Writers

Meet Olufunke Grace Bankole, 2020 Oregon Literary Fellow

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected eleven writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. For the first time, Literary Arts also awarded two Oregon Literary Career Fellowships of $10,000 each. The 2021 OLF applications will be posted in May 2020, and the deadline to apply will be in August 2020. All of the 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients will be honored at the 2020 Oregon Book Awards Ceremony.

Olufunke Grace Bankole

2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Olufunke Grace Bankole (she/her/hers)

Category
Fiction

Bio
Olufunke Grace Bankole is a first-generation American of Nigerian parentage. After graduating from Harvard Law School, and completing a Soros Justice Advocacy Fellowship, she left law to write. Her works have appeared in Glimmer TrainMichigan Quarterly ReviewNew LettersAGNI, and The Antioch Review, among others. She won the Glimmer Train Short-Story Award for New Writers, and the Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Scholarship in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She was also awarded a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation grant, and a residency-fellowship from the Anderson Center.

Q&A with Literary Arts
What are your sources of inspiration?
In the earlier days, writers like Tsitsi Dangarembga and Yvonne Vera gave me hope that I, too, could tell the stories of the people, places, and things that hold meaning for me. These days, I think it’s the attempt to put the ineffable into words. I find there is at least one moment in a day that is hard to relate. A moment like that is the point at which I try to start the writing. I think of the moment, and then: “What would it be like if I could tell this story precisely?” This is the question that excites me. 

How would you describe your creative process?
Like most writers, there are several daily responsibilities demanding my time and attention. I realized a while ago that I can’t wait for inspiration–in the traditional, maybe cliché sense–to start writing. The inspired moment may not arrive each day, and if I always wait for that, I won’t get much done. Writing is work, and I treat it as such; of course, it can be sacred, but not so much that I am afraid to approach it unless conditions are perfect. I give my writing as much time as I can, in balance with my other responsibilities: I own a small editing business and take care of my toddler full-time. Very early mornings–sometimes as early as 4 a.m.–and late at night are my most productive times.

I think it’s also helpful, for general well-being, to find something other than writing to strive to be good at. For me, that’s long-distance running. Meeting small running goals gives me immediate gratification and reminds methere are other ways–outside of writing–to move forward.

As for crafting a short story, I rarely outline beforehand. Once I find the most compelling entry into a story, I begin writing, and then keep rewriting until the work feels complete.

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
At the outset, that joyful–near ecstatic–feeling that accomplished individuals in the field believe in my work enough to encourage me in the continuation of it. Then, the increased opportunity to engage with other writers in my home state. Receiving a fellowship from Literary Arts also means I have the backing of a highly respected organization that is genuinely committed to nurturing my work–this feels pretty darn good. Finally, the attention that comes with winning the fellowship can lead to other opportunities to share my writing more publicly, and become part of an even larger literary community. Having gone the writing journey mostly alone, this is an exciting chapter of things to come.

What are you currently working on?
A collection of linked stories depicting the transformative experiences of women–in West Africa and the U.S.–within religious and familial oppression. I am more than halfway through this project, and the fellowship award will allow me several more hours monthly, away from my other responsibilities, to devote to its completion.

What advice do you have for future applicants?
Don’t despair when it feels as if nothing is happening, as if no good news is on the horizon. Every writer goes through a dry season. Embrace the long game. Begin now, the work that could serve as your writing sample for the fellowship application. The stories that comprised my sample were ones I’d written–revised, put aside, and then revised again–over a long stretch of time. Trust your instincts about your work. Submit the application, and then let it go.

Excerpt from “The Spirit of Entitlement,” a short story.*
The ten-minute walk to the store made the girl aware of her legs. Something had changed in her gait. Something slight, not quite a limp, but perhaps the beginning of one. In the aftermath of disappointment—being committed again, against her will—she had slowed down.

The streets were empty but she wasn’t alone. The sidewalk was a plank, and this walk an epic pronouncement. If things went on to get better, if she could beat the voice this time, then this place, gray and deserted as it was, could be the means and not the end. If things didn’t get better, then this place, gray and deserted as it was, was in fact the end. The spattering of clouds had become faces and the sidewalk the table around which they gathered and judged.

It was in front of the frozen corn dogs and taquitos that she finally met the Seers-of-God husband. Until then he hadn’t said a word to her, though her walk to the mailbox and his drive in from work sometimes brought them within feet of each other. He asked if she weren’t cold, given the length of her skirt and that they were in the freezer aisle.

“I saw you two talking the other day. My wife, she likes to keep things modest. Even in the heat it’s always a long dress or pants.” He mimed the length and looseness of his wife’s dress. His eyes hadn’t strayed from the girl’s face; had it not been for his question, she wouldn’t have thought that he noticed what she was wearing at all. “See you around, eh?” They were in the parking lot within seconds of each other. She tried not to be bothered by his not asking if she’d like a ride back.

*First published in AGNI 90, fall 2019 issue.

Judge’s Comments
“In these two stories, Olufunke Grace Bankole depicts the complex emotional experiences of two women through deft use of small details and gestures. Whether it’s the unnamed protagonist in the first story observing a fight between her religious neighbors or the protagonist of the second story discovering the truth about her lover, she conveys everything with effective subtlety. Overall, her combination of the experience of women and a world characterized by the presence of religion create a compelling tone and setting.”
– Aatif Rashid