The writer and publisher speaks about his latest novel, ‘The Carnivorous City’ set in Lagos in this interview. Excerpts:
Cyprian Ekwensi wrote ‘Jagua Nana’, Sefi Atta wrote ‘Everything Good Will Come’ and Teju Cole did ‘Every Day is for the Thief’ There are enough Lagos stories out there, why did you have to do yours, what’s different?
I read all the books you mentioned and what I saw was that there’s a difficulty in presenting both sides of Lagos; the Island and the Mainland. It’s there in all the books. Sefi is more Island; Teju is Mainland. It’s as if those who write these stories only have an understanding of one part of Lagos. That was something I thought I could redress in my own story. There’s more to this city; you have to get it right. I tried to conceive that perfect story that would capture both strands. I think that’s what the difference is; this is an Island and Mainland story all in one, which is not usually the case.
So, you got the perfect story?
I hope so. I hope that’s what readers will see. I think I have a story that tells about the Mainland and Island in a very clear and distinct way.
Your description of the city is very graphic; street by street description; was that deliberate?
What you have now is even watered down because I wrote the stories in a way that you could walk through Lagos with the book as a map; virtually use it as a map. But my editor said you are giving too many details. I just finished reading Tendai Huchu’s ‘The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician’ and he does the same thing to Edinburg. I feel bad that I didn’t insist on keeping mine as well. A city is like a face, it has distinguishing features; the landmarks. In the book you see 1004 Estate and Bar Beach. In the next book you will have the Ikoyi Link Bridge, which had not been constructed when the story was written and Civic Centre
Sabato Rabato, I don’t see him in the entire book, how did you do that?
Well, because he’s a larger than life figure so even if he’s dead, he still looms large. They are looking for him; you can’t look for a man and not call his name. You will read the book and think you’ve seen Sabato Rabato meanwhile you’ve never seen him. In the book, the two biggest characters are Lagos and Sabato Rabato and they are not human beings. They are not alive, as it were.
You’ve always wanted to do a movie, is this the book that becomes a movie or we have to wait for that?
I’ve been approached by two people to do movies from the stories in ‘Nights of the Creaking Bed’ but it didn’t happen. Hopefully it will happen this time. I’ve done the book, I’m happy with it. It’s doing well, people are buying it, people like it. I’ve not heard anybody say he didn’t like it. I think it works. Maybe there will be a movie, maybe not. We plan to do a short film from one of the chapters.
The name Sabato Rabato, that’s poetry. Where did it come from?
I wanted a name that people will remember. Even in a movie people will remember him; Sabato Rabato. It’s not fully Italian, it’s not fully Spanish. I just came up with the name. I think it’s a fantastic name for a character that is a looming large. People will remember him for a long time.
Apart from being crime fiction, there’s also sex. Maybe not as much as you have in ‘Nights of the Creaking Bed’ or what you have been known for, but there’s a generous dash of it.
In a city like Lagos where there are young people, life is fast paced. People are hungry, people are desperate for things; it’s a cocktail of desperation and sex and crime, so it’s what the story demands. I didn’t just say let me put sex there. There’s so much sex in Lagos; Lagos has one of the highest incidences of HIV in Nigeria. People are having sex, obviously. It’s what the story demands and I’m not going to censure myself because of people’s views.
The Carnivorous City is an easy read; nice turn of phrase, how easy was it to get that?
The thing about writing is that when it’s easy to read, it’s hard to write. And when it’s hard to read, it’s easy to write. This book went through so many iterations; I wrote it in Italy, America, brought it back, and went to London to talk to the editors. It was back and forth. By the time it was done, I was tired. I didn’t want to see it. Now that people like it, I feel it was worth the effort. It wasn’t that I wrote it immediately and it was fun. No.
Was this what you dreamt of when you were young; that you are going to work in a bank, write books and own your own company or there was more?
As a young boy, I wanted to be somebody who solves problems and get paid for it. I don’t know where I saw it, maybe in a movie but that’s what I thought I would do. And doing public relations aligns with that. The writing part, as a kid, I read a lot. I was sickly at first. I read a lot of books and I said I was going to write. My biggest motivation for writing was to make somebody cry. I read Ben Okri and Isidore Okphewo and I was crying. ‘Flowers and Shadows’ for Ben Okri and ‘The Last Duty’ for Okphewo.
How much of this work is autobiographical; you went to UNIJOS and you are from Asaba?
You write about things you know. I know Jos, I know Asaba. ‘Ballad of Rage’ was set in Jos; my second book had half of it in Jos and the other half in Lagos. All my books are going to feature places I know and can talk about intelligently.