Noo Saro-Wiwa, in between Nigeria’s extremes

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En avril prochain, la première œuvre de l’écrivaine britannique Noo Saro-Wiwa sera traduite en français aux éditions Hoëbeke, dirigée par Michel Le Bris. Le fondateur du festival Les Étonnants voyageurs avait d’ailleurs invité l’auteure, fille de Ken Saro-Wiwa, lors de l’édition de Brazzaville. Noo Saro-Wiwa revient sur son rapport au Nigéria, pays de son père.

Truth. Sincerity. Talking with Nigerian travel writer Noo Saro-Wiwa about her work, these two words are likely to pop up at one point in the conversation. For the young woman is doubtfulabout the accounts of Africa too often brought up by her Western peers, be them romanticised – the egg-yolk sun, acacia trees, infinite landscapes… – or more catastrophic. « When it comes to perception about Africa, it is all about being real » she says. « Reality always involves some positive and negative. » Reading Saro-Wiwa’s first published work Looking for Transwonderland, a travel book across Nigeria with hints of a memoir, one gets indeed a sense of genuine candour.
The author shows irreverence when she evokes on a witty tone the lethal motorbike journeys in traffic-stuck Lagos, the deserted, motionless amusement park from the title or, on a more serious level, the pervasive corruption that has become her country’s hallmark. She gains depth when she movingly recalls the memory of her late father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the famous Ogoni activist hanged by the military dictatorship in 1995 for his struggle against environmental damage in the Niger delta. Yet, Looking for Transwonderland also gushes on almost every page with amusement and affection for a country overloaded with stimulating energy.
From this paradoxical approach emerges a balanced image of Nigeria, an astute, non-judgemental portrait firmly in touch with the complexity of today’s Africa.
A tense relationship
Geographical identity, the sense of belonging to a certain place, has always been an issue for Noo Saro-Wiwa. Born in Nigeria, she left to England in 1978, barely aged one. There she spent most of her childhood, « in the place I called home: leafy Surrey, a bountiful paradise of Twix bars and TV cartoons ». She would only rediscover her distant and growingly alienated country during the dreaded two-month school breaks. « As a teenager, I virtually had to be escorted by the ankles onto Nigeria Airways flight at the start of the summer holidays (…). Having to spend those two months in my unglamorous, godforsaken motherland with its penchant for noise and disorder felt like a punishment. »
The estrangement grew wider after her father’s death of course. Shocked behind words by this judicial murder, Noo Saro-Wiwa wanted nothing to do with her birth country. « Though safe to travel, I was not obliged by my mother to go there any more, nor did I have the desire » she writes. « Nigeria was an unpiloted juggernaut of pain, and it became the repository for all my fears and disappointments; a place where nightmares did come true. As a word and as a brand, it connoted negativity. » She did not set foot in the country for more than a decade, making exceptions only for her father’s official funeral, and years later for his real funeral.
In the meantime, her longing to become « a travel writer » sharpened. Noo started to tour Africa, writing for the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet. She travelled extensively in countries around Nigeria and ended up knowing them better than her own. « This situation was weird », to her own admission.
Renewed affinities
Despite having serious reasons to be defiant about her birth country, Noo Saro-Wiwa quickly dispels any doubt when asked about her actual allegiance. « I identify myself as a Nigerian » she affirms today. « To me, my fundamental identity is from Nigeria. » A statement further emboldened by her pervasive usage of the personal pronoun throughout her book – « Nigerians like to shout at the tops of our voices, whether we’re telling a joke (…) or rocking a baby to sleep », as to associate herself more closely to what she depicts.
This blurring of borders between the narrator and her subject is uncommon in travel writing. Some critics reproached a biased approach to Saro-Wiwa, arguing that she failed to understand what she really was: a foreigner who happens to have been born to Nigerian parents. Yet the author does not avoid the question of distance when asked about it. « Because I grew up in the UK, I am a sort of outsider in Nigeria. I think that helps » she explains. « If I had not been an outsider, it would not even have occurred to me to travel around the country – most Nigerians don’t. Having that distance, I could observe things and ask more questions. »
Furthermore, Noo Saro-Wiwa writes among her best pages when trying to come at terms with her feeling of dissociation. Back to Bane, her father’s village, she pays a visit to the women of the family. There, in the half light of a dining room, the writer gets a sudden sense of how things have turned. « They were physically elegant women, yet hardy and blessed with practical skills like cooking, house-building and farming. My proficiencies were confined to my fingertips: tapping keyboards and flicking switches: cerebral know-how that contributed nothing to the workings of everyday village life. »
Writing Looking for Transwonderland has had unhoped-for effects on Noo Saro-Wiwa. She could finally come to terms with Nigeria, an impossible yet exhilarating country, and reconsider her father’s gruesome murder in a new light. In the process, she helps her reader to shape a new understanding of what really is modern-day Africa: a place more open than ever to global influences where traditional references shifts and new identities, like hers, are being reinvented. The sincerity she displays along the process makes of her book a genuine piece of literature.

Noo Saro-Wiwa: Looking for Transwonderland, Granta books, 2012 (UK);
Tranwonderland, retour au Nigeria, Éditions Hoëbeke, 2013 (France)
///Article N° : 11340

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