her was what if I am? What does it take away from the piece? Does it make it any less true? Did you feel that I was being false? Am I in some way too good for the experiences I have written about? Is the conflict experienced by the two women in any way disparaging? These responses, negative as they were, told me something important: that I had affected the reader in a unique way. This chapter is the one that people felt they needed to take me up on.
The article carried the weight of the book, from the point where people said, ‘You just can’t say that. You can’t write that’ to the point where I bit the bullet and did. What I’m saying, in other words, is that the greatest mileage any writer will achieve is in investing their individuality in words. There are millions of books to choose from, millions of cookbooks, millions of writers, millions of Internet pages to browse. In the end, everyone sits and lingers with the friend who connects with them, and admits to who they really are. The Snail Tree was my way of saying that all I have that is of value is myself. If I start to pretend I am someone I am not, I am shortchanging you and giving you a substandard expression of my writing.
The essay was just proof of what happens whenever I cook a good meal for a good friend. They open up and tell you everything. Everything! Their pain, their hopes, their failed love affairs and the good they hope for the future. Food is indeed love and power and strong medicine.
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Photos courtesy of Helena Krige and Yemisi Aribisala.
(Disclosure: This post contains an affiliate link.)