A CONVERSATION WITH NOO SARO-WIWA

1386268073Noo_High_Res_photo_2When I was roaming the aisles of Epsom library looking for something to make my commute a little less grim, I never imagined that a book on display in the travel section – Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking For Transwonderland – would bring my Nigerian childhood so vividly back to life and inspire me to want to write one of my own. (There, that’s in print now so I’m going to have to do it). Noo graciously met me for a conversation that involved much reminiscing about plantain, Port Harcourt and watching the same films over and over on VHS (in her case Coming to America, in mine Hello Dolly), as well as reflections on the new wave of Nigerian writing, identity and the tricky, scary art of writing the personal.

Did you feel any apprehension about embarking on this journey re. your dad (the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed in 1995) and how did you overcome it?

In terms of the discipline of writing a book, especially non-fiction, you’re just writing down what’s happened. It’s just like a giant status update, it’s very easy! So that part of it was alright, but I was kind of skirting the issue, when I first told my agent that my second book would be Nigeria, I was like ‘yeah I want to travel around the country, but I don’t want to talk about anything about my family, I just want it to be a travelogue’ and she was just like ‘listen, you cannot do that. With a name like yours people are going to find it weird.’ And I was like ‘I really don’t want to do this.’ But I realised that that’s what I was going to have to do.

But of course when you’re writing, quite often you write on two levels – there’s that superficial level and there’s the real, deep stuff. And it’s being able to access that – sometimes you think you’re being deep, but you’re holding back and not realising it, and so once you realise that, actually confronting the truth makes the writing a lot easier. It was difficult.

But on the whole it was really good, the whole process, the travelogue element was very easy, and actually just weaving it into my personal story made perfect sense. Wherever I went, a few instances I’d been there before when we were kids, so you would tie that in or there was an issue like corruption. So you just have to bring all that personal stuff into it and it totally enhances the writing, but it wasn’t easy. I had to be pushed. If I’d decided to publish on Kindle or something and I hadn’t had an editor the book would have been so different.

looking for transwonderlandIn keeping with this issue’s theme of ‘growing up’, how did it feel going to Nigeria through choice as an adult, as opposed to being dragged there as a reluctant kid?

The thing with freedom is that it’s wonderful, it’s very liberating but it’s also very scary. I arrived in Lagos and I don’t plan my trips ahead, I just knew I was staying with my aunt and that was it. I’d always been chauffeur-driven and I was like ‘Oh my God, how am I actually going to get around?!’ So I was forced to engage and forced to figure out my way around. But it was really nice, you can go where you please, you’ve got money – you’re not begging your parents for pocket money or anything – and it was just wonderful, you see the country or the city in a completely different light.

The possibilities all around you – you can talk to that random person, you can go to that fancy shopping mall, you can engage with it in exactly the way that you do in London or New York. That really changed things. It makes you realise that as a kid, you think that you don’t enjoy being in a place, but actually it’s just you don’t enjoy being ruled by your parents or told what to do. So it was very liberating. It changes the way that you view a place. Nowhere is boring when you’re an adult, when you’re a kid everything is boring.

Has your ‘outsider’ status here and in Nigeria has helped you as a writer – even made you a writer?

I don’t know what makes me a writer, I have no idea, but that constantly comparing and contrasting definitely helps, because if you’re an English person who’s a bit narrow minded and prejudiced, you’ll just look at the world and say well things are better here because we’re better, whereas if you’re a Nigerian who’s raised over here you know that’s not true. You know that people over there are just as smart as people over here, so you question and you analyse.

I think that has really helped me, and I think that being a diasporan meant I was much more likely to travel round Nigeria. You’re not likely to do that in your own back yard… This book would never have been written if I’d been raised in Nigeria. And that’s why it annoys me when people say diasporans shouldn’t write about Nigeria – if I hadn’t written this travelogue who else would? I was influenced by Western travel writers, I saw them travelling around and thought I want to do the same thing, and if I’d gone to school in Nigeria I wouldn’t have been exposed to those books. I’m very glad that I straddle both worlds.

Ex-pat brat aka me!

Ex-pat brat aka me!

Did you finish the journey/book feeling optimistic about Nigeria, and how do you feel now?

It’s a very extreme country, there are so many good things going on, so much potential, but there are all these underlying factors and that’s what I concluded in my book, that’s what I felt then and I still feel that now. You could sense that something [Boko Haram] was going to happen – with a country like that, when you have that level of corruption, people are poor, it’s going to happen one way or another.

Prior to September 11 it was different – people would express their dissatisfaction differently. This is the problem – this is why countries have to deal with poverty, because in any given decade you can think ‘Oh well, we’ve just ticked along, we’ve got this poverty but everything’s fine’, but eventually there’ll be some external factor that’s just going to come along and change the game, and that’s exactly what happened. You had poverty in the 80s and 90s, people barely even protested sometimes, but now… no-one predicted September 11, al quaeda, so that’s just come in now. But the preconditions for that, the poverty, it was there, you knew, you could tell that something was going to happen.

When I went to Maiduguri in 2008, it was just a miserable town. It’s sad, it’s like they’re on a beach, there’s so much desertification. People don’t have firewood any more, they’ve chopped down the trees, it’s like this can’t go on. You feel like Boko Haram is just an inevitable consequence of all that. But at the same time you go down to Lagos and things are really happening. You’ve got this governor Fashola who’s really made an effort to improve the city, and the south is generally better educated and so once the military dictatorships had gone and things had opened up, you could see that Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit taking hold, so things were changing. But there’s always that thing lurking, corruption, religion, so for me Nigeria is as it’s always been, just a constant precipice – things could go really well, things could go really badly, you just don’t know. There’s always tension that never turns into civil war, it’s a country that’s permanently on the brink.

Looking For Transwonderland (£9.99), is published by Granta Books

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phoebe

Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.
About phoebe:

Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.

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