Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep. He was lying nude in bed, and when he raised his head a fraction he could see his alabaster belly, and his pale legs beyond, covered with fuzz that glinted bronze in the cold daylight pouring in through the open window. He sat up with a sudden motion that swilled the panic in his stomach and spilled his hands into his lap. He stared at his hands, the pink life lines in his palms, the shellfish-coloured cuticles, the network of blue veins that ran from knuckle to wrist, more veins than he had ever noticed before. His hands were not black but white ... same as his legs, his belly, all of him. He clenched his fists, squeezed his eyes shut, and sank on to the bed. Outside, a bird chirruped short piercing cries, like mocking laughter.
When he opened his eyes again the air was silent, the bird was flown. Turning on his side, his gaze roved the familiar corners of his bedroom and rested on his going-out shoes, their brown leather polished to a dull lustre, placed at attention beside the door. His blue T.M. Lewin shirt and his favourite black cotton trousers (which he had stayed awake till after midnight, when power returned, to iron) were hanging from the chair at the desk.
The opening to Blackass.
Blackass is regarded by some as a mainstream literary novel. At first glance it’s a Kafka-esque romp about a black Lagosian called Furo who wakes up one morning looking white—except for his rump.
The novel soon confounds expectations.
A character called, like the author, Igoni, appears to slip between genders. Like many people, I regard the novel as being speculative—and so did the members of the African Speculative Fiction Society, who shortlisted it for the first Ilube Nommo Award.
It was also nominated for the inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Awards, the 2016 Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle Award, and the 2017 Pen Open Book Award.
Barrett has had a distinguished career. A story from his first collection won the BBC World Service Short Story Competition. Grants, residencies, and travel followed. He was listed among the Africa 39—the 39 best African writers under forty.
I start out by asking why the novel has a character who has the same first name as the author (almost—the initial A for Adrian is missing). He asks to be called A. Igoni.
A Igoni: “For me it’s about playing with readers’ expectations. Most readers will assume that Igoni is the author, and begin to ask, ‘Is this nonfiction going on here?’
“Every character in that book is me, and every character in the book is not me. They all come out of my head, including a character who is named after me. It’s a manifestation of me. And there’s a point later where that character becomes something else.”
Basically the character Igoni seems to become a woman. Or was she always a woman?
A. Igoni: “It was not meant to be clear. Is anything ever clear these days? I am a man, and when I walk on the street, people see me as a man, but who says I don’t see myself as a woman? And tomorrow if I decide to dress like a woman, to shave my legs and my beard, put on fake hair and go out on the street, people might see me as a woman though I am the same person inside.
“One of the things that inflamed my desire to write this book was the discussion that started in Nigeria where young educated people would say that it’s not part of African culture to be gay. You have to ask, ‘what is this African culture you claim to know?’ For me it was important to challenge people’s beliefs.
“I have conversations, for example, in bars in Nigeria where I sit down and say, ‘I’m a writer and I believe that women are equal. I believe what our President said, that his wife ‘belongs in the other room’ is wrong.’ And I have had people challenge me and had discussions where my voice was drowned out by the majority.
“As a writer your voice cannot be drowned out. That book will go out into the world and those same people you lost arguments with in a bar will maybe read that book. You have to win them over with empathy. You have to make them believe in these characters and see these characters. It’s a slow process. I hope that by the time I am done as a writer I will change their children if not them.
“Books are about play. It’s about fun. I came to books as a child because I wanted to be transported, whether it was to space, whether it was to Boise, Idaho. But then over time I began to have opinions, formed by books and by personal experiences. At a certain age I felt I had so many things that I wanted to say that I became a writer.
“I live in a society where it is possible for me to live in a nice apartment and provide some level of comfort for myself, but I can step out my door and right next to me is a woman living on the street with twins.
“I’m not an American, where at least I know that even if I am poor the government will step in. There is a major disparity in people’s incomes in this country and in people’s beliefs. I live in a country where some people believe it is right to chop off the hand of a man who steals...
“And that informs my writing. As much as I write because I enjoyed William Faulkner or I enjoyed reading Octavia Butler, I also am a writer because I grew up in Nigeria. That was enough to keep me at my desk for two years, writing this book.”
We talk about how Furo as an oyibo does a tour of Lagos. I ask if the club of black women who want white husbands because they think white people are rich is real or a satirical exaggeration.
A Igoni: “That exists. You have to adjust to certain parts of Lagos. This is a novel focused on a character who is perceived as white, so everything is filtered through him. In that book those incidents have more significance than in the average Nigerian’s life. But many Nigerians will recognize those things.
“The book is dedicated to my father. My father’s name is Lindsay Carlton Barrett. He’s a novelist and a journalist. He’s still alive. He’s Jamaican and has lived in Nigeria for fifty years and loves Nigeria, knows Nigeria more that I will ever know.
“He’s always been an outsider. He carries a Nigerian passport today. But he just happens to be a light-skinned Jamaican. And I’ve spent my entire life watching people view my father as an outsider on the basis of his skin colour. Even when he opens his mouth and espouses his knowledge about Nigeria. His fifty years in Nigeria involved him in the Biafran War, involved him in the early journalistic institutions in this county. But he’s always first and foremost ‘that oyibo man.’”
A. Igoni: “Well he has light skin, white beard, fluffy hair; he’s a Father Christmas type. So he’s not ‘full oyibo’ as people would say. Oyibo in the formal sense is ‘a Caucasian.’ But the word has been expanded to include Lebanese, Indian, Chinese—anybody who is the Other, including mixed race people, will be called oyibo in the market. So my half-sister, who is American and who is light-skinned, goes to the Nigerian market, and she will be called oyibo.
“Those are deep-seated issues when you cannot imagine that it is possible for a Nigerian to do anything but look one way. There are Lebanese who have been here maybe one hundred years and speak Hausa, speak Yoruba, but whenever they go to renew their passport, they are questioned about their Nigerianess.
“Nigerians will tell you it’s not a bad thing (calling you oyibo); it’s a good thing, we’re acknowledging you.”
GR: “I don’t believe it. People who like you don’t call you oyibo.”
A Igoni: “Exactly. It’s a society that puts you in battle mode, ready to engage. If you are grieving the loss of a loved one and go out into Nigerian society as a white person, you can’t imagine how difficult it can be.
“So Blackass goes back to my childhood experience, watching my father all his life, even at the end—he’s now seventy-five. Sometimes when we’ve had a few drinks together he gets bitter about his life. One of the things he gets bitter about is that he left Jamaica fifty years ago. At that time very few Jamaicans were coming to Africa. Even the Rastafarians would sing, exoticize about Africa, but not actually move here. He came as a writer and settled, had children here, married here, has invested so much hard work in the country. The only passport he has is Nigerian and yet when he steps out into the street he’s still oyibo.”
I say to A. Igoni, that for me, his novel captured a sense that transitioning, in many senses of the word, is the modern experience.
A. Igoni: “Igoni the character had several things to do in that story. Number one was to re-iterate Furo’s experience, to repeat and strengthen Furo’s experience in living through another transition. It wasn’t shown in the book but the assumption was that Igoni also had a change, but I didn’t want to put a stamp on it by saying he woke up one morning as a woman, because today you have so many possibilities of becoming a woman if you want to.
“Some people have asked me at readings, ‘Actually I’m curious about how Furo could become white. I’m interested myself. How do you lighten your skin so quickly?’ (Chuckles) Because people actually try to lighten their skin, people are actually trying to change their sex. These are realities that we didn’t have two hundred years ago. So I didn’t want to focus so much on the how, but on the ‘what if?’ ‘What if this were you?’
“I was at a point in my writing career where I was asking myself, ‘what does it really mean to be a human being?’ I used to think I was special being a writer. I was the voice of the voiceless. But if you are the voice of the voiceless then you are part of the problem, because the voiceless need to go find their own voices.
“I began to ask myself why am I writing in the age of the internet, in the age of Facebook where everybody is a writer. Everybody posts something, everyone can start a blog. Everyone can find entertainment in so many ways. What is the job of a writer?
“So Igoni’s part in that book is a manifestation in future form of the writing process, of the way we sit down on our balconies and bring out our jotting pad when we see a bird doing something and take notes...
“We’re voyeurs and we’re storytellers and we’re liars and in some ways destroyers. I want to destroy society to rebuild it in my own image. (Laughs) The Igoni character for me was outside morality. She was going to do whatever she had to do to get her story. Because that character was also writing a novel and felt, ‘Well, OK, I want to have sex with the main character to see where that goes.’ But nothing comes of that so she thinks, ‘Let me bring some tension into my story by bringing the parents (Furo’s) over.’ Both the Igoni character and the Furo character are for me contemporary, modern, selfish human beings.”
We talk a bit about how the main character Furo is unlikeable, as real people are. That leads to Hilary Clinton’s emails, and how they made him like her more: ‘Is that the worst you’ve got?’ We go on to fake news, social media and on what Trump means for the USA.
A. Igoni: “Many times in Nigeria we say our problems are just about education. ‘We just need to educate more people. People need to get more enlightened and our problems will all be fixed.’ Well from what’s going on in Europe and the States, no. Human beings will find new ways to mess up, despite education.
“The flip side is that Nigerian society is where we have figures of 75 to 80 per cent poverty, yet people are hopeful. ‘I will struggle and send my children to school. I didn’t get an education, but my children will travel.’ They see a path to success through improving their children’s lives.
“I was astounded that Americans didn’t (have this optimism) even though their lives are so much better materially. They live in better houses, they have good roads, and yet you can see how much more fearful they are.
“You are spoiled, and you are fearful, and you are willing to challenge your own long-held values, to throw them over so easily.”
I get back to the book. I say that as a white man, I found some of the reactions to Furo by Nigerians in the street a bit exaggerated.
A. Igoni: “I’ve been accused of that, and even Nigerians have said it. I will contend that it’s not. A point was made in a paragraph explaining the different parts of Lagos. That’s the other thing about Nigeria.
“When I say I know Nigeria, I lie. I can never, not in my lifetime, know Nigeria in the way that an American can know America. Because there is some sort of unified American experience. You go to school, you all read the same type of books. You all read The Catcher In The Rye across the States. You all watch The Brady Bunch or The Wonder Years. There are certain movies you all watch. You stay up at night to watch the Tonight show—unified experiences that Nigeria doesn’t have.
“More than half of Nigeria is in the North. In many of these places a woman is not allowed to wear trousers. On TV they just banned an actress in Northern Nigeria because she hugged a man in a music video. Whereas in Lagos the women are walking about in underpants in music videos. This is the same country. The books I read in school were different from the schools in Ibadan, that’s another part of southern Nigeria. The lingua franca of southern Nigeria is English. The languages of Northern Nigeria are Hausa, followed by Arabic before English. So I will definitely communicate better in Nairobi, Kenya than I will in most parts of Northern Nigeria.
“Now this character (Furo) was walking about in a part of Lagos called Egbeda. I lived in Egbeda for two years. You probably passed near it when you came into Lagos from Abeokuta, the outskirts of Lagos. When I first came to Lagos to get a job, I lived in Surulere. I knew Ikoyi. That’s Lagos for many people.
“But there are many people who have never crossed the bridge into the islands. (Lagos and Victoria Islands are more likely to have prosperous districts). Millions of Lagosians have never crossed the bridge. (Lagos may have as many as 23 million inhabitants). So their idea of Lagos is Makoko or Ikeja. When they get to Ikoyi it’s like, ‘That’s foreign. Where is this? Is this my country?’
“I moved to Egbeda when I couldn’t afford the house rent in Surulere. Within an hour’s drive (without traffic, four hours with [traffic]) from Sururele was this place I had never been to before and it was totally different. It was urban, undoubtedly so, but in a different way. I lived there two, maybe three, years and in all my time in Egbeda I never saw one white person. Once when I saw an Indian, he attracted so many stares that I felt sorry for him.
“Seeing a white person strolling down the street in Egbeda is like seeing a snake in the city, it’s such a surprise. Imagine you are a sixteen-year-old who has never seen a white person in the flesh. You’ve always seen them on TV, you’ve always seen them in Spider Man suits, so that (a Western) person becomes the personification of every fantasy of America. I would say if you are a white person and you want to test the truth of the reactions to Furo, just go into Egbeda.
“Even me. If I am dressed in my nice jeans, I stand out, people can tell. In many ways we are a stratified society. It’s just not by skin colour, but by economic status. If I walk into a buka in Ikeja, the saleswoman assesses me and I will get special treatment; I will draw looks as being odd.
“I’ve never learned how to drive, I don’t own a car. I don’t believe in God. When I open my mouth in Nigeria and say these things, I am constantly defending, explaining myself. ‘How can you not like cars?’ Because everyone wants three cars. Therefore I must be lying about not liking cars. I must be telling lies when I say I believe cars are destroying the world.”
He tells a story about picking up plastic trash outside his flat and a neighbour’s driver asking why, as an Oga, a big man, he just didn't have someone pick it up for him.
A. Igoni: “Doing even simple things has to be defended for a black Nigerian who is seen to be of means. Much less of a Nigerian who happens to be white. He or she has to deal with my baggage and the extra.
“Some of the most passionate defences of my book have been from white Nigerians.
“For example, I’m married to a white woman. For many years I didn’t feel passionate about people calling others oyibo, until it began to affect me. I had a sense of it growing up with a father who was always made to feel an outsider.
“I thought I was just marrying a woman, and then how to deal with people looking at me and calling me a Foreigner Boy or a 419 guy? When you see a young black man with a white wife, the idea is that you must be a scammer. They think of these Nigerian lads that do dating scams, get a white wife, deceive her, get her money. They say, ‘Oh he’s a leech. He’s married to that white woman, he’s a user.’
“At the time I was writing Blackass I hadn’t even met my wife. (Laughs) Basically, I walked into my own novel. I was doomed to experience what my characters were experiencing. I am even surer now than when I wrote that book, that I had gotten it right.”
A. Igoni talks about how both Furo and he have to fight not to become arrogant, become the Oga. ‘Oga, you are too big to walk.’ He goes on to describe a white American lady who married a Nigerian and wants to stay in Nigeria, because having a white mother gives her son advantages.
A. Igoni: “That’s a clear indictment of our society. If you treat someone special because they are white, what does that say about you? If a majority-black country says ‘He’s rich, treat him different because he’s white. I’ll be friendly towards him because he’s white.’ What does that say about the ninety-nine per cent who are black people? It says that you see yourselves as less than special.
“I was taught by my parents not to be rude. I have walked past parents whose children call my wife oyibo and the parents don’t correct them. There’s a character in Blackass whose child bursts into tears when she sees Furo and the mother says ‘No fear, no cry ... No be Ojuju, nah oyibo man.’ Ojuju is a local word for masquerade; basically he’s the bogeyman in a sense, something a child is scared of. So the mother tells her child he’s not a bogeyman, he’s a white man. He’s not a bogeyman but he’s something equal to one. These are deep-seated issues in Nigerian society.”
We talk about A Igoni’s career as a writer. His early stories were published internationally on the internet (for example ‘Dream Chaser’ in Eclectica, 2008). He founded an online literary magazine called Black Biro, worked for years as an editor at Farafina magazine in Lagos, and spent two years in the Niger Delta trying to set up a farm.
A. Igoni: “I grew up in the extreme south, the South-South as we call it, the Niger Delta. I grew up thinking I was city boy but I knew I didn’t understand my country. There were parts of Nigeria I’d never seen. When I went to Lagos, it was so different from Port Harcourt. Yoruba was spoken. When I went for the first time as a child to the North, it was like a different country.”
“When I was fourteen I tried to write poetry, when I was sixteen I tried to write plays. They came out sounding very Shakespearian. Then in 2001, I stumbled on a book—I was walking past a second-hand bookshop at university. I saw this cover that was really lovely, green with a naked woman on it, with ‘Nobel Prize Winner’ scrawled across it. I’d never read a Nobel Prize winner except for Soyinka, who was a dramatist. It turned to be Marquez’s Love In the Time of Cholera. And it blew me away. It felt African in a way I hadn’t recognized before. I could see Nigeria in there, my experiences in there, I could see the world in there. It had a worldview. Another writer who excites that kind of passion in me is Thomas Mann.
“When I finished that book I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing to others what this book had done to me. It made me see myself in the world and that I had a stake in the world. It made me feel connected to Colombia. A fictional Colombian woman was the love of my life. You can preach to the end of time, ‘Love thy Neighbour.’ But just show me my neighbour and you don’t need to tell me to love.
“At that time I was a science student. I was studying agriculture, learning to become a farmer. I thought, ‘well then, I need to learn how to write, and to write I need to feel many things.’ I knew I would learn from life if I was determined and lucky, and had some talent.
“In university, I had no friends who read books. I even used to hide the fact I read books. It was considered a bit effeminate. I wanted to be a tough guy so I read in secret. And I wrote in secret too.
“I needed to see if I was deceiving myself. I needed someone else to read my work. So I went to look for my father.
“My father and my mother separated when I was ten. I hadn’t seen him for all these years. He’s a bit of a traveller. He’d been in Liberia, The Gambia, and other places. I hadn’t seen him from when I was ten till twenty one, which is when I started writing.
“So I went to look for him, found him. He was the first person to read my work and he told me, ‘You have something. Keep at it.’ It was a good way to reconnect with one’s father.”
A. Igoni read British novels, which seemed to show the UK as a unified culture. Nigeria by contrast, “didn’t feel like a nation to me.” He chose short stories as being a way to show the diversity of Nigeria.
A. Igoni: “I could focus in one story today on a bread seller from the North. And next I could focus on a catfish cook from the East, trying to capture the diversity of Nigeria, and look to the book itself for that unifying thing that holds all the short stories together.“
One of A. Igoni’s first stories was published by Farafina when it was founded in 2004. Back then it was an online magazine, but it soon moved into print with its first book, the landmark novel Purple Hibiscus by Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie.
“Farafina was a Nigerian magazine based in Nigeria, so I didn’t have to explain the language to them. How can you defend your language once you are edited by someone who has no access to your experience? When a British editor copyedits, they skip the pidgin because they can’t get it.”
In 2005 his first short story collection, From Caves of Rotten Teeth, was published with financial help from his father.
“That collection was my juvenilia basically. I was still learning how to write, learning technique.” However a story in the collection, “The Phoenix” won the 2005 BBC World Service Short Story Competition. A. Igoni used the prize money, along with more funding from his father, to co-found Black Biro magazine with a friend in 2006.
“I was in this hiatus, a period where I’d published my first book, my first set of stories. I wasn’t writing that much. So it felt good to be useful. I was able to channel my energies into this magazine.
“I was so broke I couldn’t even afford cybercafé time any more. I didn’t have a computer. So I actually had an online magazine without having a computer. I didn’t know how to use a computer except for typing.
“It was a bi-monthly magazine. After the second issue I got an offer from Farafina to buy out me and my friend. They had read the magazine and wrote to me saying they really admired the work I was doing and would I like a job?
“I had wanted to be a farmer, so I thought I would farm during the day and get to write at night. I spent two years in the Niger Delta, living in a village and trying to get a loan to start a farm. At that time there was a school-to-land project trying to attract Niger-Delta youths away from crude oil militancy. I applied to them for a loan, but never heard back.
“So I took the job at Farafina and moved to Lagos in 2007. I began editing a print magazine with like thirty contributors per issue. I began to realize that the job was affecting my writing, in good ways as well as bad, so I left in 2009.
“I became a full-time writer. I’d saved some money. I started a book-reading series, which brought in some money at a bookstore in Lagos. I did that for a few months, and then I got really broke, but by then I was already writing my second book. I was so broke I moved back in with my ex-girlfriend who was kind enough to give me a room in her apartment. It was getting so hard to survive as a writer in Nigeria. I might have given in.”
One of the participants in A. Igoni’s book-reading series was Binyavanga Wainaina. In 2010, Binyavanga was a director of the Chinua Achebe Fellowship, and he encouraged A. Igoni to apply for it. A. Igoni got the fellowship, and so travelled out of Nigeria for the first time to another African country, Kenya, for the duration of the fellowship, living in Nairobi and Mombasa.
A. Igoni: “I came back to Nigeria with a finished book, my second story collection. I had started talking with other writers to form a collective, because I didn’t think anyone would want to publish me in Nigeria. Farafina felt like the only game in town. And I felt it (being published by them) was nepotism in a way.
“We were going to call it the Jalaa Collective. Jalaa is a language that is dying out in Nigeria, around the Taraba area. In 2011 it had only a handful of speakers left. We thought we’d pool our money and resources together, and we’d edit each other’s work.
“Then Binyavanga sent me an email. One of the conditions of the Fellowship was that I would send my work to them to show how I’d spent my time in Kenya. I had emailed my manuscript to Binyavanga, but I didn’t expect to hear from him. He’s a busy guy and even I don’t read every MS that comes into my inbox.
“But about five days after, I get a phone call from a British number. I picked the call and it turns out to be Sarah Chalfant, head of the London office of the Wylie Agency.
“Apparently Binyavanga had read my short story collection and liked it so much that he then emailed it to her and she’d read it and liked it so much that she offered to represent me. So I’ve never had to send my work to an agent, never sent my work to a publisher.”
That second collection, Love is Power, or Something Like That was first published in 2013 in the USA by Graywolf Press, and then in the UK by Chatto and Windus.
“I realized that I was getting some money. But to sustain my lifestyle I had to produce a book every other year. In 2012 I began writing Blackass. I did some travelling. I went to Jamaica for the first time in my life in 2011. Got invited to a literary festival there and spent three months. Spent time with my uncle and met my Jamaican family.
“Then I got a fellowship at the Norman Mailer Centre in Provincetown in the United States and a residency in Italy at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center.
“With that second collection I finally began to see the modern roots of Nigerian nationhood, the thing that is Nigerian. I was happy with that book.
“My short stories are set in a fictional place called Poteko. It’s a little bit like Port Harcourt, and it’s a little bit like Eko, which is a local name for Lagos. It’s in the vein of Macondo in Marquez or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. I wanted to create a fictional city that had bits of Lagos, had bits of Kano, had bits of Port Harcourt, had bits of Warri—the quintessential Nigerian city. That would be a microcosm of the Nigerian state, so I could truly write about all Nigerians in all their diversity. (I began) writing all the stories in that fictional place, except for the last one in the book, which was set in Nairobi, a real place but outside Nigeria.
“Then I thought, much as I love Alice Munro, I wouldn’t want to be the Alice Munro of Nigeria and never write a novel, so maybe I should take a crack a novel now ... the idea that I got for the novel was so different, so (I could) go at it in a different way, a more modern way. Focus on a city and try to capture it.
“With the novel, I wanted to write a different story, allow myself to go into fantasy. People have always called me a social-realistic writer. But fiction is fiction. You create things and capture the reader’s attention and you tell a story. For me it was important to show that I could follow the story wherever it would take me, starting from this Kafka-esque incident where a guy wakes up white.
“So in 2012, I didn’t do much travelling. I sat down and basically set myself to the goal of writing Blackass. I wanted to see if it was possible to write a novel in a year ... I spent nine months writing the first draft and in those nine months I left the house maybe five times. I sat at home, got up every morning, and wrote.”
We talk a bit about writing workshops. From 2001 to 2003 A. Igoni had been sending his fiction to a writing forum based in Australia, writers.net. “That’s how I developed technique. It took me ten years, ten years really. To become confident enough to focus on the story.
“But James Joyce didn’t go to school to learn how to become a writer. If I feel strongly about what I want to say, I will find a means to say it, even if that includes inventing a language.
“Language is a minefield that every writer has to walk across, especially if you are a Nigerian writing in a language that is considered colonial. I don’t consider English a colonial language today, because the language I use is Nigerian English.
“Language is changed by the people who speak it. The diction. All you have to do is read a Nigerian writer who writes in Nigeria and you will see. The English is different. It’s a grammatically correct sentence, but the order of words will be different from an English writer. When the Queen of England speaks I understand her perfectly. But sometimes when Beckham the football player speaks I can hardly hear what he’s saying. Cockney for many Nigerians is incomprehensible.”
In common with writers like Wole Talabi, A. Igoni speaks no other Nigerian language.
A. Igoni: “I was born in this country. I grew up in this country. I speak only English. That’s all I speak, apart from pidgin. For many years I was ashamed. I was wary of saying I don’t speak any native Nigerian languages. But then I realized, look, I can’t go around carrying this feeling. Look, a child learns a language without knowing what the point of language is. If you learn a language because of politics you learn a language for the wrong reason. We learn language to communicate, to connect.
“In my case I grew up in a house where my mother speaks three Nigerian languages and English. And my father speaks English because he’s Jamaican and my parents communicated in English, so I grew up learning English. But I visited my grandmother, I visited my aunties, I lived with them for extended periods, but I never picked up any other language.
“Many urban Nigerians grew up in a Yoruba family but don’t speak Yoruba. There’s a class of Nigerian, citified urban, who don’t speak any other language. It’s about power. It’s about influence. It’s about jobs ... the official language of Nigeria is English ... I went to Nigerian primary and secondary school, a Nigerian university. I didn’t go to expensive private schools. And yet in the schools I attended you were punished for speaking local languages. ‘Don’t speak in the vernacular. Speak Queen’s English.’
“I had an educational advantage over many of my peers going into primary school because I already spoke English from home. Then you get to the civil service, the Constitution, it’s in English. This is a country that has three hundred languages. The Constitution is translated into four languages, if that. The Bible is in two or three languages only ... Yoruba, Igbo, just two I can think of.”
I ask him if there is anything he’d like to say to sum up. He turns the conversation around.
A. Igoni: “I want to talk about the term ‘Africa.’ Lots of young Africans have begun to react negatively to being lumped into one large group. So, ‘Africa is not a country’ is a popular catchphrase. There’s this resistance by intelligent young people to being stereotyped, to being taken as a whole, instead of being seen for their individual qualities.
“Apart from that, traditionally, when people use continental terms they usually have negative connotations. For the first time I’m beginning to hear white supremacists in America refer to themselves as European. They are saying ‘Oh, we are European.’ Now Trump wins and has an event in Washington DC and the guy on stage says ‘Oh, we Europeans are in the ascendency again.’
“There was a time when that would not be acceptable. Americans would say, ‘Hell no, I’m not even British, I am American.’
“The truth is that there is no Africa. I am worried to even say ‘Nigeria’ because there is so much complexity within one individual country. Using Africa as a catch-all term, no. It does a grave injustice to the complexity.
“Having said all of that, I am an African writer. I am an African writer because I live on the African continent and carry a Nigerian passport. But if you think all I am is an African writer, then you are wrong. I’m a writer very focused on Nigeria, but Nigeria is of the world. In the end I just want to tell stories that interest me and engage the reader.
“I want to be read after I’m dead. I want to have a voice in this world. I have a stake in this world. I want to believe that I have something important to say, that two hundred years from now, a nine-year-old boy in Iceland could read it and see something about himself, and so could a ten-year-old in Lagos. It’s not about Nigeria, it’s about being human. About compassion.”