The Writer of the Month of May is Damilola Salami!
Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Damilola made sure to spread her wings. Having gone to secondary school in Kenya and then doing her IB diploma in the UK, she is grateful for her rich educational background, which she believes gives her a unique perspective on the world. Now attending UCLA, she intends to double major in International Development Studies and English. Still, there’s nothing she enjoys more than engaging with creative writing outside of the classroom.
At 15, her first completed story was published in an African-themed collection, Whispers from the River. During the covid lockdown, she created a blog where she discusses social and political topics in Nigeria. And for over a year, she has been a member of Tomi Adeyemi’s online interactive writing workshop, The Writer’s Roadmap, which she hopes will guide her to the finish line of her first novella. Apart from writing, her favorite things to do are play tennis, watch musicals, and spend time with her friends.
With introductions done and dusted, let’s get to the interview with our Writer of the Month!
Dami, congratulations on being the May Writer of the Month! As a young aspiring writer, what inspired you to take up the pen, and is there a community of people who help you stay motivated?
Thank you! I am still processing it. I don’t know whether I am more surprised or honored by the award.
I couldn’t point to one sole person or event that started my writing journey. I have quite literally always been obsessed with words! When I was in Year 7, I would take the Oxford dictionary from the bookshelf of my English classroom and read it. Yes, I would read it. And then I would write down the words I liked with their meanings in my Word Book. I distinctly remember the day I discovered the word ‘effervescent’: reading its scientific meaning first (to be bubbly), I instantly felt that it was a shame that such a pretty word was limited to something so tangible. Imagine my pride when I learnt that, in fact, it could also be used to describe people’s personalities. From literary analysis papers to discursive blog posts, from college application essays to satirical poetry, writing offers me different facets to express myself and a different lens to view the world through.
As far as who has motivated me to keep going in my writing journey, I first give God all the praise for blessing me with a unique way with words. “Airport Chaos” and every other story I have written would not have been possible without His grace. Next, I am grateful to my friends for their unconditional love and support, even when I refuse to let them read my stories. Last but far from least, I would like to acknowledge my nuclear and extended family, whose counsel and encouragement have helped me to believe in myself the way they do, me. Special shout-out to my mum for teaching me that my voice will only be as loud as I work for it to be, and also for lending me her iPad, where I wrote my first ever ‘story’ in the Notes app.
That’s by far the most endearing origin story we’ve had. So, now that we know what has prompted you into writing and the people who helped you pursue it, if you had to link your current writing style to a particular writer and/or book, what would that be? What sparked the Damilola Salami form of storytelling?
In a nutshell: Chimamanda! And while I know that she is everyone’s favorite, I cannot deny that Ms. Adichie is my muse. After reading Half of a Yellow Sun in the summer of 2020, I felt geared to write a story for a 1000-word competition that was themed “Freedom”. It was the first competition I ever won. And trust me, I had entered a lot. In March of 2021, quarantined in my boarding house, I fell in love with Americanah (which is my all-time favorite book to date). It pulled me out of a writing slump and when I had finished it, I felt well-equipped to write “Airport Chaos”, which is the story that brought me here today. Chimamanda writes with a searing realism. Her unfolding plots don’t only make you smile, but also make you think, and make you change the way you think. Her characters have contradictions and irrationalities and skeletons. She gives dimension to the flat and worn out. If there is one thing I try to mirror from her work, it would be her stellar technique of showing rather than telling what she wants you to know, leaving that much more room for her readers to engage.
However, I can’t forget my childhood comforts. Roald Dahl moulded my imagination; Grisham taught me half the big words I know; I accredit my tendency to break the fourth wall to Pseudonymous Bosch.
We adore a Roald Dahl crafted imagination. Throw in influential African writers, and you are guaranteed a phenomenal piece.
You were selected as Brittle Paper’s Writer of the Month because of your April piece, “Airport Chaos.” That story is one of my all-time favorites that I’ve published. From the little quirky descriptions of what letters people are, to the highly relatable characters of Alafia and Mosopé, to the heartbreaking reliving of the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre, this story doesn’t give you a chance to look up from the page. How did you manage to weave all of these into one striking short piece?
Thank you, Tahzeeb, I am so happy you enjoyed the story! I think the most heart-warming compliments I have received since it was published are along the lines of “I can picture that MMA scene!” or “I get what Alafia was feeling on the plane.” It’s one thing for a writer to connect with their own story; it’s a much more gratifying thing to know that some readers can relate to it.
You know, I initially wrote “Airport Chaos” for a competition last year, held by the Agbowó literary journal, whose theme was “Chaos” (Yes, I know my story’s title is very original, but it was 11:56 PM and I was about to miss the submission deadline, so I panicked). Later on in the summer, when I found out the piece had not been selected, my reaction was very unlike me. I didn’t feel disheartened that rejecting my writing was virtually like rejecting me; or even embarrassed that I dared to think a story about people being letters would be taken seriously (okay, maybe this last one crossed my mind a little). But the overwhelming feeling was ‘hm, I’ll show these Agbowó people. They don’t know what they’re missing’. I cherished my story nonetheless because I had poured so much of myself into it. It was personal. I knew it had something special and I just had to trust God that it would reap fruits in the right time.
In terms of weaving all the different aspects into the story – I had lived them! “Airport Chaos” is considerably based on real experiences. There are many parts of Alafia I share/shared. I used to be ashamed of showing Nigeria off, slightly resenting those who were not, I would never correct those who mispronounced my name in order to protect their pride, and I love spaghetti with dodo.
There are also parts of Mosopé I see in the women around me, parts I aspire to adopt: standing firm in my convictions; speaking up for what is right even when it isn’t popular; being a consistent blogger… but that’s for another day.
Also central to my piece are the airport staff, to whom I intentionally do not give names. They are flattened to the simple, one-dimensional figures Alafia thought they were. I wanted them to represent the average Nigerian, who once associated with poverty, or illiteracy, or ‘raz-ness’, is assumed to be unhappy, less than, or in need of some kind of (misguided) saving. What Alafia did not realise from her high alphabet horse was that even though she had the expensive backpack and the foreign education, she did not know who she was or what she stood for. She was worse off than the man with the broken nails and the broken English, because he, at the very least, understood his positioning within the framework of Nigerian society.
You sharing the story with us is even more special now, so thank you for not giving up on it. I especially like that you mention the comments because seeing our readers respond to our published works is one of the highlights of what we do, particularly when it brings our writers joy.
Your comment on Alafia and the airport security man is quite striking. It is such a powerful critique on what is a common mindset to have when leaving home, especially for a completely different environment and the hindsight that few are able to witness.
I’ve read another of your story a while ago that featured the Boko Haram abductions and recently read a piece that is not socio-political at all and instead focusses on personal feelings of loss and inner healing. How do you navigate between these topics? What inspires you to pick either of these when writing?
The first one you’re referring to is “Freedom”, which I mentioned in an earlier response. Let me be honest: after getting the idea for this story, I was hesitant to write it. I did not want to appropriate or misconstrue the Chibok girls’ experience. I do not live in the north. I have never had an interaction with Boko Haram. So before I put pen to paper, I read a range of newspaper articles and watched a lot of YouTube clips to give me insight into what someone like Fatima would have felt, thought, longed for. And even then, I had to tread lightly.
Needless to say, the non-socio-political story you mentioned was much easier to write. I did not have to do any research. I was merely using my protagonist to voice my own inner conflicts and unresolved questions.
Whether or not they take place against a socio-political backdrop though, I like to think that all my stories cover aspects of internal struggle. For example, Fatima suffered from severe PTSD in the form of recurring nightmares and a newfound repulsion from her father. Like Chimamanda once said, we are all “searching”. I like to use my characters to manipulate this idea of our ‘search’ in life for meaning and for more.
That’s a lot to ask of a reader, and it’s only made possible when a writer is capable of drawing that out of you, which I very much think you are. On that note, our readers will be seeing a new piece of yours on Friday, titled “Remember.” Without giving too much away, what do we have to look forward to?
“Remember” is my most recent finished piece of fiction writing. I wrote it towards the end of March. It is relatively short because – once again – it was an entry piece for a story competition (I apply to all these competitions because if I don’t find a reason to finish a story, I will just end up with many half-written plots that do not make sense). This time, however, there was no set theme. I struggled to start. Then, one day, I went into the city to develop the film on my disposable camera – and nearly all my photos came back black. I was devastated. I cried for the first time all 2022 (can you imagine). That camera had pictures from the last time I was in Lagos, in December; pictures of my family, friends, my memories. And just like that, they were all gone. After this incident, I had to introspectively consider why I had put so much importance on digital squares. Why did it matter that I had ‘proof’ of those good times if they lived on in my head? I feel as though a lot of people today can relate to the feeling of essentialising happiness into pictures, fleeting moments that hardly (or inaccurately) capture the experience we are having.
To those people who relate, I hope “Remember” shows you that at the end of the day, none of that is as deep or as meaningful as we may make it seem.
Well, we can’t wait to read it on Friday.
Before we go, apart from your writing, Dami, what is one thing about yourself that you want to share with our readers?
I want your readers to know that the reason they are only just hearing about my story now is because for years, I have been ruled by fear. Fear of mediocrity; fear of rejection; fear that it’s too late to start something after wasting irredeemable time for so long.
I want them to know that for months after I finished “Airport Chaos”, back in 2021, I did not write a single story until a month ago. I claimed to have writer’s block but in reality, I was paralyzed by the possibility that I would never be able to write anything as good as “Airport Chaos”. Scared that, now that I had read all of Chimamanda’s novels, there was nothing new under the sun for me. I have been my own biggest setback and most vocal critic.
Over time, I have learnt that a lot of my fears came from anchoring myself to the unrealistic expectations I set for myself. As I began to let go of these expectations and just trust my sauce more (shoutout to the girl V-Vonz), I finally started to feel liberated. And I suppose that’s what’s got me here, fulfilling a dream I never knew I had.
Anyway, let me just stop here. My answers have been so long and unnecessarily deep, so to everyone that’s made it this far, I appreciate you and I want you to know you’re a G (and if you don’t get it, forget abourrit.)
It’s been wonderful having you share this with our readers, thank you! I can’t wait for your new work on Friday.