Alexis Okeowo on Her New Book and Why We Need More Stories About Everyday Life in Africa
We catch up with the Nigerian-American journalist and author on her book, 'A Moonless, Starless Sky.'
Alexis Okeowo is the Nigerian-American author behind her recent release, A Moonless, Starless Sky. The book offers a provoking and affecting portrait of contemporary Africa with four narratives featuring subjects from war-torn countries who are battling fundamentalism and medieval barbarity where they live.
Okeowo spent five years living and reporting across the continent in Nigeria, Uganda, Somalia and Mauritania. The people she highlights are: a couple from Uganda who met as teenagers when they were kidnapped by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, Nigerian girls who escaped from Boko Haram, a government worker who started a vigilante task force against the group, and a basketball team in Somalia that thrives despite deep prejudice and death threats against female athletes in the country.
OkayAfrica sat down with Okeowo to learn more about her process of writing the book and her experience living in Africa.
Ezinne Mgbeahuruike for OkayAfrica: At the age of 22, you were reporting in Africa. How did you survive mentally and emotionally from the contents of your interviews and findings?
Alexis Okeowo: I started reporting in Africa at the age of 22, but the reporting from the book started a couple of years later. I think that I was able to emotionally cope with difficult stories because they came gradually in my career. I didn't start off writing articles about conflict, terrorism, and trauma, though I was interviewing survivors of the Lord's Resistance Army pretty early on, which was initially hard to process. I'm still trying to figure out how to achieve enough distance from the stories I do! I did realize it was helpful to talk to friends and fellow journalists about what I was experiencing and feeling while on tough assignments.
Talk to me about your double consciousness and how you factored it into writing your book. Did it get overwhelming while you were in Africa to realize that you were more American? Did people point it out to you? Did you feel like an outcast? And vice versa—did it get confusing to write in America as an African? How did you navigate tone, voice and perspective? What were you discerning factors?
I was surprised, at first, to realize that I was more American than I thought I was when I first started spending time in Africa, especially when people felt the need to point it out to me. It shattered illusions I had of being able to completely blend in. But I came to embrace it, and to take advantage of looking like, and sharing cultural similarities, with my subjects, but having a different perspective and background that I believe enhanced my reporting.
I could relate more deeply to the female basketball players in Somalia or the anti-slavery activist in Mauritania or the vigilante in Nigeria I write about in the book, and on a more visceral level, than a white journalist. But I still had to be aware of my American biases and try to abandon them as I immersed myself in these foreign cultures. As far as writing in America about Africa, as a person of African descent, it meant making sure to portray my subjects as full, three-dimensional people with interiority and nuance, which is not as common as you might think when it comes to stories of Africans. It meant keeping the voices and storytelling authentic to the experiences of the people I interviewed, sometimes in opposition to my American editors.
A lot of your work is based on politics within the African space. What are some cultural similarities you noticed when you were in Nigeria, Uganda, Somalia, and Mauritania?
The four countries are very different from each other, but there were some similarities I noticed. The black populations in all of these African countries expressed an intense warmth towards me, and had strong senses of identity and history. They also all had rich cultures, with gorgeous and very distinct musical traditions, delicious food that was often meat-heavy, and unique art and clothing that I had never seen anywhere else. The sweet mint tea and embroidered bubus of Mauritania stay in my mind, along with Naija pop music and the bananas that come with every meal in Somalia.
Your dad is also a Journalism professor. What does he think of your work, especially the book?
He is very proud! I get a call or text from him anytime I publish a piece, and he recently attended a literary festival in Nigeria with me, which I know he really enjoyed.
What other stories do you think should or need to be written on the continent of Africa?
We need more unexpected stories, articles that don't fit Westerners' narrow conception of what life is like on the continent. Stories about everyday life and the strivers in a megacity like Nairobi, and everyday life and the strivers in a war zone like Mogadishu, about tech entrepreneurs with weird ideas and fashion designers with avant-garde concepts, about pop stars and Nollywood stars.
How have the stories you've reported affected your personal life and how you move in the Jungle of New York?
I think reporting for the book took me away from much of my personal life in New York! Researching, writing, and then touring for the book has been very consuming. But, in the new year, I'm looking forward to redirecting my attention to some domestic stories I'm interested in, and getting to know this country again.
What are three books you're currently reading (not limited to Africa)? What do you like about them?
Without You, There is No Us by Suki Kim: It's a thrilling, beautifully written book by a South Korean-American journalist who went undercover in North Korea.
Trials: On Death Row in Pakistan by Isabel Buchanan: I'm currently writing a story from Pakistan, and Isabel tells a gripping story of the country's dysfunctional justice system and death row.
A Woman's Body is a Country by Dami Ajayi: I met Dami at a recent festival; he is, incredibly, both a psychiatrist and a poet, and his verse is stunning.