Saturday, November 26, 2016 11:14 am
Sarah Ladipo-Manyika is an accomplished academic and novelist. Her recently-published novella, Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun, is the first African novel to be shortlisted for the prestigious Goldsmiths Prize. In this interview with Adefoyeke Ajao, she explains why the celebrated book tells a story through an elderly character.
Your novel, Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sunwas the first African novel to be shortlisted for the Goldsmiths prize. How do you feel about that?
It was very exciting. You know when you’re shortlisted for a prize as an author it’s always very encouraging. It helps to sell books, but more importantly, it helps to expand your readership. So, all of a sudden, I had readers that I wouldn’t normally have. For me it was a special prize to be shortlisted for because it is a prize that rewards creative daring and I had done something that was a little bit unusual; I was writing about an older woman which is not something you find in literature anywhere, really. I had also chosen to write a novella, a shorter novel, which is generally harder to sell than novels. It was just a wonderful experience.
Your novel explores the issue of ageing. Why did you choose to write about that?
I think as I grow older I am more interested in what happens in the next stage of life. And I’ve been reading a lot of stories about older men. Some of the famous authors, GM Garcia, Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, were writing about older men and I wasn’t finding the equivalent for older women. And yet at the same time, in life, I was meeting these amazing women who were full of life, full of energy. I was in Zimbabwe in July and I was with one of my in-laws – we call themTete in Shona – and at 94, she has lived through the Chimurenga, she has lived through the apartheid in Zimbabwe and she’s such a character and I want to bring these characters to life. She keeps her cellphone in her bra and when it rings, she tells the whole world the phone is ringing, but she doesn’t answer it because she just likes listening to sound. Stories like this are just wonderful. They make me smile and I wasn’t finding them reflected in the literature.
Are you implying that society does not really have regard for its older population? Are we neglecting that part of the population?
I think there is an element of it. Certainly in the West, premium is placed on being young. So, God forbid that you grow old because suddenly, no one wants to talk to you, your ideas are not valued as much as young people’s, people in their middle years doing everything they can to keep looking young. This is definitely a very strong trend in Europe and America and maybe it’s beginning to have an influence in Africa. I grew up in Nigeria really respecting older people and valuing what they had to say and their role in society. I think that was another element that I was uncomfortable with, the way that I was seeing older people being treated.
Is your novel’s main character, Dr Morayo a projection of who you’d like to be when you’re older?
I hope I am as amazing and flamboyant as she appears. But I think she is an amalgam of different people that I have met. So it’s not based on any one particular person. It’s funny because since I’ve written this book, I keep having people tell me to try new things because some of my characters try new things.
Your characters seemed to be in conversation with the reader, was that deliberate?
I’m so glad that came across. I really try to get into the shoes of my characters, into their patterns of speech. It’s a short book, but I feel it is quite condensed. Because there were so many characters, it was very important that the characters were distinct so that people knew straight away that they were dealing with another character.
Have you bought any books at the festival?
I haven’t actually shopped yet. I’ve only got one book so far, which is HelonHabila’s book on the Chibok girls. I think the problem I’m going to face is carrying all this stuff back to America, but I wanted to get ToniKan’s new book. I have a lot of books already, but whatever I don’t have, I definitely want to get. I am so excited about the authors that are up and coming, what publishing houses are doing – from my own publishers, Cassava Republic to this new imprint being launched by Lola [Shoneyin]. There are a lot of exciting things happening on the publishing scene and I am very encouraging of that.
What are you currently up to? What should we expect from you after Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun?
I am working on a number of things. But often when I finish a piece of fiction, I return to non-fiction. I may still do more work in that area, I am just giving myself that freedom rather than committing to one thing or saying what exactly I am doing just to see what comes up.