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Samuel Kolawole

He turned to face the execution post. The anticipation he had felt wilted. In despair, he closed his eyes. The sun seared. What a day to die.

He closed his eyes and let his other senses take over. He allowed the smell of unwashed bodies and human waste to fill him. The voices around him became liquid and slow. He thought he heard a voice telling him to move. He felt a face looming close. He could feel hot, rancid breath. The voice sounded stretched, a bad cassette.

He heard a familiar voice. It pierced through the din of liquid voices, invaded his senses. The voice called his name. The voice was silky. It glided through the air. It wrapped itself around his head. No one called his name that way, no one. No voice had the power to draw him that way. A strange, sweet sensation brewed in his head then spread all the way down his spine. He turned. His eyes found hers. She was there with her brightness, and her smiles, her assurances. A flood of relief washed over him.

Lawrence finally inched towards the post, one jagged movement after the other, taking a step with his right leg then dragging the stump his left leg had become. The noise turned into murmurs and murmurs morphed into near silence. The officer in charge made his declaration and the soldiers held Lawrence against one of the stakes with fat ropes. The hallowed priests emerged from the crowd in their saintly robes for the last rites.

Ovbigbo, the Law. Ovbigbo, the man covered head to toe with charms that made his body resistant to bullets. Ovbigbo, the man robed with the cloak of invisibility. Ovbigbo, the custodian of the magic mirror that revealed the movements and location of his enemies. Ovbigbo, the Jannes and Jambres of Bendel State, the man who threw his belt to the ground and it became an attacking serpent. Ovbigbo, who drove from Sapele to Benin in reverse gear, and was capable of picking up a clod from the ground while driving at hundred kilometres per hour! Ovbigbo whose real name was Lawrence Nomanyagbon Anini. Ovbigbo, the man who sent fear into the hearts of the enforcers of the law knew his time was not up. He would die one day. That day was just not today. When that day came he would turn himself into a hill. Strong. Formidable.

From Son of a Dog

Samuel Kolawole is a Nigerian ex-pat living in South Africa. Nigeria may be Africa’s biggest economy—at one time roughly a third bigger than South Africa. But South Africa still offers advantages of infrastructure—in 2016 when this interview took place, the credit card system in South Africa meant you could buy electronic versions of books and magazines. Something you couldn’t do in many African countries. (Publishers please note: if your journal is available for purchase on the web, payable by card or Paypal, it is inaccessible in many African countries.)

The electricity in South Africa is by and large ON. In Nigeria it is by and large OFF, unless you run a generator. The transport system is more comfortable in South Africa; and in 2016, if you turned on a tap, there was water (things were to be a bit different only 18 months later).

But coming from Nigeria means that Samuel is privileged relative to many black South Africans.

In Nigeria, a university education is expected of people of even modest backgrounds. If you are black there are fewer structural barriers against you—and less to break your pride—than there seem to be in South Africa. South Africa’s history is so violently dislocating that you can almost see black South Africans having to snap their shoulders back into place. For an idea of the frustrations that some black South Africans feel, read the interview in this series with Panashe Chigumadzi.

Samuel Kolawole is a happy man. He laughs continuously in a range of sounds from growls, to yelps, to a high-pitched chuckle, to a sound like someone opening a fizzy bottle of tonic.

At the time of the interview, he was doing a postgraduate degree at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. We met halfway between Grahamstown and Cape Town in Port Elizabeth airport. So the recording is full of the clattering and conversation of an airport café.

Samuel attended Clarion West, the prestigious science fiction workshop in the USA (other African graduates include Chinelo Onwualu). But he says this does not mean he’s particularly interested in science fiction. “More the fantastic than science fiction.”

He’s somewhat older and more experienced than some of the writers interviewed for this series. He’s part of the post-2008 wave of publishing, with stories appearing in the journal Jungle Jim edited by Jenna Bass.

His 2011 story “Mules of Fortune” is listed by Jenna as one of her favourite stories in the magazine’s history. It’s multi-viewpoint and an extreme picture of the horrors of war. Bass says that it “really tests the boundaries of what a ‘horror’ tale can be.” The story is also available online in excerpts on Publishmystory Blogspot.

Samuel says, of “Mules of Fortune”, “I’m drawn to supernatural stories, weird stories, but stories that are rendered against a backdrop of real events, some kind of historical reality.

“I’ve always been fascinated by war stories and by the so-called magical aspect of war stories. For example during the Liberian war there were soldiers that were told to wear amulets that would protect them against bullets. There’s a scene in ‘Mules of Fortune’ where someone wants to demonstrate his powers and cuts someone’s tongue. I know of places like DRC where they test machetes on themselves to prove they cannot be killed. My role is not to say whether those things are real or not. I just want to interrogate and explore.

“The same with Son of a Dog (Samuel’s recently finished novel). It’s about writing against history, writing my own history. Son of a Dog is based on a real-life story of a gangster who terrorized the country in the 1980s, called Lawrence Amimi. He was rumoured to have magical powers, which drew me to the story.

“In Yoruba mythology the marketplace is the place of intersection between the spirit world and the physical realm. So there’s this scene in my novel where the protagonist is being chased by the police into the marketplace and it’s an opening into this world where people are walking on their heads upside down.

“This is not just something from our imagination. We grew up hearing about these things. There have been stories about it and some of us even believe the stories. The authenticity matters and African writing comes across as authentic.”

His short story, “The Praegustator Who Spied on the World” was published in The New Black Magazine. It has an unusual genesis.

Samuel: “I was in Uganda teaching a writing workshop and I met Idi Amin’s grandson. He’s an artist. We got talking about his grandfather—what he was like. About a year after that, I read about a woman who used to be Adolf Hitler’s food taster, now about 90 years old. And I thought, wow. That really fascinated me. I wanted to writer about her, but in Africa? Where in Africa? Uganda.”

We talk about Nigerian fiction. I say that what he talks about reminds me a lot of Amos Tutuola. He responds. “He’s also from the Yoruba tribe. My tribe.” We talk about Ken Saro Wiwa’s Sozaboy and how the narrator never realizes that he’s dead.

Samuel: “In Yoruba mythology we call that alobayida. Dying and not knowing. In fact sometimes you die and show up in another place.”

“These beliefs form the very core of our oral tradition. I hear so many interesting stories. I had a collection called The Book of M (from Serendipity Books, 2011). Some of the stories were inspired by stories my grandmother and mother told me about life in the military era and some strange things that happened.”

“My first collection had 14 stories. It was published in Nigeria. ‘Mules of Fortune’ was included, also some of my stories that were later published in the USA in journals like East Town Fiction and Superstition Review (the story is “Mud, if it were Gold”). That’s the last story in the book and it’s not fantastic.

GR: “It’s in a magazine called the Superstition Review and it’s not supernatural?”

Samuel: (Laughs.) “No. It’s not.”

I ask Samuel the usual biographical questions.

Samuel: “So I start publishing in 2010. I’m from Ondo State but I grew up in Ibadan. My dad was actually the first marketing director of the first TV station in Africa, called WNTV, which later became NTA, the Nigerian Television Authority.

“I went to the University of Ibadan. I had a mentor, Professor Femi Osafisan the poet. It wasn’t like he taught me in school or anything. I just connected with him. He’s one of the people I look up to. I do write poetry, but I don’t consider myself a poet. (Laughs for quite a long time).”

We talk about D. O. Fagunwa, a writer of traditionally inspired tales. His first novel was notably translated by Wole Soyinka as Forest of a Thousand Demons.

Samuel: “It's not science fiction. When I was growing up we had to study Fagunwa. It was part of the requirement for Yoruba literature. We studied about seven instalments. The Yoruba text is more powerful.

“I was 17 when I read The Famished Road by Ben Okri. The main reason I started writing.

“You know when you are a teenager you have this personal crisis? I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was getting very depressed. So I locked myself up in my room for days and did not come out.

“I always had books around me. My father had this big library and there were always books all over the house. I got bored and I started reading, everything I could get my hands on, and one day I decided to start writing. I just picked up my pen one day and started writing.

“I didn’t show anybody. But then one day I was in conversation with one of my neighbours, I said to him ‘I’m writing something.’ ‘Oh, let me see, let me see what you are writing.’ So he read some of my stuff, and was like ‘Wow what is this, you should continue.’ So that’s how I stated writing. It came out of depression (Laughs).

“My parents wanted me to be a doctor actually. (Laughs more) I had a lot of issues with my father for years until I started doing well. (Laughs) And now he stalks me on Facebook. He does all sorts. (Laughs)”

GR: “He just wants you to be happy. And rich. And someone they can boast about. Do you have any brothers and sisters?”

Samuel: “I have eleven siblings. Eleven. Five brothers, two half brothers, four half sisters.

GR: “How many are doctors?”

Samuel: “We have one doctor. We engineers, accountants. (Laughs) My father is very proud of me now. (Laughs)”

He’s doing a Masters at Rhodes, but will start his PhD in 2017. How does he find Rhodes?

Samuel: “Wonderful, wonderful. My department is the only thing I like about South Africa. (Laughs) I don’t like this country. I don’t like the spirit. I think the racism and prejudice here is unbelievable. I don’t know how this country got here. There’s a still a lot to do.

“The first time I visited South Africa was 2013. It was my first time and they treated me well. I even had a host; I was hosted by white writers. But living here ... fast forward two years later. I’ve been here about one year now. It’s a different experience living and visiting.

“When you live here you see firsthand the level of racism. On the one hand the whites and black thing. And there’s the way black South Africans treat foreigners from other parts of Africa. Generally, people don’t trust easily here, people are very suspicious. I come from a country—we have issues in my country too, but we don’t have issues like this. The first four months for me was really tough.

“Interestingly I went to America for the Easter break. The moment I landed in New York it was as if I breathing fresh air. (Laughs) I was like, ‘Thank God I am out of that country for a while.’ (Laughs) And then I spent two weeks in California and then went back to South Africa. Which is also very ironic.”

We talk about the FeesMustFall movement that was big at the time of the interview. Students were demanding that fees for all students fell and were striking. The question for a time was: would exams happen?

Samuel: “Exams happened at Rhodes. Students were given the choice of writing their exams immediately and go home or writing in January. Some were given home exams. But there was a lot of police presence on campus.

“I think this is a viscous circle. I think this happened this last year-end of the session. And they’ll they say, let's talk, let's have a dialogue, blah blah blah. And then they refuse to do anything about it. I’m not even sure if the government of Jacob Zuma even wants to address the situation in any way. They have kids who don’t study in South Africa. But then Nigerians don’t send their kids to Nigerian schools. I was saying to my classmates, why don’t you take this party to the Parliament?

“What I’ve noticed about South Africa is a culture of dependency. In Nigeria when I was in school, there were students who sold recharge cards for airtime. I had to pay for school. There were mothers who hawked eggs and soft drinks to pay the school fees. I did a lot of things to pay for my school fees. I don’t see that spirit here. In Lagos it is very rare to be idle. In this country they believe everything has to be done by the government for them.

“One of the things the government can do here is give out soft loans for small scale businesses and allow students to do stuff to make money and empower students. But government don’t want to empower students because if you empower someone you set that person free.

“When I got admitted into this programme I requested a scholarship. They said no, because I’m an international student. We have ten students; six of the students are on scholarship, black students. Full scholarships and bursaries to the tune of ninety thousand rand, some of them. I paid my way through school this year. I paid a lot of money. I had to work, do some part-time jobs to be able to pay my way and I was happy to do that.”

I ask Samuel if he finds the curriculum to be de-colonised.

Samuel: “My department is quite unique. Our lecturers and professors are people who understand these things, understand what it means to decolonize, but they shifted from the colonial text and shifted to American literature. (Laughs) So now they are saying no, the dependence on American literature is too much, let us bring in more African texts and all of that.

“That’s a lot better than the English department at Rhodes. (He’s in Creative Writing.) You know! (Laughs) Conrad. Yeats. (Laughs). The English Department is like most English departments in South Africa. That’s all I have to say.”

Samuel was the head of the team of judges for Short Story Day Africa’s 2015 SFF anthology Terra Incognita. There were a lot of raised eyebrows—about three-quarters of the African writers were white. Rachel Zadok in her interview for the series also talks about Terra Incognita.

Samuel: “Interesting that you even ... because we judged blindly. I didn’t realize who the authors were. I just read the stories for the quality and strength of the story.”

When you saw the list, how did you account for it?

Samuel: “As a Nigerian the way people think here is not the way I think. I don’t think in terms of ‘Oh this thing is black, why are there so many white people here?’ I didn’t grow up with that problem in Nigeria, ‘Oh there are too many white people here.’ I wasn’t even thinking along those lines. Just, ‘Oh this guy won, good story.’

“In South Africa, the publishing industry is actually built around white literature, South African whites, the white establishment, Afrikaans and English, the Exclusive Books of this world, and the publishers. And also because most of the readers are middle class and white, in Afrikaans and English.

“There are independent publishers that are breaking out of that mould. There is one founded by the person who started my programme Robert Berolds called Deep South Publishers. Also Black Ghost that is that is just starting now from our Department, Stacy Hardy and Lesego Rampolokeng.

“My department really believes in innovative fiction, fiction that really goes out of frame. In this country I’ve met only one or two publishers who really really love literature. Most of them are just businessmen and women.

“I’m a drifter in a way. I’m not sure I’m going back to Nigeria at least to live. I’ll probably bounce around for a bit.”

Samuel’s list of fellowships and grants is impressive. In addition to Clarion West, he’s been a Norman Mailer Fiction fellow and was a fiction Fellow at Salt Lake City, was a writer in residences at the Wellstone Centre in Redwood, California, and was an honorary fellow at the University of Iowa—and that’s not all of them. He also attended Clarion West and won a Prince Claus Award for services to culture.

Samuel: “Americans always want to believe that everything revolves around them. But apart from that I really enjoyed myself. I learned a lot too. Some of the things I built on, I learned there. In the future I hope to write more ... (Laughs) science fiction.”

The week after we spoke he was scheduled to teach classes at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. That gets us talking about how many people thought that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o would win the Nobel Prize that year, and from there to the language issue.

Samuel: “Ngũgĩ taught me in 2008. At a workshop of the Port Harcourt Literary Festival (in Nigeria). Because of our colonial legacy, I’ve realized that the way I write is that I don’t think in English. I think in my mother tongue, Yoruba. But I write in English. Interesting. That occurred to me just now.”

So was his schooling in Yoruba?

Samuel: “No. English, language of instruction—everything in English. But you were given the opportunity to choose one language: Yoruba, Igbo, or Hausa. Once you choose, you read a lot. I’ve read a lot of Yoruba literature, a lot.”

Another aspect of Samuel’s rich CV—he was the founder in 2013 of The Writers Studio.

Samuel: “Let me tell you a bit about Nigeria and the literary life. Nigeria is not a conducive place to write or to practice your craft as a writer. That’s why a lot of us have moved, and more people will continue to move; and I encourage people to move and tell them, ‘You will come back and make changes.’ I started a school called The Writer’s Studio. We did Uganda; we went to South Africa.

“When I started I took my rent for one year and I invested it into the school and I moved my things into my parents’ house. At my age. (Laughs.) We started it and it worked for a while, but then I need investment and nobody wanted to finance us. So I decided, ‘Come on, I’m not going to kill myself because of this. Let me spend more time to focus on my own writing.’

“Like so many other things that start in Nigeria, people just become frustrated by the system. The government. I became frustrated. I’m a drifter in a way. I’m not sure if I’m going back to Nigeria at least to live. I’ll probably bounce around for a bit.”

“But I still believe that we need to build our own systems if we are going to be given the opportunity to tell out own stories. So I would say to people, go build your own systems. Don’t blame the Caine Prize for selecting certain kinds of stories; don’t blame the Booker Prize. Go make your own.”

Since this interview

In May 2017, Samuel’s novel Son of a Dog was one of three shortlisted for the Grey Wolf Prize for Africa.

Also in 2017, he was made the first ever Emerging Writer Scholarship for the MFA in Writing and Publishing program at the Vermont College of the Fine Arts.

In May 2018 the journal Kweli published his story “Sapeurs”, a story set among the miners of the Congo—and the dandies that some of them transform into when they dress.

(Next)



Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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