Rob Spillman, the co-founder of Tin House Magazine, has taught at writing workshops around the world, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s prestigious Farafina Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria.
In this interview with our Editor in Chief, they talk about the state of African writing in the international market, especially the United States; the politics of identity and how this affects African writers; immigrant writing; his favourite books, and more.
Ukamaka Olisakwe: I have stopped fighting categorisations. In Nigeria, I am considered an “Igbo writer.” At the Writivism Festival in 2015, I was described as a “Nigerian writer.” Now, when I moved to the United States, I became an “African writer.” And that was not all: I realised, too, that I had become ‘Black’—this heavy, political cloak that overshadows everything I am in America, even though my people in southeastern Nigeria still refer to me as nwanyi ocha—a fair-skinned woman. I have been thinking a lot about these overlapping sets in the Venn diagram of my identities, and how they pigeon-hole people like me in the libraries or in the bookstores. And this is because our works are expected to reflect some sort of political, religious, or cultural struggles, else they are dismissed as inauthentic. Are publishers in the West, in the United States, to be specific, aware of how their treatment of African writing has affected how we write?
Rob Spillman: I believe that the more sensitive publishers are aware, but most are operating with biases, both explicit and implicit. I have done numerous events with Chimamanda Adichie, and I’m always struck that, when the event is in the U.S., she is asked to represent all African writers, not just Nigerian, or Igbo, or female, or… It is as if none of the interviewers have seen her “The danger of a single story” lecture. When I was teaching at the Farafina Workshop in Lagos, we did several public events, and at one she stuck me with the knowing question, “So, Rob, how do American audiences feel about West African writing?” I had to hold my tongue as even fairly well-read Americans still clump East, West, South, North into a general “African” writing category.
Uka: You have been very vocal in the importance of supporting underrepresented voices, and you did everything possible to uplift new voices when you edited Tin House Magazine, where you made sure that there was gender balance in the pages of the beloved magazine. I think one of my favourite things in Tin House Magazine was the Lost and Found column, where writers reviewed underappreciated books. But that effort is still very lacking in the larger industry. And this is mostly because the expectation that a Nigerian in America, for example, has to write about their immigrant experience. Very few novels by Nigerian not resident in the United States escape that weighty burden (I am thinking of Oyinkan Braithwaite fantastic debut My Sister the Serial Killer, and Abi Dare’s magnificent The Girl with the Louding Voice). Things are changing for African writers living and working in the US, but that change is slow, too slow. However, we have writers like Akwaeke Emezi who explores Trans and Ogbanje identities in their works, and Namwali Serpell whose The Old Drift follows the fascinating Zambian history. Do you think that American publishers often ignore works by African writers, or uplift very select few, because they feel that there is not enough market for African storytelling in America unless such works respond to familiar American experience?
Rob: I definitely think that is a problem with the bigger U.S. publishers, who can have an attitude that once they’ve published an African writer they’ve hit their quota, and if they are only publishing one African writer, it has to be “representative” which is code for upholding stereotypes. I still think my late friend Binyavanga Wainaina nailed this in his 2005 Granta piece, “How to Write About Africa.” The smaller, more nimble publishers like Grove Atlantic, who published Akwaeke Emezi, are more willing to take chances.
Uka: I must admit, though, that there have been open and honest conversations about America’s publishing industry, like the systemic disparity in the advance BIPOC and white people receive for their works. I am talking about the recent #PublishingPaidMe tweetstorm. Do you think that these necessary and timely conversations will affect how works by Africans living and writing in America are appreciated?
Rob: I think so. And I believe that success breeds success. Emezi and Serpell, along with writers like Helen Oyemi and Chinelo Okparanta open doors. Also, the diversification of publishing, with more BIPOC editors like Lisa Lucas (formerly of the National Book Foundation and now in charge of Pantheon) and Chris Jackson (publisher and editor-in-chief of One World), is changing who gets published.
Uka: I remember our exciting conversation the first time you visited the Vermont College of Fine Arts, in fall 2018. I asked what kind of stories you expect to see out of Nigeria, especially having experienced Lagos when you visited for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Farafina Workshop in 2012, and I remember, vividly, you saying you hope to one day read a book by a Nigerian about an Igbo god playing detective in criminal cases. What are some your favourite works of speculative fiction by African writers?
Rob: I was really taken with Emezi’s debut, Freshwater, the way that they mixed Igbo cosmology with coming of age and emerging sexuality. Also Namwali’s worldbuilding in The Old Drift was stunning. Further back, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow is a sweeping, over-the-top parable whose absurdity only points up the absurdity of strong man rule and the sycophants who surround the big men. Similarly, the satire In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi. I loved the imaginative leaps in The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, where Borges is reincarnated as a Chameleon in the library of an Angolan who creates histories for those whose histories have been wiped out by the endless civil war.
Uka: What advice do you have for African writers who want to get published in America?
Rob: Write what is most urgent for you. If it is urgent to you, then there are others who want to hear this story. Don’t take rejection personally. I’m a firm believer that good work rises. Keep working, keep trying to improve your craft, keep reading widely, and keep believing.
Rob Spillman is an editor at Broadcast from Pioneer Works. He co-founded and edited the seminal literary magazine Tin House, which published from 1999-2019. Tin House was the recipient of the inaugural CLMP Firecracker Award for Magazine of the Year in 2015. He is the recipient PEN/Nora Magid Award for Editing, the Vido Award, presented by VIDA, Women in Literary Arts, and the CLMP Energizer Award for Acts of Outstanding Literary Citizenship. His writing has appeared in BookForum, the Boston Review, Connoisseur, Details, GQ, Guernica, Nerve, the New York Times Book Review, Rolling Stone, Salon, Spin, Sports Illustrated, Time, Vanity Fair, Vogue, among other magazines, newspapers, and essay collections.
His memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties, was published by Grove Press in 2016.
Feature photograph by Foster Mickley
Insert photography by Mark Davis