A split image with the words '21 Questions' on the left in yellow and a photo of author Emma Dabiri on the right

‘I would love to write in a beautiful old house in the American South’: 21 Questions with Emma Dabiri

The author of What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition on Toni Morrison, the book she loved as a child and mashing up books in the bath.

Two years ago, Emma Dabiri’s first book took the world by storm. The essay collection, Don’t Touch My Hair, explored the way that colonisation, oppression and, ultimately, liberation are all expressed in Black women’s hair. Rigorously researched and wry in tone, Dabiri’s debut was praised by fellow authors Bernardine Evaristo, Diana Evans and Marian Keyes, not to mention The Guardian, The Irish Times and others.

This month, Dabiri is publishing her second book, What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, a longform essay looks at how support for anti-racism can be translated into meaningful, structural action.

In anticipation of its release, we reached out to Dabiri to ask her our 21 Questions, and she opened up about her love of Toni Morrison, her passion for performance, and the superpower she'd like the most.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Toni Morrison. Her writing is the opposite of prosaic and it’s filled with magic. I can feel the reverberations of our ancestors when I read her work. 

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

Five Children and It. I found it in my grandparents’ house on a childhood holiday in Lagos.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

'I can feel the reverberations of our ancestors when I read Toni Morrison's work'

Having been an avid reader as a child, I sort of feel like I stopped reading for a bit in my mid-teens and came back to it in my late teens; but probably Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I also loved The House of Hunger by the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera – I loved his punk energy! Disillusioned and poetic, his writing is incandescent with rage and it felt palpable when the book was in my hands.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

When I was little my mum sold second-hand clothes. We used to take the ferry over to Holyhead then drive down to the rag yards in Liverpool. We would go into these old warehouses, full to the ceiling with vintage clothes, and because I was small and nimble, I’d be sent up the clothes mountains with a brief like ‘find 15 grandfather shirts’. No doubt we were contravening some child labour laws or something.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

I don’t know. I haven’t had that much advice to be honest.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

There are some theory books I read repeatedly because it takes multiple reads to understand what’s being said, but beyond that I don’t tend to read books over again. I sort of can’t bear it!

A photo of author Emma Dabiri against a rosy pink background
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

Hahaha I don’t feel duty-bound to read anything, I read what I like!

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

An actress, maybe a dancer. I’d still like to pursue performance in some capacity.

What makes you happiest?

Family and loved ones.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

Gosh I don’t know, I mean I love music and my musical influences are very eclectic: everything from trap to Irish trad.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

I would love to write in a beautiful old house in the American South: Georgia, New Orleans. I love Southern gothic vibes.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

'I burst into tears on stage in Dublin'

Bursting into tears on stage in Dublin. I was talking about growing up and suddenly I felt the tears coming and couldn’t stop them. It was pretty intense, haha.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

James Baldwin. I think we’d get on famously, drink too much and have a scandalous conversation. Hmmm what would we eat? Japanese food, I think – shabu-shabu!

What’s your biggest fear?

I hate not finishing projects I’ve started. Haha that’s not really a big fear though, is it?

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Honestly, I’d settle for better organisational skills – oh my god that’s so dull, I don’t know. To be able to breathe underwater? To be able to fly? Yeah that’s it: I’d fly.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. It’s an autobiography, Jacobs’ account of the horrors of being a house slave, and the lengths she goes to to protect her children. Apparently it’s the only slave narrative written by a formerly enslaved woman that focuses on the sexual exploitation of women during slavery. Her writing is brilliant, so clear and vivid. More people should know it.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Yes but should be no, ’cause I always mash up my books!

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Hmmm it depends – I love my morning latte, but freshly brewed herbal teas can be so calming, their preparation beautiful and soothing.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

This is IMPOSSIBLE to answer!

What inspired you to write your book?

Frustration and curiosity.


Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more