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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A tale of an author living her dream

The UK based Nigerian novelist started writing as a little girl. Abidemi Sanusi has gone all the way to be nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for her book Eyo, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

Her presence is made more intimidating by those rimmed glasses but when Abidemi Sanusi begins to speak, particularly about books and writing, she effortlessly induces you into her effervescence and before you know it you are sharing jokes like equals. But the London-based Nigerian is more than an equal and no ordinary woman. She’s the author of four books of admirable quality, the latest of which was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

And early in the interview, she smashes the preconceived belief that writers are a bunch of unfeeling recluses with a confession that uncovers her sensitivity. “I cried a bit,” she says of her reaction to the news that Eyo, her fourth book, had lost out to Dawn Garisch’s Trespass for Africa’s best book in this year’s Commonwealth Writers Prize.

It’s a confession that evokes empathy considering it took her painstaking seven years to complete the 338 page novel. Not that she felt a complete loser. “You know it’s also prestigious to be nominated,” she says. “It made me a more recognisable author and that’s a good thing.”

But the genesis of the real good thing is traced to her girlhood many years ago.

“When I was young, I used to write short stories and if I had an argument with my mom I would write a short story of a witch and I would kill the witch in the story.” She reduces her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “You know who the witch was!” and breaks into laughter –rich, warm laughter that brings tears to her eyes. 

What I’m witnessing is in stark contrast to the preeminently depressing temperament of the book Eyo. It’s timely to ask what inspired her realistic fiction; how she mustered guts to tackle the issue of child trafficking and sex slavery in so exacting a manner.

“It was inspired by work in human rights, it was informed by me growing up in Nigeria and seeing these things. It was informed by stories of trafficking African children we heard about in UK who were so brutalised, taken from their parents when they were very young and as soon as they were 18 and couldn’t claim child benefits they were thrown out on the streets and it became an immigration problem,” she pauses to catch her breath.

“They can’t go back home to join their family, they can’t stay in England because they are illegal; so all those things inspired the book. And I didn’t just want people to say it’s wrong stop it --it’s more than that --I wanted people to say it’s not enough to point fingers at the men; we can’t point fingers at women either; I wanted people to say we all are involved in this.”

As a foreigner who has lived abroad for long, and seeing the believability of the young heroine she creates, I couldn’t help asking if the detestable things men do to Eyo did ever happen to the author herself.

“No, no, I come from a very loving home; my father was an amazing person and fortunately, I grew up in a home where we were allowed to express ourselves,” she emphatically says. “As I said, I’ve worked in human rights for over five years; the percentage of children and Nigerians trafficked in the UK to work as prostitutes is high, and also I heard many stories from my friends –the social workers, so the story is really rooted in real life.”

She says Eyo has provoked shocking reactions with some readers expressing their distaste of men and others vowing to never have sex again.

“The book made them think very hard,” she adds.This dark-skinned author wakes up at 4.30a.m., says her prayers and spends one hour writing. She leaves the house at 7a.m. to her office for her work as a writing consultant, and is back home by 5:30p.m. “And I make sure I have an hour to relax,” she says. “Then I do my school reading; I’m studying towards my second Masters and I want to do a Phd, sometimes I have creative workshops to attend, so I plan my days accordingly.”

She talks resoundingly of how she has had to discipline herself to reconcile her busy schedule with her writing. She cites her second novel, Zack’s Story of Life, Love and Everything, which she wrote at a time she was sharing her house with a crowd of relatives that she could barely get the much needed quiet to write.
“It was crazy,” she says. “I didn’t sleep, honestly, I didn’t sleep at all. I would wake up at 2a.m. and write up to 4p.m. –it was just mad.”

Her exception is revealed in her insistence that no author has influenced her: “It sounds very strange but I don’t have a single author that I can really say influenced the way I write.”

Sanusi’s authorship has evolved to an extent that emboldens her to reveal she has “grown as a writer just as an artist grows from painting to painting.”

She implores young writers to persevere and learn to take constructive criticism: “Not everybody who likes books will like your work. You don’t like every DVD you watch, why should everybody like your book? When they say you could have done this with this character or dialogue, listen. But if they say ‘oh I just read your book --it’s stupid,’ ignore them. What you must never do is lock yourself in a room and start knocking your head like you are mad.

“And if you’ve written a few words and you show to your family and they tell you ‘oh this is great it should be published,’ don’t do that. Give your manuscript to somebody who you know likes reading because they have a discerning eye.”

She relates the challenges she endured as she struggled to get published. Her first manuscripts were rejected with some publishing houses telling her the writing was not bad but that they already had other writers who had dealt with a similar subject. But Sanusi, although she found it frustrating, didn’t take it personal but improved her work, and approached other publishing houses until she overcame.

She responds to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s trumpet call that African writers should express themselves in their indigenous languages than the imperialist languages.

“That’s rubbish,” she says in her sharp Nigerian accent. “We have a common language –it’s called English –and for now it seems to serve us well. If people want to translate our works to Kiswahili or Yoruba or write in other languages, let them take it upon themselves other than complain about others who prefer to write in English.”

When asked why she left her country to live in UK, Sanusi says, “It wasn’t intentional. In my family, as soon as you are six you are sent to boarding school in England. My mom still lives in Lagos. I’ve my sister who lives in Lagos with her family and my brothers are in Lagos.”

She adds that she was quite a deep as a child. “I read a lot of books and talked a lot; if people wanted to shut me up, they brought me books. As a girl growing up, I wasn’t interested in makeup or shoes or whatever; for gifts people just bought me books."

I asked her about visiting Uganda, and the novelist said it was her first time in the country, “and I like it –it’s very green. Lagos is like a concrete jungle, this is lovely; I’ll come back and spend more time.”

Two more books are in the works, so keep your eyes open. “I’ve a love-hate of relationship with Nigeria so I’m working on a book of 10 short stories with 10 characters and the inspiration is Lagos,” she reveals. “And I’m also working on another book called The Gay Bishop.”

Books Abidemi Sanusi reads

How important is reading and writing to you?
There’re much more important things in the world than just reading or writing. That’s my message. If I don’t write or read for the whole day; that’s okay with me; I won’t die.

What kind of books do you read?
Stories. I do mainly fiction. I don’t do self-help and I don’t do motivational. That’s it.

How many books do you read at a go?
When I was younger, I would read 10 books at a time but now I read one book three times. I read it the first time for pleasure, the second time to study the writing style, the techniques and how the characters develop. And for the third time I read it for pleasure and study.

Have you read any Ugandan works?
No, unfortunately. I read through phases. I’m through the Russian phase and now I’m on African literature - I’m in Nigeria and then I’ll move to Ghana and maybe then Ugandan literature.

What book are you reading now?
At the moment I’m not reading because I’ve a lot of courseworks to do and I’m also working on two books. I’m also busy as a writing consultant but in July I’ll pick up reading again.

Longest time spent reading a book?
I’ve been on page 100 of Anna Karenina [by Leo Tolstoy] for the last 16 years! And I don’t think I’m going to proceed. Some people have to pretend they like this book but I don’t do that.

What lures you into buying a book?
The thickness; the thicker the book the better! I also read the back cover and quickly through the first chapter; to me the language has to be accessible; I don’t like people that nobody can understand and I think language should not divide people; literature should bring people together. I tried reading The Famished Road (Ben Okri) but I couldn’t finish it and to this day I’ve only met one person who has ever finished it and I’m sure he’s lying.

Which book keeps resounding in your mind?
Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. It’s about a young girl who was abused by her dad. When I read that book I felt this is the power of literature; her characters resonate with you.

Any unusual reading habit?
If I read a book and I don’t like it, I throw it across the room. And it’s a habit I’ve had since childhood.

I’m curious about some titles you’ve tossed
War and Peace [Leo Tolstoy], The Famished Road [Ben Okri]… ha ha!

Of the four books you’ve written, which is your favourite?
I don’t have one. I don’t, honestly. I’m a very strange writer? Ha ha!

--Daily Monitor, May 3, 2010