'I couldn't see, but when we were struggling with each other, I felt the body of this thing. It had the anatomy of what various cultures refer to as mermaids. It had the hands, and torso of a human; but from the waist down it had a single, streamlined limb that ended in a wide fin.'
The audience remained mute. Even the host stared with interest. 'Mr Kwesi…' he said. He scanned his notes and turned a leaf, then surveyed his audience who were waiting for him to continue. 'You said you felt this thing's body?'
'Did you, erm, feel the boobs?'
Perhaps it was the inappropriateness of it, or the imaginary breasts that he squeezed in front of his chest as he said it, but the audience released and the host smirked at the loud, mucking, rupture he had inspired.
Kwesi had made the producers agree that he could stop the interview whenever he wanted to. They agreed on a sign; he would tap his left knee. He began tapping.
Leye Adenle is best known for his crime writing. Since the Nigerian publisher Cassava Republic opened up a London publication office, his novel Easy Motion Tourist is being heavily promoted in the UK.
Leye and I met after a panel at Africa Writes in which he and Nikhil Singh discussed genre in Africa. Like so many other African writers, Leye doesn't specialize in any one kind of story—but he does champion the publication of genres in Africa to help grow an African-based audience. For him, African writing has for too long been thought of as literary writing.
"For a long time my access to fiction was all very literary—James Baldwin, Toni Morrison. The few African writers I could find came across as quite literary. I was being conditioned to think that's what I have to write. The Nigerian curriculum has a lot of English novels, so I chose to do science because I was being made to read The Mill on the Floss. I wanted to read about people like me. The Mill on the Floss had no bearing on my existence.
"My very first stories I wrote in school notebooks had white villains and protagonists that were set in Europe simply because as a ten-year-old boy I was reading all these old-time children's books—the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Famous Five. I didn't know they were for a previous generation. I did get hold of Asimov and I loved Lord of the Rings, but I could only get hold of a graphic novel version. It was what was available. My Dad read in my exercise book an adventure story set in England, and he said write about what you know. After that all my stories were African stories."
Easy Motion Tourist has no real magic in its world, but it is about magic.
"A lot of Nigerian girls are sold to Italy and they don't run away for fear of curses. People believe in it. I hate the expression 'black magic.' It's traditional religion for people, like a Christian swearing on the Bible. The novel doesn't say in any way that magic is real. But to the protagonist a mutilated body doesn't mean serial killer, it means a ritual killer."
The novel Leye is working on now starts out like it may be a fantasy, but the magic seems to be explained away—but then turns out to be science fiction. "No spoilers. The title is The Magician's Child. There is no magic, but it starts in Lagos and ends up on the moon."
His story "Those Who Wish To Rule" is a complex philosophical fantasy in which a ruler ushers the protagonist into something secret which involves all human rulers past and present, a secret room at the heart of the world that drives all rulers mad.
"The story is a word of caution if we think ruling is easy. It's a metaphor, using science fiction. Ruling a country is more serious than anybody knows, that you have to kill people for the greater good. What they see in the third room is so terrible they have to wipe their memories, like Reagan, like Thatcher. They ruled the world and died no longer knowing the world."
Leye has done much of his best work online for free.
"My publisher gets upset with me for putting out stuff online for free." Chronicles Of A Runs Girl is a novel for free online.
"It must be the most plagiarized novel in Africa. People cut and paste from it and don't have my name on it. Six, seven years ago it was satire against the government, poking fun at it, me doing my bit. I felt Nigeria was in trouble and if it was funny, maybe it would get a conversation going. Then at one point it just stopped being funny. That point was Boko Haram and my then President saying it was no big deal. The website was supposed to be on-going, improvised news-comedy like The Onion. But can you make jokes about a government denying 200 girls have been kidnapped?
"Anatomy of a Mermaid" is a short story available on his website. It's about a man who believes himself rescued from Lagos lagoon by a mermaid. The story explores the tension between traditional beliefs and more generic fantasies that are imported from the West. The hero believes that though he didn't see the mermaid, he felt an entirely Western style mermaid, and starts to talk about evolution.
The Ghanaian woman who rescued him on the beach moves in with him, and has a different view. 'She told him he must never go near water again and she asked if his people used to worship a water spirit in the past.' The story then links the sexualisation of the mermaid (a talk show host asks the hero if he felt the mermaid's breasts) with tensions in sexual relations between traditional and Europeanized Africans. This is a description of Kwesi's Ghanaian partner:
She offered sex like she offered food. The doorbell rang and he was spared the feeling of shame that would follow, when he chose one or the other, his appetite for either making him an accomplice in this passive abuse of a person. It didn't even jar him anymore that she would not or could not use the word 'sex' in her language or in any other language. See me.
The story differentiates among expectations of marriage—Kwesi's own, more traditional Yoruba woman's, and his partner's. It contrasts Kwesi's scientific explanation for what he saw, and more traditional views.
Fay, an albino filmmaker who says she was born of Africans and raised abroad, tells him that she believes in Mami Wata, the pan-African myth of water spirits. So there is a difference between a Western mermaid, and African water spirits, and the scientific explanations that Kwesi has for either.
Fay's white-but-African face inspires Kwesi's lust and he loses interest in his Ghanaian. Tellingly, the story is illustrated with a pulchritudinous image of a Western mermaid.
Sex, whiteness, diaspora, traditional belief, and science—it's possible to read the very image of the mermaid, a mix of different ways of being, an image of hybrid diasporan culture.
I ask Leye how long he has been in the UK, and he says, "Too long." Leye is Nigerian from Osogbo city in Osun State. He arrived just before the Millennium, finished a Master's in IT at the University of East London and got a job. He's not had much call to use his knowledge of IT.
His father was a medical doctor who went to Harvard. But after owning a private practice as a doctor, he became a printer and a publisher.
"It's in the family. I always wanted to be a writer. My father wrote a lot but never tried to publish. Mostly he wrote about the place of the black man, an alternative religion for the black person, very nationalistic and pro-African.
"My grandfather who was a writer, made his wealth partly from establishing schools. A primary school is still named after him till this day. He wrote two books in Yoruban before made being made king, Oba Adeleye Adenle the First, the Ataojo of Oshobo."
One of the few tourist destinations in Nigeria is a shrine to Yoruban Gods that is also a breathtaking work of art by Suzanne Wenger. Leye's grandfather gave her the chance to build the shrine and then made her a priestess.
Read a bit more about Suzanne Wenger's and the shrine on the Nairaland website.
Unlike many African writers, Leye's education did not cut him off from his mother tongue. "My father said speak Yoruba at home and English in school. I can't remember not knowing both. I was always reading Yoruban literature. Fagunwa (translated by Wole Soyinka as Forest of a Thousand Demons), Tutuola (The Palm Wine Drinkard), Oleku by Professor Akinhumi Isola. I got taken to see Hubert Ogunde's plays growing up, also the Baba Sala plays. Ogunde was a cultural treasure with his troupe of performers. He made amazing movies. Truthful, not like what Nollywood does."
Of all the African writers I have interviewed, Leye seems one of the most plugged into the literary tradition of a local language, but he knowingly writes in international English.
"I totally agree that I write in an international style accessible to anybody. I'm not writing for a specific set of people. I see my books fitting into The New York Times bestseller list. That I'm an African writer is secondary.
"However I've always been conscious of not imitating. A lot of writers imitate Chinua Achebe; they want to write like him. You can start picking his style, his words, used by so many new writers. You can spot it—that's from Anthills of the Savannah. Achebe was writing for people of his time. My parents spoke and wrote like that; it was right for the time."
Leye's novel has had rapturous reception in France rather as did Ghanaian Nii Parkes's A Tail of the Blue Bird.
"There it is translated as Lagos Lady. I sometimes think it's a different book in the French translation. I do a bookshop signing and sell 120 copies. There was a three-page article about me in Paris Match. I met a lady in Toulouse who has translated Wole Soyinka. She says the next big thing is African literature and she is teaching my book to her students. It gets great reviews in France and England but I got two not so great reviews in Nigeria, maybe because it's not literary. I've since had amazing reviews from Nigeria.
"A woman at an event in Lyon started talking about the book and her eyes welled up with tears. She said Amaka was the best woman character by a man she'd ever read. People ask me if I am a feminist, and I say yes. I used to call myself a humanist, but now I'm happy to say I'm a feminist. It's like Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter. Of course, all lives matter, but it's the current injustice against women we are focusing on now.
"I think of about 200 million Nigerians who spend money on cinema and music and think of them buying books. It should be an immense market. People I don't know keep getting in touch from Nigeria asking where they can buy the book. They've gone to this place, that place. Distributors will only distribute books that are on the curriculum. I think we should stop killing trees and just go onto phones and tablets."