Noo Saro-Wiwa is a traveller, writer and journalist born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and raised in England. She has written book reviews and op-eds for several magazines including The Guardian newspaper, The Times Literary Supplement, The Independent, The Financial Times, La Repubblica, Prospect Magazine.
Her travelogue Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (Granta Publications) was published in 2012 to critical acclaims. The intimate account of her travels and her refreshing voice make the book a delight. With wit, warmth and vitality, Saro-Wiwa writes about her travels around Nigeria, sharing her concerns about some socio-political issues, and revealing, through her lens, the beauty and ugliness, the order and chaos of Nigeria. The book is described by Binyavanga Wainanaina as an ‘insider knowledge so lacking in the usual travel books about Africa’. The book was named the Sunday Times Travel Book of the Year in 2012, BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week in 2012, The Guardian newspaper included it among its 10 Best Contemporary Books on Africa in 2012, it was also included in The Financial Times best travel books of 2012. In 2013, it was shortlisted for the Author’s Club Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award and won the Albatros Travel Literature Prize in 2016, having been translated into Italian and French. Noo was awarded a Miles Morland Scholarship for non-fiction writing in 2015. She has contributed stories to the anthologies An Unreliable Guide to London (Influx Press, 2016) and A Place of Refuge (Unbound, 2016), an anthology of writing on asylum seekers.
In this conversation with Kemi Falodun, Saro-Wiwa talks about her book Looking for Transwonderland, her relationship with her father, how her experiences have helped shape her view on home and her favourite travel books and places in the world.
Kemi Falodun for Fortunate Traveller: In the prologue to your travel book Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, you write about your sense of dislocation each time you had to visit Nigeria on summer holidays when you were a child. And for many years you could not return to your fatherland because of the horrors you associated with it. How did the decision to re-engage with Nigeria make you feel? After all those years away, why did you choose that moment and what prepared you for it?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: It was very daunting but I was driven, as always, by curiosity. During my twenties I had visited quite a few countries in Africa and I began to wonder what Nigeria would be like as a travel destination. The idea of exploring Nigeria as a tourist rather than a diasporan returning to the family home appealed to me. Democracy had been re-introduced, and my brother had moved there to work for government. He seemed to be enjoying it to some extent so I thought, why not? I wanted to write books about my travels, and this was a good way of doing that while exorcising some of the demons around my father’s death.
There was no emotional preparation. I was very nervous but intrigued. Travelling anywhere new by yourself is daunting but my curiosity always compels me to go. I just bought my plane ticket and went. It was like jumping into the sea—once you take the plunge you’re fine. My previous travels in Africa made the prospect of backpacking around Nigeria seem less strange. I knew roughly what to expect, though I was surprised at how poor our facilities were compared to our neighbouring countries.
Also, during those visits when you were younger, you were always so eager to return to the UK, a place you regarded as home. Now that you’re older, do you consider Nigeria home?
The older I get the more I consider London home. It’s an international city and doesn’t have Nigeria’s excessive religiosity and illiberal values, which I find so off-putting. Nevertheless, Nigeria is where I was born, it’s where my family comes from. It is The Cradle, and it’s impossible not to have emotional ties to the place. Nigeria’s fortunes are tied up in my psyche. One can never feel relaxed when things aren’t going well there. I would like to reach a stage where I’m able to spend a few months of each year in Nigeria. That would be ideal.
Your travel persona in the book seems very interesting, curious, even daring. And I thoroughly enjoyed your tone of jeu d’esprit. I found myself laughing while reading some sections of it, for example, your personification of Lagos, posing as a sugar mummy in Abuja, your description of Nigerian hotels, and more. But beneath all that, you touched many important issues; the infrastructural decay, corrupt politicians, wobbling civil service and the little reverence for our culture. While reading the part about your visit to the Osun-Osogbo Grove, I was struck by a line: Was westernisation of the Sacred Grove’s nemesis or savior? I couldn’t decide. Have you decided now?
It’s an age-old question. The West has been very good at destroying cultures by colonizing them and accumulating wealth. Yet it is that wealth which then enables the West (as a political entity or as individual actors) to return to places like Nigeria and revive what has been lost. It takes money and vision to do these things. There are plenty of Nigerians who have that vision, and there are plenty of Nigerians who have money, but Nigeria needs more people who have both. Nigeria’s millionaires aren’t lining up to save our rainforests or support novelists the way Westerners do, which is a shame.
Apart from the clever way with which you addressed those issues, another thing worthy of note is the thorough research you carried out. You not only write about the present day, but also the cultural, social and political history of the places you visited. I’m interested in the writing and researching processes and your sources, maybe? And how essential is it to be furnished with the information of a place a traveller intends visiting?
It’s good to do some research before you travel, but I tend not to do a huge amount, partly because I like the element of surprise. I also believe that if you know too much before you go somewhere then it skews the decisions you make during your trip. Some of the most interesting aspects of my trip came about through serendipity and aimless perusals of newspapers. Having said that, being armed with lots of prior information can help you ask more pertinent questions—the kind of questions you wished you’d asked further down the line when it’s too late.
Some of the more detailed research, particularly the historical background to certain towns or artworks, I conducted afterwards. It sometimes involved going to the British Library to source out-of-print books from 50 years ago.
Interesting. I imagine that must have been quite some work. Publishing and easy access to research materials also come with some challenges, especially in this part of the world, Nigeria. During your visit to the University of Ibadan, you write about your interaction with a student writer. She talked about how most successful Nigerian writers are from the diaspora. She also expressed her fears about the possibility of not being able to publish in Nigeria. I understand her concerns, but it seems to me that there are publishers working hard to ensure these difficulties do not perpetuate to the next generation. So do you have plans to have your book re-issued by a publisher in Nigeria?
It would be nice if more people within Nigeria could read the book without borrowing it from someone who bought it abroad. I frequently get requests from people about where in Nigeria they can buy Transwonderland. The non-US book rights are owned by my publishers, so it’s up to them. Cassava Republic made enquiries years ago but nothing came of that.
The memories of your father seems to hover around the book, be it in conversations with people or in your thoughts. This tells how much influence he had on you and how you still ‘see’ him and his likely reactions to situations. I wonder what you miss the most about him.
It would have been nice to know him as an adult. I feel I have much more in common with him now. He was a passionate traveller and, of course, he had many interesting life experiences in Nigeria. He attended the same schools and universities as people like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, and he crossed paths with many influential Nigerians. It would have been nice to hear his views and anecdotes, and to swap travel stories.
I often hear people say, ‘Oh, I’d like to explore the world. I want to travel…’ To see places and tell stories of different people is one of my desires too. But what are the biggest misconceptions people have about travelling? And, what qualities do you think good travel writers should have?
A good travel writer should have strong self-awareness, humility, a sociable spirit, a journalistic curiosity plus a willingness to have their preconceptions overturned (and be pleased if and when it happens).
One of the biggest misconceptions about travelling is that you will ‘find yourself’. Don’t get me wrong – it can happen, but finding yourself is an internal transformation, which doesn’t always depend on external factors. Travel is what you make of it. If you are passive and you follow the herd without being curious, you will come away with little other than picturesque photos.
Also, travel doesn’t have to involve going to exotic and faraway places. Simply talking to your neighbours can open up a whole new world of experiences.
Another myth is that travel is relaxing. It is not – it is an experience. Travel opens your eyes to new things (if you let it) but it can be tough and frustrating too. I can sit on the nicest beach in the Caribbean and something will find a way to piss me off. For me, the only true form of relaxation is staying at home in my sweatpants with a plate of jollof rice and a good movie!
Aha! Jollof rice, you say. I’ll leave that part till another day. Maybe you know this, there are countless online magazines and blogs on all kinds of writing in Nigeria, but we have only a handful on travel writing. This shows people pay less attention to it here. Do you have something to say about why this is so? And what would you say to aspiring travel writers?
Fiction is a major part of modern Nigeria’s literary tradition (and any country in the world). There are many famous and inspiring role models in Nigerian fiction, plus more opportunities for fiction writers in the form of grants, residencies, journal submissions, prizes and teaching jobs. Fiction is also cheaper—you can write a novel without moving from your bedroom. Travel writing (for the most part) has traditionally been done mainly by Westerners who can afford it and whose explorative relationship to the world owes much to their colonial past. In Nigeria, people are focused on surviving. Many don’t have the luxury to travel. Those who go on the move often do so in order to find jobs or create a new life, and that becomes their focus.
My advice to wannabe travel writers is to be original. Find new and unique angles by using your unique persona and drawing on your life experiences. Try and get a sense of what has already been written about a certain place or subject in order to find your niche. It’s a tough genre to choose—some readers wrongly believe it’s a dead art form—and many people think they have seen it all before, so you have to prove them wrong. The world is constantly evolving but the internet gives the impression that every nook and cranny of the globe has been covered.
Don’t assume you have to travel to faraway places, either. Your backyard is everyone else’s ‘exotic unknown’. But you have to learn to observe that backyard through fresh eyes and not be blasé: the things that seem humdrum to you might be fascinating to an outsider.
Read, read, read. Not just novels but non-literary stuff. It’s good to have a grounding in politics, economics and the environment, etc. because it will help you understand and analyse the world better and perhaps ask deeper questions.
Thank you for your time, Noo. But I would also like to ask this question, if I may call it trivial, I’m just curious to know. What are your three favourite travel books and your three favourite places in the world?
Bad Times in Buenos Aires (Miranda France) – The title tells you what you need to know. This young British newspaper stringer wrote an account of her year in Argentina’s capital. It’s funny, eloquent, written in beautiful prose and unashamedly subjective yet prescient.
An African in Greenland (Tété-Michel Kpomassie) – I always forget to recommend this book to people. I first read it when I visited Togo in 2003. Kpomassie provides brilliant anthropological detail about Greenland. He’s as much an academic as a travel writer. I learned so much about psychology, culture and environment in that part of the world. The fact that Kpomassie made this trip in the 1960s and came from a modest background in Togo (he spent years saving up) makes him the ultimate adventurer. He’s my hero.
One Day I Will Write About This Place (Binyavanga Wainaina) – He has a unique writing style and a refreshing take on things. I read this book in two sittings, getting totally absorbed in his Kenya, the Kenya you don’t see so much in the media.
My favourite places…
Fouta Djalon Highlands: Guinea is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but political instability has ensured that few travellers get to enjoy it. The highlands are filled with staggeringly beautiful tabular massifs, green canyons and alpine trees. There’s no scenery like it in West Africa. The people’s faces are magnificent too. You can see the mix of Tuareg and coastal Africa in their features.
Lebanon Cedar Forest. Lebanon has an insane amount of recorded and preserved history, being so close to Egypt, Greece and the Mediterranean. The Cedar Forest is magnificent. I’m used to seeing these trees standing in isolation in British gardens, but in Lebanon you get an entire forest of them, set in beautiful mountains where people go skiing in winter.
Hadseløya is one of the islands in the Vesterålen archipelago in Norway’s Arctic Circle. On sunny days the sea looks Caribbean-blue, then the midnight sun casts a golden-pink light on the water. Gorgeous mountains everywhere, green meadows covered in yellow flowers, wild moose, whales and very few human beings.