Femi Kayode chatted to The JRB Editor Jennifer Malec about being ‘other’ in your home country, the nature of evil, and his debut novel, Lightseekers.
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021
Jennifer Malec for The JRB: Good afternoon, Femi, and thank you for agreeing to an interview with The Johannesburg Review of Books.
Femi Kayode: Thank you so much for having me. I have been a long-time admirer of The JRB. This is an honour.
The JRB: Crime fiction is one of my favourite genres, so I’m always delighted to discover new series, and even better when they are set in Africa. Which crime authors or types of crime fiction did you want to emulate in Lightseekers? (I see you thank Leye Adenle, whose Amaka series is fantastic, in the acknowledgements, while Oyinkan Braithwaite gives the book a glowing recommendation, and you’ve done some great interviews together.)
Femi Kayode: To be honest, I don’t think I wanted to emulate any particular author. My literary icons in that genre were mostly British or American, and I grew up consuming the works of Sidney Sheldon, John le Carré, Stephen King, Irving Wallace and the like. To be honest, until I went in for the MA programme in crime writing, I never considered who (or what) I wanted to write like. What I did know was that I wanted to tell a big, broad crime story that had several themes running through it to capture the complexity of the Nigerian experience. I was also clear that I wanted my book, if it ever got published, to be placed with the international writers that I admired so much, and not in the ‘African literature’ section of a bookshop. Beyond these two considerations, I just wanted to write a good story, in my own way, with my own take on the world as I saw it.
The JRB: The manuscript for Lightseekers won the 2019 UEA Crime Writing Prize—what did this award mean to you, and to the book?
Femi Kayode: It meant a lot. First of all, it was totally unexpected because I was in this class of really talented writers, and I did not think my story about the murder of three undergraduates in a remote town in Nigeria would generate that kind of interest. In fact, I am not sure I would have entered the competition if it was not compulsory for all the MA students. But winning the award certainly did something for me: it reassured me that a story well told can rise above locale, and appeal to a broad section of people irrespective of race and cultural background.
The award also opened doors for me. I am a Nigerian living in Namibia and access to resources can be quite limited. From Windhoek, I was able to send queries to agents referencing the award. In fact, Little, Brown was instrumental in introducing me to a lot of the agents I queried and the one that finally agreed to represent me.
The JRB: The novel’s plot is based on the true story of the Aluu Four tragedy, the lynching of four University of Port Harcourt students in October 2012. What was it about this event that you wanted to capture or unpack through your fiction?
Femi Kayode: Yes, the novel was inspired by the tragic Aluu Four true story. I remember I could not sleep for days when I heard and then watched the terrible event on YouTube. When it comes to Nigeria, I think I had become part of the narrative of bad government, corruption and more. At least passively. Over time, I have learnt to defend my home country with the ‘danger of a single story’ narrative. No, not all Nigerians are into 419. And no, Boko Hara is a menace but there are significant parts of the country that have not witnessed their terrible impact. But when this Aluu tragedy happened, you just couldn’t explain it away. This was not bad governance, or corruption, or the breakdown of systems. This was not police brutality, or politicians forgetting their constituencies. This was people doing this to people. You can’t even claim xenophobia in its purest sense. Those village people knew those boys, they knew they were from the university, and yet they beat them, tortured them and killed them. All the while singing and chanting. I think that set me on a journey of self-reflection—if this is who we are, and I am from this place, does this mean this evil resides in me as much as the next man? Was this possible anywhere else in the world? What could have driven people to do this to another person in the absence of war? What was it in the system that made this possible? These were the questions that I wanted to explore in the novel. And it was made even more interesting because I sincerely did not have any answers before going into the writing process.
The JRB: Your protagonist, Philip Taiwo, stands apart in some interesting ways. First, he’s not a detective, he’s a psychologist. Why did you decide on this profession for Philip? I imagine your own training in that area saved you some research? (Or did it not?)
Femi Kayode: Trust me, I have not been a psychologist for a long time. I think the research part of Philip’s profession was only easier to the extent that I could grasp concepts quicker. Beyond that, I still needed to put in the work like any other writer.
But why did I make him a psychologist? I think it’s because I needed him to be a character that is curious about human nature. In terms of the crime that was being investigated, I needed him to ask the same kind of questions that the reader would ask. I remember a quote about writing from school; ‘I write the book to find out what’s going to happen’. So, I think I created Philip and made him a psychologist for the very same reason: to find out what is going to happen.
I refer to him as a medium; a conduit for a lot of the complex emotions that anyone would feel about such a heinous crime. As a returnee, he did go into the investigation with preconceived notions and a lot of prejudice but came out more mature, more forgiving, and even less arrogant after all of that experience. That, for me, is the kind of protagonist I wanted to write about.
The JRB: Another way in which Philip is different is that he has spent most of his adult life in the United States, which makes for some great moments of friction and of observation. In some ways his ‘Americanness’ affords him a greater degree of respect, in others it means he is something of an outsider. As the police inspector tells him, patronisingly, ‘You are not in America, Dr Taiwo.’ Did you enjoy exploring these tensions?
Femi Kayode: Absolutely. That was the most fun I had in the whole process. It was also a learning curve for me, having lived a significant portion of my life outside of Nigeria.
A lot of Nigerians in diaspora have complex emotions when it comes to their relationship with the country. I wanted to explore the ‘otherness’ we feel when we go back home. On the one hand, we are admired for having succeeded in a foreign country, but on the other, there is always this sense that we took the easier way out. We were escapees of sorts, and that comes with some baggage.
Philip resents being treated as ‘other’ in his home country, but knows that to be completely accepted, he needs to earn his place on new terms, not one handed to him by virtue of his ‘Americanness’. To get this, he has to shed his judgments, preconceived notions and even training, and approach the case with humility and open-mindedness. I think in the process, he matures. And since growth is not easy, that tension needed to be explored in the story.
The JRB: At one point Philip’s wife, Folake, says of their decision to move back to Lagos, in reference to their fifteen-year-old twin sons, ‘I want us to leave before they think they’re the colour of their skin.’ You yourself recently moved ‘back’, from the United Kingdom to Namibia. How important was it for you to set this book in Nigeria, rather than the other countries in which you have lived?
Femi Kayode: I am Nigerian before I am anything else. My studies in the UK were part time, so I never actually lived there. I reside in Namibia, and my sons are in boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal. My family is spread across the globe, but my parents live in Nigeria and we make every effort to spend Christmas holidays with them there. I also used to do a lot of work in television in Nigeria (and South Africa) with M-Net. I don’t think there was any doubt in my mind that I wanted to write stories set in Nigeria, albeit with a diverse group of characters that reflect the global village the world is becoming.
The JRB: In many ways Lightseekers is a classic crime novel. (The troubled protagonist, the city as a character, the long-suffering sidekick, even a femme fatale—these signposts let us know where we are.) But in other ways it is very different. The novel opens in an airport, and while travel is a familiar crime fiction device, this happens to be Port Harcourt International Airport—‘voted the worst airport in the world more than three times’, as Philip’s daughter points out. What were the challenges and opportunities the novel’s setting presented you with?
Femi Kayode: I embraced it. I was really tired of novels that presented these challenges you mention as if they are unique to that society, as if these problems are the story rather than factors that affect plot and the choices of characters. For instance, the title Lightseekers is a metaphor for seeking ‘knowledge’ but on a more fundamental level, it also alludes to the perennial lack of electricity in the country. A lot of the action in the novel happened in darkness, and I was interested in how to make my protagonist rise above the challenges to get the job done, or even use them to his benefit. It is also worth noting that the crime itself was made possible by several of the systemic failures in the country. The outcome and reactions of the characters to the crime might be universal, but the circumstances are uniquely Nigerian.
The JRB: In a recent interview about African crime fiction (in The Conversation), the academic Sam Naidu comments that much of the genre is dominated by Afro-pessimism. In your book, I think I noticed a very subtle development or reworking of this theme. At one point, Philip muses: ‘Maybe everything’s not so senseless, after all. On the one hand, proactively bribing armed soldiers to pass through a public road might come across as corrupt but on the other, the people who pay have accepted this as the modus operandi. […] There is a method to this madness.’ Am I on to something here?
Femi Kayode: I wouldn’t say Lightseekers perpetuates any idea of Afro-pessimism. In fact, I would hate to think it does this. My intention was to tell a fictional tale that seeks to ask the reader to look at us (Nigerians) differently, to judge us separate from the ‘failed state’ narratives that permeate the media. I wanted readers to understand and get a fuller picture of a people even though it is through the lens of this heinous crime. I was hoping that when this is done, the larger international audience can see we are not so different after all. Taking the time to understand a situation or the people in it is perhaps the fastest way to encourage empathy, I think. I have heard many readers in the US tell me how much they relate to the causes of conflict and violence in the novel and the events of January 6 in the Capitol certainly made a lot of them realise that Nigeria is not such a ‘different’ country after all. So, no Afro-pessimism here. Just a desire to get readers to see that more connects us than separates us. That cannot be pessimistic, right?
The JRB: Right, yes, I think that’s what I meant—your novel seems to move past that narrative, to something more complex and interesting.
Without spoiling too much for those who haven’t yet read the book, I want to talk a bit about John Paul, who is one of the eeriest and most brilliant characters I’ve read for a while. How did you formulate and develop this character, and was he fun to write?
Femi Kayode: You know, you’re the first person that has asked me about John Paul! Thank you. I really wanted JP to be seen as a metaphor of a broken system, a damaged person who became who he is as a result of experiences he had no control over. For me, he is postcolonial Nigeria, raped and abused by colonial masters, and to survive, he created a persona that helped him to distance himself from the terrible things he was doing. Is that not what most of our leaders have become? Like a John Paul, standing far apart while preying on the young, and justifying their actions with a shrug and ‘it wasn’t me!’ attitude. I had so much fun writing that character because, more than anyone in the book, he was the one I ‘saw’ the most. I got him, and because of that, I was able to treat him with the compassion needed to write him. I loved him. Thank you so much for this question. I feel like someone finally sees John Paul and acknowledges him.
The JRB: What is the line in your novel that you are most proud of?
Femi Kayode: I swear, I can’t think … although I remember one that always makes me smile. Something about how the landlady looked at Philip’s outstretched hand ‘like a mosquito courting swift death’!
The JRB: Finally, since writers are generally voracious readers, we like to ask for some recommendations. What have you been reading recently that you think we should too?
Femi Kayode: I am not a voracious reader. I wish I was. But when I do read, my literary taste is quite eclectic and stretches beyond my home country. I love NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe. Her book We Need New Names remains one of my favourites. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Booker-shortlisted This Mournable Body is quite profound, I am reading it now. The late Binyavanga Wainaina writes with unmatched wit and insight into human nature. I still read his essays, and our late night chats on Facebook, and then I have a good cry. I miss him terribly. I am developing an interest in poetry, so I am devouring the poems of a Nigerian poet called Romeo Oriogun. Check him out. On the side, most of my schoolmates at UEA are publishing their books now, so I read a lot of their works as they are released or in varying stages of the editorial process.
The JRB: Thank you very much for your time.
Femi Kayode: Thank you for having me! I enjoyed your questions a lot.