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2 November 2016updated 05 Oct 2023 8:25am

Sarah Ladipo Manyika: “Breaking convention often takes courage and is seldom rewarded”

The Goldsmiths Prize shortlisted author discusses reading for pleasure, the sexuality of older women, and the importance of diversifying literary awards.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Sarah Ladipo Manyika is a novelist and literature professor raised in Nigeria. She has lived in Kenya, France and England, and now California, where she teaches at San Francisco State University. Her first novel, In Dependence, was published by Legend Press in 2008. Her second, Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun, is shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, with judge Bernardine Evaristo calling it “a unique meditation on loneliness, and the desire to live fully into old age.”

Why do you think we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Literary prizes are a boost to writers, publishers and the publishing industry. They are also a good way of getting the public to talk about literature and to notice books. The Goldsmiths Prize is particularly important because it rewards fiction and writers that might not otherwise be considered for prizes. It gives legitimacy and recognition to the unconventional.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

There is always a time and place to enjoy the conventional, but art is not art if it remains static. Think of how much richer art is today thanks to those who broke the mould… Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Fela Kuti, Pablo Picasso, Yinka Shonibare, Toni Morrison, Amos Tutuola, and Nawal El Saadawi to name but a few. Breaking convention often takes courage and is seldom rewarded. I think of Zora Neale Hurston whose brilliance with idiomatic speech in Their Eyes Were Watching God was dismissed as caricature. I often wonder how much more she might have written and how much more she would have flapped her literary wings had the extent of her talent been recognized while she was alive. Would she have avoided the fate of being buried in an unmarked grave?

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What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize?

A book that touched me in a profound way is John Berger’s To the Wedding. This short novel is choreography, impressionistic painting, song and feasting all in one. With shifting points of view, this book defies the reader to do anything but to read it in one sitting – and then re-read it, again and again. Berger is also one of those writers who is continuously inventive with form and content and even with genre, combining photography, sketches, and text in novel ways.

There is a moment in your novel when Morayo reorganises her books, putting Wide Sargasso Sea above Jane Eyre to “redress the old colonial imbalance”. Were you pleased to see Paul Beatty win the Booker Prize? Do you think such prizes have a responsibility to redress old imbalances favouring white writers?

In the spirit of the Goldsmiths prize, a book like Wide Sargasso Sea breaks the mould by providing a window into the lives of people that previously had little voice in literature. I, like my main character, am always interested in books that expand and enrich the literary landscape of older, canonical texts. Books such as The Meursault Investigation giving voice to the unnamed Arab victim in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial version of the Iliad with its focus on those who died, both move once peripheral characters to the center. I was delighted to hear that Paul Beatty won the Booker Prize and I admire his resistance to the easy categorization of his work as just “satire”. I feel a kinship with writers that seek not to be pigeonholed, for, as a writer straddling multiple worlds in life and in fiction – European, African, and American – I also find myself resisting categorization. I love the fact that an American author, who might not have received much acclaim or fame in the US, is now receiving this in the UK. Literary prizes should, in my opinion, honour the vision of the particular prize and not be limited by what has been done before or what might be expected.

What was the genesis of Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun?

I’ve met many older women who have lived colourful lives, and yet when it comes to fiction I don’t find many stories that mirror this, especially so when it comes to the lives of black women. When I cannot find stories that I’d like to read, I try writing them for myself. One of the women that inspired the writing of this story was a single, elderly Jewish woman, whom I met when I first moved to San Francisco. She was not as flamboyant as Morayo, but she was just as fiercely independent. I was in the middle of writing this story when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and its related dementia. The last few years of her life were very difficult ones and so I wrote this story – a more upbeat story, one that I would perhaps have wished for her.

Morayo is 75 and brimming with sexuality. What made you want to explore the sexual inner life of an older woman?

It was because I had not read other books that explore an older woman’s sexuality that I decided to go there, albeit in a small way. Thanks to such authors as J.M. Coetzee, Ian McEwan and Philip Roth, I have many literary examples of older men’s desire, but far less when it comes to older women. Yet, when I speak to older women… well, the stories that many tell!

The idea of pleasure more generally is something that this novel returns to. Do you think reading should first and foremost be a pleasurable act?

I think that reading fulfills different desires for different people at different times. Sometimes, we read for pleasure, sometimes to be informed, sometimes as a distraction or escape. Perhaps what’s most important is that reading should be a compelling and rewarding experience, for that’s what keeps us reading. When I began John Berger’s To the Wedding it was not, at first, an altogether pleasurable experience in terms of the content or the form in which it was written. It took me a while to get used to his style of writing. I had a similar experience with Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, David’s Grossman’s, To the End of the Land, and Marilynne Robinson’s Home, yet all of these books would soon become favourite books – books that I continue to find rewarding as well as pleasurable. Many of the pleasures that I find in To the Wedding, for example, have to do with the beauty of Berger’s language – including an ability to conjure up multiple senses within one line. I love references to food, and there’s a poignant scene towards the end of To the Wedding in which two characters share “rolls of golden milk bread decorated with sugar crystals and vermillion berries” a scene that I will never forget.

Morayo writes a few paragraphs in the second person inspired by the physicality of Paul Auster’s Winter Journal that also reminded me of Claudia Rankine’s work. This book is very interested in what it means to live in a woman’s body, or a black body, or, indeed, a black woman’s body. How important was it for you to bring these topics up in your fiction?

Very few stories are written from the perspective of older women, let alone an older black woman, and so this was one of the things that drove me to write Morayo’s story. The second person is a powerful way of getting a reader to step into the shoes of the other and it works extremely well in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and in Paul Auster’s Winter Journal. The invisibility of black lives and the persistence of racism globally, which lie at the heart of much of Rankine’s work, are of great concern to me. I’ve written specifically about these issues in my nonfiction work, including an essay entitled “Coming of Age in the Time of the Hoodie.”

The novel slides between a wide variety of different voices. Was it a priority for you to portray a diversity of perspectives within this one work?

Yes, it was, and particularly at this point in history when there seems to be so much emphasis on what divides rather than unites us as a human race. My characters range from my protagonist, a 75-year old Nigerian woman who was once an ambassador’s wife and is now a retired professor; to Toussaint, an African American chef at a home for the elderly; to Sage, a homeless woman and Grateful Dead devotee. These are not the sorts of characters that might ordinarily be associated with a city such as San Francisco, and yet they represent the great diversity that exists in this city. I often find myself drawn to characters that are invisible due to circumstances such as socioeconomic status, gender and ethnicity. I’m particularly interested in how the so-called “outsiders” think of themselves in contrast to how others see them.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

There are almost too many to name – ranging form Nina Simone’s songs to Nora Chipaumire’s performance works, to collage paintings by Njedeka Akunyili Crosby, to a very long list of writers. But there was one piece of art that I looked at almost every day while writing this book. It’s a piece on painted wood and cardboard entitled “The other open window” by the Zimbabwean artist, Munyaradzi Mazarire. I like to think of books and art in general as serving as windows into worlds that we might not otherwise see, and this piece of art always inspires me in that way. Mazarire’s work helps me to imagine what lies behind what we might not immediately be able to see.

Finally: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to be so many things, and perhaps this is why I’m a writer. One common thread in my other imagined careers is a love of storytelling. For example, I’d love to sing, to have the power to move people with lyrics in the way that someone like Nina Simone or Bob Marley or Bob Dylan have done. I’d like to be a doctor – to be able to listen to people’s stories, figure out what’s wrong and how to cure them. I would also love to work in radio and host my own show. Inspired by Kirsty Young, I’d even love to host a programme like Desert Island Discs.

“Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun” is published by Cassava Press.

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, announced on 9 November, will appear in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 26 November.

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