Dr. Lola Akande is one of the bestselling Nigerian writers plying her trade in Nigeria. She has been a solid voice since publishing her first novel, In Our Place, What It Takes, which won the ANA Prize for Prose in 2017. She is also the author of Where are You From? and Suitors Are Scarce in Lagos (winner, ANA Prize for Short Story, 2022), and the latest book, The Truth about Sadia. HENRY AKUBUIRO engages her on her writings in this interview.
At what point did you mull over the idea for The Truth about Sadia? What inspired it?
The idea to write about drug addiction first came to my mind when I witnessed a conversation between two of my colleagues. I had gone to see one of them in his office over an official matter and had met another colleague there. They were having a conversation and they continued talking in spite of my presence. I had no choice than to listen, especially as I had no chance to state my mission. One was telling the other about a strange experience he had the previous day. He said he picked up his son from school only to realise that the boy was exhibiting a strange behaviour. He said his son, who was a JSS2 student, had never acted so strangely before and that his unusual behaviour created panic in him and his wife. Confused, they told the boy to go and take a nap, thinking he was probably tired but his behaviour remained strange even after he had taken a rest. He said he and his wife decided to take him to hospital. But, as they were about to leave the house, his wife, acting on instincts, suddenly began to beg their son to tell them everything that had happened to him that day in school from the moment his father dropped him to the time he came to pick him up. Anyway, the boy’s account of the day’s events at school revealed that at break time, a friendly senior student in SS3 had offered to buy him lunch. The senior student had ordered a plate of cooked indomie noodles for him. He said the senior student however instructed the noodles seller to add ‘plus’ to his noodles. The boy admitted to his parents that he felt strangely happier after eating the ‘indomie noodles plus.’
My other colleague also went on to discuss the prevalence of drug addiction in our society with even more frightening stories, including that of a young adult who nearly lost his mind after being fed with beans prepared by his elder sister. Unknown to the young man, his sister had laced the beans with marijuana. That was when the idea of writing about drug addiction first came to my mind. But of course I had to do my own research and determine the focus of my work.
Did the initial idea change along the line?
I’m not sure if this could yield a straight yes or no answer. This is the thing: the conversation I heard that gave me the idea to write the novel was about substance abuse. My novel takes substance abuse as its subject but that’s all there is to the relationship between the novel’s subject and that conversation. The conversation situated the menace primarily among younger people, but in deciding to make substance abuse the subject of my fictional work, I chose to write about it from an entirely different angle. I also made that decision from the beginning. Writing is intentional, as you know. It requires deliberate planning and careful crafting, so, I needed to ask myself some basic questions, such as, what did I really want to say about substance abuse? That is, what would be my dominant message in this new work? Who would I direct this message to? In answering these questions and more, I decided that I wasn’t going to focus on children or the young adults. I made up my mind to write for the family. I wanted to write a family novel. Once I had made that decision, the task for me was to see how I could weave a story with substance abuse as subject matter but with the family as my target audience. The beautiful thing about creativity is that the writer is able to own their idea, even when that idea has been inspired by other sources.
Your book also touches on self-denial in confronting mental health in the country. Why is that denial among us, and what can be done?
I think denial operates at two levels in the novel. The first is self-denial by the individual who is mentally-challenged. Generally, mentally-challenged people tend to deny that they are unwell. I think the reason for this is simply because of the condition. They are not with their senses. They are unable to process the reality of the state of their mental health, so, they see themselves as normal. Perhaps, that is the reason people say that a mentally-challenged person who agrees that they are mentally-challenged give the hope that they are on their way to full recovery. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not knowledgeable about the illness but I think it has been widely observed that people with mental illness deny that they are ill because the illness takes away their capacity to assess their behaviour. The second level of denial in the novel occurs with the spouse of the mentally-ill character. When Mofe’s wife is first confronted with her mentally-ill husband, she is in shock and she is unable to accept that her husband has become mentally-challenged. Often times, people who truly love a mentally-ill individual such as parents or spouses tend to suffer this kind of denial. Again, only psychiatrists and psychologists can clinically explain why.
How widespread is drug abuse in Nigeria?
Well, I’m not a competent person to make a statement on how big drug abuse is in Nigeria because I don’t have verifiable facts and statistics. I’m an ordinary citizen. But, like all citizens, evidence of the prevalence of substance abuse is tragically glaring to all of us. A visit to psychiatric hospitals where substance abusers are treated gives an indication of how big drug abuse is in our country. Stories and experiences of people who are relatives of or have come in contact with substance abusers such as the conversation between my colleagues attest to the frightening level of substance abuse in Nigeria. During a public reading of The Truth about Sadia, a very knowledgeable person on mental health issues said in answer to a question by a member of the audience that there are more than ten spots where they sell substances such as marijuana and cocaine between one bus stop and another in Lagos.
Beyond the thrills of fiction, did you write this book as a mental therapy in mind?
Writing is generally therapeutic, but beyond the thrills of fiction, I wrote the novel to sensitise, advocate, enlighten, educate, caution, admonish, and challenge all of us particularly from the most important unit of society, the family to try our best to avoid the tragedy of substance abuse. I wrote the novel in the hope that family members would pay keen attention to their loved ones. I wrote the novel to admonish family members to monitor the behaviour of members of their family very closely. Substance use and abuse is a rampaging demon in our society and the implications on the family are catastrophic. I wrote the novel in the hope that after reading it, if people detect unusual behaviour in members of their family, they would immediately investigate, offer support and help rather than to live in denial or the illusion that their relative could never use or abuse substance. The idea that we know someone so closely and they can never use substance is false. Paying close attention is important. Acting early could avert a tragedy.
Lagos has been the dominant setting for your works, including this new novel. What’s the fascination for the city?
Well, I live in Lagos. I see Lagos in my daily life. I choose to write about what I know.
You seem to feel more at home with female protagonists. Is there an explanation for this?
When we look at the history of literature around the world and in Nigeria, we find that, for a long time, men have tended to be in the forefront of writing stories, including stories that concern women intimately. Men have written and are still writing mostly from male-imagined perspectives. Male writers write not only about politics, the economy, culture, and social vices, they also write about polygamy, abortion, female genital mutilation, pregnancy, child birth, and a lot more issues that touch women directly. In all these stories, they use female characters and depict situations that involve women using patterns of thought, values and the power that they have. In Arrow of God, for instance, Achebe’s character, Ezeulu has three wives. The reader gets to know these women through Achebe’s imagination. As readers, we see Ezeulu’s power over the women through Ezeulu’s lens, but we don’t know how these women truly feel about their marriage because we don’t have access to their thought patterns. Are they enjoying or enduring their marriage? Thankfully, women are now writing their own stories. We are able to consider viewing familiar stories through a female perspective. It is only fair, therefore, that I privilege female protagonists in my stories. A female writer’s account of how women feel in polygamous relationships or the pains that attend child birth would be more authentic, in my view, than a male writer’s account of the subjects.
Within a decade, you have published In Our Place, What It Takes, Where Are You From?, Suitors Are Scarce in Lagos, and The Truth about Sadia. Where does the energy come from?
In Our Place was published by Macmillan in 2012. That was over ten years ago. What It Takes was published in 2016. Yes, the other three have been published within the last five years. Where does the energy come from? I don’t think it’s about energy. It has been more of a struggle for me. I think I have just been determined to keep up the struggle. I want to be productive, because being productive protects against depression. Much more than that, I really want to make my own contribution. I want to impact my society. Writing gives me the privilege to do that, so, I struggle to write.
Using these four works as a template, how would you describe the focus of your writing?
I think my readers are in a better position to describe the focus of my writing. You mentioned, for instance, that I write about Lagos. You also said that I tend to privilege female protagonists in my writing. I think your comments are authentic description of the focus of my work, so it’s up to my readers to discover the focus of my writing by reading my works.
Are you satisfied with how far your works have travelled?
I’m thankful to God for how far my works have travelled. I have no doubt that they will travel even farther. For a self-publishing author whose works have been well-received at home and outside, I see progress in practical terms. I don’t see limitations. I cherish my writerly life. I’m a happy writer.