Noo Saro-Wiwa is a Nigerian travel writer who lives between London and Africa. Her début work Looking for Transwonderland (published in 2012) is a travel book praised by critics as an affectionate yet irreverent guide to Nigeria. Sparked with humour, “Looking for Transwonderland” is also a moving and tentative attempt by the author to come to terms with her homeland and the death of her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the famous Ogoni activist hanged by Nigeria’s military junta in 1995 for his environmental struggle against Big Oil in the Niger delta. In this interview with Africa Book Club, she talks about her literary demeanour, the insight she gained by living between two continents and her opinion about contemporary African literature.
The perception of Africa is changing, and one can feel that “African optimism” is on the rise. As a writer, do you feel a responsibility to change the narrative about Africa?
I think that, when it comes to perception about Africa, it is all about being real. Reality always involves some positives and negatives. It is really good that we are celebrating improvements in the African economy and rule of law, but I think we should not overstate things either. I am a realist: there are good things going on, there are bad things going on. The writer has to be in touch with that. It is any writer’s responsibility to reflect society as accurately as possible and I do not think it is my responsibility to cast things in a specially positive light. Just as long as it is realistic and it looks for the truth, I have fulfilled my obligation as a writer.
Is there such a thing as an “African literature”. How would you define it?
In a sense, there is an African literature in these books written within the historical context of colonialism. African colonialism was very specific: we had British, French or Belgian people coming in and changing our countries in a very specific way, something much different from the colonialism that occurred in Latin America for example. I would speak of an “African literature” for the writing that occurred within that context. Also, some African writers draw on traditional oral storytelling and infuse that in their novels. In that perspective, this seems to me “African literature” too.
But aside from that, I think that good novels are the ones exploring the complexity of the human condition, exploring things that resonate universally across systems and cultures. In that respect, I do not think that you can categorize a novel as being “African” only. If you look at the West, they always categorize books – in England, there is even a “chick lit” section for women literature. So I do not see why we could not do the same in Africa. If a novel talks about prostitution in Africa for example, rather than people getting upset because it is spoiling Africa, we should rather treat it as a novel about prostitution – because that’s what it is!
To make it clear, I would say that there is such a thing as an “African literature”, but that this label can never sum up to the incredible diversity of Africa. No writer can portray Africa’s entirety within a single book. That is just not possible.
“Looking for Transwonderland” is your first book, and it has been an instant hit. How did it all start?
It’s a non-fiction, travel writing book. I have always been interested in travel writing about Africa, so that was my starting point. The first book I wrote was on South Africa, but it did not go through a publisher. My agent thought that with my family name, the direct reference to my father, a book on South Africa would confuse people. Fortunately enough, Nigeria was next on my list.
Writing a book about Nigeria was a way of combining my liking for travel writing and to reconnect with my home country, where I had never lived. After my father died in 1995 I wanted nothing to do with Nigeria. I never went back except twice, for his official funeral and then for his real funeral. In the meantime I travelled in several African countries and got to know them better than my own. This situation was weird. I always wanted to go back, to discover my place and to write a book about it.
Could you tell us a bit more about your creative process? How did you write “Looking for Transwonderland”? What inspired you?
The book all about my travel around Nigeria and proximity was the most important thing. I grew up in the UK, but because I am Nigerian, I have a connection with the country through my parents and also through the visits I used to pay to my family when I was a child. So I have that connection with my country, but I am also a sort of outsider in the same time and I think that helps. If I had not been an outsider, it would not even have occurred to me to travel around the country – most Nigerians don’t. It was good to have that distance, so I could observe things and ask more questions.
You just mentioned that you grew up in the United Kingdom. Would you define yourself as “bi-cultural”? How does that impact on your writing?
Growing up in Britain obviously gave me a lot of British influences, at least culturally. But I identify myself as a Nigerian; to me, my fundamental identity is from Nigeria. I suppose that when you engage in travel writing, most influences are pretty much Western. These are the same influences that impacted on many African travel writers before me. In some way, yes, one could say that I am following a kind of Western tradition when travelling around Africa but it is about time that African authors write about our continent. To answer the question, I would say that my Britishness probably played a role in being a writer, and also on how to decide what to write about.
What is happening on the Nigerian literary scene? Is the country undergoing a literary rebirth. Some critics have called it a “Nigerian literary phenomenon”.
I would rather call it a renaissance. There was a time in the eighties and the first part of the nineties when things went into decline because of the military dictatorship. With the rebirth of democracy in the late nineties, Nigeria’s economy opened up. There are more opportunities now for young writers to emerge again. I also think that the West is much more receptive to African writing, in a way that it was not in the past. The combination of these two factors makes this new Nigerian literature possible.
Where are your literary influences to be found? Which African writer would you specially recommend to the readers of Africa Book Club?
I know it might sound boring, but I love Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart was the ultimate historical novel. It analyses the consequences of colonialism and how life changed for people, the clashes of values and also something I always wondered when I was a child: what was it like when European came along and brought us Jesus. How did people interpret that? Achebe kind of talks about that, which I really love.
Then of course, equally cliché, there is Chimamanda Adichie. She wrote novels that helped to define contemporary Nigerian writing, and there is a form of modernity in her work that I really like. Then you have people like Chika Unigwe, with her novel On Black Sister’s Street, who explores things more related to the diaspora, the clashes that occur when people move from one part of the world to another. Then Helon Habila as well, he is great. And of course Teju Cole, his writing is magnificent. I would also like to mention Lola Shoneyin, with The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. It is a very powerful book that offers a humorous deep look at the polygamous marriage. I like that, it is very daring, very modern. I speak a lot about Nigerian literature thus, but there is a lot happening in our country.
What are you currently working on? What can we expect from you soon?
I will tell you once I get a publishing deal. I am still working on it. The only thing I can say is that it will be on “following a theme”. I will be going in different countries, following a certain theme. But you will have to wait to know more…
And finally, you published a novel, something a lot of us would love to achieve. Do you have any advice to give?
Honesty is essential. Write about what you know and write it from the heart, that is truly important. Heart is where the best writing comes from. If you are trying to be artificial or if you target certain audiences because you want to make money out of it, it will appear in your writing and it is going to ruin your writing. It is genuinely important that you let your heart speak out. Think very deeply before committing to the paper, because it is so easy to ignore what is going on in your heart. With my book, there were certain feelings that I had, that I had buried for so long and that I was forced to throw out. To me, this was the best thing that came from the whole experience. Sincerity. That is what it is all about.