Alumni Profile • Angela Ajayi '97
Working at the big question

Angela AjayiWho am I and how do I fit in this world?

While every person struggles with these questions, they come to Angela Ajayi ’97 with some particular twists. The daughter of a Nigerian veterinarian and a Ukrainian caterer, Ajayi attended Hillcrest International School in Jos, Nigeria, prior to coming to Calvin. She was encouraged to take a practical course through college, in order to assume a professional life upon her return to Nigeria. But the pre-dentistry major discovered in her English classes “something about literature that gave me a sense of being alive.” She struggled, she said, with what to do. “I was thinking about the future. What would I do with an English major? But passion won.”

That passion took Ajayi to New York City. After completing the Radcliffe Publishing Course, a “six-week boot camp on all dimensions of the publishing industry,” she took a job at Columbia University Press. While working as assistant to the director there, she also took graduate classes in comparative literature and began to read African literature and political theory. This, she said, gave intellectual content to her experiential identity struggles: “Having come from two racial backgrounds, two cultures — having lived in Africa, then suddenly in America — I was faced with a lot of identity questions. Plus, as a bi-racial woman, I was having to deal with the racial politics of this country, but as an African, not as an African-American. These distinctions can be important, and at Columbia I began to think more about them.”

When she finished the course work for her master’s degree, Ajayi moved to the Trenton, N.J., area to become a staff editor at Africa World Press (AWP). With its sister company, Red Sea Press, AWP publishes and distributes primarily academic books about African topics, often by authors from Africa — texts outside the U.S. publishing mainstream. Titles range from political theory and philosophy to poetry and stories for children. With a small staff and low overhead, AWP requires Ajayi to do some of everything, from meeting authors and acquiring their manuscripts to copy editing — all of it helping her work out that big question.

“The work constantly reminds me of my bond to Africa,” Ajayi said. “It also reminds me that my identity isn’t so easy to define, and that I’d rather define it in a broad, rather than a narrow way — as a global citizen.”

Ajayi finds it gratifying to help bring African writers to an American audience that is largely unfamiliar with their ideas — and to bring those ideas to readers in words well made. “I’ve always sought excellence in writing, and I always aim to bring out excellence in the writers I work with,” she said.

Someday Ajayi hopes to bring that passion for well-made words to her own pen. “I’m very curious about my mother’s experience as a Ukrainian woman in Nigeria,” she said. There were other women like her there — women who had married African men and left their homes for Africa. I’d like to explore that in a reflective form, first in essays, then maybe a book.”

The time for that writing may be approaching. Ajayi’s father died five years ago, and in July her mother moved to the United States to be closer to her two daughters.