‘Pemi Aguda is a Nigerian writer, architect, and podcast host. You may know her as the winner of the Writivism Short Story Prize — her story, Caterer, Caterer is simultaneously entertaining and chilling. In this interview, she shares her hack to reading more, the book everyone needs to read (and then weep afterward), and the forthcoming book she’d camp out on a line for if she could.
What are you currently reading (indicate whether you’re wont to read more than one book at a time)
Yes, I read a few books at a time although one usually has most of my attention. Right now, I’m reading The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka because I have to (and I have to confess they’re causing hallucinations). I’m also reading Mike McHargue’s Finding God in the Waves – it’s a fascinating story of re-finding faith through science. Then I’m sipping at Chris Abani’s The Face: Cartography of the Void. It’s such a tiny book but it’s so good, I’m delaying the end. It’s a painful slow beautiful thing I’m doing to myself.
Have you always been a reader? What is the first book you remember ever reading? What drew you into reading/why do you read?
I’ve always read books, yes. I remember Enid Blyton – which I’m sure is a popular answer. Now, I was too young to know what drew me into reading, perhaps curiosity? Books were there and I could read? But whatever it was that pulled me in at the beginning, I continue to read now because it’s my default mode. Books are explorations, affordable breaks from reality. I read to entertain myself, to peep into other people’s heads, to understand the world a little more, to understand myself in relation to the world, to learn. No matter the kind of story – realism, speculative, non-fiction – it always gives new insight into the human condition and that’s something I’m endlessly fascinated by.I continue to read now because it’s my default mode. Books are explorations, affordable breaks from reality. - @PemiBetty Click To Tweet
What is your philosophy on reading? (for example, some people have to finish every book they start)
Huh, I don’t think I have a philosophy on reading. I will read what I want and stop when I want. I used to put pressure on myself to finish everything I started but that’s frankly ridiculous now – too many books, too little time.
How often do you read? And how do you fit it into your day?
I read every chance I get. My kindle’s always in my bag. My friend teases me when I take it to the store down the road or something silly. But I always say, you never know – there’ll be a lapse in activity at some point and it’ll be right there. I don’t consciously ‘fit’ reading into my day – I mean, it’s default mode. I will at some point reach for something, even if it’s a short story online. But on the days I’m super busy… let’s just say everyone knows not to think I’ll spend only five minutes in the bathroom.I read every chance I get. My kindle’s always in my bag. My friend teases me when I take it to the store down the road or something silly. Click To Tweet
Where do you like to read? Where’s the weirdest place you’ve ever read a book?
I like to read on the 3-seater sofa in the Living room, on the shaggy rug, on my mum’s lounge chair, on my bed. I’ll read anywhere, but if there’s enough space for me to curl around the book, I’ll like it. Weirdest place I’ve read a book – in a wardrobe (used to be a thing when I was younger), under the dining table, at every social event in my teenage years.
What makes a good book, in your opinion?
Tough question. I think a book is good when I can feel it. It’s a book with compelling messy characters, an emotionally-true story that sweeps over me, writing that makes me sigh or smile or swear in envy… But a really good book for me is one that makes me want to pause/suspend reality to continue it.I think a book is good when I can feel it. It’s a book with compelling messy characters, an emotionally-true story that sweeps over me, writing that makes me sigh or smile or swear in envy Click To Tweet
Who are your favorite authors to read?
Too long a list, fam. Lorrie Moore, Haruki Murakami, Edwidge Danticat, Chuma Nwokolo, George Saunders, Helen Oyeyemi, Angela Carter, Diane Cook, Karen Russell, Joyce Carol Oates, Junot Diaz, Mia Couto…
What is a book or who is an author you feel is very underrated?
An author I wish more people knew is Maaza Mengiste. You must all find Beneath The Lion’s Gaze – read it, weep, clutch your chest, live.
E-book, audiobook or paper? How do you feel about making notes/highlighting books?
The only one I’m not comfortable with is audiobooks. I get too distracted, so if I’m taking time to focus on a book, might as well read it, ey? I love my kindle, I love my book books. It’s easy to romanticize the smell and weight and feel of real books, I do this myself – but the Kindle has given me far more access and portability than I would have been privy to if I limited myself to physical copies.
This highlighting thing, eh – another reason I like the Kindle. I don’t like to mark my books but I don’t believe it’s sacrilegious. I’d just rather not; I would instead rewrite the paragraph in a book, on my phone, anywhere, take a photo – than underline. When I’m reading a book that’s been marked by someone else, I find it fascinating to see what someone else found profound or interesting but it is distracting, sometimes annoying, because it emphasizes bits that I otherwise might not have paid as much attention to.
Fiction vs Non-fiction?
Why we gotta pit them against each other? Haha! I’m trying to get to a place where I’ll easily pick either. But right now, Fiction.
What happens to you when you read a good book? (at the beginning, during and after the experience?)
Sometimes when I casually start a book and it’s so good immediately, I’ll drop it. Because you have to be centered and ready, right? Then I’ll pick it up when I know there’s the least chance of interruptions. I’ll postpone work; I’ll stay hours in the bathroom just to finish it. And when it’s over, I might cry, I might hold the book to my chest and stare at nothing in front of me. I might even add a sway to it. Then I’ll grab whoever’s closest to me and maybe choke on words or say, “Oh my God!” If there’s nobody beside me, I’ll pick my phone with shaking hands and tell everybody. Or I might just lie there for hours, doing nothing, forehead wrinkled, thinking: huh – my life is different now I have read this.
Do you reread books? Why?
Hardly. And it isn’t because I don’t want to, it’s just… where’s the time with so many unread books waiting? I re-read Lorrie Moore’s short stories all the time (and others’), and Yrsa Daley-Ward’s Bone, I’ve devoured over and over. But a whole book, novel, memoir, long form, I usually wouldn’t. Maybe sections of it, but not the whole.
What book do you wish you could experience again for the first time?
What was the last great book you read?
If you had to choose three books that everyone should read, what would they be?
What book(s) are you embarrassed to have read? What books are you embarrassed to still not have read?
I read Fifty Shades of Grey, the first one. Is this also a popular answer? For the latter, the list is long. Let’s not do this to me? For the sake of this interview, I will confess that I haven’t read any of Wole Soyinka’s works. (I did read the play, The Lion & The Jewel but that was for Literature class in school.)
How do you feel about ‘classic’ literature?
How do you feel about ‘classic’ literature? @pemibetty says to read them all so long it’s covering the breadth, from Pride & Prejudice to Efuru. Click To Tweet
How do you feel about book clubs?
I joined my first book club this year. It’s been splendid; we’ve met a few times. I love how diverse opinions and reactions to books are, you learn a lot from these gatherings. (Although I haven’t forgiven them for not enjoying We Need New Names.) There’s more discipline when reading for a book club – there’s the fixed time frame and knowing you’ll have to discuss a book afterward changes the approach somewhat – you sit up a little.
What book(s) have changed your life, and how?
The Awakening by Kate Chopin was an actual awakening for me. It’s a book that was published in 1899 about a discontent housewife who leaves – it was very controversial at the time, but what I found odd was how much I related to the despair, the heaviness this character from the 1800s felt. Something clicked inside of me when I read this book, I could see what I wanted and didn’t want a little more clearly.
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. Might be cheating because there are four books in this set. But these books opened my eyes to so much, made me confront things about sexuality, feminism, poverty, education, humanity. I got such a well-rounded education from Ferrante.
Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The writer in me is grateful for this book. The magical realism of it opened my eyes to a new and glorious way of talking about the world.
How do you choose books to read?
Recommendations, reviews, guts, a nice cover. It varies based on the weather.
What book are you currently DYING to read?
The new Arundhati Roy! The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. If there was a line, I’d camp on it.
If you liked this, you’d enjoy reading Kendra and Autumn’s (from The Reading Women’s Podcast) interview.