In Conversation with Sarah Ladipo Manyika on Her New Novel, Identity Politics, and Literary Activism
I met Sarah Ladipo Manyika, the author of In Dependence and the recently released Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, while at Hedgebrook, a writing residency for women writers. I felt an immediate kinship with Sarah, and one evening, we shared our creative work in the farmhouse kitchen. Sarah read part of my novel-in-progress and I read an early draft of what would become Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun.
Even in this early form, I was in awe of how Sarah weaved identity politics so seamlessly into her fiction. Her characters and their circumstances reflected the natural diversity of our world, and yet it felt so new to me because of the homogeneity (of ideas, environments, characters, relationships) we often see in fiction. Now out in the UK and Nigeria and forthcoming in Summer 2017 in the US, I spoke to Sarah about what informs her work, activism in writing, and the resilient, diverse characters in Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun.
Crystal Hana Kim (CHK): Congratulations on the publication of your second book, Sarah! You seem to wear many hats—you’re a professor of literature and you also write essays and academic papers. How did you start writing fiction?
Sarah Ladipo Manyika (SLM): Thank you! I started writing fiction shortly after I left college when working as a secretary for Penguin Books. I found that writing was a good way of processing things that perplexed or troubled me. It also made the time pass more quickly in a job that was often monotonous, albeit interspersed with the occasional glimpse of famous authors – most notably Salman Rushdie.
CHK: Literature infuses Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun as a character all its own. The main character Morayo is a former professor of literature, and at the age of seventy-five, her books are some of her most reliable companions. What books are your literary companions? What are some writings that have shaped your identity as a writer?
SLM: Most of my protagonist’s books are also my literary companions and, like my protagonist, I have more literary companions than I can count. Current favorites would include Toni Morrison, Bernardine Evaristo, Edna O’Brien, David Grossman, John Berger and Mary Ruefle. And the most recent additions to my bookshelves are books by Leye Adenle, Elnathan John, and Shobha Rao, all of which I highly recommend.
CHK: I’m unfamiliar with the last three authors you mentioned, and I’m eager to look into their work. I’m always trying to broaden my reading to include new (to me), diverse authors. Recently, I have been trying to read more international and translated fiction as well. Do you have a particular journal or source you rely on to find new writing?
SLM: Oh that’s such a brilliant question! I have a few sources. First, I’m lucky to live close to a bookshop and a library where, by browsing the shelves, I often find great new (or old) works. I also pay particular attention to publishing houses that I feel are dynamic and investing in new stories and new names. This is one of the reasons why Cassava Republic Press excites me. I also follow several bloggers (Brittle Paper and The Writes of Women being two current favorites) and now that I’ve finally joined Facebook I’ve joined a variety of literary groups and follow a diverse group of authors from around the world.
CHK: Returning to Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, I was impressed with the diversity of your characters—from Morayo, a 75-year old Nigerian woman who was once an ambassador’s wife and is now a retired professor, to Sage, a homeless young woman following around the Grateful Dead, to even a minor character like the mailman, who you give identity to as a Chinese man named Li Wei! Your novella is diverse in terms of race, age, socioeconomic status, and gender. I thought this was quite a feat in such a slim novel. Your characters are Indian, Palestinian, American, Nicaraguan, Guyanese, and more. Was it important for you to have an array of characters in your novel? And if so, why?
SLM: For a while, the working title of my book was “New Tales of the City” which was a nod to Maupin’s Tales of the City. In the same way that he introduced new San Francisco characters to his readers, I hoped, in a smaller way, to draw attention to some other characters, hitherto not featuring much in literature. I find myself drawn to characters that are often invisible due to the circumstances that you mention—age, socioeconomic status, gender and/or ethnicity. I’m particularly interested in how the so-called “outsiders” think of themselves in comparison to how others see them.
CHK: Were you nervous or intimidated about inhabiting the consciousness of such a variety of characters?
SLM: Yes. As a writer, I think my primary concern is to make my characters believable and compelling, and that’s not easy. So for me it’s less a question of the number of characters but more about how well I’m able to get into the head of any character. That said, I never write about characters whose lives I don’t have at least some sense of and/or a genuine interest in. Having a deep interest in my characters gives me confidence.
CHK: While reading, I was struck by Morayo’s sensuality and sexual pleasure. I don’t think I’ve read another book that contemplates an ‘elderly’ woman’s sexuality in the way you do. Did you know from the beginning that this would be something you explored?
SLM: It was because I had not read other books that explore an older woman’s sexuality that I decided to go there, albeit in a small way. Thanks to such authors as Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, and J.M. Coetzee, I have many literary examples of older men’s desire but far less when it comes to older women. Yet, when I speak to older women … well, the stories some will tell!
CHK: You accomplish so much in this novel. In addition to having an array of diverse characters and exploring an older woman’s sensuality, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is also political without being pedantic. Within the span of 120 pages, you touch upon Boko Haram; the religious clashes between the Christian and Muslim population in Jos, Nigeria; and the history of the male black body being seen as a threat and the anger and humiliation that comes with this history. From the very first page you bring up this sense of ‘othering’ with the neighbor that cannot bother to call Morayo by her name, but rather calls her Mary. How important was it for you to bring these topics up in your fiction?
SLM: I suppose that it was almost inevitable that the sense of “othering” would come up in this book given that so many of my characters are frequently marginalized by society—these being the elderly, the poor, and people of color.
CHK: Why explore these themes in fiction rather than or in addition to writing about it in your essays?
SLM: I don’t think I set out to consciously explore these themes, but such themes inevitably arise given the characters I chose and the nature of the situations in which they find themselves.
CHK: In 2015, Apogee republished your essay, “Coming of Age in the Time of the Hoodie,” which reflects on race, identity, the shooting of young black men, and your fear of your son’s experience with racism in America. Do you see yourself as an activist? Does that role inform your writing?
SLM: If an activist is defined as someone who campaigns for social change then, yes, I’m an activist although less of one than, perhaps, I should be. Writing is one way of affecting social change if only by shining a light on issues that we feel strongly about. While my fiction is not overtly driven by activist causes, my desire to highlight lives that I feel are ignored, does come from a desire to bring about change.
CHK: You recently published an essay in The Guardian regarding your decision to choose Cassava Republic Press, a publishing company based out of Nigeria, to publish your novel. This really intrigued me. Can you tell me more about how you came to this decision?
SLM: In a way this goes back to the question of activism, and an example of how my activism doesn’t have to be embedded in the text itself, but can manifest itself in other ways. I realized that by granting world rights to an African publisher I could, in a small way, attempt to address the imbalance of power in a world where the gatekeepers of literature, even for so-called African stories, remain firmly rooted in the west.
CHK: What kind of resistance did you encounter when you made this decision, and how is it going now?
SLM: Some people were skeptical about my decision to work with an African publisher, especially given the fact that I live in America and have access to American and European agents. They asked: Did my decision make economic sense? Would an African publisher do as well as a western publisher? Behind these polite enquiries, the real question that I felt was being asked was whether an African publisher could be as good as a European or an American. The assumption was that the west does things better than Africa. My answer then, is as now: of course, they can be just as good or just as bad. They can be even better or even worse.
CHK: As a writer, I’d love to talk about process with you as well. Would you categorize Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun as a novel or a novella? Do you think this distinction matters?
SLM: I’ve written a short novel, otherwise known as a novella. The distinction doesn’t matter to me, but what does matter is that I’ve written the best book that I can. However, within the publishing industry the shorter form is, for reasons that I don’t understand, not considered quite as good as the longer form. This, despite the fact that many so-called “classics” such as The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and of Men, or Animal Farm, are all novellas (although rarely labeled as such). Novellas are also deemed more difficult to sell than the novel, but here I think the publishing industry is beginning to see that they are out of step with the times. I like what the author, Nick Earls, has to say, writing in The Guardian about the novella: “… pick any book you’ve loved. How often have you said, ‘I loved that book because it was so heavy?’ Or so thick, or so long. How about never? We love the books that grab us and hold on to us and mean something. A great novella can do just that, at least as well as a novel, and yet it can be compact enough to fit into a pocket or a bag, and even a relatively hectic life.”
CHK: When you write, do you impose deadlines for yourself? For example, I know writers who try to write 1,000 words a day or for three hours a day. I don’t have daily self-imposed goals, so I’m always curious about others’ processes.
SLM: I sometimes wish that I were disciplined enough to write a set number of words a day, but, sadly I’m not. Although, to be honest, I’m not sure that a daily word count is the answer for me. What works better is simply assigning myself stretches of time in which I must focus on my work. Sometimes this means writing, sometimes reading or just thinking, all of which are part of the essential process of writing.
CHK: In addition to teaching and writing, you are on the board of Hedgebrook & San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora. When do you find the time to write fiction?
SLM: I don’t find juggling easy. However, for the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few writing retreats and that always gives my writing a boost. Currently, I’m not teaching, which makes it much easier to prioritize my writing.
CHK: What was the seed that inspired Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun?
SLM: In life, I meet many older women who have lived colorful lives, and yet when it comes to fiction I don’t find many stories that mirror this, especially so when it comes to the lives of black women. When I cannot find stories that I’d like to read, I try writing them for myself.
CHK: Finally, I remember the day at Hedgebrook when you announced your title. Can you tell us how you came to choose Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun?
SLM: I’m so glad you’ve mentioned Hedgebrook, which is where we first met! I spoke earlier of how important residencies have been for my writing. Meeting other writers at residencies, such as yourself, has had a significant impact on my work. None more so than at Hedgebrook, my first ever residency. There I found a sisterhood of amazing writers, many of whom have become friends and mentors. Authors often talk about books as though they were written in a vacuum but this is not the case with me. Sharing and talking things through with fellow writers, friends, and family has made my writing better. I remember swapping manuscripts with you and how inspired I was by your novel as well as how helped I was by your feedback on mine.
Returning to the question of title; while I was working on my manuscript, I was reading the work of Mary Ruefle. Her poem, “Donkey On,” spoke to me of the meaning of life and its bittersweet nature. My title, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun comes from that poem.
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Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is now available in the UK and Nigeria and as an e-book everywhere else. See www.sarahladipomanyika.com for more information.
SARAH LADIPO MANYIKA was raised in Nigeria and has lived in Kenya, France, and England. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and teaches literature at San Francisco State University. Her writing includes essays, academic papers, reviews and short stories. Her second novel, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is published by Cassava Republic Press (Abuja-London). Sarah’s first novel, In Dependence, is published by Legend Press (London) and Cassava Republic Press (Abuja-London).