It’s good to talk to you again after so long, and congratulations on the publication of Swallow. How has life been since Everything Good Will Come? Has everything good come?
Thank you so much. It’s been three years and I’m a little grayer. Everything Good is being translated into other languages. Farafina has published Swallow and they are releasing my short story collection, Lawless, next month. My life in Mississippi is fairly quiet and peaceful. I still ask myself, “What am I doing here?” whenever I travel for readings and I still get teary over encouraging email from readers. We thank God, as we say in Nigeria. It’s also good to talk to you again. You gave me my first interview and I have since had one or two that were so weirdly edited I couldn’t figure out what I was meant to have said. Yours are official.
It’s almost as if in Swallow you picked up the story of Rose, the gum-chewing secretary, she of the general body weakness, and made her the central character?
No, that wasn’t Rose. They are different women. Glory was gentle and tired. Rose is indefatigable.
Swallow is very much a story of the poor and disenfranchised in Nigeria, laying bare their lives in all its complexity, sorrow and stubborn hopefulness. Was it a conscious decision to move away from the more middle class focus of your first book?
Yes. I wrote my first draft of Swallow in 2001, just after my M.F.A. I’d finished an okay draft of Everything Good and needed to get away from Ikoyi, where that story was set. I didn’t want to be known for writing “Ikoyi women” stories. I had not encountered one before I wrote Everything Good.
Swallow and Lawless, which I wrote between 2002 and 2006, were inspired by newspaper articles. I basically read the Nigerian online newspapers and created stories out of articles that fascinated me. Swallow began with articles about drug mules. I don’t think Tolani would describe herself as poor and disenfranchised. She would say she is broke and struggling.
I love the ear you have for the language of the Nigerian street- with phrases like “today, today, she will see my red eyes”, “his whole life will spoil” and “mouth like Oxford dictionary” How do you capture that voice so unerringly?
I speak many Englishes. I also mimic people well. I get that from my mother. I never thought it was a useful gift until I started to write. The biggest challenge for me was writing English in the voices of people who speak English as a second language.
The pictures you paint of Lagos are so vivid, yet I know that you haven’t lived in Nigeria for a long time, which suggests that your memory must be powerful. Did you live through the times that you describe? How much of a role does memory play in your work? Does the sense of being away from home heighten the nostalgia, sharpen the memories?
I lived in Lagos during the time the story is set and my long-term memory is better than my short-term memory. I’m not nostalgic about Lagos. I try to be realistic and write without being whimsical, exotic or grotesque. There is no need to embellish. In Everything Good, I attempted a panoramic view of the city because I was writing from the point of view of Enitan, who knew the city by air-conditioned car. In Swallow, I am contained because Tolani knows the city by bus, by taxi and by walking. She is always in crowded spaces. In all my stories I draw attention to the humorous, ironic signs on buses and on boards like “Who Knows Tomorrow?” because that is the way the city speaks to me.
There’s a line where you talk about “Andrews who lived abroad, who were not good Nigerian citizens like those of us who stayed and suffered”. That brought back memories of the Andrew don’t check out adverts on Nigerian television in the 80s. Is this a charge that has been thrown at you?
I am fascinated by the way that you capture Nigerian office politics and dynamics- the squabbles, Godwin the resident pastor, Franka, the saucy gossip, Mr Salako the lecherous boss- they are all immediately recognizable to anyone who has worked in a Nigerian office….
I have encountered all the office workers in Swallow. As I said, I lived in Lagos in the mid-eighties. I was there for national service. I worked at the Nigerian Stock Exchange for six months and taught English at a free-ed school for another six months. Then I spent a year working in a bank.
There’s a thread that runs through the book, at least in my reading of it, where it appears that you yearn for more individualism, almost suggesting that the much-vaunted communalism of our culture, comes at a price- often stifling individual creativity. Is this reading an accurate reflection?
That’s accurate. Readers explain my stories better than I do. It is hard for me to because it takes the fun and magic away.
Another example is Sanwo who is expected to act as a conduit from his rich uncle to the rest of the family, especially his sisters. And then there is the detested socialite wife of his uncle who is hated by the rest of the family, yet who wields considerable power as the rich brother’s wife…
I love Mrs. Odunsi. Isn’t she great with her bleached skin and snooty attitude? Sanwo disliked her and I didn’t blame him. He wanted to be an entrepreneur, but his sisters were constantly harassing him for money and he needed an initial investment from his uncle, Chief Odunsi, to start his own business, which he never received because Mrs. Odunsi kept getting in his way. I think another point to note about Sanwo’s dilemma is that if you’re a poor relation in Nigeria, you will probably remain a poor relation until the day you die. The so-called safety net of the extended family doesn’t always work.
On one hand you are fairly critical of Nigerian cultural traditions, and then on the other, you appear to be fairly nostalgic about the village life in Makoku, the moonlight tales. Isn’t this somewhat contradictory and couldn’t you be accused of romanticizing the past?
Tolani was being nostalgic, not me. She had just been through a terrible experience in the city. She gets to her hometown expecting to find peace of mind and her mother immediately disabuses her of any notion about an idyllic life there. An albino man has gone missing, he has presumably been murdered and there are malicious gossips in the compound. Peju, the young girl in the compound, didn’t want to hear any silly folk tales about tortoises, remember? Tolani very quickly readjusted her expectations, which prepared her to accept what she had always suspected about her mother. I provided balance by giving unsentimental descriptions of Makoku. I don’t romanticize.
You play on some of the common Nigerian ethnic stereotypes- the untrustworthy Hausa man, the cowardly and sycophantic Yoruba man, the money-loving, country music loving Igbo man – were you keen to explore these, and wasn’t that fairly brave on your part, knowing our country?
I knew an atmosphere of ethnic distrust belonged in the story and I ignored any fears I had about how readers would react while I was writing it. I don’t set out to offend, but a story is worth writing only if I raise inconvenient questions. That doesn’t always earn me approval.
Swallow shows how absurd ethnic stereotypes are even when you know people who verify them. Tolani loved money, so did Rose, Violet, Sanwo and Johnny. They all loved money, which was why they got into trouble. Rose was not very trustworthy. Neither was Mr. Salako, Mrs. Odunsi and Mashood, Sanwo’s business partner. Sanwo was a bit of a coward. Johnny was a bloody coward. He fled when Rose attacked him.
Ethnic stereotypes are absurd to me because I was raised in a part of Lagos that was unusual in the sense that almost all my friends and family had parents who were from different ethnic backgrounds. Most of us could only speak English. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of that. In retrospect, we were parochial because we rarely went beyond our little social circle, but we were not parochial in an ethnic sense, so I’ve never understood that. I was shocked to encounter tribalism in Nigerian literary circles. People who support you only if you’re one of them and if you’re not, they ignore or cast aspersions your work. Here I am with an Arabic name. My father was Moslem and Igbirra and my mother is Christian and Yoruba. Where do I fit in? Actually, I’m glad I don’t fit in.