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Minna Salami


Minna Salami

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Your outstanding blog, Ms. Afropolitan, has brought you renown across the globe. For the sheer volume, consistency and quality of the wisdom you provide for understanding and for living in today's world, Elle magazine has recognized you as one of the world's 12 most influential women. The Elle list is a stellar one that includes Michelle Obama and Angelina Jolie.

A Yoruba woman of mixed race parentage who grew up in Lagos, how did you reach these heights?

Keith and daughters

Thank you, Toun. To the extent I've reached notable heights, I'd say that my background indeed has a lot to do with it. I grew up in Lagos in Nigeria, in a multifaith household, where I lived with my parents and my extended family. Lagos is a very cosmopolitan city, drawing in many different ethnicities of Nigeria, but also from Africa and around the world. My mother was Finnish, and my father is Yoruba. He is a Muslim and my mum was Protestant. My parents met in Germany, so they spoke German with each other and with me. My mother and I spoke Finnish, and with my father, I spoke English. But there was also Yoruba around me because my aunties and cousins and grandmother lived with us as well. When I was a teenager, my mother and I moved to Malmo in Sweden and I lived there for 10 years before moving to Spain for some time. Then I spent three years in New York. Eventually, I landed in London, where I've been for over 15 years now.

I agree that there are clear advantages in coming from or having a claim to a variety of places, cultures and faiths but there are also challenges.
Tell us about some of these challenges and how you manage them.

Keith and daughters

Although there are many advantages to straddling multiple worlds the way that I have, it added to the sense that I don't fully fit in anywhere. One of the famous quotes that resonates the most with me is Virginia Woolf's "As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world." Yet, eventually, I did find a "country" and a "home" in black feminism. Black feminist thought helped me discover a world where I could be myself. Where I could voice my opinions. Where I could stand up for my views and my right to have those views. And I wanted others who also may be emboldened by black/feminist thought to enter these worlds too. This is a significant part of what motivates writing about feminism for me.

Tell us about your family background.

My family is like many families, wonderful but strange, essential but arbitrary. It fascinates me how we are invariably shaped by the families that we are born into, and yet few things are as random and circumstantial than the event of being born into a specific family. I could write pages about my Yoruba-Nigerian and Finnish heritage, and they both do separately inform my life, but what's quite amusing is the kind of inseparable hybrid Naija-Finnish person that my family background has made of me. For example, I'm simultaneously expressive and withdrawn; a combination of traits which I half-jokingly attribute to my ethnic ancestry, to being both stereotypically Nigerian and stereotypically Finnish at once.

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Tell us about any kind of literary or spiritual pilgrimage you may have gone on and about how you embarked on this astonishing journey into Black feminism and epistemology.

Keith and daughters

I have lived most of my life feeling a sense of unbelonging. This feeling of not belonging is connected to my being racialised as black, mixed, African, and gendered as woman, and romantically non-heteronormative. It is also a consequence of my innate character, which has a strong need to defy social norms. So you could say that my fate left me with no choice but to see the world both as an outsider and through multiple perspectives. Ultimately, this "multi-perspectivity" means that what despairs me socio-politically is narrow-mindedness. Since there's so much narrow-mindedness in the world, my work is cut out for me. I needed a companion in this struggle against narrow-mindedness and found it in feminism, and especially feminism that is intersectional, radical, and philosophical. What I didn't expect was that feminism would also expose my own biases to me. Perhaps this is why I'm not a dogmatic person, even in the case of feminism, I think it's important that we question the shibboleths of the ideology. Yet the robust epistemic contributions of feminism - including feminist literature, feminist theory, feminist activism, feminist science, feminist art, feminist philosophy, etc. - have never failed to expand my understanding and sense of direction at any given crossroads in life. In this sense of having access to the deep wisdom and resistance of women across time, feminism can have a spiritual quality.

Keith and daughters
But I am also not didactic, I am not interested in telling people what to think as I am in inspiring them to think differently. It's about having your own kind of moral code. And how living according to that code can imbue life with a sense of direction. Not everyone will derive meaning from feminism, but it has been the biggest gift in my life in terms of discovering what I want and having some sense of how to get it. I see feminism as a gift, even as it often involves taking the more unconventional path when followed to its logical conclusion. It could seem like living according to those kinds of principles would be something heavy, but actually, the more of a feminist life I live, and have been living, the more lightness I have.

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Let me quote from the blurb of your debut book, Sensuous Knowledge which I would like to talk about extensively in this interview:

"... the book pries apart the systems of power and privilege that have dominated ways of thinking for centuries and which have led to so much division, prejudice and damage" An example of a system of power which you challenge is the educational system.

Talk to us about what is wrong with the current system of education in the UK and help us envision the re-imagined one you advocate in Sensuous Knowledge.

For a longer exposition, I hope your readers will read the book but, in short, Sensuous knowledge is a black feminist poetic epistemology. It is a political, embodied, and critical approach to knowledge. It is knowledge that involves not only the mind and the intellect, reason and rationality, but also the psyche, emotions, the senses, art, spirit, and the idea of oneself as part of a larger whole. When John Milton coined the word sensuous to describe poetry, he did so to distinguish it from sensual to describe when something affects you mind, body and spirit.

I contrast Sensuous Knowledge with the current system of education, which is based on an epistemic tradition that I refer to as Europatriarchal Knowledge. In the book, as you quoted, I seek to "prie apart the system" that is created by Europatriarchal Knowledge. This means not only focusing on the Eurocentric and male bias, because bias is such an obvious enemy of truth and knowledge, but rather probing into the methodologies of Europatriarchal Knowledge; so that these can be recognised and challenged by those seeking to transform society.

The task of all feminist epistemology is to uncover how patriarchy shapes what we call knowledge. Thus, the larger reason for unpacking Europatriarchal Knowledge within the context of my book is to uncover both how Eurocentricity and patriarchy shapes what we call knowledge. Moreover, my intention in the book was not only to unlearn Europatriarchal Knowledge but to offer a different way of knowing and apply it to concepts that are of intrinsic interest to all humanity.

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While you reject the religious notion of God, you adhere to the reality of spirit. Indeed, spirit is the power infused into sensuous knowledge which you invite us to explore, understand and embrace.

Why is it important in this sensuous knowledge, to view identity as " a compass and as a commons"?

Perhaps I wouldn't say that I "adhere" to the reality of spirit. As I have come to see it, spirit is not something that can be stated as a real "fact" one adheres to. What I mean to imply by "spirit" is an individual and collective interiority that makes our character, moods, beliefs, memories, and attitudes. From this point of view, whatever spirituality is, it is also connected to our political realities because our characters, moods, beliefs, memories, and attitudes are dependent on the sociopolitical condition that we exist in. For example, we may take it for granted that named identity is what steers our sense of self. But it may actually be parts of our identities that we can't easily name or categorise, that matter more in how we live. The way that I love and want to be loved, for instance, shapes me in fundamental ways that my being Nigerian, Finnish or Swedish don't. In this regard, love is a spiritual and a political question, and the two are inseparable.

What I do adhere to is language, and terms such as "spirit" and "soul" are frequently used in civic discussion but insufficiently analysed by femnists. Like so many words that once were counterculturally useful, "spirit" has been co-opted by commercialism and/or idealism, and consequent ridicule and fragmentation. This means that many spaces where the word is used are unknowingly infiltrated by conservative and patriarchal thought. I still like the word, however, precisely because it is multifaceted and complex in a way that lends to inquiry. But I like to use it in contexts where it has a queer and disruptive character, for instance, in a context of knowledge production that takes itself to be rational and objective.

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I was fascinated by your exposition of the dendritic pattern which provides the structure of the anatomy of so much of nature: rivers, plants, mammals including man. As a Christian, I see this recurrent structure - which you are the first to point out to me - as the hallmark or brand of God - it is the way he patents his creations. I also see the branching pattern as reflecting Him, the Tree of Life. As the dendritic pattern relates to the geology of rivers, the Holy Spirit comes to mind. He is described everywhere in the Bible as the River of Life, powerful, always moving towards its destination.

Talk to us about your own secular humanist perspective on the dendritic pattern.
Why in your view is it important for your readers to observe the pattern and its recurrence in the anatomy of nature?

Thank you. My writerly impulse is to think of how I can write about things in a way that encourages readers to think differently about any given topic of intrinsic humanistic value. In my book, I introduced "Exousiance", a term which I kind of fell into. I had come across the Ancient Greek word "Exousia", which means power, while doing research. Around the same time, I spent a lot of time observing and thinking about rivers. These two events combined to form a concept for thinking differently about power - exousiance. To develop exousiance, I instrumentalised dendritic patterns, which are the vast and continuing patterns that can be found in the bodies of all humans, animals and everywhere in nature, and which are characterised by what I refer to as "branching". Consider for example how a branch of a river breaks off from the main body of water and then into smaller branches, which further break off into even smaller branches, and so on. Similarly, the branches of a tree, the veins in a leaf, the capillaries in living tissue, the air passages in the lungs, coral reefs, neurons or lightning, all follow this same dendritic pattern.

Branching patterns are part of an ecosystem which is marked by connectedness and reciprocity as well as by autonomy and self-realisation. Even when one branching cluster appears to end, its function provides another cluster with the capacity to repeat the same process. Yet each cluster pushes toward its own completion as it meets obstacles in the way of the process. For example, a river's streams and tributaries are met by man-made obstacles such as dams, weirs and deforestation, yet rivers circumvent these barriers, sometimes violently, pushing toward their final destination - the ocean. The process therefore speaks to protest as well as reciprocity, and enlivenment as well as intersectionality, for the more streams and tributaries intersect, the more the river widens and the more power it has to overcome the barriers in its way.

My hypothesis is that this entire process illustrates "Exousiance". The better that the obstacles are overcome, the more exousiance an organism - individual or collective - could be said to have. The dynamics of this process provide a contrasting yet parallel purview to state-centred, dominance-focused, rigid definitions of power.

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"Developing a view of feminism as one in which humanity and nature live in a reciprocal relationship is a pressing task in the 21st Century." Your Words.

The governments and other institutions of the Global North are way ahead of Africa in creating a palpable sense of urgency with regard to environmental justice and the rights of the natural world to protection. And conservation as a policy is on the front-burner.

What can we do to create a similar awareness and sense of urgency in - let's start from home - Nigeria?

The word "re-enchantment" comes to mind. The dominant mythos is unconscionably fragmented into hierarchies of mind vs matter, humans vs nature, and groups of humans vs other groups of humans. The devaluation of the physical world goes hand in hand with the contempt for inclusivity, pluralism, bodies, nature and matter. To foster awareness, we need rapture for our environment - and you don't achieve rapture through defensiveness or through mythologising the past -- but rather by perceiving how subjectivity emerges from the power of imagination and by writing new mythologies of ourselves as part of a reciprocal ecosystem. Rapture is a state that takes place in the present

Subjectivity, rapture and re-enchantment are states that avoid abstraction. They reveal the material and sensuous actuality of the world as we know it. The playwright, Ntozake Shange, said, 'I found god in myself and I loved her, I loved her deeply'. In a similar sense, we need to find the part of ourselves that is the natural world and love that part deeply. It strikes me that we haven't "found god in ourselves". We don't build society based on the abundance of what divinely surrounds us but rather in scarcity and competitiveness.

I also don't agree that the West is straightforwardly "ahead of Africa in creating a palpable sense of urgency with regard to environmental justice". Environmental justice is not merely a technological and bureaucratic question but also one of scale. In some sense, it is an issue which cannot be evaluated regionally but only globally. And fighting climate change in Europe or America while causing it in another part of the world, as many Western countries do, is not a rational strategy.

There are many significant reasons for the dysfunctional relationship we have with the environment in Nigeria: poverty, corruption, exploitation, ignominy and extraction, to give a few examples, but you only have to look to folktales across the country for evidence that there is a deep love for biodiversity if not in the mainstream then at least in the metanarrative that informs it. This enchantment with the world that we are a part of may be inactive in a technical and political sense, but I believe that it is still alive and can be used to re-enchant and revivify compassion for more than human life.

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Finally, as you build a global reputation in feminism and epistemology, tell us a little about your next publication.

Will it be connected to Sensuous Knowledge or will it be a stand-alone?

Thanks for this question. I'm writing a book titled Can Feminism Be African?, which like Sensuous Knowledge is deeply informed by the feminist episteme. My suspicion is that any books I write in the future will in some way be derivative of Sensuous Knowledge, in which I arguably laid out my theory of change (one which of course continues to develop). That said, Can Feminism Be African? is a stand-alone and a different type of book. As the title suggests, it is more provocative and polemical. When I first encountered African feminism, I yearned for a book that fearlessly explored key themes of contemporary African thought in an explicitly feminist way. I have still not found that book and so I'm now writing it.

Olatoun Gabi-Williams
Interview host, Olatoun Gabi-Williams
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