Faith Adiele, Writer In Residence At Surel’s Place, On The Pandemic, A World Of Calm And Lady Problems
As the pandemic held the planet in its grip, there was deep concern for education, travel and government … yet there was minimal conversation about how COVID-19 had upended the literary world.
“I did start to feel great anxiety,” said Faith Adiele, best-selling author of Meeting Faith, The Thai Forest Journals of a Black Budhist Nun.
“And I knew that it was going to really bring to light the inequities in our society. So, I really worried for folks of color and marginalized folks … because I just knew it would hit them bad. And so initially I couldn't write at all.”
Adiele, this month’s writer-in-residence at Surel’s Place in Boise, visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about how her work evolved through the pandemic, her powerful and provocative memoir, The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems, and her collaboration with HBO Max on the series A World of Calm.
“It was super exciting. And of course, it was so gratifying to have these big name stars read my words.”
Read the full transcript below:
GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Faith Adiele is here… a conversation we've been looking forward to for some time. She’s an award winning author, including… and boy, these titles will blow the doors off…. “The Nigerian Nordic Girl's Guide to Lady Problems.” And Meeting Faith, The Thai Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun.” It won the PENn Open Book Award. And she is this month's writer-in-residence at Surel’s Place in Boise. Faith Adiele…good morning.
FAITH ADIELE: Good morning. Thanks so much for having me, George.
PRENTICE:. We've been talking so much about how things will be different in the shadow of COVID but, quite frankly, most of those conversations are about travel or education or government. I'm curious about your perspective on surviving the pandemic and how it is changing or will change what you do for’a living.
ADIELE: Oh, yes, I do a number of things as a writer. I'm a professor, so I teach writing. I work on my own writing. I'm also very active in the travel writing community. So that was the first space where I noticed things being curtailed. I couldn't go out and do the stuff that I normally do, and I immediately switched all my classes to how to write about travel when you can't go anywhere. And I think reflection is really important. Too often we're just Zooming around. And so it gave me an opportunity to kind of really lean into craft and think about the importance of reflection and research when doing travel writing. But initially I was kind of blocked. I couldn't write. And I think I just felt super anxious that my lifestyle didn't change that much. I'm fairly introverted… sitting at my desk most of the time. So, in one sense, I kind of welcomed the lockdown. But I did start to feel great anxiety. And I knew that it was going to really bring to light the inequities in our society. So, I really worried for folks of color and marginalized folks… because I just knew it would hit them bad. And so initially I couldn't write at all.
And one of the things that I did… as a friend reached out and said she was really worried, too. What if we started a meeting space where folks of color could come together online and maybe we could just write some prompts and just see how it went? So, we did it one night. We posted online at eight o'clock the night before, saying we were going to do it. And the next day we had 40 people show up and they said, “What about next week?” And we're like, “Oh, OK.” And so before we knew it, we had this giant organization of like seventy people showing up every week, writing to two prompts and then sharing with each other. And then it spun out a reading series; and there's going to be an anthology from it. And through having to come up with these prompts that would address giving people language to talk about what they were dealing with. I started to get inspired myself and before I knew it, I had written a book of essays, which is what I'm revising here in Boise at Surel’s Place. So, it just kind of snuck up on me.
PRENTICE: Just out of curiosity, where are you with that… and when might we expect that?
ADIELE: Good question. Well, I think I'm pretty close. I'm working on the book proposal. I have a few more essays to write that my agent is asking for because there's also the… kind of fatigue in the publishing world of…”We don't necessarily want another COVID book, but, you know, COVID might be the plot.” But the things that I've always been interested in: culture, family, home, the intersectionality of identity… that is still the theme. And so I'm shifting a little bit, so that it will be something that has legs beyond the idea of COVID…hopefully within the next year or so.
PRENTICE: Well…we have a surprise to listeners, and it will most certainly be a surprise to me. I have asked Faith to choose a passage… entirely up to her, to share this morning. Faith, what did you choose?
ADIELE: Well, I chose something from “The Nigerian Nordic Girl's Guide to Lady Problems,” because I like being able to say that as often as I can. And because July is, in fact, Fibroids Awareness Month. And since fibroid strikes, 90 percent of black women, I always want to leap at the opportunity to be able to read from that, if I may.
PRENTICE: I read it… and then I had the experience of listening to you read it in Audible. It wasn't entirely new, but it was an entirely new experience. I was stunned. It is hilarious and heartbreaking in the same moment. It is an absolute must-read. So, I can't wait to hear you share with us a passage from that.
ADIELE: Thank you so much. OK, this is from the beginning of :”The Nigerian Naughty Girls Guide to Lady Problems.”
Almost 10 years after finding my unknown father and siblings in Nigeria, I didn't come to graduate school to get tumor's… one the size of a grapefruit. I came to write about finding my unknown father and siblings in Nigeria and about being raised by my Nordic immigrant mother and grandparents and about what a bad sister I am… unable to make myself return to Nigeria. So, the change… heavy, painful periods that last two weeks at a time, and a parade of blond doctors at student health ascribes to the stress of moving to Iowa where nothing ever happened, stressful or otherwise, irritates me. Do something my friends goad and reluctantly, I go online. It is my responsibility to myself as a good modern woman. I need to be informed, pro-active, wary of Western pharmaceuticals but eager to know the worst. The preliminary symptoms suggest fibroids, which the surgeon general defines as benign tumors that grow in or on the uterus tumors the threat of the word slightly undercut by the soft premise of benign. How is that possible? How can something be both frightening and friendly? Explain. The general complies. They are often embedded in the wall of the uterus, but may also be attached to the outside. I can't picture this, though. It's intriguing. An army of uninvited children clinging to all sides of the womb, like passengers on an African lorry… babies tied to back, toting live chickens in those red and blue striped Chinese bags, careening down a Nigerian road headed for disaster. They can be any size. The largest recorded fibroid weighed 140 pounds. Take that to the Iowa State Fair. Forget about county's biggest boar. and life-size butter sculpture of The Last Supper. We've got a tumor the size of its host.
PRENTICE: My goodness. And that journey takes you to some well-intentioned caregivers, some some clueless, absolutely clueless caregivers, alternative medicine and everything else along the way. And the people who love and care for you. pulling and prodding your emotions. It is a must-read. And being an old white male, it was the tonic that I did not expect… and needed. And…you never know what you want until..
ADIELE: I love hearing that.
PRENTICE: Thank you for that. We've got to talk about A World of Calm, the series on HBO Max. And you wrote two of those episodes: “A Horse's Tale” and “Water,
Giver of Life.” Now, “A Horse's Tale” is narrated by Kate Winslet. “Water, Giver of Life” is narrated by another Oscar winner, Mahershala Ali, and reminds us that wherever water flows, life follows. It's inside everything that lives. Can you talk a little bit about that experience… and this marriage of prose and breathtaking visuals? They're almost…special effects. It's almost as if it was illustrated as opposed to filmed. They're so beautiful. Can you talk can you talk about that experience?
ADIELE: That was one of the beauties…one of the opportunities that COVID provided, actually. Because right at the time when I was having to cancel things and seeing travel opportunities and conferences dry up and I'm just like, “Oh, no, what am I going to do then?” Calm calls me. And they had gotten connected by somebody in the travel world and they were actually interested in having me write for the app, Calm, to write a sleep story, which I have, in fact. When I was talking to the guy, he's like, “You know, I looked at your website and it seems like you're up for anything. It seems like you just say yes to things.” And I was like, yes, if anyone asked me to do something, I feel that if I can't do it, I say yes to it and he's like, “You know, you are a Buddhist nun. You teach at an art school. You're doing this travel stuff.” He says. “It just seems like you have a lot of interests that would be perfect. We're starting this crazy new thing. We don't know if it's going to work, but we're going to take Calm to television.” And I was like, “What? Isn’t the whole idea to keep people agitated and awake when they're watching television? Why would you want to bring Calm to television?” And this is the very beginning of the pandemic. We didn't know how long it was going to last and how much disordered sleep and stress people would have.
So it was really prescient on his part to think that this would be something that Americans needed so much. I worked on the PBS documentary about my family, but I had never written for television. But I was very interested. And I love collaborating with other arts, and I'm very influenced by visuals myself - photography and film - when I write. And so the idea of doing this would be great. And it was funny because the entire team was in England, except for me, which actually kind of worked because they put together these gorgeous visual stories and then emailed them to me and they went to bed. I would madly research and write and then send it to them, and go to bed and they would read it. So, we had this wonderful loop going on and I had two very different editors: one person wanted really kind of like poetry. She wanted things that you would not be able to figure out through looking at the visuals. What's the mythology of the place? And then somebody else wanted things that were more specific, wanting to teach us about different horses. So I just loved collaborating because as a writer, you're usually alone and tortured. And so to have this working with a researcher and film editor, and the director, it was super exciting. And of course, it was so gratifying to have these big name stars read my words.
PRENTICE: On July 26th. Faith will be doing a multimedia reading from Surel’s Place, which will be broadcast live on Facebook. And on July 27th, she'll be a guest on Story Story Late Night at, of all places, the old Idaho Penitentiary. But for now, we want to say a huge thank you to Faith Adiele. Thank you for giving us some of your morning.
ADIELE: My pleasure.
Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren
Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio