Did you consciously choose to work in a bookshop, where arguably you were immersed daily in a world of books? Or was it more of a distraction, seeing other people’s books being published and on the shelves?
No, it was a complete accident – the first job that came along, and I took it. Looking back it was such an important direction in which to move as I learned so much on the job just by being surrounded by books.
In what ways?
By picking up books I would never have looked at in the first place, discussing books with colleagues and customers, having access to the latest titles straight from publishers’ representatives etc. Even after I left bookselling, and now, just popping into a bookshop and browsing gives me fresh impetus to write.
When you write, whom are you writing for? What are you trying to say? Or do you just let the story tell itself?
I write for myself – I’d stop writing if I had to target an audience. And yes, the story tells itself.
What has your experience been as an immigrant writer in the UK? Do you accept that tag at all?
I never thought of myself as an immigrant, although I suppose that’s what I am. I was sent to school here and ended up staying, but there was never a choice for me to be here. I don’t go around thinking of myself as this kind of writer or that kind. I’m simply a writer.
But it goes much deeper than choice doesn’t it? There are people referred to as second and third generation immigrants who never made a choice to be in one place or the other but are nevertheless caught up between two cultures. Did you never feel this tension? Do you feel a sense of rootlessness then? The archetypal global citizen?
When I was a teenager I did experience a sense of rootlessness because I was never sure what would happen after A Levels and then after university. Would I return to Nigeria or try out the US? I never wanted to remain in the UK as I hadn’t come here by choice, and it was never home for me. But I did go to America after university and found it to be the most foreign place I had ever been to, considering all my travels. Now that sense of rootlessness has transformed into something more liberating.
There is a vivid sense of London in 2005 that permeates your short story. To what extent has living in London as opposed to any other place influenced your writing?
I’ve always found London quite a difficult city in which to live. It’s expensive and can be harsh and very fast, and I’ve never really got used to that. So, perhaps that’s reflected in the writing, along with the moments of kindness, which can take you by surprise.
So if there was a choice, where would be the ideal place for this world traveller to live and write?
I discovered long ago when I visited the US, that there is no perfect place in the world. It’s either too hot or too cold, too racist, too unstable, too expensive, too corrupt, the list goes on. Home is where you are comfortable, where your family and friends are and where you are able to live and work contentedly.
What’s your take on creative writing courses? Positive, negative….?
Used to be negative, but I’ve changed my mind as I think they afford people the chance to immerse themselves in writing for a year, with the help of experts who guide and support. No one can be taught to write – you can only do that for yourself, but it can be very important for someone who isn’t sure how to progress to receive the guidance in an atmosphere where writing and ideas are encouraged. Also, you don’t have distractions on these courses, something I’m all too familiar with at the moment. And you’re guaranteed to meet agents and editors just by being on the course – so very difficult otherwise.
And on literary prizes? Especially prizes for African writing endowed and judged in London?
Well, I always thought that prizes were unfair (and still do) because they heap attention on one particular person while excluding a vast array of writing that is equally deserving. Now that I’ve won a prize the sentiment still holds – I’m grateful, but at the same time I feel for the other candidates, both shortlisted and longlisted, because everyone wants to progress in their careers and a prize offers that hope.
But prizes do help to focus attention on writing, which is a good thing. Once people know there are more places where they can submit work, then that’s an achievement. Someone sent an email saying, “I can write a better story than that Afolabi.” Now that it’s triggered some kind of debate and they know where to send stories then that’s all to the good.
Also, there should be more literary prizes in African countries – they don’t have to offer silly money, just the recognition of various forms of writing, from short stories and travel writing to non-fiction and novels. I’d love to see Africans writing about Africa more objectively. So many of the books available are by Westerners – Paul Theroux, Alexander McCall Smith, Karl Maier, Robert Guest… We shouldn’t be comfortable with always being written about.
What does the future hold for Segun Afolabi?
Well, there’s the short story collection coming out in April 2006, and then a novel in April 2007. I’m working on a new novel at the moment (hence the year off). After that, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Segun Afolabi is the winner of the 2005 Caine Prize for African Writing. He has a short story collection, A Life Elsewhere, and a novel, Goodbye Lucille, coming out in April 2006 and April 2007 respectively. He is published by Jonathan Cape. Ike Anya is a Nigerian doctor and writer currently based in the UK.