Taking Her Cue from Baldwin: A Conversation with Sarah Ladipo Manyika

January 9, 2023


A black and white photograph of Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Sarah Ladipo Manyika is a writer of novels, short stories, and essays translated into several languages. She is author of the best-selling novel In Dependence (2008) and the multiple shortlisted novel Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016). She has had work published in Granta, The Guardian, Washington Post, and Transfuge, among others. Manyika serves as board chair for the women’s writing residency, Hedgebrook; she was previously board director for the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, and has been a judge for the Goldsmiths Prize, California Book Awards, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and chair of judges for the Pan-African Etisalat Prize. Sarah is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Her most recent book is Between Starshine and Clay: Conversations from the African Diaspora.

In this interview, the writer and editor Darlington Chibueze Anuonye chats with Manyika about her new book, Between Starshine and Clay, as well as her novels.

Darlington Chibueze Anuonye: I am stunned by the uncommon beauty and range of your recent book, Between Starshine and Clay. The book is a generational gift. The caliber of your interviewees, from Michelle Obama to Toni Morrison, Margaret Busby to Henry Louis Gates Jr., Wole Soyinka to Claudia Rankine, is a testament to your intellectual devotion to Black lives and experiences. Where will these conversations across Africa and the African diaspora lead us?

Sarah Ladipo Manyika: Thank you, Darlington. My hope is that this book will lead, in some small way, to a deeper and richer understanding of Africa and the African diaspora—of the many things we hold in common as well as our differences. Similarities range from experiences of racism and discrimination to police brutality, and to the fragility of democracies whether we’re talking about Nigeria, Zimbabwe, or America. Differences include personal histories, identities, backgrounds, and geographies. There are some in this book, like Michelle Obama, for example, who used the platforms they were given to effect change while others, such as Evan Mawarire, created a movement from the bottom up to speak truth to power. The twelve featured are a tiny subset of many others doing extraordinary things. My hope is that Between Starshine and Clay will inspire more writers to capture such stories and histories.

Darlington: What do you remember about the contributors to this important book?

Plant trees under whose shade other generations will sit. Each of those featured embodies this evocation.

Sarah & Willard Harris

Sarah: Oh, so many things, especially the joyful moments that we shared. I remember, for example, the laughter between old friends Wole Soyinka and Henry Louis Gates Jr. as Soyinka reminisced about Morrison teaching him the phrase “knock your socks off” but then failing to deliver on the promise of knocking his socks off with the choice of a restaurant that Soyinka found lacking—not enough pepper! Or the moment when I asked Morrison if we could talk about sex, to which she responded with a wry smile, “Yeah! I’m in a good position to talk about it, since it’s been like a thousand years. What do you want to know?” Or the day, when walking with 102-year-old Willard Harris, that she insisted I seize the opportunity to travel to the South Pole, repeatedly saying, “You go, girl!” And so it was that the stories and the laughter flowed. I also love the adage that several of them cite, from Michelle Obama to Lord Michael Hastings, Margaret Busby, and Senator Cory Booker—plant trees under whose shade other generations will sit. Each of those featured embodies this evocation.

Darlington: Although James Baldwin is not one of the interviewees for Between Starshine and Clay, his presence is felt all over the book, especially in your introduction, “Notes of a Native Daughter.” How do you remember Baldwin?

Sarah: How I wish that Baldwin was still with us—he was so wise, and his work feels just as relevant today as it was during his lifetime. Baldwin’s presence is felt throughout this book in part because he meant so much to many of those featured, including Morrison. In Morrison’s eulogy for Baldwin, she refers to three gifts that he gave to her: tenderness, courage, and language. These are gifts that I feel he’s given to all of us, and of course Morrison has left us with similar gifts, too. A copy of Baldwin’s Collected Essays has sat close to my writing desk for more than two decades. It sits alongside Margaret Busby’s groundbreaking anthologies, Daughters of Africa and New Daughters of Africa—my literary taliswomen.

I have written about Baldwin in Between Starshine and Clay and elsewhere. Baldwin means a lot to me for the following reasons: he inspires me as a writer; he inspires me for his wisdom—his insights and clarity around many issues; and I identify with the various places and peoples of the African diaspora that he writes about from France to America. My introductory essay is a reverent nod to Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son with its personal exploration of race, histories, and countries lived in.

Darlington: Of course, in “Notes of a Native Daughter,” you write about the complications with being and becoming in a manner evocative of Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” You mention that in Nigeria, you are considered “Oyinbo,” which loosely translates to a white person; African in England; Arab in France; colored in Zimbabwe; and Black in America. Is this a case of hyphenated identity, or racial profiling? How weighty is your experience of race and identity?

Sarah: Humans are fond of putting people into categories for all sorts of reasons, but oftentimes, especially when it comes to skin color and nationality, for creating hierarchies or pecking orders. As for my experiences of race and identity, that’s a very big question deserving of an essay-length response, hence my introductory chapter. But in brief, as a child of a multiracial marriage who has lived in various countries with different histories of race and racism, and as a scholar and novelist for whom race and identity feature fairly prominently in my work, it’s safe to say that these issues are weighty, albeit not to the point of holding me back. Here again is where I take my cue from Baldwin, who advocates remaining committed to the struggle against injustices while keeping one’s heart free of hatred and despair.

I take my cue from Baldwin, who advocates remaining committed to the struggle against injustices while keeping one’s heart free of hatred and despair.

Darlington: Morayo, the main character of your second novel, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, is Nigerian. Seventy-five. Incapacitated. Exiled in San Francisco. Bereft of family love. What a life! How much crueler can the exilic condition be?

Sarah: My first thought is that there are, of course, harsher forms of exile. Morayo does at least have a comfortable place to live, food to eat, and access to health care. I also suspect that Morayo, with thoughts of the ethnic and religious strife that had taken place in her home city of Jos, might be quick to say that the internally displaced face the cruelest form of exile. In many ways, the story I chose to write is not what readers might associate with the archetypal immigrant or exile story. It’s not a story of someone who has arrived in a country without all the necessary documentation, or of someone living on the edges of society, just barely scraping by. I chose to write about a character who lives a life of the mind and is materially well off. Yet, as you highlight, she too faces hardships and loneliness in her old age.

Darlington: Your startling exploration of Morayo’s erotic desires calls to mind Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s tender rendering of Hajiya Bintu’s love affair with Raza in Season of Crimson Blossoms. What inspired your engagement with aging and sexuality?

Sarah: I’d met many older women who had lived colorful lives, and yet when it came to fiction I couldn’t find many stories that mirrored this, especially so when it came to the lives of Black women. Similarly, I couldn’t find many books that explored an older woman’s sexuality. I had many literary examples of older men’s desire, but far less when it came to older women, and so I decided to go there, albeit in a small way. You mention Abubakar’s wonderful novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, and I can tell you that when it came out I joked with him that his fifty-five-year-old Bintu could hardly be considered an old woman, at least not in comparison to my Morayo, two decades older. However, I hadn’t yet met Willard Harris, a real-life character and now a dear friend whom I write about in my new book. Mrs. Harris was ninety-seven years old when I first met her, and at that time she had a “gentleman friend” who was at least a decade younger than her. You know what they say about life being stranger or more interesting than fiction . . .

Darlington: Speaking of the strangeness of life, let me share a personal story about your debut novel, In Dependence. The second time I read the book was at a neighbor’s house. She had invited me to advise her daughter, who, she complained, locked herself up in her room all day, doing nothing. When the girl heard my voice, she opened the door and let us in. I saw In Dependence in her hand. She asked if I had I read the book, and I said yes. Then, we both smiled. It was a gesture of our shared knowledge of what the novel could do to a reader, how it demands absolute privacy and attention. What inspired In Dependence?

Sarah: Thank you, Darlington, and what a touching story! I’d love to meet your neighbor’s daughter. In terms of what inspired the novel, it was simply as Morrison once put it: If there’s a story you’re dying to read and you can’t find it, then write it. I was looking for a great interracial love story set in geographical locations and historical periods that I was particularly interested in—namely West Africa from the 1960s to present day—and because I couldn’t find that story, I attempted to write it.

Darlington: You created what should exist. That’s beautiful. Also, my neighbor’s daughter would be glad to meet you.

When I started reading In Dependence aloud to the girl, her mother left us alone. While leaving, she said, “You people know each other well.” What would she have said of Tayo and Vanessa? Those lovers, their relationship was a force, even though they lived in complicated times and places. Nothing is as heartbreaking as a love that cannot be, a seed planted in a sinking sand. Why did Tayo and Vanessa have to go through all that difficulty?

Sarah: I think that every relationship has its complications, and in the case of Tayo and Vanessa, they had to contend with the added family and societal pressures of being an interracial couple at a time of pervasive colonial attitudes. In the 1960s, there was a great deal of societal resistance to interracial relationships, attitudes that arguably still persist to this day whether in the UK, America, or elsewhere. If I’d written a novel without complications, I also suspect that your neighbor’s daughter would have exercised her spirit of independence and found a different book to immerse herself in.

Darlington: There’s history, a tragic one, in In Dependence. Speaking of her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie confessed that she’s emotionally attached to the book. By this, she’s referring to the novel’s preoccupation with the Nigerian civil war. I imagine that for its engagement with the same war, In Dependence is equally personal to you.

Sarah: I’m so grateful to Adichie for having written Half of a Yellow Sun with its focus on the Nigerian civil war. Her novel, alongside other books with the war at its core, including Soyinka’s memoir The Man Died, Chris Abani’s novella-in-verse Daphne’s Lot, and Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees, all give us a greater sense of the events and conditions of that horrific war. While the civil war is not the central focus of In Dependence, it forms part of the tragic backdrop to the story. In Dependence is deeply personal for me in that I am writing about my parents’ generation. This is not my parents’ story, but it could have been their story.

Darlington: There’s also literary history in In Dependence. Tayo reminds me so much of Obi Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease. Tayo’s and Obi’s love affairs face similar cultural and racial resistance; also, both characters are implicated in the political lives of their newly independent nations. Are you conscious of this intertextuality?

Sarah: That’s a really interesting observation. You’re right that there are similarities between the two protagonists. Tayo and Obi are roughly of the same generation, they both win scholarships to study abroad, and they return to Nigeria full of idealism before finding themselves buffeted by some of the same issues and challenges of the day. What’s also interesting is that it’s Vanessa who urges Tayo to read Achebe’s novels. When Tayo does read No Longer at Ease, he’s struck by how tragic the story is but doesn’t, at least not in his letter to Vanessa, go as far as reflecting on how Obi’s story might be relevant to his own life.

Darlington: The references to the poet Christopher Okigbo in In Dependence warm my heart. What is your relationship with Okigbo?

Sarah: The warmth that I feel toward Okigbo actually comes from hearing my father speak about him. In the late 1950s, my father was one of his students at Fiditi Grammar School, Ibadan, where Okigbo taught Latin and English literature and was also the sports coach. I suspect that my dad, the football team’s goalkeeper, might have been one of Okigbo’s favorite students. He recounts the story of how Okigbo came to him one afternoon and asked if he’d ever traveled in a car that went as fast as one hundred miles an hour. “Hop in,” said Okigbo to my father, and then proceeded to dazzle him with a speedy drive to the University of Ibadan in his red sports car. My father describes Okigbo as a fast-speaking, fast-driving, fun-loving, and extremely intelligent young man. He apparently had a flair for languages, routinely reciting passages of Ovid in Latin, and tutoring one student in Greek who subsequently got an A in the Greek exam. My dad also describes how Okigbo, along with the school headmaster, Alex Ajayi, would have various “bashes” over the weekend. They were, as my father later reflected, a high-powered Bloomsbury Group of young intellectuals and scholars. These are stories I wish we had more of, and they’re part of the impetus behind Between Starshine and Clay: Conversations from the African Diaspora.

Darlington: I’m grateful for your time, Sarah.

Sarah: So am I, Darlington.

October 2022

Editorial note: Erik Gleibermann’s interview with Manyika, “Cross-Cultural Romance with Global Itinerary,” appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of WLT.

Darlington Chibueze Anuonye is editor of The Good Teacher: An Anthology of Essays in Honour of Teachers as well as curator of Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories and Through the Eye of a Needle: Art in the Time of Coronavirus. He is also co-editor of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction. Anuonye was awarded the 2021 Amplify Fellowship of the MasterCard Foundation and longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award.