When you google Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi, you’ll discover a slew of results about a computer scientist and biomedical informatics researcher. Scroll a little bit and you’ll discover that Ogunyemi also wrote a stellar debut called Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions.
I wanted to get to know how Ogunyemi has mastered two wildly different fields and introduce her to readers. We corresponded via email and discussed her science background, life in Nigeria, and writing fiction.
You have a PhD and are the Director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics at Charles R. Drew University. How and why did you decide to write fiction?
I’ve always loved reading books. I first tried my hand at writing a novel with my younger brother when I was seven or eight. We were bored because we’d read all the children’s books at home and in the closest kid’s library. Unfortunately, that first attempt didn’t work out because we couldn’t agree on an ending. I didn’t try to write fiction again until I was an adult, while working in my first informatics faculty position. I was inspired by family lore and the experience of moving to the US from Nigeria. The characters came to me and never went away.
How does your career as a professor in biomedical informatics influence your fiction writing?
I’ve had to negotiate the time I spend on writing fiction and fit it around my academic career as a biomedical informatician. In terms of direct impact on story content, I have only one story (messengerRNA) that refers in some way to concepts from biomedical informatics.
How did growing up in Nigeria influence how you tell stories?
Growing up in Nigeria inspired a lot of the characters in the story. I tried to capture the zeitgeist of growing up middle-class in 1980s Nigeria. The four girls at the center of the book are mostly middle class (only one comes from a truly rich family) at a time when the Nigerian Naira was one to one with the US dollar and middle-class Nigerians like professors, civil service workers, and bankers could travel on holiday within and outside Africa comfortably with their families. The Naira is now 500 to a dollar and you need to be super rich now to do some of the things the characters took for granted in the eighties.
The characters are so strong. What was it like creating and shaping their voices and characteristics?
Before I wrote the stories, I put together a document of individual backstories for each character, from an actual date of birth to number of siblings; when their siblings were born (even if their siblings didn’t feature in any story); what birth order might mean for the relationships among the four girls at the center of the book; where they were when certain events in history occurred; significant events that impacted a character’s family; what their parents did (or didn’t do) for a living; where their parents were from; what the character aspired to be or do; and secrets that influenced their families’ actions and life choices that didn’t make it directly into any story. Those details influenced a character’s voice and decisions. Sometimes I revisited and revised the backstory, when the overall storyline was moving in a direction that a character’s original backstory might not support, so there was some flexibility there. Having the backstories and timelines made things clear for me about the ways in which the characters were similar and how they differed.
Why make Jollof Rice a novel of interlocking stories and not just a traditional novel?
Some of that has to do with the fact that because of my informatics career, I could deal with writing a story at a time to completion. It gave me a sense of satisfaction to have something tangible that stood alone that I could share, even as I was working towards a linked collection. Sometimes, when I was working on a research grant, I didn’t have the time or space to write creatively, but the completed stories and ideas for new ones kept me going back to writing fiction even after a year or two had passed.
How did you decide how to order the stories? Is there a different order you ever attempted?
I tried many different orders – in fact, the version I submitted to the publisher started in the eighties, with the four girls in boarding school, while the initial version I shopped to agents started with the story that begins in 1897. At one point, I even debated starting with the story set in 2050 and working backwards. As my editor and I worked together, he got me to see that putting most of the stories in chronological order helped to build up suspense and a sense of cohesion by the end that might not have existed with other orderings.
I read this book took you 15 years to write. Are you at work on another? Do you imagine it taking that long this time around?
Yes, I’m at work on my second book. I can’t imagine that my agent will be okay with me taking another 15 years. I was an Instructor in the biomedical informatics field when I started writing Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions and I’ve been promoted up the ranks to full Professor (and serve as a department chair!) now that it’s published. I feel that I can find more of a balance between doing both things that I love at the present time, in a way that I didn’t when I was starting out in my academic career. Then, I was more intent on proving myself as an informatician because there simply weren’t that many Black women in my field and I took that as a challenge. I wanted primarily to succeed at being an informatician and put a lot of pressure on myself to do just that, putting creative writing on the back burner many times, maybe unnecessarily, because I had no model for how to do both things successfully. The one biomedical informatician I know who wrote a novel did so after he’d retired. I don’t think it will take 15 years this time around and I really plan on enjoying the writing process.