Abiola Oni discusses African writing, the tube, and the stereotypes usually associated with Africans in the diaspora with Imade Iyamu. Read Abiola Oni’s story “Strangers On the Train” here.
In your story, ‘Strangers on a train’, you write about the mundane activity of travelling by tube, but infuse it with depth that makes it poignant. Do you think that stories must have a dramatic event happening to be ‘important’ or are the most important stories more about the mundane and commonplace?
A lot of life is in the mundane. Waking up, brushing your teeth, going to work, these are things that majority of people do everyday, but in all this routine, life is happening. As you go about your day, you’re constantly thinking about things that have happened, things that will happen, engaging with the people around you, looking at them, judging them. I believe that stories should also tell the truth about the business of everyday living not just the dramatic.
What inspired the story in itself?
The London underground! I don’t drive so I use the tube fairly often and I’m particularly fascinated with how strangers interact with each other in such a confined space. You meet all sorts of people, see all sorts of things on the tube. I assume it’s the same in most big city public transportation, I’ve certainly heard many tales about the bus in Lagos, but London has such a remarkable mix of people and the tube is where we all meet, it’s the ultimate leveller.
The main character rides the tube with a diverse bunch of people, and he is a foreigner himself. You are a Nigerian living in London. What do you think are the ups and downs of living in another country, as an African writer in particular? Do you think there is an irreparable disconnect between viewpoints of writers residing home and writers in the Diaspora?
We are all human, we all have basic experiences that everyone can relate to. Yes, they happen in different contexts, but if a story is really telling the truth about the human condition, regardless of whether it is sci-fi or fantasy, any human being should be able to relate to it. I grew up reading Enid Blyton books and while sometimes I didn’t understand why there was constant chatter about the weather, that didn’t stop me from wanting to be Amelia Jane’s friend. Africans writing about what it means to live in the diaspora is especially important because a lot of people dream of making a better life in Europe and the US. The reality is that while you are guaranteed a stable safe life, to a large extent, it is hard learning to live in a world in which you are suddenly a minority; where people judge you first and get to know you later. I am constantly busting stereotypes of what it means to be African in my place of work and when I travel around Europe and I want to be able to do that with my writing as well. However, I will accept that as a Nigerian writer living in London, I tend to either romanticise Nigeria or be overly critical of it. I’ve lost that balanced view that you get from living in a place.
Your website is dedicated to building a space for African writers and African literature enthusiasts. What inspired you to take up this cause, and what is your definition of an African writer. Must the theme and language of the writing be African to qualify?
Initially, I really didn’t like the ‘African writer’ title. I would always wonder, is an African writer someone who grew up in Africa? Whose parents are African? How about people who’ve moved there and now identify with Africa? And how about people of African descent who want nothing to do with the continent? Also, African writing is so diverse, how can one blanket term define it? And why does the heritage of a writer matter? You never hear of a European writer, so why do we need that title to differentiate us?
I’ve since come round to it though, in fact I’ve even jumped on the African writer band wagon, because I now realise the purpose it serves. The truth is we need more of our stories to get out there and if that means using the platform of ‘African writing’ to propel our stories to a more mainstream audience, then so be it.
Africancherry was born out of a personal need. At the time, it was difficult to find information that was helpful for writers like me about literary events and magazines and prizes in London. I would have to search twitter and google and so many different blogs so I decided to create a platform that brought all that information in one place. It’s still in its infancy but I’m definitely not short of things to write about.
There is a moving paragraph in your story where you describe the main character’s need for the energy of the crowd in the tube to feel human. What message did you hope to pass with this? Do you think all people are ‘strangers on a train’ who need each other to feel human and brave our weaknesses?
We are all social beings, we need people to survive, more so when there is a physical disability that limits a person from being entirely self-sufficient. Just look at any crises, people forget about race or gender or creed and come together because we are first and foremost human and that was what I was trying to highlight. I was also exploring the idea of what it means to be lonely while surrounded by millions of people, which is a very real condition for many people living in London.
Who has been the biggest influences on your writing?
I know I’m supposed to say Wole Soyinka or Achebe but the truth is I’ve only really developed a proper appreciation for African literature in the last 5-6 years. In my mind, African literature was always rural and I couldn’t relate (I’ve now realised that I had a serious case of brainwashing going on). However, George Orwell is still one of my favourite writers. 1984 made me want to write African dystopian fiction, which strangely enough, is what I’m currently doing. My newly discovered hero is Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter, which is like a long magnificent poem. Contemporary writers whose work I adore are people like Rotimi Babatunde, Taiye Selasi and NoViolet Bulawayo. I’m also heavily influenced by visual artists such as Yinka Shonibare and Steve McQueen in film.
Ben Okri wrote that ‘The black and African writer is expected to write about certain things, and if they don’t they are seen as irrelevant’. Do you think Africans tend to feel obligated to write politically?
I understand where that thinking has come from, in fact, the first idea I had for a novel was set in the Abacha regime in Nigeria. African countries are constantly in political turmoil and it’s natural for people to write about or want to read about what it’s like to live in that world. However, African writers are doing Africa a disservice if we only write about wars and politics and poverty because there is so much more to Africa than that. When we do that, we are making people think of Africa in those terms only, and western media is already doing a fine job of that. It is our duty to showcase the entire spectrum of the African experience.
It’s been said that you are currently working on your first full-length novel. Can you discuss what it’ll about & how the novel-writing process in general has been for you so far? How much different has been than crafting short stories?
I once believed that writing short stories equips you for writing a longer piece. That is not true. At all. There are transferable skills like learning how to craft a strong story arc and create powerful characters but with short stories, because the gratification of an end is more immediate, every single world must count; whether it’s shedding light on a character’s state of mind or building the setting or building up the conflict. As a short story writer, you have to be disciplined and cut until the story is as tight as can be. With a longer piece, you can afford to meander, to some extent. Writing a longer piece has its own difficulties though, keeping someone’s attention for 80,000 words is no joke!
Regarding my novel, all I can say is that it is dystopian fiction set in Nigeria. I can’t reveal much more than that because it is far from finished and I’m learning new things about the plot and my characters everyday. What I can say is that all the hardships of writing a novel that authors often talk about are all true. It is very lonely, you can’t have much of a social life and it takes serious dedication to write a novel. For me, the most daunting aspect of writing is that nagging little voice of doubt that keeps asking why I’m slaving behind a computer for so many hours with a story that might never see the light of day. The day I learn to silence that voice is the day I know I’ve truly arrived as a writer!
Do you find yourself channelling your experiences when building story lines and writing characters who think like you? How do you think writers should find that balance between writing characters exactly like themselves and writing characters completely opposite from themselves?
The reality is that anything and everything that happens to a writer is material. Reading someone’s work is like peering into their mind. Even if what you are writing about isn’t real, even if it is sci-fi, your thoughts are being filtered through the unique way in which you view the world and a little bit of you will always find its way onto the page. At the same time, it’s my duty as a writer to be a dreamer and so I experiment with different ideas or themes that I have no personal connection with. I find those stories harder to pull off but that’s where real art lies and I’m growing everyday.