Operation Don’t Get Eaten

I was one of those nosy children always trying to listen in on grown up conversations that didn’t concern me. For many years, my family lived in faculty and staff housing on the campus of the University of Ibadan. Our home was Number 1 Sankore Avenue, a sprawling three-bedroom bungalow with a huge back and front yard plus mango, coconut, and other fruit trees. It was there, stuffing overripe mangoes into my face, sticky, sweet juice running down my bony arms, that I began my life-long mango addiction and gained respect for the soldier ants that protected the massive tropical almond fruit tree in our front yard. Our next-door neighbor was a British zoologist who helped build the UI zoo and who kept a large pair of boa constrictors in his garage.

Eavesdropping on a conversation one day, I learned something that would change my young life. One of my mother’s visitors brought up our neighbor’s snakes and casually dropped the fact that he fed the boa constrictors kid goats. My six-year-old mind received this information and came to a swift and perfectly logical conclusion. If the snakes could eat kid goats, they could probably eat kids of other species. This meant human kids, i.e., me or my brother. This is how “operation don’t get eaten” was born.

Every afternoon, my mother encouraged us to go out and play. We really didn’t need any persuading. Further down the road on Sankore, there was always adventure at our “cousins,” the Lawsons: a pickup game of futbol, prank telephone calls, board games, and delicious food that we instantly devoured, food that would have produced an epic tantrum if our mother had cooked it at home. A street over, on Saunders Road, there was the possibility of a game of hopscotch or ten-ten for me, more futbol for my brother, or a black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie at the flat of a young friend whose father owned a film projector and a seemingly endless supply of side-splitting comedy. Then there was the pleasure of simply roaming about with other kids from street to street and home to home until it started to grow dark, and it was time to head back home.

My main problem now was how to get past the boa constrictors safely. I knew not to bring this dilemma up with my mom because she would know that I was being a nosy parker and I would surely get in trouble. I quickly came up with a solution. It was to have us sprint barefoot and silent at top speed past our neighbor’s garage until we were four houses down, then look over our shoulders for any pursuing snakes. In this way, we outwitted the boa constrictors until my family left Ibadan for the University of Calabar, when I turned eight. The strategy obviously worked because I’m still here.

In Calabar, we moved into a block of flats, and I made my first American friend ever at school. I discovered that she lived one building over from us and brought her home to play. This went on until one day, I went to visit her, and eyes gleaming, she showed me her newest pet. It was a snake. A small constrictor. I regret to say that our friendship did not survive that slithering reptile.

This Small, Interconnected World

There are many great teachers who shape our lives: mothers and fathers, teachers in nursery school, grade school, and beyond. It’s not just the lessons that we learn from them, it’s the way they make us feel – safe, appreciated, full of boundless hope and optimism. I salute all those who have taught me along the way.

The very first time I received an NIH R01 grant as a principal investigator, it was followed by a congratulatory letter from John Kerry, my Senator at the time, and a lot of happy dancing on my part. NIH R01 grants were a dime a dozen at my then institution, a hospital with over three thousand researchers. There wasn’t much time spent on acknowledgment when you got one. It was simply expected.

When I received an NIH R01 grant as a principal investigator at my current university, the PR department issued a press release as it does for many happenings on campus. We are a relatively small medical and health professions school, a Historically Black Graduate Institution and Hispanic Serving Institution with about eighty researchers, in Los Angeles, a city with two giant universities that get almost all the press attention. I was absolutely ecstatic about the grant: after five grueling submissions in which I’d reshaped the idea based on feedback from skeptical reviewers and changed the type of grant as I accumulated publications, I finally convinced a group of my peers that many uninsured and underinsured patients with undiagnosed diabetic retinopathy had limited access to eye specialists in major urban areas of the US, and the use of telehealth and machine learning could help to identify patients in need and improve access (though a lot more than that needs to be done). When undetected and left untreated, diabetic retinopathy is a sight-threatening complication of diabetes. In fact, it’s the leading cause of blindness in adults under the age of seventy-five in the US.

The Los Angeles Sentinel, a weekly African-American newspaper, noticed the press release and wrote an article. I was unaware that they had. Several weeks later, I received a Facebook message out of the blue from the daughter of Mrs. Youdeowei, the woman who ran the nursery school I attended as a child in Ibadan, Nigeria. Turns out that a sharp-eyed Nigerian had noticed the LA Sentinel article, the link forwarded and re-forwarded, making it halfway across the world to the country of Cote d’Ivoire, where Mrs. Youdeowei had long since relocated. She clicked on it, scanned the contents and burst into tears. She asked her daughter to tell me how proud she was of me.

Even though I could no longer picture her face, I remembered how much I enjoyed her nursery school, how loved and safe I always felt there, how happy I was to return with my baby brother, day after day. It had been many decades since my mother reached out to her as her last hope for daycare following the unexpected and devastating loss of half of her family. Now a single mom, she had to go back to work full-time while completing her doctorate. She needed a daycare that would take a twenty-one-month-old and a nine-month-old. Every daycare she went to said that both kids had to be potty trained, turning her away when she asked how she was to potty train a nine-month-old baby. Mrs. Youdeowei was the only one who agreed to take us in. My brother and I thrived at her daycare. Given the circumstances, she must have wondered to herself what would become of the two new babies in her care. The LA Sentinel link was her first inkling that we had exceeded her hopes for us. I was touched to know that my brother and I were still in her thoughts. She passed away late last year before I had a chance to tell her in person what a difference she made in my life, but her memory lives on in the lives of all the children, now adults, that she cared for all those years ago.

Where It All Began

I work full time as a biomedical informatics professor. This means that I spend most of my time writing (and rewriting and resubmitting) NIH grants that examine the role that computational methods can play in reducing US health disparities, carrying out the research when a grant (almost miraculously) gets funded, publishing research papers, and teaching graduate students.

I started writing short stories as a researcher and junior faculty member in Boston because, frankly, the stories wouldn’t leave me alone. It was almost like they were haunting me, showing up in my dreams, asking, no begging, to be told. I was worried back then about whether any of my fellow biomedical informaticians would take me seriously if they knew that I loved writing fiction as much as I loved informatics. A lot of the early career advice I got was focused on getting grants and publications and promotions, attending conferences, networking (I’m really bad at that), finding new research collaborators to get more grants and publications and promotions. In some ways, I think writing fiction saved me. The desire to write followed me from Boston to Los Angeles.

So you might wonder, When do you find the time to write fiction? Early mornings before I leave for work and on weekends. Sometimes I’d take an evening writing workshop just to stay on track: at Grub Street, Boston and Writing Workshops LA, I found great writing instructors and likeminded writers, professionals with serious jobs who had a love of books, of reading and writing. It hasn’t been easy – it took almost fifteen years for me to start and finish Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions (from the first drafts to finding an agent who found me a publisher), but I regret nothing.

When I decided that I would take writing fiction seriously, I needed a different environment to work in, one that inspired me in a unique way. The Boston Public Library Copley Square’s Reading Room was just that environment. It was beautiful, so awe-inspiring that I couldn’t not write. The words for the initial drafts of many of the stories in Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions flowed out into my laptop there. I remember how ecstatic I’d feel, rolling my laptop briefcase to the nearest T Station on my way home to my condo in Brookline after a few hours of pouring words out. Then the next day, I’d go back to the library and do it again. This was my life for almost four years.

I left Boston for Los Angeles in 2007 and I hadn’t been back there in fifteen years! This summer, I decided to show my husband, who I met in Los Angeles, my old stomping grounds and the place where the book began. I hope you enjoy the pictures of the Copley Library and I hope it’s there for many others for years and years to come!

Olga Dies Dreaming

My best friend is from Puerto Rico. We met in a computer algorithms class in graduate school and, among other things, bonded over our shared love of sweet fried plantains (dodo in Yoruba, maduros in Spanish). I visited her and her family in San Juan many times over the years and came to love so many things about Puerto Rico: the clear turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea; El Yunque, the natural rainforest with its abundance of coqui, singing tree frogs that delighted my ears; and pastelon, Puerto Rican plantain lasagna (I’m drooling just thinking about that dish).

I knew that Puerto Rico had Independentistas, who seek complete liberation from the United States and are sometimes labeled as terrorists by people who don’t share their views, people who are pro- Puerto Rican statehood, and others who would like to maintain the current status quo. I was therefore intrigued when I first heard about Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming, with main characters of Puerto Rican descent from New York whose militant political mother abandons them to advance her own goals for the island.

I picked up a copy at Village Well Books, my new favorite independent bookstore in Culver City, California, which opened during the COVID-19 pandemic and is amazingly still going strong.

On the surface of it, Olga Dies Dreaming is a story about love, discovery, and self-growth, featuring Olga, an Ivy league-educated high-end wedding planner and her older brother, Prieto, a congressman representing a Puerto Rican enclave of Brooklyn. On another level, it is a pointed interrogation of the meaning of citizenship and the impact of colonization, heavily featuring the devastations of Hurricane Maria, PROMESA, and laws such as the Jones Act, which decree that goods shipped between two US ports must be built in America, owned by American citizens or permanent residents, and crewed and flagged by Americans. Unfortunately for Puerto Rico (and Hawaii, Alaska, etc.), in a crisis, this means help sent by international allies must first find their way to the mainland and then be transferred to US ships, introducing delays even in the midst of a catastrophe.

Olga and Prieto are children of former Young Lord revolutionaries, haunted by their mother’s abandonment for the cause and their father’s descent into drug addiction, but the story beautifully depicts their evolution towards self-acceptance, self-love, and romantic love, with empathy and humor. No spoilers here, I’ll just say that the book is well worth the read!

Cover Reveal: Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions

Excited to share the stunning cover for my novel-in-stories, Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions, out 9/13/2022. Amazing design by the AmistadBooks/HarperCollins team, inspired by a Yinka Shonibare sculpture.

Earlier this year, my editor asked me to pick artwork by a few artists that I like, as potential design starting points for the cover of the book. I selected (in no particular order): Njideka Akunyili-Crosby – The Beautyful Ones Series #7, 2018; Chris Ofili – Untitled, 2001; Yinka Shonibare – Magic Ladder Kid IV, 2014; and Kehinde Wiley – The Two Sisters, 2012 (An Economy of Grace).

I had no idea which work (if any) the HarperCollins book cover design team would use as a starting point. I am beyond thrilled at the resulting cover.

Longthroat Memoirs

I like to visit independent bookstores when I’m traveling. Pre-pandemic, I used to be in the Washington, DC area a lot for conferences and review committee meetings.  My favorite bookstores there are Kramerbooks and Afterwords (now just called Kramers) in Dupont Circle and Busboys and Poets on 14th and V. 

A few years ago, I was in DC for a relative’s wedding and my husband and I hung out with my brother in the Dupont Circle area. We went in to Kramerbooks and Afterwords and my brother bought me a book that I have come to cherish.

That book is Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds by Yemisi Aribisala. It’s an award-winning book about Nigerian fare by a talented and imaginative food writer, but that characterization doesn’t properly do it justice.

I think the best way to describe Longthroat Memoirs is as a series of essays on Nigerian culture through its wide variety of cuisines. Aribisala spends quite a bit of time in the Calabar area, famed for dishes like edikang ikong and afang soup.

I loved “Okro Soup, Gorgeous Mucilage,” in which she defends draw soups from their detractors worldwide, and her essay “A Beautiful Girl Named Ogbono” had me laughing out loud as she describes taking advantage of her mother’s absence on a visit to a friend’s house to ask her host for a third helping of delicious ogbono soup (when I was growing up, Nigerian moms often instructed kids not to accept food outside their home, no matter how tempting). “Dead Man’s Helmet” is a particularly haunting essay on eating and survival while in motion, during the Biafran War.

The rich collection of essays made me laugh, cry, and also very hungry. I savored each page, even putting off reading the last essay for a while, because I didn’t want the book to end.