Archive for the ‘INTERVIEWS’ Category
When 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.
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.
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
Last month Penguin editor Sophie Missing and ex-Penguin now Kew Gardens-publicist Caroline Craig‘s first cookbook was published. The Little Book of Lunch is full of ideas from the raw (‘Rainbow Rescue: your five-a-day in a jar’) to the baked (salted caramel brownies in the ‘Bribing Colleagues with Sweet Treats’). These are recipes for office people with imaginations because even if you can’t usually manage more than one take-in a week you will love flipping through this gorgeous collection of inspirations and amusing asides on al desko etiquette and lunchbox-styling tips.
What was it like being on the author-side of the project as current/former publishing-employees? Did you experience any (un)pleasant surprises?
SM: It was actually really fun to see the other side of the process. And an eye-opener of course, because I was used to seeing things from the publisher’s perspective. I think I was terrified of annoying our publishers though!
CC: Yes, it was really interesting. As Sophie says we were mainly trying to be the kind of author we enjoy working with… Hands-off and letting the experts do their jobs! Don’t know if we always succeeded though…
What’s been your favourite part(s) of the process?
SM: It’s all been pretty exciting… doing the shoots was incredibly fun (though hard work) and a bit of a whirlwind. Seeing the proofs (and having what you’ve written suddenly look like ‘a real actual book’) is always exciting too. Mostly though, it’s been amazing to hear that people who aren’t our friends or our family like it, and enjoy the recipes. That’s the best. And a massive relief.
CC: I loved writing it so much! Sitting at my laptop in the kitchen at the crack of dawn with a cuppa… It was also wonderful writing as a partnership: Sophie and I would bounce off each other and I think our writing was all the better for it.
I loved the section on lunchboxes which made me feel inspired as well as deeply ashamed of my own scrappy Tupperware boxes. What are your favourite lunch receptacles and where did you find them?
SM: Caroline is the queen of the attractive lunchbox. She inspired me to buy a rather chic (if I do say so myself) aluminium one from Objects of Desire. It could double as a handbag. Muji is also good and practical.
CC: To be honest there are some mornings when I’m in such a rush I’ve been known to grab the first thing to hand to transport my lunch… a plastic bag… a tea towel. But yes, I do love my enamel tiffin tin too! Read More…
Bristol-based Beatrice Hitchman‘s gorgeous and mysterious Paris-set debut Petit Mort was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2013 and compared to Angela Carter and Sarah Waters by critics. Its 1910s film world setting will be brought to life on BBC Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama this week and next.
Judith Mackrell, the Guardian‘s dance critic and author of Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation stars in Generation F, our next salon at Drink, Shop and Do on Wednesday 18 September. Here she shares her reading past and present – as well as her iphoned bookshelves. Get your £11 (including wine, cake and a goodie bag) tickets here before they sell out!
Do you read paperbacks or ebooks?
My Kindle is brilliant, obviously, for travelling. It weighs almost nothing and it’s great being able to order up whatever books suit the place or the mood or the company I’m in, rather than having to decide what to take in advance.
I like the fact that ebooks are so much less of a commitment. Working as a journalist I felt obliged to read at least a few pages of 50 Shades of Grey, just to find out what all the noise was about. But it wasn’t a book I wanted to give shelf room to, so it was perfect to be able to get it, and then lose it, at a click.
Since I’m now at the stage of double stacking on my book shelves, I’ve also started to draw a line between books I’ll only want to read once, and will buy as ebook, and those I’ll want to keep. Very special books I’m much more likely to buy in hardback now.
There are books all over the house, but quite a lot of them have ended up in my study. There are shelves on either side of my desk: on one side are the novels and short stories – nominally in alphabetical order; and on the other are poetry, biography and history, and the dusty relics of the philosophy I studied at university.
What’s the book you reread more than any other?
Sorry to sound lofty, but I’d say Proust – all twelve volumes. I’m a really, really fast reader, and about once a decade I like to get lost in it all over again.
Recently I’ve started re-reading a lot of stuff I first read as a student. It’s quite shocking how little I understood when I was twenty. Read More…
Here New York-based Katie, whose second novel Gone to the Forest was published in February, reveals her bookshelf secrets. Salon tickets priced £11 (includes wine and cake) are on sale now.
Do you read paperbacks or Kindle?
Paperbacks. Hardbacks when possible. I don’t own a Kindle or any other reading device, but it’s not a position I’m wedded to. I can see how it would be convenient.
How do you organize your books?
To the extent that they’re organized, by language and region. But mostly they sit in haphazard piles, as they come in the door.
What’s the book you own but have never read?
The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa – two copies, never read. To my shame.
What’s on your nightstand?
Selected Stories by Robert Walser. A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, also by Walser and with an introduction by Ben Lerner (forthcoming from NYRB Classics). Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything. Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke.
What’s in your handbag?
Diapers, wipes, baby socks. Wallet, keys, pen. A paperback (at the moment Replacement by Tor Ulven).
What’s the book you foist on people?
It changes all the time. For the past month, it’s been Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Gerald Murnane’s The Plains.
Name the four books that mean the world to you
Some people and certain principles mean the world to me. But there’s no book that means the world to me, not in that way.