Appears in Other Voices #41
Aimee Liu’s recent novel, Flash House, resists designation. Alternatively called literary thriller, love story, spy novel, feminist fiction, and primer on the early years of the Cold War, this work succeeds at inviting a variety of discussions. It is the story of Joanna Shaw, an American social worker in New Delhi; Kamla, a ten-year-old girl rescued from a brothel; and Aidan, Joanna’s husband, a journalist gone missing near Srinagar. In shifting points of view, the novel takes us from India into Kashmir, across the Kun Lun Mountains and into Sinkiang—settings largely unexplored in American fiction.
Liu’s previous novel, Cloud Mountain, grew from the story of her American grandmother and Chinese grandfather, their marriage in the United States and lives in China. Praised for its firm grasp on Chinese history, Cloud Mountain touches two continents and four decades, exploring the way in which love succeeds and fails at surviving cultural differences. But we first encounter Liu’s gift for multiformity in Face, her first novel. Here she explores issues of identity through the eyes of Maibelle Chung, a photographer learning to cope with her family’s past. Like the two works that would follow it, this novel shines with poignant moments of east meeting west. When Maibelle refers to the old Chinese custom of foot binding as torture, for example, a friend replies that in China, passion and pain cannot be separated so easily.
Liu completed her first major work, Solitaire, at age twenty-five. Known for its brave honesty, Solitaire was the first published memoir of anorexia nervosa. She returns to this subject matter for an upcoming book, a memoir exploring the legacy of anorexia and bulimia on women’s lives.
Liu is known in the literary community for being as generous as she is fierce. The events that feature Liu’s work—as an author and as past president and current vice president of PEN Center USA West—become events in the strongest sense of the word.
Recently, at Salon 433, a project of Ms. Magazine and the Feminist Majority Foundation in Los Angeles, Liu spoke about her research for Flash House and her findings on the sexual trafficking of girls in South Asia. She shared the stage with Chelo Alvarez, a filmmaker and journalist whose new documentary, Tin Girls, follows young girls from Nepal sold into sexual slavery in India. Liu and Alvarez surpassed the crowd’s expectations with discussions of the complexities of rescue; the realities that many women gain autonomy in their red light districts and rescued women left with few options return to the trade. Liu and Alvarez closed the program by bringing the horrors of sexual trafficking closer to home. They introduced the niece of Maria Suarez, a woman abducted into sexually slavery in Los Angeles, only miles from the room in which we had gathered.
For this interview, Liu shares the stage again, this time with Nigerian novelist and journalist Akin Adesokan.
SB: You've said that your mother's love for India inspired Flash House, your third novel; that the two years your family lived in India left a huge impression on her, and your first childhood memories date from New Delhi. What are some of the things that took your attention as you returned to India to prepare for the novel?
AL: I was struck most of all by the legacy of colonialism in India. It's present in the architecture, the layout of the cities, the use of English, and perhaps most of all in the upper class attitudes of Indian society. This is hardly a news flash, but my memory of India had been filtered through a child's perspective, and when I returned in 1998 I was both more informed and more objective. My mother and I visited the New Delhi Golf Club, once a bastion of English prejudice against the Indians, and now all the trappings and attitudes have been preserved—except it's upper caste Indians practicing the same exclusionary policies they learned from the British. At the same time, you cannot visit India without being struck by the timelessness of certain customs, beliefs, and commitments. Our driver's family had lived in the same village for at least a dozen generations. In the past fifty years slums had risen to surround their family compound, yet he had no intention of moving. Similarly, we visited several nature reserves that have been established to protect endangered wildlife—especially tigers. The problem is, there are villages within these reserves that go back centuries, and the villagers will not move. So the tigers kill the villagers and the villagers poison the tigers, and you have to question the thinking behind the reserves. But such is India. It's a culture, a society, a nation of layers. Nothing is erased. The new layers just lie over the old.
SB: In your early research, you found a large number of magazine articles on the sexual trafficking of young girls in India and Asia. When you visited red light districts in India, you found something that had not been explored in those articles—that girls live in fear of the same raids intended to rescue them. In the words of your character Kamla, rescue means greater suffering and greater risk. Is it right to say that many of these intended rescues are the result of a Western failure to understand India's social structure? And is this when you knew the complex theme of rescue would become central to your novel?
AL: The rescue raids are not all done at the behest of Westerners. There are a few local organizations in India and in Nepal who are doing wonderful work to help women escape the sex trade. But many, many of the rescues are conducted either by westerners or by grandstanding Indian tycoons who want a news story that makes them look good. Most of those who "rescue" these women have no real interest in the women's well being and offer them little or no follow-up support but simply return them to the villages and families that sold them to traffickers to begin with. As "used goods" the women have no chance of marriage, are often beaten, raped, and ostracized, and if they don't die of AIDS they will likely end up right back in the brothels. My interest in the theme of rescue stemmed from my own initial knee-jerk acceptance of the essential goodness of "rescuing" these women, and my discovery when I got to India just how much more damage could be done to these women as a result of rescuing them. To really tackle the problem requires a deep understanding of cultural attitudes toward women and sex, an appreciation for the role of poverty and migration and organized crime, as well as caste, corruption, and government in South Asia. I realized how dangerously simplistic American attitudes can be when applied to cultures that operate by different codes and assumptions. And I began to think how this same theme of rescue translated to the realm of love—how we often confuse the impulse to rescue with love—and misread our own motivations in the process. That's when the theme became central to the novel—when I saw how deeply it could run within the characters as well as in the plot.
SB: There's a wonderful anecdote—one told to you by your mother—that shows how Westerners, even or especially those with the best intentions, may be unaware how their intentions will be perceived elsewhere.
AL: Yes, my mother tells a story about a well-meaning American ambassador's wife who was stationed in India while we lived there. The woman was appalled on arrival by the sight of her servants on their hands and knees sweeping the floor with short-handled brooms. Determined to dignify her servants by getting them up off the floor, she arranged the manufacture of a set of long-handled brooms, which she proudly presented to her staff. To her utter mystification, the ungrateful servants promptly took the brooms and sawed off the handles, and the next day went back on their hands and knees. The American ambassador's wife simply could not comprehend why she had been unable to "correct" the effects of thousands of years of conditioning in a single afternoon.
SB: It occurs to me that the theme of rescue is present in your second novel as well. In Cloud Mountain, the constraints of Chinese society prevent Hope from intervening with her troubled stepdaughter Mulan, with an unmarried neighbor forced to give her child to a married sister, and even with Sarah, an American friend who becomes a concubine.
AL: Yes, after the fact, I realized that I had dealt with rescue and the sex trade in Cloud Mountain also—through the story of Donaldina Cameron and her rescue of prostitutes from the San Francisco Chinatown brothels. And yes, Hope and Paul trade the role of rescuer back and forth throughout their marriage, from Paul's rescue of Hope during the earthquake to her rescue of him from his house arrest in Wuhan. But I wasn't conscious of this theme when I was writing Cloud Mountain.
SB: Is Flash House being read in India?
AL: The UK edition is sold in India and a couple of favorable reviews have appeared in Indian newspapers.
SB: Readers often comment on the extraordinary cast of characters in Flash House. Kamla, Joanna, and Aidan are generally the focus of discussion, but many of the novel's surprises come with Lawrence, an Australian spy. Alice James is a surprising character also, and I understand her story is based on that of a real-life adventurer you discovered in your research?
AL: Yes, Alice James is based on Barbara Stephens, a historical figure who enchanted me during my research for Cloud Mountain. She was a beautiful young blond journalist who hitchhiked with the Chinese army across China in 1947, uncovered a lot of information about Sinkiang that the Chinese government didn't want anyone to know, and was killed in a highly suspicious plane accident as she was traveling back to Peking. In Flash House I built on both her character and the political secrets she'd been unearthing in Sinkiang.
SB: Your work is highly visual, so I want to ask about visual arts as influences.
AL: I was a painting major in college, so I suspect that's where the visual references began. My mother also was a painter, and her letters and reports of experiences to this day are filled with visual descriptions of events and people. As a painter I learned the importance of light—how the same scene can look dramatically different in shadow or brightness. I learned to appreciate the power of color, the shape of things, figure-ground, and framing. All of these issues transpose to fiction. The process of creating art also is much the same as in writing. First there are sketches, tests of color, ideas, then a charcoal or pencil layout, very rough, and then the work-up of color and form and texture in layers and erasures, building up and scraping down, constant decisions about what to keep and what to cut. It's harder to work initially all over the canvas when writing on the page, but mentally it's very much the same process. Starting out, I try to think all over the story. And once the first draft is down, usually of necessity written from an imagined beginning to end, the reworking takes place all over. I am constantly trying to grasp and reign in the whole. The true beginning usually emerges several chapters in. My endings are almost never what I initially think they will be. Through the entire process, I try to see—and hear—the story through the writing. If I don't put in enough visuals, I can't see it. In my head it's more like watching a movie than picturing a painting, but both are visual media. Being able to see it is a huge source of satisfaction for me. Nonfiction tends to be much less visual, which is why I have more fun writing fiction.
SB: When you were writing Cloud Mountain you had a wonderful collection of visual aids in the form of family archives—photographs and letters you could actually touch and keep near while you worked. This must have been so inspiring, but I'm wondering if it also became one of the big challenges of the novel—the pressure of those photographed ancestors staring back at you.
AL: I wrote Cloud Mountain with a dual agenda. I wanted to tell my grandparents' story, but I also wanted to reflect the immensity of the choice they made in marrying each other at the time they did and the way they did. To honor one agenda necessarily meant compromising the other, especially where my grandmother was concerned, because she was not a larger than life character and I don't think she ever appreciated—not in a positive way—the extraordinary life she led. In real life she hated and recoiled from so much that she experienced, and she ended life a very bitter woman who never spoke about the past. As I dug back into the experiences of my father's family and especially of his father, I was filled with envy and awe. But from my desk, I didn't have to experience filth and disease, miscarriages and isolation, fear and poverty. I could just vicariously savor the adventure and history with the comforting hindsight that the family mostly survived. So there was a constant struggle going on as I chided my dead grandmother to appreciate all she'd been through and she, from the grave, scolded me to remember that every day of her marriage was riddled with uncertainty and hardship. Hope, the fictional version of my grandmother, emerged braver, more generous, and more curious than my real grandmother, but not nearly as heroic as I—or some of my readers—might have liked her to be. As a consequence the book itself is a compromise with history, but I think in the end it honors my grandparents' memory, which really was the overarching goal.
SB: Solitaire became an extremely important book for several of my friends, and I'm so glad to know it remains in print. I understand you're revisiting that material from a new vantage point—looking back twenty years later?
AL: I am working on that book now, revisiting other former anorexics, and examining the legacy of anorexia on women's lives. The story is now informed by new research suggesting a strong genetic component to the disorder. Fascinating stuff that dramatically changes the way we think about anorexia and bulimia.
SB: I was drawn to your essay, "Writing the Larger World," which currently appears on CaliforniaAuthors.com. You observe that for many years, the literary marketplace was not responding to stories set outside American borders. Agents and editors claimed they wanted diverse fiction, usually meaning they wanted stories about diverse cultures living inside American borders. But events of recent years may have left Americans more likely to look outward. Do you think the present decade will prove to be an important time for the international novel? Also, are there current novels you'd like to recommend to Other Voices readers?
AL: I think this should be a critical moment for the international novel. The rest of the world understands that poetry and literature provide vital insights into culture and politics around the globe. Illustrious writers such as Vaclav Havel, Octavio Paz, and VS Naipaul serve as powerful diplomatic movers and shakers overseas. Their stature as literary writers actually gives them political clout. Havel: poet as president. Can you imagine such a thing happening in America, where we know less than half the country reads literature of any kind? Not a chance. Instead we elect a president who boasts that he doesn't even read the newspaper. It's both shameful and terrifying. And it absolutely reflects the pitiful naïveté of a population that moaned after September 11, 2001, "Why do they hate us?" No one who's read Graham Greene's The Quiet American or Henry Bromell's Little America or Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible could have any doubt why "they" hate much of what America represents in the rest of the world. These books are not screeds. They are strong, individual stories about the mistakes Americans make over and over and over again when we try to impose our cultural beliefs without either regard or information about the cultures we're imposing upon. America's good intentions too often lead to disaster for the countries we try to “help”. Literature can and does illuminate why that happens so we can learn from these mistakes, but the vast majority of Americans refuse to read such books. And I'm afraid, for all the hand wringing, this "war on terror" has actually made the majority even less willing to focus outward. Just look at the current bestseller list. Those who want information go to the new and huge crop of nonfiction diatribes, most of which focus—again—on the navel of American politics: Washington. This is important, and these books provide valuable information, but they don't provide the depth of perspective that quality literature can. And when you look at the fiction bestseller list, what do you find? Escapism. Mystery, chick lit, science fiction and romance. Virtually all of these titles, on any given week, are set in the United States. This is not to say we are lacking in strong serious fiction about the international scene. Recent books such as Samantha Gillison's King of America, Robert Stone's Damascus Gate, and Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire have received critical raves. But publishers, who are increasingly mindful of the bottom line, are becoming decreasingly enchanted with the allure of the international novel. One agent recently advised me to set a good chunk of my next novel back in the United States if I wanted the book published. Do I sound bitter? You bet I am. But I'm also disgusted, and deeply concerned about the implications for our future as a nation.
SB: This interview will appear in the same issue of Other Voices as a novel excerpt by Akin Adesokan, a Nigerian writer with whom you've shared a rather extraordinary friendship. I'm hoping that you might like to say something about Akin's work. Also, I'm wondering if you might recall for us the editorial you wrote on Akin's behalf during his imprisonment in Lagos.
AL: Akin's work is complex, political, historical—a rich tapestry of life in Nigeria. His style reminds me of Salman Rushdie's, and I hope one day he receives the same degree of literary acclaim as Rushdie. It is such a delight to think of him now at work on his doctorate at Cornell. Those were dark days when we had no idea where he'd been disappeared to, no way of making contact, no idea if he was even alive. If my article helped to secure his release, it is a testament to the power of organizations like PEN and Amnesty International, both of which worked on his case, and to the courage of his fellow journalists in Nigeria, who dared to publish the piece even under the tyranny of Sani Abacha. I wrote the article initially for myself, in my journal, as a release for my concern about Akin while we waited for word of him. When PEN tried to get the piece published in the United States, no paper cared enough to carry it. Typical American media think: with so many thousands of writers imprisoned worldwide, why give space to just this one? But PEN's Larry Siems had the inspired idea to send the article to Akin's colleagues, and they did care to publish it. The Post Express in Lagos carried the piece and a copy was smuggled to Akin one morning when he thought he was going to be executed. Instead, a few days later, he was released. My article represented just one drop in the wave of pressure that PEN exerted on Akin's behalf, but it does help to illustrate the "power of the pen" when writers commit their words to a greater good. And Akin's imprisonment, for nothing more criminal than expressing his personal ideas and hopes for a free and democratic Nigeria, reflects the fear with which tyrannical regimes view the written word. Whichever way you look at him, Akin is a true literary hero.
SB: I'd like to talk more about the work PEN International does worldwide to defend freedom of expression. Obviously there is so much more than we can possibly cover in an interview question … but I think it's important to touch on this. PEN's Freedom to Write efforts have seen several victories this year—the releases of Merid Estifanos in Ethiopia and Le Chi Quang in Vietnam, for example. But the number of writers imprisoned around the world today is staggering. I'm wondering if you would like to take a moment to share any details of the conference you attended in Barcelona recently, a meeting of International PEN 's Writers in Prison Committee.
AL: International PEN has been doing important work lately tracking the effect of terrorism on freedom of expression. Around the world, countries on every continent have been using the war on terror as an excuse to lock up and often torture writers who challenge the party line. These countries typically label as terrorist anyone who reports on political suppression or dares to present a dissenting view. We might have expected as much in Cuba, China, Uzbekistan and Russia, but in Barcelona we heard from one of the most appalling cases—from SPAIN. Martxello Otamendi, editor of the Basque region's only Basque language newspaper was arrested after publishing a series of interviews with members of the separatist movement ETA, which the Spanish government considers a terrorist group. The situation was likened to the United States government arresting the editor of Time Magazine for publishing an interview with Osama Bin Laden. But that's not all. Otamendi and others from his paper were tortured in exactly the same ways as prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison—hooded, then forced to strip, perform humiliating sex acts, beaten, deprived of sleep. Other reports from countries such as Denmark and Australia indicated that governments are increasingly harassing writers for investigating events leading up to the invasion of Iraq. And the ability of writers to escape authoritarian regimes and go into exile has been severely curtailed by new secret detention camps, which countries such as Australia have created to isolate illegal immigrants, regardless of their refugee status. One of the planned speakers for the conference, a refugee journalist named Cheikh Kone from the Ivory Coast, could not appear because the Australian government refused to grant him an exit visa until he paid the cost of his own arrest and imprisonment at the detention camp in 2003. The International PEN website offers the full report on these many cases at www.internationalpen.org.
Akin Adesokan is the author of two novels, Sea of Forgetting and Roots in the Sky, both hailed for their aesthetic pleasure, intellectual curiosity and stunning prose. Adesokan began his career in the early 1990’s as a cultural critic and reviewer in Lagos. He risked his life and emerging literary career by telling the stories of friends and colleagues imprisoned by the regime of Nigerian General Sani Abacha. His editorial, “For the Friends I Miss,” provoked outrage worldwide as it recounted the fates of peers like Ken-Saro-Wiwa, who was executed; Dapo Olorunyomi, who hid underground to avoid arrest; and Kunle Ajibade, sentenced to life in prison for his association with an independent newspaper that criticized the Abacha government. In 1997, returning to Nigeria after completing fellowships in the United States and Austria, Adesokan was arrested and held in solitary confinement without formal charge or trial. An international campaign coordinated by PEN Center USA West, the Getty Center and Amnesty International helped to secure his release in 1998. Later that year, Aimee Liu presented Adesokan with PEN’s Freedom to Write Award. Currently, Adesokan is living in the United States, working on a third novel and completing a Ph.D. at Cornell University. He took time from his July visit to Nigeria to discuss his work with Other Voices via e-mail.
SB: Your first novel, Roots in the Sky, won the Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Fiction. Will you tell us about this novel, and how it came about?
AA: Roots in the Sky is about four young men and one woman separately striving for artistic fulfillment in Lagos in the early 1990s. It is written from the points of view of three of them, including the woman. I began working on this novel just as I took up a writing job on a weekly magazine with a radical, political bent. Within the first few months of operation, the publication, The News, was banned, and its offices shut. We promptly went underground and came out with a clandestine tabloid, Tempo. This was in 1993, during the final days of the dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babangida.
We would go away from home for days, writing and editing articles in one-room offices in downtown Lagos. We usually completed production on Friday afternoon. I lived in a very obscure part of Lagos. Nobody knew me. I went home straight on Friday, slept until about ten p.m. By midnight I was ready to work, whether or not there was electricity. I would write until about eight a.m., have my breakfast, and resume at about noon, stopping at seven p.m. for dinner. I would start again on Sunday morning, writing much of the day. By Monday afternoon, it was time to return to any of our hideouts.
I had begun the writing in late 1992; by June 1994, the first draft was ready. I read parts of it to a friend, Ebenezer Obadare, now a doctoral student at the London School of Economics. He had read my copy of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and because he’s a clown, he would intone, after listening to me: Akin Adesokan has written a novel, his first, and it has become a literary disaster! Of course he was subverting one of praises on the blurb of Eco’s book, “Umberto Eco has written a novel, his first, and it has become a literary event.”
But, in fact, there was a disaster. That June, I took the handwritten book to a typesetter at The Guardian, where I had my first job as a journalist. She was typing the work—I had no typewriter of my own—when the newspaper was closed down by the Abacha regime because it had published an unfavorable story. I couldn’t retrieve my work; I didn’t know where the woman lived. I simply started afresh, recomposing from memory and from scattered character sketches. This second phase lasted until November 1995. So, in all, I had two drafts in three years.
This time I wasn’t going to take a risk. I had a friend working for a French research institute at the University of Ibadan. She got some of her colleagues to do the typing for me. I went by one day to check progress on the work. Then she drew me aside and said, Look, this is worth trying out on the ANA (Association of Nigerian Authors) Prize for Fiction. Give it a thought. Until then I’d only fantasized about serializing it in a newspaper. I took her advice, entered the manuscript, and it won.
SB: You accepted the prize for your novel in honor of your friend, Kunle Ajibade, who had been sentenced to life in prison for his association with an independent newspaper that criticized Nigeria’s military government.
AA: Yes. Ajibade was jailed for life in one of the most ridiculous military trials in Nigeria—fortunately, he has published his account. I felt very frustrated by the incident, and I plotted different ways of making my feelings known, different ways of drawing attention to this injustice, which of course was widely known. What I mean is, I felt it personally, and I was determined to write polemical but deeply felt articles about it. So when my novel won the prize, I decided that this was another good occasion. I even called for his release, although I wasn’t too sure that the junta would listen.
SB: Your article, “For the Friends I Miss,” recounted the fates of Ajibade and other friends who had become victims of General Sani Abacha’s regime. Was it around this time that you left Nigeria?
AA: No. In fact, that article was before the award. I published it as an Op-Ed piece in The Guardian, which had reopened in late 1995. The article came out, I think, in June 1996. My book won the ANA prize in November. But during those years, I was so angry and frustrated that I would use any chance to speak publicly against the outrageous conduct of the soldiers. Many people considered it foolhardy, but I couldn’t help it. Someone who read the article when it just came out said to me, Look, this is like telling them, ‘I’m here, come take me.’ He thought I was exposing myself. But Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues had been murdered, Wole Soyinka was in exile, several journalists, politicians and human rights activists were withering in jail, or they were on the run. I had to write those things. I left Nigeria in January 1997.
SB: You received the first Writer-in-Exile fellowship from Villa Aurora—a retreat funded by the German government and located in the United States. Would you like to say something about your time at Villa Aurora?
AA: Yes, the fellowship brought me to Los Angeles in January 1997. It was initiated by the literary executors of the late German writer, Leon Feuchtwanger, who had settled in Los Angeles after fleeing Nazi Germany. The idea was that a writer with a history of political persecution was able to find time away from work and political trouble to concentrate on writing. I wasn’t staying at the Villa. My fellowship had been facilitated in collaboration with PEN and the Getty Research Institute. So I was staying at the Getty apartments in Brentwood. But I often visited the Villa, which hosted writers from Germany on regular fellowships. I became friends with some of the writers, and still correspond with them. I was there through August that year. The fellowship was a significant help; it exposed me to many people. The director of the Villa at the time, Dagmar Spira, remains a good friend. I have to admit that I was squeamish about the exile bit, though. I’ve always felt that exile as a notion of political predicament was limited, unduly essentialized. It is a necessary choice in some cases, but people don’t often consider that there’s another side to it. When I had a chance during a panel on émigré writing in Los Angeles—this was where Aimee Liu and I met—I stuck to my gun. I argued for what I believed to be the logic of exile. Return. The irony was that, after my arrest back in Nigeria, the secret service people were saying that I wanted to go into exile. I told them that if I wanted to become an exile, I wouldn’t be in their trap.
SB: If I understand correctly, after completing fellowships in the United States and Austria, attempting to return to Nigeria, you were arrested at the Benin Republic border and turned over to the State Security Service in Lagos. I’m wondering if you have written about the time you spent under arrest in Lagos. It seems a nearly impossible challenge—to revisit and write about such a time. Yet, as a writer, it may very well be impossible not to.
AA: I was detained without trial or charge for two months during 1997/98. I started taking notes once I was released, but it was quite overwhelming. The first five months after my release were the most fearsome period I’ve personally experienced in Nigeria. There was terror everywhere, and you didn’t know whom to trust. I developed the dangerous habit of studying the plate numbers of vehicles that drove past me. I never left notes for people, and ripped any notes that came to me. Although such instincts could be useful in certain circumstances, they are mind destroying in the long run. It was the kind of haunting atmosphere that writers from Stalinist Europe have described so memorably. But I kept writing my notes, and soon it began to make sense. Some of the experience has, I think, begun to seep into my fiction in very complex ways.
SB: And the Op-Ed piece that Aimee Liu wrote on your behalf reached you in prison, just days before your release.
AA: Yes. On Monday, December 21st, Nigerians woke to news of a botched coup d’etat. Abacha’s deputy was the alleged mastermind of this failed attempt. I was being detained with six others, including my friend, the poet Ogaga Ifowodo, with whom I had been arrested. The moment the news broke, the guards became very secretive. No one would talk to us. They locked us up in our separate cells. It was scary because when Ajibade was arrested, some people had been in detention months before a failed coup for which they were later tried and jailed. I feared a similar fate. But late that night, the guards brought us out for dinner. One of them had smuggled in some newspapers. While I was eating, someone said, Hey, here is an article about Akin. You can imagine how I felt. I had been in detention for seven weeks, and I wasn’t sure that anybody knew where I was. I had telephoned my family from Accra that I would be in Lagos on November 6th. This was December 21st; I was home, but not at home. Reading Aimee’s beautiful essay that night was reassuring. For much of the day, I had imagined all sorts of ugly scenarios, including being shot as a coup-plotter. Nothing was beyond Abacha. But that night, I was soaring. It was from reading the piece that I became fully aware of the work that PEN, Amnesty International, and my friends and colleagues at the Getty and in Germany had been doing to get us out. It was a great feeling.
SB: Ajibade recently spoke at a PEN International’s WiPC (Writers in Prison Committee) conference in Barcelona, saying that these are dark days around the world for the freedom of expression, yet the role of the writer is more important than ever. I understand that you and Ajibade are both active in PEN International’s efforts, and that there’s a PEN Center in Nigeria.
AA: Living in the United States now, I’m not as involved in Nigeria-PEN as I would love to be. I’m a member of the chapter’s WiPC. The coordinator of Nigeria-PEN, Remi Raji, is a close friend, very energetic, and I follow what they do. Sometime ago, when PEN American Center wanted to help generate awareness in the United States about the fate of the Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel, whom some religious extremists had cited for a fatwa, I mediated between the Freedom to Write Committee of PEN American Center and the PEN Nigerian Center. Generally, PEN has done incredible job in the world, and it would be hard to imagine the state of writing today without this idealistic institution. PEN stands as the cosmopolitan agent of private struggles against power, brutal or subtle. To get a sense of what I’m trying to say, think of what PEN meant to writers as different but ultimately compatible as Vaclav Havel and Pablo Neruda, and what they have come to mean to the business of letters in our time. What other institution has represented this kind of diversity in literature? Great gratitude is due to those individuals who dreamt up this idea, and to everyone who has helped in sustaining it. I must add that, again as with my anxiety about exile, street-level instinct always helps. For example, how does PEN check the sharp practices of those who see political persecution in Africa or the Middle East as opportunistic career moves? People who distort personal history in order to exploit the compassion of organizations like PEN? It has to be possible to act on global abuses of freedom of expression without promoting liberal guilt or Third World victimhood. I’m convinced that this is an ethical challenge that we should address.SB: You serve as an editor for Glendora Review. I think this publication may interest our readers, so I’m hoping you might describe it here.
AA: Glendora Review—we call it GR—is a Lagos-based journal of arts and letters, with a special focus on what you could term the African world, whatever it happens to mean. GR publishes critical and journalistic writings on all aspects of culture and social ideas, one or two short stories, poems, etc. It was established in 1994 by Kunle Tejuosho, a man whose role in contemporary Nigerian intelligentsia is difficult to describe. He’s one of those people who don’t draw attention to their persons, but prefer to work quietly and unswervingly. He takes the title of editorial director. I’m one of two editors—my colleague, Sola Olorunyomi, is a teacher at Ibadan University. I was an early contributor, and was invited to co-edit in 2000, just as I was preparing to go to Cornell. We’ve published the writings of Diran Adebayo, the Black British novelist, Helon Habila, Sefi Atta, Greg Tate and many others. Back issues are now being archived on the web.
SB: What is the state of fiction and poetry in present-day Nigeria?
AA: Tricky as ever. The degree of ambition and resourcefulness of Nigerian writers is stunning, given that there’s no support from public agencies, and that the readership hasn’t quite emerged. Two things have helped to keep the hope alive: the occasional success of Nigerian or other African writers outside of the continent, and the inventiveness that becomes second-nature when you operate at the crossroads of global capitalism. For instance, when Soyinka won the Nobel in 1986, and Ben Okri the Booker five years later, hundreds of young people, myself included, realized that it was possible, if difficult, to pursue literary careers. We’d always known that it was possible to find readers for stories that sound different from The Great Gatsby or Sense and Sensibility. The reception of writers like Yvonne Vera, Zakes Mda, Chimamanda Adichie, or Chris Abani outside of Africa, works indirectly on the ambition of those still writing anonymously in Freetown or Lusaka. This is important. As for the inventiveness, there’s the practice of vanity publishing or chapbooks, and institutions growing out of personal wallets. Since 1999, a group called Committee for Relevant Art, CORA, has organized an annual independent book fair in Lagos. In 2005, they’re planning to bring in writers from South Africa. The other day, I was talking to a friend in San Francisco, who was saying that it was easy to view African writers uniformly—just as Indian writers are often viewed in London or New York. The thing with Nigerians is that they would rather become the equivalent of the writers from India, even if the literary institutions in Lagos are not as strong as those in Harare or Johannesburg.
SB: Finally, will you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
AA: My current work is a novel about a journalist and an American student during an epidemic in Lagos, and an excerpt from it appears in this issue.