Teacher Spotlight: Olufunke Grace Bankole

Olufunke Grace Bankole, a 2020 Oregon Literary Fellow, 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 Train Stories, Michigan Quarterly Review, New Letters, ​and​ AGNI ​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. Olufunke is near completing a novel-in-stories depicting how secrets, lies, and prophecies upend the lives of a Nigerian mother and daughter.

This spring, Olufunke will be teaching The Path of Perseverance: Writing No Matter What. Here is what she has to say about teaching.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Teaching allows me to share the ideas and processes that have brought clarity, a sense of purpose, and forward movement to my writing work. I also enjoy that as I’m teaching, I’m learning along with my students. In the classroom, I can explore more deeply the aspects of creative writing that most interest me. It’s fun to discover my own motivations, as well as those of my students. More than anything, I like the heart connection I make with fellow writers.

How would you describe your teaching style (in five words)
Encouraging, curious, flexible, optimistic, intuitive.

How is your class time structured?
I make sure to begin each workshop with an open-ended check in; given the current state of our world, we’re all contending with something, and this can affect our writing. I give space to share how we’re doing as a sort of clearing to make way for creativity. Generally, each class builds on the previous one based on the materials we’ve covered, and what participants need.

More technically, I like to use prompts (usually excerpts from books that have helped me) to encourage new writing and foster group discussion. Since we’re online, I create breakout rooms for exercises that are best done in groups of two or three. I’ve found that workshop participants like to get to know each other, so I try to structure class in a way that facilitates relationships that will continue beyond the classroom setting.

Where do you draw inspiration from (in your own writing or in your teaching)?
These days, I seek and hold on to inspiration however I can. A strong cup of coffee (with heavy cream) in the very early morning, a sudden rainbow on an otherwise dreary day, and my newborn’s first smiles inspire me. The community of writers I’ve discovered through Literary Arts also inspires me: our love and support for one another; our collective courage and willingness to keep pressing forward when things are hard.

What would you want students to leave with from taking your class ?​
I’ve learned that each person needs and takes away something different from a course. So, I try to create a learning environment that supports every participant. In the end, I hope someone who takes ​Writing No Matter What​ leaves the workshop with an enduring sense of hope and excitement about their work, as well as a tool or two to implement when life becomes challenging, and they need encouragement to keep writing.

What is keeping you going during the pandemic?
I’m grateful for my women friends, particularly the ones I’ve grown closer to as a result of the pandemic; their words and kindness keep me going. I thrive on unexpected good news–mine and others’. Flowers just because, and the scent of lavender oil make me happy.​ And on hard days, the tried and true adage that “this, too, shall pass” is a salve.

Favorite books? Writers? Music?
When I need to remember why I write, I return to classics like ​So Long a Letter​ (Mariama Ba) and Butterfly Burning ​(Yvonne Vera). Chris Abani–whose novel ​Graceland​ is just stunning–once said that no one uses language like Yvonne Vera. He is right.

I now have two little ones, so most of my reading time is spent on children’s literature. I’m drawn to books that are meant to build up a child’s sense of self and capability–adults need this too! The two books that come to mind–and that I’ve enjoyed reading with my loves–are The Crown on Your Head (Nancy Tillman) and ​I am Enough ​(Grace Byers). My husband recently bought our family some Yoruba language children’s books; I look forward to reading these as well.

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