One Question with Tomi Obaro

Tomi Obaro is an editor at BuzzFeed READER, the media company’s home for personal essays, cultural criticism, fiction, poetry, and other longform pieces that tend to get brain synapses firing on all cylinders. Prior to her role, Tomi was selected as a BuzzFeed Emerging Writer Fellow for READER’s inaugural year of the program, and worked as an editor at Chicago Magazine. In this edition of our One Question series, Tomi elaborates on the storytelling of writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and how her remarkable and out-of-the-box approach to cultural criticism has effectively made Tomi rethink both the writing and editing process. —JL

What one piece of writing has changed the way you think about your own work?

There are writers I admire because of the way they write and what they write about makes me think (foolishly, perhaps) that writing is something I can actually do — that it’s feasible. And then there are writers whose acuity is so masterful that I immediately feel unworthy.

Firmly in that latter category is Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, a writer who has dramatically shaped the way I write and who I choose to write about, even though I will never come close to matching her inimitable skill. I first came across her writing when I read her essay about Kendrick Lamar in the Los Angeles Review of Books. But her tour de force, the piece that got her a National Magazine Award nomination and set her up for her plum gig as a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine (and a book deal!) was her piece in The Believer, “If He Hollers Let Him Go.”

It’s ostensibly an essay about Dave Chappelle, but like the best essays, it’s so much more than that. The essay begins with a description of Dayton, Ohio — a truly ballsy way to start an article about one of America’s most famous stand-up comics. We’re almost three paragraphs in before we learn that Chappelle has turned down Ghansah’s interview request. It doesn’t matter. Ghansah makes magic happen. She goes to Yellow Springs, Ohio — where Chappelle grew up and still lives, and where he developed the black consciousness that has informed his best works and projects — and she interviews his mother. She reads his mother’s work (she was an academic in the ’60s). She talks to Neal Brennan, co-creator of Chappelle’s Show and calls him out on his bullshit. It’s just such a thoroughly researched, comprehensive look at Chappelle and black art and black genius. It nailed Chappelle at his most mysterious, when he’d turned down $50 million dollars and his absence was a gaping hole in the middle of American stand-up comedy and before he made a string of ill-advised, tone-deaf jokes about LGBT folk in his new Netflix specials.

After reading that piece, I was obsessed with Ghansah. I read every piece she wrote. I found out who edited her (Karolina Waclawiak, who I now have the privilege of working with every day and who is just as patient, as thoughtful, and as caring as you imagine an editor of such an ambitious piece to be). Ghansah resolutely chooses to only write about black people and while my own position is less extreme, such a bold move does make me seriously consider the subjects I choose to write about and why I write about them. And while I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never be as deft, thorough, and as persistent a reporter as she, her attention to that aspect of nonfiction writing has made me more diligent about doing more research and reporting, even in pieces that don’t ostensibly need that kind of treatment.

Read her work and flourish!

Photo courtesy of Kate Bubacz