Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi was born and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria. A finalist for the 2009 PEN/Studzinski Award (published in New Writing from Africa 2009, a collection of PEN/Studzinski Award finalists’ stories), her stories have been published in Ploughshares and listed in The Best American Short Stories 2018. Her poetry has appeared in the Massachusetts Review, the Indiana Review, and Wasafiri.
She graduated from Barnard and UPenn with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in computer science. Omolola is a Professor of Preventive and Social Medicine at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in South Los Angeles, where she teaches and conducts research on using biomedical informatics to reduce health disparities. She lives in California with her husband. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
In this post, Omolola discusses female friendships and relationships throughout Nigerian history in her new novel in stories, Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions, her hope for readers, and more!
Name: Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi
Literary agent: Mollie Glick
Book title: Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions
Publisher: Amistad Books
Release date: September 13, 2022
Genre/category: Literary Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: How would you link the life of a Nigerian woman born in the late 1800s/early 1900s to the lives of her modern-day descendants? Through interlocking stories spanning decades, about female friendship; reinvention and survival in the face of loss; and migration and its associated dislocation.
What prompted you to write this book?
When I was growing up in Nigeria, my mom told me about a great aunt who’d married a woman in the early 1900s. This was a culturally acceptable practice in her part of the country for women dealing with infertility and for daughters of men from patrilineal societies who had no male heirs.
I thought it was tragic that a custom that was once commonplace was first stigmatized during Nigeria’s colonial era and is now illegal in modern day Nigeria because of the 2014 ban on same sex marriages. I was also intrigued by the fact that my female ancestors’ lives were so different from mine. All this made me reflect on how we’ve made progress on many things in Nigerian society and at the same time regressed in some areas.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
It took about 15 years from the time I wrote the first drafts to when Amistad agreed to publish it in 2020. I work full time as a biomedical informatics professor, so it was slow going because my day job is very exciting and demanding, requiring a lot of writing of a different kind (scientific papers, research grants, etc.).
I got quite a bit of input from creative writing groups along the way. Some details changed because of the constructive feedback I received, and others evolved with changes in the world around me.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
One of the stories in the book was published in a literary magazine (Ploughshares) and that got the attention of a few literary agents, which was a pleasant surprise. After initially being approached by some of them on the strength of that piece, I discovered that none were interested in a short story collection.
Getting my book into the hands of the right agent and the right editor seemed almost miraculous because there were so many rejections along the way. In a strange way, my day job prepared me, because getting research grants funded or scientific journal articles published often requires a lot of back and forth with reviewers, and rejection before an idea is ultimately accepted. I was very used to that process.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
When I first started writing some of the stories, I didn’t think I had it in me to adequately capture the motivations of characters whose experiences were so different from my own. I remember a writing instructor reading early versions of the story that begins in 1897 and the story set in 2050 and asking whether/why I was holding back.
Another early reader noted that the character I’d initially focused on for the 1897 story was probably the least interesting character in the story. Their feedback made me re-envision these stories and be a little more daring in the choices I was making, and instead of being stuck (as I thought I would be) the writing just flowed!
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
A view of deep female friendships that stretch across the years, with bonds that are as strong as family ties. Also, the knowledge that it isn’t too late to change some of the things that they see and don’t like in themselves or in society as a whole.
If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to pursue a story wherever it takes you, no matter how unnerving the experience may be!