An Interview with Sanni Omodolapo

Published by ArtingArena on

THE STORY NEEDS TO BE TOLD; of conversations and contemplations


JOEL: What is that thing you’ll omit when writing your biography?

DOLAPO: First of all, I should say thank you for counting me worthy, or interesting enough, to be interviewed, Joel. It’s a first for me and I will always think about it with fondness and love. Thank you. I am, as you already know, a big fan of your work; it’s a huge, huge honour to be interviewed by you. Now to the question: what would I omit when writing my biography? Two things: one is that I published two hideous books during my Instagram Poet era. One was titled “Village Tales” and the other was titled “Victim”. When I say hideous, Joel, believe me, those books were something else. I found the files from 2017, and ‘18, and I covered my eyes in shame and, of course, thanked God for growth. I am not where I want to be as a writer yet, but there’s been considerable (note this word, considerable!) progress. One is never confident about whatever one writes, you know? You question, you doubt, you second-guess, all those things. But I don’t think my Instagram Poet self could have ever imagined writing the way I write today, because so much has changed. So much. The other thing I’d omit is probably that I had an Instagram Poet era and for similar reasons with the first thing I mentioned. I actually built a  “following” out of the cheesy love poems I was writing and posting on Instagram and I thought that was it, that I was, you know, the man. I am embarrassed now that I think about that time. The fact that most of my friends in the writing game that I admire never got to see that part of my journey offers a weird, weird kind of comfort.

JOEL: What led to your involvement with the arts?

DOLAPO: I think I have just always been involved with/in the arts all my life. I genuinely found (and still find) science boring. It didn’t help that I was not so bright right from primary school—I was, I think, in the bottom half of the class—and I just could never make sense of the things I was learning about Science—Photosynthesis, Metabolism, all those things. I hated, hated Science, but I found that I was interested in music (there was a time that I was serious about being a rapper; I have songs I wrote with friends and neighbours that we never recorded), in painting (there was another time I wanted to become an artist and if anyone asked who my biggest inspiration was, I said, without thinking about it for long, without thinking at all, Aina Onabolu—up until when I was filling my JAMB form, I chose Fine Arts as my first choice and only changed it later), in stuff I could do with my hands, stuff that wasn’t too rigid, too, you know, prescriptive. But what led me to writing and my love for it was falling in love with a girl after my WAEC. (I can see you laughing while reading this. I am laughing, too.) During those long months after JAMB and WAEC, I started writing on Instagram and that coincided, I think, with a vacation in Lagos—the timeline is messed up in my head, so I will just say it as I remember it—during which I reconnected with the girl in question. I wrote her a poem and she genuinely liked it and I wanted that feeling, did not want it to stop, ever. It offered a strange kind of satisfaction, like after you eat a bowl of spaghetti and drink cold water or juice to ease it down. I got separated from her and writing love poems about her, and to her, was a way for me to deal with that separation, a way to cope with it, a way to let her know that I was thinking about her, that I loved her. After that, OAU happened, and I’ve just never stopped writing since then, and I can’t imagine a future in which I am not writing, in which I am not, as you asked, “involved with the arts”.

JOEL: We often say no work of art exists in a vacuum. How strong is the camaraderie between your life & your art?

DOLAPO: I make my work from life. I work from life, from what is familiar, if you get me. I have been doing a little “project” on Substack, where I publish personal letters to people, writing about things that no one would share even with a gun to their head (I’m exaggerating, I know). A lot of that is from my life, from how I have been privileged to go through life and have it go through me. Even in my fiction, I work from life. Everything that gets made up is never really “made up” as people like to think; I see it more as borrowing, or stealing, than making it all up. There’s a writer whose work I adore, Amitava Kumar. Half the time while reading his work, you’re never sure what is real and what is made up, where the boundaries between reality and “fiction” lie—I believe his work is sometimes described as Autofiction, but I have a problem with such terms, so just forget I mentioned it… You see in Immigrant, Montana and in A Time Outside This Time how he keeps blurring the lines, but you know so clearly, somehow, that he is drawing from life, drawing from life and doing something else with it. That is what I always try to do. It is boring to just say, oh, I know this street called Sin Street: I am interested in what else you can do with that information.

JOEL: What will you personally consider a good literary piece?

DOLAPO: Something that hooks me. Work that does not mess around—I wanted to say “fuck around”, but somehow thought that was a better way to say it. Something with a lot of heart, but not so much that it gets in the way. I am repulsed by work that glories in the self, that is unrepentant about blowing the individual out of proportion; there’s a lot more to say about this, but I’ll just leave it at that. If the work is in conversation with other works, if it is not trying so hard to do what has never been done before, I admire that a lot. Anything on love is automatically good to me. Anything that helps me, that enunciates something I have been trying to say but have been unable to find the language for. Anything that sees me, that I cannot stop thinking about months and years after reading it. Like Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, which I never finished but which left a mark on me. Like Eloghosa Osunde’s Good Boy, or Ope Adedeji’s After The Birds. Like W.S. Merwin’s Separation, or ‘Pemi Aguda’s Manifest, or Kincaid’s Girl. Also, anything by Teju Cole is automatically good to me; I can’t explain that.

JOEL: Knowing you & your work, you prefer prose. Did you choose that genre or it choose you?

DOLAPO: I think I just worked my way to it. I started with poetry, cheesy, poorly-written poetry. I started writing prose fully after I read JM Coetzee and saw what he did with it. Maybe you can say it chose me, but I don’t think it was ever something that grand: I had stuff I wanted to say, process, think through, and a poem could not do that for me anymore, so I turned to prose. I think it might also be that I found that I was lacking something vital every poet should have—what that is, I don’t know, but I felt I was lacking it and it was better to just stick with something I could at least try to do and learn to do well. I write poems from time to time, but I think I am more likely to show you a story than I am to show you a poem. Most of the poems I write are love poems or poems about love. I think I still have not recovered from that Instagram thing. I write prose because I like it, because I am a sucker for a good sentence, a sentence clean, as Baldwin once said, as a bone. 

JOEL: What is the lowest moment of your writing escapade so far?

DOLAPO: There was a time I lost a bunch of stuff I was working on, stories that I thought were exciting and fresh and could have changed my life when my phone got stolen. I couldn’t write anything for weeks after that, partly because I couldn’t bring myself to, and partly because I did not have a phone to write with and I didn’t (don’t) like writing longhand. A close second to that would be during COVID, I think, when rejections just poured into my mail like I had offended someone.

JOEL: You just graduated from the university with a Literature degree. How has studying literature helped or affected your writing?

DOLAPO: Well, I graduated with a degree in English, not Literature. I was a language major. And although I took some Literature courses that I found interesting, I can only talk about how studying language has affected my writing. About that, all I have to say is that: I think studying language helps me look at anything I read with a fresh pair of eyes: I feel like I can tell why the writer has made this choice instead of another, why she has put that comma there instead of a period, why she has chosen a long sentence instead of a short one, all those things. Of course, anyone can learn that, but there is always a difference, you see. There has to be a difference or my degree would have been for nothing. Do you get what I mean?

JOEL: Oh. Yes. I don’t fancy clichè motivations. So sincerely, what is your advice to Nigerian writers struggling to make something of their art?

DOLAPO: I don’t think I am in any position to give anyone advice, but I will say that: be patient and face your work. Keep your head down and work hard at getting better as a writer. Finally: Study the masters! Study the masters! Again: study the masters!

JOEL: Mention your top five favourite writers.

DOLAPO: This is a tough question. Let me try anyway:

(1.) Teju Cole, for the sheer brilliance of his work.

(2.) Amitava Kumar, for everything he continues to teach me about writing, about creative freedom.

(3.) Anton Chekhov.

(4.) Lydia Davis for showing me what else is possible, for insane language lessons.

(5.) Raymond Carver.

JOEL: What do you think online publications & contests have done to the literature of contemporaneity?

DOLAPO: I must say, I don’t understand this question. I am not so bright. You’ll have to forgive me for that. But if what you’re asking is what role I think online publication and contests play in contemporary literature, my response to that is: the platforms are good for writers, for those who have been lucky enough to get published, who have won contests. The visibility is good, especially in a place where you need such buzz around your work to get something out of it. The money is good, too. But I think there has to be a balance to it: the work should be made for the sake of the work being made, not for it to be published. That is what I think. To make the work even if it doesn’t get published. To make the work because it deserves to be made, because that story needs to be told because that poem needs to exist.

JOEL: Thank you, Sanni Omodolapo for your time. We are grateful to have you grace us with your prospects and experiences and a taste of your artistic life.

DOLAPO: You are welcome.


About the Interviewer

INTERVIEWER: Joel Oyeleke studies English at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. A lover of God, art and food.  He’s a widely published poet. He has, in the past, published two chapbooks. Joel currently serves as a poetry and interview editor for Arting Arena Magazine. His full length poetry collection will be published in 2024 under Joyful Concept Press, Port Harcourt.

About the Interviewee


INTERVIEWEE: Sanni Omodolapo is a Nigerian short story writer. A fresh graduate of English Language at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. His works have been published in Agbowo, RIC Journal, Ngiga Review, and IceFloePress. He blogs at _sanniomodolapo.blogspot.com_ and writes on Substack at _metoyou.substack.com._


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