Kan is a creative writer, biographer, editor and public relations expert. His notable works of fiction include Ballad of Rage (a novella), Nights of a Creaking Bed (a collection of short stories), and Carnivorous City (a novel). He was the recipient of the NDDC/Ken Saro Wiwa literature prize, awarded by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), in 2009. Kan, who was educated at the University of Jos and the University of Lagos, became a magazine editor at the age of 26. In this interview with HENRY AKUBUIRO in Lagos, he discussed the making of his oeuvre in Nigerian literature.
A carnivore attracts and harms its victim, and your last novel is entitled Carnivorous City. How close to reality is Lagos as depicted in the novel?
Every human being has two or more sides. The place you see in the morning is not the place you see every night –it could be a den of robbers at night. You can stay in Lagos for ten years, yet have no idea what Lagos can be if you step out of line –if you go to the wrong place at the right time. That’s what I am trying to capture in the book –to show the many facets that make up Lagos. This is my 25th year in Lagos. So, I can say I know about Lagos a bit; I know about the swanky, elite, rich part. I also know about the dark and poor, desperate part. Carnivorous City is like one in three.
You are working on sequels?
Yes. Carnivorous City is the first; there is Taxi Driver, and there is going to be another one called Shayo. I am announcing it for the first time in this interview. I am going to do a trilogy of Lagos books, hopefully. It’s just for me to capture Lagos in every facet.
Talking about the Lagos fiction, a Nigerian writer once said there was nothing new or challenging writing about Lagos. What’s your take?
I think the person is mad, because every human being changes every day, and the city changes faster than that. If you were in Lagos last year and you came back this year, you would notice differences. How could somebody say there was nothing new to be written about Lagos? Cities are such interesting things that you can’t capture them with one book. Naguib Mayfouz wrote a Cairo trilogy. You can’t talk about a city like Lagos and say it’s done. By the way, how many books about Lagos have been written? Cyprian Ekwensi, Seffi Attah, Maik Nwosu, Henry Akubuiro, and my humble self; but we haven’t really gotten Lagos the way it should be done. We see aspects of Lagos –we don’t see the full picture, which is even difficult to capture.
In the Bible, Cain killed his brother, Abel; but, in Carnivorous City, Abel is looking for his missing brother, Rabato Sabato. Did you factor the nominal discours in characterisation?
Dami Ajayi mentioned the Abel dynamics in his review of Carnivorous City. The novel is about brotherhood. The first idea was about two brothers, then it became big and became a Lagos story. In Lagos, most people who live on the mainland don’t know about the island, while those who live in the island don’t know about the mainland. But I have been able to get acquainted with both sides. I said, okay, let me do a story about Lagos from these perspectives; therefore, I just brought the two brothers. The Cain and Abel thing was in my head all through; unfortunately, in this sense, it is the reverse: Abel is still the good guy, but he is just looking for his brother Rabato –so Cain is missing or presumed dead.
Looking at your prose works, from Ballad of Rage to Night of a Creaking Bed and Carnivorous City you have worked on virtually all the prose forms. What determines the form of fiction you choose at a particular time?
I wrote Ballad of Rage in Germany when I got a Henrich Boll writing fellowship, and I had written a novel called the Fourth Cousin. In a sense, Carnivorous City took almost 15 years to write. Before then, I had written a series of stories that I thought weren’t hitting the mark. I submitted that story to the jury, and they picked it. But when I got to Germany, I felt something was missing, so I dumped it. But I didn’t have a lot of time, so I wrote a novella when I was there, and that resulted in Ballad of Rage, which came from a short story I had written before. If I had much time, I would have made the novella longer. Then I had to do a short story collection, and that was because, one day, Cassava Republic, my publisher, called me to find out if I had enough stories to make a collection, and I said yes. I gave them about twenty stories, and they picked twelve or thirteen. I had short stories waiting already; it wasn’t as if I purposely wrote the collection. Finally, I wrote Carnivorous City, the one about Lagos. Here, the novel form was deliberate.
Compared to the quality of fiction coming out of Nigeria, I am surprised there are not many adapted films coming from these works. What’s happening?
I am not a filmmaker, so I can’t speak for them, but every time I have done a book, somebody has come to say, “Can we make it into a movie?” But I always said, “You go and get the money; I am not going to fund a film on my own book.” I think I would feel happier if somebody brought me some money and say, “We are going to adapt your book”. On Carnivorous City, I have spoken to Tope Oshin the filmmaker; Daniel Oriahi, who did Taxi Driver; also Keneth Gyang –they are all keen. I think that people in Nollywood, when they see a good story, they know. The problem is getting the logistics and the funding. I don’t think they don’t want to do it. But I think that people who pay the bills also bring certain kinds of stories, and they have to follow what they want; and those of us who write the stories don’t have the money to turn them into films.
But, in the U.S., Hollywood filmmakers come for good works of fiction…
It is very rare these days to find original screen plays from Hollywood; they are mostly adaptations of short stories, novels, even newspaper reports. If they like your story, they option it, and turn it into movie. We haven’t reached that level yet, though a few people who are writers are doing screen plays. Jude Idada is doing screen plays. It will take time. Everything takes time. Once a Nollywood filmmaker picks a novel and it happens the way it ought to happen, things will change. Nollywood will get to that point when they will start looking for things that people have liked in print and bring them on screen.
Writers complain of not making enough money from their works. Is it possible for a Nigerian writer to live on his writing?
A few days ago, OkadaBooks released their bestselling authors for the year – Toke Makinwa, Sally Kenneth Dadzie and Kiru Taye. I don’t know how much they made, but I don’t think they made enough to sustain a lifestyle. If I wrote a book today, and it got optioned by Hollywood, I am made. Even, if Hollywood comes and gives me 10 million naira, that’s quite a good sum of money. Look at Night of a Creaking Bed, which sold almost 15,000 copies –how much have I made? Just under 2 million naira! So, imagine if I have made 2 million naira in seven-eight years, what am going to do with it? My children’s school fees for one term is almost that amount of money. So, how do you now live as a writer? You have to take a job. It is also important for young people to understand this. There is nobody I know, apart from Chimamanda Adichie, who live on her writing. They are all employed. So, is that what we are aspiring to? Writing doesn’t pay you the money you want.
Personally, I worked for six years before going into business with a partner, producing books. We write biographies of people. We have done about seven books now in six years. How many Nigerians have written seven books in six years? If you add it to my others books, it means I have done about 10 books in the last eight years. But that’s how you can survive to lead a good life. We also do ghostwriting for businessmen who want to give speeches. That, also, I think writers should explore. People who write for TV also make their money upfront. This is the age of the writer because everybody needs content online, offline, TV –everywhere –and, if you know what you are doing, you can always make a good living doing that. Truth is that most writers are lazy looking for inspiration
Some sit down, drink beer and Indian hemp, and say, “I am not inspired. When I am inspired, I write.” But your house rent doesn’t need to be inspired before it comes. You must pay it whether you like it or not. Your children’s school fees doesn’t wait for you to be inspired. As I said, this is the age of the writer. There is so much going on, and people are taking advantage of it. When we were younger, we were doing book reviews for free. But, anytime you do a book review now, somebody is going to pay you. Things have changed.
Talking about book reviews, some writers say they don’t rely on book reviews to know how they are faring. Do book reviews actually matter?
Those who say book reviews don’t matter are idiots. You can’t be a writer and say it doesn’t matter. For me, the first engagement with a work is the review. You can’t say it doesn’t matter, because you are dismissing a core component of the value chain. If a reviewer says my book is bad, I don’t get angry, because we have many books coming out every year, and he has decided to choose my book for review. I mean it doesn’t make sense. We need critical evaluation of what we do. Who are you to say you have written the best book in the world? What I hear is that the quality of book reviews has dropped, so some people assume, because of that, they shouldn’t matter. Book reviews are important, and reviewers are important, too.
You are opposed to writers writing to educate or change society.
(Laughs) What I am saying is this: I am not writing a book for people to learn how to change Buhari. I am not writing didactic novels. I write a book people will read and see how good the English is written and read a fantastic story they can tell their friends. But, to say I want to teach you morals or something, who are my? I don’t think am good enough to teach people how their lives should be lived. I am not saying I don’t want people to learn morals; I am saying am not good enough to be that person. I will be arrogant to say I want to change the world with my book. Who am I? But, if somebody learns one or two things from the work, good!
No doubt, social media has democratised writing. We have writers who post new poems daily. Do you think it has really advanced the cause of Nigerian literature in the 21st century?
I said earlier that Okada Books released their bestsellers, which happen to be e-books. Yes, online has provided some kind of space for us to do our writing, but, then, it has also provided space for so much that is below par, like writers posting a poem every day. Before, that poem had to be looked at it before it would come out. But, now, you are the writer, the editor and the publisher. That doesn’t allow for quality. Some people don’t want to take their time to do something right. It depends on the foundation you are coming from. So, it’s good and bad.
The poet in you seems to have died since the release of Songs of Absence and Despair. What’s happening to your poetry?
Two week ago, I posted a poem on Instagram, which got good reactions. I am actually writing a poetry volume entitled One Hundred Sonnets for Bar Beach. This is the first time I am announcing this. So, the poet in me hasn’t died. I have so many things am doing. Carnivorous City came out the year before, so I am very busy writing. It takes time to write, and I have to eat. You don’t produce that kind of book in one year.
How true is it that Nigerians don’t read?
Nigerians read. Who, then, are buying our books if Nigerians don’t read? They are not spirits. But, are we writing what they want to read? Some books come out, and they are everywhere. Carnivorous City came out, and it was well received, and sold well that Christmas; and it wasn’t as if it was published abroad. If a book is good, people will buy. Some people were using it as Christmas hampers. I think Nigerians should also write what people will read.
What do you mean by what people want to read?
Especially for us who read literature in the university, we assume there is a certain way we have to write –we need to write like Soyinka, have all the conk and big words, and stuffs like that. That works if you were a Soyinka, but you have to evolve your own style. Why would somebody like Kinu Taye or Tope Makinwa or Sally Kenneth Dazie sell so much? You ask yourself why are they writing and why are people reading them? There are books that will be popular because they are written by a particular author, but, then, nobody will buy them –readers will be sharing each other’s copies. And others will write and people are buying. Every time I go out, shops will tell me, “Your book is finished”. It is important that people buy the books you write, and that’s why I will keep writing what people will read.
Why are major international awards eluding Nigerian writers at home compared to those abroad? What are they getting right that we aren’t getting right here?
Nothing! You publish your work as a Nigerian author; you (the publisher) don’t have enough money to print your book or take you to a book festival or arrange a reading tour for you, so we have to do it ourselves. You are the writer of the book; you do promotion on Facebook; you arrange halls and do the reading yourself. But a foreign publisher, once he publishes your book, will print posters, fly you to Edinburgh Festival, among other festivals. So, there are promotional activities planned for you ahead. We can’t do it in Nigeria. It is not a question of what are we not getting right. If the book is good, it is good. Why want you (the publisher) promote it? Here, we promote ourselves –we now depend on Unilag, Uniport, Unijos, and what have you. And, then, you are travelling by night bus for the readings. There is so much that is wrong in terms of the logistics of the business.
I don’t think there is anything wrong. They don’t have the money to do. Look at our writers published abroad, they have specific dates for their reading tours. The writers are not doing the publicity themselves. Somebody is paying for it.