My writing motto / mantra: Make it true, make it pretty, make it kind.
'True' is self-explanatory.
By 'pretty' I don't mean flowery, or even lyrical, poetic-prose (though good poetic fiction is amongst my favourite types of writing). I mean that the writer should have a feel for language, and be sensitive to the cadences and the rhythmic qualities of the language he/ she is writing in. It's amazing how some well-known writers are tone-deaf on the page.
'kind' is the hardest to explain. It's about empathy, and the writer offering more than say, cool cynicism or cheap satire; about the writer having a sense that, as my protagonist says in 'My Once Upon A Time', almost everybody, if you got to know them well enough, would tell you a story from their life that would make you cry for them. Kindness is also about there being some understanding that life can be better bubbling through the work: that if only characters behaved better or had been treated better at some point before, then their lives and that of those around them might be better. I think this is true so you have to have that sense there.
Early writing / Background
I did an essay in a Virago book entitled Sons and Mothers, which gives an account, albeit someway self-censored, on my strict upbringing/ domestic regime. The regime, courtesy of my father, was at the extreme end of an ethos that would be recognised as Nigerian in the primacy it placed on education, discipline and the use of flogging to punish errors of varying kinds. It was Nigerian via the Victorian values-influenced schools that middle-class folk such as mine would have gone to, and its rigour was no doubt accentuated by immigrant stresses, and what else I couldn't tell you.
I began writing, fairly prolifically, aged eight, nine, ten. In retrospect, I suspect that this was partly because the writing allowed me to escape? from my domestic situation, and instead enter places that were sealed and where I had power, and therefore happiness, in the worlds that I imagined. And also because I simply loved reading - all things but especially, stories, myths, history - and when you find something you like, you naturally want to do it? too. Reading was an activity in which both parents and teachers, but especially my father, encouraged me.
Firstly it was writing out digests, both straight and retouched, of Greek and Roman myths that my mother would type out for me at her work. I was also very keen on sports, and would play/ act out imaginary matches in my room, that quickly developed into my filling school exercise books with detailed accounts of cricket series set in the future, in which I played, always striving for realism in these stories, for England. At aged 12 I began keeping a writer?s notebook? where you jot down thoughts and other people?s phrases, and began writing 'proper' stuff - poems, plays. I was first published in a book when I was 15 in this British schools' poetry Anthology with the second poem I ever wrote. It was called, 'Reflections of Cain in his Later Years'.
Early reading / Influences
Aged six – 12: Books on myths/ legends, children’s encyclopaedias, books on planets, world history etc. Loved history, including sporting, and especially cricket history. Read everything in the library on that, and everything by PG Wodehouse, Ian Fleming, all the mystery stories by Enid Blyton, and ‘Jennings’ novels (English prep school stuff) by Anthony Buckeridge.
There were also a lot of books in the house. Some African and sixties African-American, but more Western classics – Dickens etc. I used to have to read a book or so a week of these in the holidays, then discuss it with my father.
Aged 13- 18: The more ‘mature stuff’ kicks in. Fell heavily for the existentialists/ modernists: Sartre, Camus, Nietzche, Beckett, Kafka, Kerouac etc. Also Shakespeare and Jacobean drama + modern 'theatre of the absurd' stuff, and the 'Flashman' novels. Some black – Okigbo, Baldwin, Soyinka - but largely I was the (slightly precocious) epitome of western, educated, rebel adolescent, pro avant-garde, pro-funky, taste.
I read a heap of crime novels and True Crime books too - Elmore Leonard etc - just standing up in Wood Green WH Smith of an afternoon.
To those I would add Hunter S. Thompson and other American sixties ‘New Journalists’, Martin Amis, and ‘80s/ early nineties hip-hop. The language and the pace of all these struck me as I began writing more seriously. Also Langston Hughes, reggae, bands like the Velvet Underground and the Smiths, and The Bible’s ‘Ecclesiastes’ for their angsty, spiritual or lyrical flavour.
A non-fiction American writer who directly influenced the first novel, especially for the way he combined black vernacular and straight English and made it work comfortably, was Greg Tate and his collection of essays ‘Flyboy in the Buttermilk’.
JD Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ had a great impact on me as a teenager, an emblematic example of the kind of angsty, individual at odds with the world-type of work that is still the dearest to me, and frequently informs my work. Style-wise, its informality/ slanginess, and fluency in this voice, was also significant for me. Style always seems to me to be the quality that makes you fall in love with an artist, as opposed to content, which commands respect and, saying that, Samuel Beckett’s novel trilogy (‘Molloy’, Malone Dies’ ‘The Unnameable’) has also been significant. The first half of ‘Molloy’ is one of the most elegant, beautifully written things around. I like ‘pretty’ stuff - Baldwin’s essays, the Bible’s ‘Ecclesisastes’and ‘Proverbs’, though hard-boiled can be pretty too.
Langston Hughes’ short story collection ‘The Ways of White Folk’ is the last thing I’ll name. I just found it very moving, and lyrical, at a time when black Americana was beginning to loom large in my cultural life.
My basic interest is Culture, and I seek to critique/ interpret it in different ways: I always saw myself as a cultural 'warrior' who would fight on three fronts (two proved too much for Hitler, but still!): one, as a creative writer - this the most important because creative weapons, such as stories, most genuinely add something new to the world, and resonate most powerfully with an audience. Two, as an essayist/ pundit, making public interventions on the issues of the day (that notion of the 'engaged' writer - Zola and 'J'accuse' or Ken Saro-Wiwa etc.). And thirdly, a wider notion of engagement - mentoring younger ones, heliping apprentice writers, bending the ear of politicians and policymakers (hence eg, my Arts Council gig).
Why I write?
Because it's very natural to want to hear, then tell stories. Reading fairytales, myths,histories etc when young, they conjured up such exciting worlds you wanted to create them yourself. From young, being a great writer was the only crown in town I wanted.
Because I wanted to move , excite, have power on an audience, the way eg a club DJ does.
Because it's a way of fighting back against the real world, where you tend to lack power and control and perfection. And also of making sense of your real world, why you and others do the things you do.By doing it you feel you're giving a kind of due dignity to your life, or those of others'. With so much higher-technology art more expensive to produce, and therefore more influenced by market dictates, writing books is one of the few areas where you can explore people to a depth they deserve.
Because it’s the form that best enables you to plumb the fullness of human experience. You can do everything in it and anything with it.
To reach the parts that other narrative media don’t reach (not so hard in our celebrity-tilted media): to plumb deeper and fly higher in our documenting and imagining of human beings, their behaviour and their potential ; to tell untold stories and untold reasons; to carry the torch for truth and for fantasy, and the beauty and power of words.
I’ve written two novels. In both I wanted to explore certain contemporary hitherto ‘invisible’/ untold stories, and to do so humorously, and in a style/ language that befitted this new material.
More specifically, in my first novel, ‘Some Kind...’. I wanted to look at the question of identity amongst children of immigrants through a fraught year in the life of a protagonist, Dele, as he struggles to find a comfort zone amongst the many homes he has his feet in - Nigeria, wider London, black London etc, at a time when these homes seem to be clashing and asking him to choose between them. I also hoped to tell a story about the tribes of ‘90s urban Britain, in particular the new breeds, black, white etc who, like me, had been subject to multicultural influences.
Book 2, ‘My Once...’ is also, and more thoroughly so, a satirical state-of the urban nation piece, although it reads very differently to the first, being set in London’s near future, and using a noirish, private eye sensibility. It seeks to examine how love, in both the boy meets girl and the love thy neighbour senses, has been corroded amongst black western communities, but is as much about redeploying literary and cinematic genres such as the quest novel, the spaghetti western, and Yoruba/ Brazilian mythology.
My themes - Identity?
Identity is certainly a major theme of my first novel, ‘Some Kind...’. SKOB examines one troublesome summer in the life of its protagonist Dele, who has his feet in many homes, in the sense of being of Nigerian background, but born in this new country, where he’s a minority within a minority, but also a Londoner, a top college boy, coming of age at a time when Afrocentrism/Nubianism and black esentialism is in the ascendancy etc, and he’s trying to reach a comfort zone,and a true, viable sense of self amongst all this different information/ material he’s subject to, at a time when these homes seem to be clashing and asking him to choose between them. The book looks at how a person’s identity is produced among this ongoing dynamic between roots and routes, and how, in common with the line of other post-moderns, identity is a much less fixed quality than has often been portrayed. SKOB is very much a counterblast against the essentialists among us who would say that there is only one ‘authentic’ way of being and living black. It’s pro-heterogeneity.
Book 2, ‘My Once...’: To the extent that’s it’s to do with identity it’s more about group than individual identity. The book would probably have been called ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ if Sergio Leone hadn’t got there first, and here I’m talking about a community whose traumatic dispersal, and current difficult urban living has helped to undermine its original integrity and best nature, if you like, leaving a people who do not trust each other, so creating a modern hell. Love, in both the love thy neighbour and the boy meets girl sense, has become hard to find. Boy, the main, everyman character, is looking for redemption amongst all this, but when the chance comes, the city has so affected his nature that he cannot grasp it. (cf Webster's malcontent protagonists in 'The White Devil' or 'Duchess of Malfi')
Who do you write for?
For everybody (although that may not always be the case in the future). The balance I try to strike is for anyone to be able to come into the work, but insideres to the world I’m describing should be able to come in and not feel shortchanged, but feel that their understanding of it has deepened.
What would you change in your work?
There’s very little I would change – both were 90+% what they were supposed to be, given finite time. I’d probably tinker with the ending of book one though – it probably never recovered from the rush in which I completed the first draft, + try to make clearer one or two things in book 2.
Are the books autobiograpical?
To some degree, but more emotionally so than 'factually'. Dele’s struggle for a comfort zone in SKOB very much mirrors my own search in my early manhood, and the type of information and ‘issues’ I was grappling with, and the peer pressures I was subject to. Having had a most atypical UK black experience (lived in poor, inner-city, but got scholarship to posh private school and then Oxford Univ), I certainly felt an internal need to reconnect with the mass of black britons when I left college, which I felt involved getting deep into street culture – the great majority of black britons have had working-class upbringings, someway different from the States. No doubt, some of this street stuff I found is there in the work and also, in book one, issues I was feeling like,if you’re pro-black, should you be in a ‘mixed-relationship’.
I could also see around me that there was a new breed of Londoner/ urban Briton coming of age who, like me, albeit sometimes in a different way, had been subject to manifold multicultural influences. (White) Folk whose vocab and inflections etc were such that the old categories of black or white seemed no longer as appropiate and UK born black folk who were trying to come to terms with their different inheritances. It was because I felt that my truth was connecting to these larger social truths that I deemed worthy of discussion in a novel.
Book 2, MOUAT, again is prompted by the life of mine and those around me in our 20s. Searching for black love, seeing the community mistrust, black on black violence and aggressiveness. While Book 3 is again partly to do with what I’ve seen as an observer, + professional artist about what it takes to make it ‘big’ in the west as a black person working in culture. But obviously, all biography goes through a process of modification.
Because it's the form that best enables you to plumb the fullness of human experience. You can do everything in it and anything with it.
What's different about your work?
The language – I don’t think you could read a page of my stuff and mistake it for anybody else’s. Also, I feel I have a rare set of environmental influences, from ‘the street’ to the heights of British society to international ones, that I bring to bear on the page.
Each of my novels tries something new from a technical point of view and the work-in-progress, due out next year, and which will complete a loose London trilogy, will have a young woman as the main narrative voices. It will also look at some stuff around art and science and sons and fathers, the mixed-race consciousness and depression. After that, it’s non-novel stuff for a while but, when I return, I’m keen to get away from the contemporary and away from the UK.
The humour in both, the characterization, their strong sense of place, the enjoyability and distinctive elegance of the language (especially book 2) and use of many different registers of English, the dialogue, their tender-tough mix, and the sheer span of the worlds created (esp. book 2).
Almost every book you read you're made aware of some stuff that that author does better than you, but, specifically...
..I don't think I have a good, detailed visual eye. I don't see or notice various little things in the natural world around me as well as I would like, and thus don't render it so well.
And I don't know the words for them, these things in the world - Words like 'skirting' for that junction area on a room's wall, or 'balustrade' is it? - for the protuberances you see on an outside wall or street...Words for those kinds of things, or bits of clothing, I don't know at all.
I also fear that sometimes my vibe can be a bit journalistic. That journalism has harmed me. And that I'm trying to say too much; trying to make more points than that page/ chapter can sustain...Yeah, that worry wates a lot of my writing-time - an occupational hazard , I suspect, for 'minority' writers who are aware that his/ her own perspective is often not known about or shared by the 'majority' reader, and so ends up feeling they have to say more that that novel ideally needs to ensure that every reader understands...
A writer or black writer?
Just an artist. We are all of us, of course, many things at the same time, and the fact that I am ‘black’ is just one of about six things of similar weight which inform my sense of myself and my work from day to day. Being ‘Black’ affects me in the exterior sense of how the world treats me, and also in an interior sense of strongly affecting my allegiances, and sense of bond/ commonality, but I would stop way short of saying that ‘black artist’ is my self-definition. To be honest, I think the best brief self-definition, the one most likely to prepare folk for what I do on the page and that most fairly reflects my influences, is to call myself a post-modernist.
However, I often call myself, or allow myself to be called something for the sake of shorthand or the context. So, often, I might describe myself as a black diasporic artist because I can see links between my position and other black people in the western world and, beyond black, other dispersed people’s, be they Jews or gypsies etc. Equally, in another context, I could call myself a black British artist/ British artist because I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve written a lot about black Britons. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get vexed when I see my books confined to the ‘black books’ ghetto in bookshops, whilst every other race – Jew, Wasp, Indian – gets to be in the A-Z of fiction, with the big boys and girls, in the mainstream canon. There is a lot of bullshit around this issue over here, mainly spread by liberals ignorant of the consequences of their ‘good’ intentions, and being perceived as a ‘black artist’ will instantly reduce the perceived importance of your work and marginalise your ass.
It's funny, growing up a Black-Brit and knowing Reggae and patois and African politics as well as Blondie and Shakespeare and Mrs Thatcher, you always feel you know more than the next white guy, but you tend to be viewed as if you know less.
A black-British Canon?
In my teens I was aware of cats like:
Sam Selvon, Buchi Emecheta, Linton Kwesi-Johnson, ER Braithwaite, George Lamming, John Agard, Colin McInnes (– a white guy!), Hanif Kureishi (Asian mixed-race, but writes about the UK-born children of immigrants)
Canon - not really established – there hasn’t been enough criticism focussed on literature to be able to say that as yet (although, paradoxically, some of the best work that I think black Britons, or adopted black Britons, have done has been in the area of cultural criticism – Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, CLR James, Homi Bhabba). Editor Onye Wambu put together a collection, “‘Empire Windrush’, 50 Years of Writing about Black Britain” that had canonical aspirations. All the above-named authors are in it.
What do you think of the current climate of black British writing - is it in a good place?
Hard to say. Has anybody claimed the highest prize?- which is to have a written a black masterpiece about the way we live now. Modesty forbids, obviously, but I didn't read it.
Do I see a greater range of black work out there? Speculative fiction, whimsy, avant-garde stuff, black -on-black stuff , where your race doesn't come into it - all these given a big push by publishers? No.
But then, the wider publishing/ bookselling climate, and the nexus between writers and (new generations of) readers isn't great either.
Re 'the current climate' of black writing: My underlying worry is that a 'worthiness' still attends UK black literary (and black African writing) in terms of how it is perceived, and its position in the marketplace. Slighty worthy, or someway anthropologically perceived - this is how it was for us-type stories. I would want us to have an edgier cooler 'brand' than black is currently perceived to be. Funny, cos black is 'cool' in other cultural spheres, but never has been so in books, mainly, I would contend because of these worthy/ anthropological leanings (how I hated having to rename my first manuscript, 'Some Kind of Black'. I'd wanted to call it 'Quiet As It's Kept')
Do you see yourself as an African writer? In your opinion, is 'African writing' something different from 'black writing'?
No, not to a large degree in the way I think U mean it (false distinction here again, for me).
Of course African writing’ is different from black writing. Africa refers to a set of cultures, black refers to nothing, except to a colour which only has significance compared to white. For me, black mainly has meaning as a western category, and is principally an oppositional/ discrimintated against force in a racialised society (hence biracials, or asians can be 'black' in a western context.). If racism, race diffrentiation didn't exist I, or anyone with an African antecedent, would still be of African descent, therefore African is a much more fundamental category. I don't even like talking about black very much. People should talk about, and understand themselves around, their culture.
I do accept, though, also that black britain has been becoming a culture, and my story/ identity is most closely linked to this emerging demographic/ cultural category, that has come from post 2nd World War waves of immigration blah. So I can understand myself, and all of us, as being part of 'black writing' in that context.
I guess, when I'm with whites, I see myself more as 'black' and, when I'm with black people, I think of myself more as an African.
How much is Nigeria an influence on your writing?
V. little in any obvious sense on the marrow, the style of my writing. Looking back on all my work, the bones of my style, the attitude to/ basic stuff I do with words hasn't changed since I was 13/14, and then I was reading PG Wodehouse and Salinger. Wodehouse provided you with so much local pleasure around words and Salinger - conversational, informal style - both things I tend to do. Later teens it was Beckett's novels, Hunter S Thompson, then a lot of hip-hop and reggae - all doing 'non-straight English things around words.
My father's love of books, plus a certain Nigerian strictness of my childhood, which meant that reading/ studying were the only legal things for children to do, certainly meant that I got into books more than i might have done otherwise, but then again the books he loved, courtesy of his colonial education, were, Dylan Thomas's poetry apart, mainly old Europeans. Victorians, TS Eliot (American, I know!) etc.
Nigeria is in my genes, and who knows how that affects you (that non-western orthodoxy in art - art should be serious in some way, + spiritual yearnings/ tendencies, v common, still, on that continent!?), + in my 'themes' - v. interested (see 'my once upon a time') in nigerian and African cultures/ fables, and using it as part of your wider ammunition as a writer. Plus my background has given me an enduring sense of being only partly western, and a consequent freedom around western artistic modes/ norms and, more widely, values.
Got to say, though, that growing up and reading a fair no. of naija + other African books (mainly from the Heinemann Af Writers series), I generally found their style + their areas of subject too conservative for me, just as I found my own upbringing, and I was set on bringing a more bohemian vibe and a more modern, relaxed style to the African (diasporic) table. That would be my contribution....
As an 'African' author writing in Britain, do you feel a responsibility to write about Africa? If so, why?
No. I feel, as an author, no responsibility to write about anything in particular. However, there are particular tasks I've chosen to take on, and one is bringing greater knowledge of continenatal/ diasporic African perspectives, histories etc. Increasingly, I suspect it may play a smaller part in my creative work, whilst remaining strong feature of my non-fiction and public roles.
This question contains a supposition/ distinction ('As an African author' - says who?) that begs some questions (as do some of your others)...
Newness and black writing
I think the white powers-that-be are comfortable with racism (yawn) and colonial stuff cos they're included in it too, or else with stuff that is clearly in the grand European births-marriages-and-deaths novel tradition. I have always been much more about genuinely new writing, by which I mean the people/ stories in the book, but also the style of the book. 'Black' for me has always been more significant to me as a writer for the access it gave me to newness - slang, vernacular, vexing the Queen's English, other ways of telling stories, other values. But I still see v. few ballsy publishers - no real taste for market-unproven newness, just draping some not very new stuff in new faces.
This is not to say, by the way, that any other writer out there should share the same take on 'newness' as me.