Tomi Obaro, DELE WEDS DESTINY: A Novel

Tomi Obaro, DELE WEDS DESTINY: A Novel

Guest host Alisha Fernandez Miranda interviews BuzzFeed News editor Tomi Obaro about Dele Weds Destiny, a sensational debut novel about three beautifully complex Nigerian women who meet in college and reunite at a wedding decades later. Tomi talks about the aunties who inspired the books’ protagonists, switching between her editor and writer brains, and her fascination with weddings (she has even attended some pay-for-admission fake ones…). She also describes her publishing journey and the mixed emotions she has felt since her novel’s publication.


Alisha Fernandez Miranda: I don’t care what format you buy this book, but you should really go out and get this book. I loved it. Tomi, welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Tomi Obaro: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Alisha: I will try to contain myself from spending the whole time talking about all the things I loved. The first dozen pages, you just had everything for me. You had a dramatic foreshadowing of events. You had a multigenerational story featuring Americans and immigrant Americans and their family, which is always something that gets me. You had a wedding, which is basically my favorite to read about anyway. I’m not going to spoil this book for people. Why don’t I let you start out by telling everybody a little bit about what this book is about?

Tomi: It’s about three women who met in college in Northern Nigeria in the eighties. Their names are Enitan, Zainab, and Funmi. They are reuniting for the first time in almost thirty years to celebrate the wedding of Funmi’s daughter, Destiny, in Nigeria. They haven’t been together in the same place for that long. The story ping-pongs between two timelines, one in the eighties when they’re meeting each other and we’re seeing how their friendship developed, and then the other timeline is set in 2015 in Lagos for this lavish wedding. Enitan is coming to Nigeria with her daughter, Remi. I always love books about friendships that evolve over time. Then I have been to my fair share of Nigerian weddings. I’ve always thought that there was a source of drama there. Then my mother had a similar sort of relationship. I always say very, very loosely based, but the idea of friendships. They haven’t lived in the same country, certainly not in the same state, for decades. Those are all things I was interested in exploring in the novel.

Alisha: I saw that in your acknowledgments that you noted your mom and your two aunties as your inspiration. I loved that that was your inspiration, or loosely based. Are they still close friends? Is that a friendship you grew up watching evolve over time?

Tomi: Definitely. I grew up with them, essentially, as my aunts. Their kids are my cousins. I had a book event in Atlanta. One of my aunts lives there. We stayed with her and her family. They definitely feel like more like family than friends. I do think it is pretty laudable that they’ve been able to stay in such close contact.

Alisha: I love that. I’m from a Cuban family. It’s very much like everyone’s your cousin. You don’t know who’s actually your cousin, who’s not your cousin. Everyone’s just your cousin.

Tomi: That’s how it works for us too.

Alisha: Can you tell me a little bit about your story and how you came to writing? I did a little bit of Google research about you before we were recording this, and so I know you have had a fascinating and mobile upbringing. How did you get to where you are today?

Tomi: I moved around a fair bit in my childhood. I lived in The Gambia for a while, which is the tiniest country in West Africa. I think that experience was good. I have a twin sister. There wasn’t a lot to do, so we read a lot. I feel like that’s sort of the origin story for basically every writer. They’re usually a child that really enjoyed reading. If you wanted to punish them, you would take away their books, that sort of relationship to reading, which is one that I definitely had. I was also writing a lot too. We would visit family in Nigeria every summer. I remember I’d ask my aunts and uncles for notebooks. There are all of these stories that I wrote. I’d always had an interest in writing and reading. At some point, I think probably in college, I stopped writing. I just began to get the sense that, okay, you’re trying to have a career. I chose the extremely stable field of journalism, which is interesting.

I’ve been an editor at BuzzFeed News for almost seven years and living in New York. My manager is somebody who’s also published two food novels, actually, . I worked with and , so people who were all involved in publishing, were in the process of publishing or had published books. It began to feel a little bit attainable again. I would say in 2018, I started writing trying to see if I could write fiction again, sort of taking it more seriously as a habit. I wrote a whole novel that will never see the light of day, but it was good in terms of teaching me that I could actually write something that was 70,000 or 75,000 words. I started writing this novel in the summer of 2019. Then I sold it in the summer of 2020. I sometimes feel aware of my lack of MFA. I didn’t even major in English. I’m also not drowning in tons and tons of student debt. It’s been somewhat of a circuitous path. That is my story.

Alisha: Do you find it difficult to switch from your BuzzFeed brain to your fiction-writing brain given that you are working in words but you’re doing two very different styles, two very different things?

Tomi: I think that that is something that helps a lot, actually. One, being an editor, so I’m not writing that much. It just feels like you’re exercising a different part of your brain, essentially. Then with writing, it’s just completely different. If I had been a staff writer, I think that would’ve been harder. Definitely, in the writing process, sometimes I realized that I would have a tendency to overedit early on with early drafts. In some ways, it was almost like a procrastination technique. If I just edit the same sentence a million times, the next sentence. That was something that I had to learn, to just accept the fact that whatever I write won’t be amazing for a while. On the whole, definitely balancing between those two poles of editing in my day job and writing for fun was good and helpful.

Alisha: I’m really curious what your first novel was about, the first thing that you wrote and that you put away.

Tomi: It’s funny. It was the exact same title. Similarly, the title characters — well, no. One of the title characters was more important in that novel. The main issue was that there were still certain things — it’s also a book that starts in an airport. There’s a wedding. I just didn’t quite know what I wanted the characters to do yet. It adhered more closely to my point of view as a Nigerian American. The thing that gravitated me towards writing this book was having to take that vote of confidence of, okay, I’m going to inhabit the point of view of women in their fifties who’ve grown up in Nigeria. I am neither of those things. That’s what made writing it a little bit scary, but then also kind of exciting. It was, again, good lessons learned.

Alisha: Needed to do it to get to where you were. Actually, one of the things that you do so beautifully in this book is you take us to these different places. It reminded me of when I was little. I did not travel a lot until I was an adult, really. Books were how I learned about other places, other cultures outside of where I grew up, which was Miami — it was very multicultural anyway — but lots of other places that I had never been to. What was it like for you constructing the different locales where the book took place, so the university and then in Lagos for the wedding? What was your process for doing that?

Tomi: It felt somewhat organic. I sort of had the sense even when I was writing the prologue and the first chapter that it would move around in time a bit. It was a combination of relying a bit on memory — sitting in Lagos traffic and waiting for luggage at the airport are very visceral childhood memories that I have. Then for the university scenes, that required doing a little bit of research, not too much. There are a few incidents in the novel that refer to violence that went on at the time that are based on true events. That was interesting in a different way. It felt like I was learning something even as I was writing it. Then also, I read a few books and also watched YouTube videos that people had posted of their dorms or hiking Kufena Hill and all these sorts of things. It was a combination of memory, a little bit of research, a little bit of imagination. That was how it worked.

Alisha: You definitely took us there. I also loved everything about the wedding. I saw on your Instagram that you went to a fake wedding the other day. Can you just tell me a little bit more about that? I sort of love that and feel like I would like to somehow make fake weddings a part of my life.

Tomi: It was very interesting. It’s sort of fortuitous that the event was happening around when my book was coming out so I could write about it as promo or whatever. There’s this group of young Nigerian American guys who call themselves the Vibes and Trips Crew. During the pandemic, I think in the summer of 2021, one of them — he’s twenty-two — was like, I miss going to a wedding. What if we throw a fake wedding? They did. The bride and groom didn’t know each other. He paid the groom. He DM’d someone to ask if she would play the bride. They had a fake pastor. For that wedding, it was a Western wedding. She didn’t wear white. She wore this gold dress. Then they had a party. You paid maybe twenty or fifty bucks for open bar, Nigerian food. Then they had a DJ. Then the next weddings have just become progressively more and more immersed in various ethnic groups’ traditions. The second wedding was a Yoruba wedding. The other one was an Igbo. The one I went to was Nigerian. It was all of these Gen Z zoomers who had barely heard of — the millennial cringe, I felt so old unhip. It was really beautiful to see. They had a live wedding band. They were playing Nigerian music. Everybody was dancing. Where I’ve grown up in America, I haven’t necessarily lived in places with a ton of Nigerian community. To see people younger than me really steeped and aware of those was cool. It was very weird. It’s interesting. I was like, it’s cool that they’re doing it.

Alisha: I love it. Maybe you write your next book about something like that. I’m past the wedding stage of my life. This year has been people’s fortieth, so there have been some big parties to get everybody together. I think reminding everybody, especially after the pandemic, how nice it is to spend time all together in a social situation, dancing, celebrating, just being joyful all together — now everyone’s going to be forty-one soon. No one wants to do a big forty-first birthday party. I’m like, crap, we need to find another way to have really big parties because it just seems really — I love a wedding. You’re absolutely right that weddings are full of drama. Have any of the bits of pieces that conspired or that happened at the wedding in the book taken from any real-life experiences you have had?

Tomi: To a certain extent. I’ve been to one or two pretty lavish weddings. I definitely dialed it up a bit more. That was another thing where I watched — Nigerians love a wedding video on YouTube. They will have these incredibly ornately edited traditional wedding ceremonies. I just watched a bunch of them and cherry-picked some of the more cringe-worthy moments. I have very conflicted feelings about weddings in general. There’s this — she was part of . She’s a podcast host. I don’t even think she’s active on Twitter anymore. I remember a long time ago she tweeted something like, getting married is not an accomplishment. I feel similarly. In some ways, it’s a miracle if you find someone that you get along with. I think the emphasis on something that you fundamentally don’t have that much control over, like finding a romantic partner, the emphasis that we place on it — nothing I’m saying is incredibly profound. I know other people feel similarly. Especially with certain kinds of Nigerian weddings, it definitely feels more about showing off your wealth or more about the parents than the people actually getting married. I was interested in, in some ways, subtly critiquing that or even just presenting it as it is, showing that there are aspects of this that are kind of unseemly, especially in a country with so much income inequality.

Alisha: Tell us a little bit about your publishing process. Did you just write this, everybody loved it, and it immediately came out? I wouldn’t be surprised, by the way, if that’s what happened because the book is really good. What was your process from, okay, you’ve done it, you’ve finished it, to getting published?

Tomi: It was pretty quick. I finished writing it in the spring of 2020. Then I queried a few agents and then found the agent that I really wanted, PJ Mark. It was one of those rare moments where we got on a Zoom, and I was like, this is my agent. He was like, you’re my client. It felt really symbiotic. Then we went to market. I don’t know if that’s the terminology. In hindsight, I’m realizing I was very lucky. There was a lot of interest. The option of having choices is really, really nice. That aspect was pretty seamless. Then everything after that felt a little bit more like, what’s happening? It’s the weirdness of the post-publication. I feel like it’s like a malaise that I’ve been warned about. Friends say, after you publish a book, prepare to feel a little bit weird. Your emotions aren’t necessarily aligned the way that you .

Alisha: Interesting. What has your promotion experience been like? I know you were on tour over the summer. Have you enjoyed it? What has your feeling been through that process?

Tomi: I have mixed feelings. I’m just, in general, somebody who doesn’t — self-promotion isn’t something that comes naturally to me. It always feels a bit like I’m lying. There’s a part of me that isn’t in alignment, and so it can feel very disorienting. It has also been really, really nice, mainly in terms of the people from my life who have reached out and who came to events, some people who I hadn’t spoken to in ages who were really supportive. That aspect has been really good. It still feels really thrilling to go to a bookstore and see my book and go to the airport, and my book is at the airport store. That is really cool. Everything else, it ebbs and flows. More than anything, it’s just been surprisingly emotional and not one of unalloyed, unabashed joy all the time.

Alisha: Fair enough. That’s a good warning. I’ll look out for my post-pub malaise when my book comes out. Are you still a really avid reader? Are you reading anything at the moment that you are loving?

Tomi: I feel like I haven’t been able to read as much as I would like. I did finish reading If I Survive You, a short story collection by Jonathan Escoffery that I feel like was getting a lot of buzz. It is really good.

Alisha: I have it in my TBR. I cannot wait to read it.

Tomi: It’s good. He’s a really astute writer. I feel like the stories are pretty unrelenting. His style is very interesting. Any book about an immigrant family living in America, that’s extremely my shit.

Alisha: I know. Tick, tick, tick. Same. Although, I am preferential to a happy ending, and those two things do not always align.

Tomi: The ending of is a little ambiguous. I did really enjoy that. I’m actually going to a wedding in a few hours in Canada. I have books lined up on my Kindle. We’ll see.

Alisha: Nice. A real wedding, not a fake wedding.

Tomi: A real wedding. A real Nigerian wedding.

Alisha: How much fun. What’s next for you in terms of your writing?

Tomi: I don’t know. I was working on something in the beginning of the pandemic and probably need to go back to it. I sort of put things on hiatus in terms of book promotion. I’m also somebody who tries to align with the seasons. In the summer, it’s very hard to be motivated to do anything indoors. Now that things are cooling down, I expect I’ll go back to that draft and futz with it a bit. The plan is to keep writing fiction, maybe nonfiction at some point. I definitely want to keep writing.

Alisha: My podcast that I host on Zibby’s network is called “Quit Your Day Job,” so I have to ask you, if you weren’t writing and editing, what else would you be doing with your life?

Tomi: I think I would honestly be chilling. I’m very much in alignment with those viral TikToks that say, I don’t dream of labor. I would be maybe traveling, but I actually don’t like traveling too much. Nothing too intense. There are certain other countries in Africa I’d like to visit. Hang out with friends, like going to the beach. Very leisurely activities, nothing too intense. I’m not trying to optimize anything. I would just be relaxing.

Alisha: Sounds fantastic. Do you think you don’t like traveling because you moved around so much as a kid?

Tomi: Definitely. I think that’s part of it. That’s probably part of it.

Alisha: I have this theory with my husband, who does not love to travel as much as I do. He also grew up, third-culture kid, moving around a lot. He loves nothing more than staying home. I’m always like, when’s the next trip? What are we doing next? I’ve now decided that I think this is because of our very different upbringings. I was sitting at home reading a lot of books and dreaming of travel. He was actually traveling and probably not reading that many books, to be honest. He’s reading more now. Tell me, what advice would you give to aspiring writers who are listening to this podcast?

Tomi: This is somewhat cliché, but I think it is true. You just have to write. You just have to do it. I think there was a time — sorry, this is my partner’s cat. I don’t know if you hear it, but that’s what’s going on.

Alisha: No, but it’s welcome to join if it wants to come and meow.

Tomi: What was I saying? There was definitely a period where I thought that I needed somebody to kind of give me permission to write fiction. I had all of these internal reservations that were preventing me from actually just sitting down and doing the hard work of writing. I think you just have to write. That’s the only way to see if you have something there. I’m talking to myself as much as anyone else right now. I’m also like, if I want to write another book — just all these ideas about what I want it to look like. I know at some point, I just have to sit down and write it.

Alisha: Great. Where can listeners find more about you, more information? Are you on social? Do you have a website? Where can they learn more about you and your upcoming work?

Tomi: I have a website, I’m very reluctantly on Twitter, but I’m not that interesting on Twitter.

Alisha: So don’t follow you on Twitter. Okay.

Tomi: I’m a very reluctant social media person, but I do exist. I am on both Instagram and Twitter. For recent updates, those places are fine. I also have my own domain, which I update infrequently. You can find me there. I live in Brooklyn, so maybe we’ll see each other if you’re in Brooklyn too.

Alisha: Maybe around Brooklyn. Maybe at any pay-for-admission-ticket Nigerian weddings, people might be able to spot you there as well. Tomi, it’s been amazing to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast.

Tomi: Thank you so much for having me.

Tomi Obaro, DELE WEDS DESTINY: A Novel

DELE WEDS DESTINY: A Novel by Tomi Obaro

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