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Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Physician, cartoonist, and author Shirlene Obuobi discusses the writerly advice that led to writing her new coming-of-age novel, On Rotation.

Shirlene Obuobi is a Ghanaian-American physician, cartoonist, and author who grew up in Chicago, Illinois, Hot Springs, Arkansas, and The Woodlands, Texas. When she’s not in the hospital (and let’s be honest, even when she is in it), she can be found drawing comics for her graphic medicine platform, writing stories on her phone, and obsessing over her three cats. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is completing her cardiology fellowship. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Shirlene Obuobi

In this post, Shirlene discusses the writerly advice that led to writing her new coming-of-age novel, On Rotation, what she hopes readers get from the experience, and more!

Name: Shirlene Obuobi
Literary agent: Jess Regel
Book title: On Rotation
Publisher: Avon Books/HarperCollins
Release date: June 21, 2022
Genre/category: Fiction/Coming of Age
Elevator pitch for the book: Ghanaian American Angela Appiah has checked off all the boxes for the “Perfect Immigrant Daughter:” She’s enrolled in an elite medical school, has a suitable lawyer boyfriend, and a gaggle of successful/loyal friends. But when it all falls apart, she is forced to determine what she wants for herself, in matters of both life and love.

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

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What prompted you to write this book?

I went to a talk by Junot Diaz during which he encouraged writers of color to not be afraid to write from experience. I’m a Ghanaian-American physician who was once a Ghanaian-American medical student, and up until then, I’d been terrified that writing about someone like me would make me a fraud.

Apparently, writers of color being accused of penning autobiographies every time we wrote about characters who shared aspects of our identities is a shared experience! Who knew! I didn’t until that talk.

I walked out feeling revitalized, and I wrote the first chapter of On Rotation that same night. I promptly abandoned it in favor of studying for my clerkships, but a seed had taken root.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

The idea festered for about three years before I got any significant amount of writing done. Early drafts of On Rotation were closer to a contemporary romance, but I reworked it to include more about my main character Angie’s other relationships: with friends, with her parents, with her culture.

I realized that the books I loved the most were those where the characters felt real enough to know, so I spent a lot of time trying to pin down each character’s motivations, insecurities, personalities, etc., so that I could weave in the threads of their experiences without getting lost in exposition. It was so very fun!

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

So many! Up until I signed with my literary agent, I’d been a very solitary writer. I wrote without regard for genre, word counts, or other industry standards. I’ve never been a person who noticed or cared how the books I loved were categorized—I simply wanted to go on a journey with characters I found fascinating. I only learned how important genre was when I had to categorize mine!

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

The first draft was a slog. The second, which was very different, I wrote in just over a month. I also didn’t anticipate how much of a group project writing a book would be: On Rotation is in the form it is because of my incredible team at Avon/HarperCollins and my awesome agent, Jess.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I explicitly wanted to write a book about a Black immigrant woman that didn’t center her struggle, but rather her gradual triumph. Of course, I hope people walk away with a glimpse of what life is like for Black women in medicine, of Ghanaian culture, etc., but mostly I want them to escape into a story and hopefully fall for my characters … who are flawed, messy, and trying their best.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

Have no ego when it comes to your writing. Not all criticism is going to be valid and apply to you, but listening earnestly might open you up to new ideas.

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