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!

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.