A Stranger at Home: An Essay on Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland
Saro-Wiwa captures this divide in her narrative. For each of the places she visits, she’s had a prior experience as a child—under the guidance of her parents—but as she returns to those same places as an adult, she isn’t able to break the veil, her accent stands her apart and makes navigating some of these terrains difficult. So in the instances where the narrative might have perpetuated nostalgia, what it does instead is induce wanderlust.
In the first chapter of the book, the author drifts in and out of conversations with random people as she describes her visit to the city of Lagos. She does this with the same simplicity with which the vehicles that carried her passed the baton, from one place to the next. In this manner one is even tempted to see beyond human interactions alone, into the nonliving aspects of the city. There is a treatment of Lagos that reminds me of Aleksandar Hermon’s opinion of how cities offer spaces for uncontrollable exchanges. After all, cities are not just about humans, dogs, cats and trees and everything that lives on air and sound but also about the looming skyscrapers, the lone trees in the park, the giant stadiums and the maze of roads that connects places together, the slums and shacks in between, the banners and billboards and the messages they carry, the ones that permeate its inhabitants’ consciousness. These were the exchanges Hermon spoke of, and Saro-Wiwa’s work embodies them in full.
As someone who loves travel literature, the writers who interest me have a wide-eyed amazement of how the world works, especially how cities function and this usually informs their worldview and how they confront societal issues about the places they write about. You can gage what a place feels like from the stories told about that place, oral or written. Because of this, whenever I want to read about certain places, I gravitate towards writers who inhabit the places they write about, turning these places and these cities to characters with their own aspirations and regrets.
My first encounter with a travel narrative with such attribute was through Wole Soyinka’s memoir Ake, The Years of Childhood. In Ake, Soyinka sculpted a city I was familiar with and gave it an identity that almost seemed alien. His evocation was both an assault and a delight to the senses especially since he employed the curiosity mind of a young boy to execute it. It was through this book that I identified what I wanted to do with my writing, to represent myself and the places my body has been in the loudest manner possible.
As Taiye Selaisi once wrote, “To be a writer is to depart from the body, to drift away from it and move within so many bodies that one could so easily forget one’s own.” In this I count myself lucky for the books that have graced my shelf over the years, from fiction to nonfiction and even the ones that blur the line between the two. I worry about what it means to belong to a place, about knowing my place in a society as I yearn for acceptance where they wouldn’t have me. So I find myself always seeking acceptance in the most random situations, and this makes me question the privileges of those who are able to belong to two different locations at the same time. As a writer who writes about Nigeria, I have never been able to own a piece of the country, I have departed from the country in my mind, seeking greener pastures elsewhere, but my body remains. I assume this is what Saro-Wiwa is referring to in her prologue as she ushers us into her complicated relationship with Nigeria. “My father’s murder severed all personal links to Nigeria,” she says, and it got me to question myself, how might my relationship with Nigeria have been if by some reason I were in her shoes.
This is a hard point to reconcile. I am often defensive about opinion pieces or travelogues from foreigners about Nigeria. My defensiveness is borne out of what I deem the authors’ myopic stereotypes of poverty and corruption. But how then does one contemplate the opinion of a Nigerian writer like Saro-Wiwa who lives abroad and whose realities are as contrasting as those I tend to criticize? Whose history has been colored with a tragedy inflicted on her by a place she once saw as home, even if she never accepted it? Before I started reading the book, I worried that this tragedy might affect how she would represent Nigeria and so I approached the book with a caution and a care of sorts.
Noo (pronounced Gnaw) Saro-Wiwa grew up in England but was dragged back to Nigeria every summer, a country she viewed as an annoying parallel universe where it seemed as though everything was coming together to frustrate her, from the polluted air to the unavailability of the most basic public service like electricity and pipe-borne water. She endured this hate-love relationship with the country till her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a human rights activist, was murdered on 21st May 1994. She was in the UK at the time. His murder would set her on a course of avoidance and she would not return to the country for another ten years. In the book she narrates her rediscovering and coming to terms with the country her father had loved even up to his death. What she found out from her accidental forays into places once upon a time glorified—and from places insulated from the typical everyday nuances of what it means to be Nigerian, including the suburbs of Abuja and Lagos where the super rich and the political class lived— was that Nigeria was far more complicated, beautiful and varied than she could have imagined.
The narrative thrives on the combination of history, pop culture and memoir. This is one of the book’s highpoints. The writer engages with her surroundings, she doesn’t isolate her writer-self from the narrative, instead she plants her personality and her history within the context of the ideas and the places she visits. The narrative is presented chiefly through her worldview, fraught with complaints and observations of how things could be better. The book conveys the diverse disposition of a country where the single story of corruption permeates the air like a bad odor. Where organizations created to investigate and tackle cases of corruption were hijacked by power hungry politicians to take down rivals thereby ensuring that nothing gets done and everything remains as it used to be. I especially enjoyed how the author sought out the historical sites in each of the places she visited, like the National Museum in Lagos and the restored shrine in Osogbo, reflecting the heartbreaking nuance of neglect and disregard—a very Nigerian thing. Geographical diversity was well rendered, and for those who haven’t been to the places the author writes about, one imagines that the writing provides them with a richly layered sense of place.
In contrast with most travelogues about places written by African writers, from Teju Cole’s hybrid Every Day Is for the Thief, chiefly centered in Lagos, to Binyavanga Wainana’s fascinating memoir One Day I Will Write about this Place, Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland departs from the idea of educating an uneducated or untrained Western reader. It doesn’t settle on the critique of the apparent failures of neo-colonialist structures, but instead focuses on what the writer sets out to do with it: tell a story about a place both beautiful and frightening. I believe that the author’s goal was to convey her truth in the simplest manner possible. Her prose is so clear and precise, it makes the journey vivid and relatable. Her narrative style is factual and linear and her journalistic language conveys clarity, making the ordinary interesting.
Juxtaposing the time the book was written and now, nothing has changed in Nigeria. Although the political leadership was swapped from the People’s Democratic Party to the All Progressive Congress in 2015, change in terms of progress has been nonexistent and if anything at all, the disrepair and disregard that Saro Wiwa wrote about are even now much more obvious. The economy is on the brink of a total collapse and there is a feel of the kind of dictatorship that existed around the years when Ken Saro Wiwa was murdered creeping back in. So in the midst of all this, one wonders about the role of the writer. What kinds of truths are we allowed to tell and how protected are we when we tell these truths?
I am beginning to realise, literature is politics and it is a joy to find that the writers who are writing about Nigeria now are interested in both and are fearless in the undertaking. I look forward to reading more books of travel about Nigeria in the manner of Looking for Transwonderland.