Kaine Agary grew up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. She has lived in the United States of America and now lives in Lagos, Nigeria, where she is the Editor of TAKAii magazine.
Geosi Reads interviews Kaine Agary:
GEOSI READS: ‘Yellow-Yellow’ is your first work of fiction. Tell us about the process of writing it?
KAINE AGARY: Yellow-Yellow was my response to the frustration I felt from meeting many Nigerians who were ignorant of the issues in the Niger-Delta and why there was so much agitation in the late 1990s. What most people, even Nigerians, knew was based on media propaganda, which highlighted the youth violence and portrayed everyone talking about the Niger-Delta as militants or rabble rousers. I had been doing a lot of research writing on women in Nigeria, particularly in the Niger Delta, for academic institutions and development organizations. I never considered myself a creative writer so my goal, initially, was to write a short story that would depict some aspect of the Niger-Delta but do so with a universal story that was non-confrontational. I wrote the short story and satisfied myself that I could write fiction, and that is as far as my ambition went. I sent the story to a couple of friends and family with whom I had been sharing my other writings (creative non-fiction) and they insisted that there was a longer story to be told. After resisting the pressure to expand the story for over a year, I finally got the inspiration for the novel, quite unexpectedly, on a trip to visit a friend on Bonny Island in Nigeria; it would be my first time on the Island. At the waterside in Port Harcourt, waiting to get a boat to the Island, I saw a young man, hustling like every other young man at the waterside, but he was different. He was mixed Asian. I had never seen that mix in Port Harcourt before, and certainly not at a waterside. The story became clearer when I got to Bonny and saw the number of Asians working as part of the Joint Venture with the Nigeria LNG in Bonny. Other things I witnessed in Bonny also contributed to the story.
GR: How did you conceive the thought of the book? Did you know the beginning of the story and how it was to end?
KA: When I started, I had no real direction. The only thing I was certain about was that I wanted to tell the Niger-Delta story with a female voice, from the female perspective. At the time, most of the voices coming out of the Niger-Delta were male voices and expectedly, the women’s issues were rarely in contemplation. As I said earlier, my goal was just to write a short story and what I wrote is the second chapter (I think) in the novel. In my mind, while I agreed that there was a story beyond my short story, I didn’t think it was mine to tell. I wasn’t a fiction writer. I was/am a policy analyst, a research writer, a numbers/planning person. But what I realize now is that, for my creative writing, I draw on my skills as a policy analyst and research writer. After my experience in Bonny, then I had a story. The issue of children being fathered by expatriates who they would never know or meet with was always there from the beginning, and that was important for me because it is a reality of the Niger Delta that we rarely speak about. My concern is, 18 to 20 years from now, how will this generation of children relate with and be received by society. Like I say in the novel, there are many children in the same predicament as the interracial children, the difference is that the interracial child wears their ‘shame’ in their skin colour, hair texture, etc and so, from a distance, assumptions and judgments are being made about this child/person. It’s a deeper subject and this one novel can’t do it justice but I thought it was important to at least start the discussion.
GR: On completing the book, how did you feel? Where you satisfied with what you had written?
KA: I felt satisfied that I had finished writing the book and then I thought to myself, that’s nice, now on to my real life. After I finished I was just happy that I finished writing a story and did not care to have it published. I would have been very satisfied at that time to have only my family and friends read the story.
GR: Let me quote a sentence from the acknowledgement page of the book. I quote, ‘I owe this effort to Ken Saro-Wiwa whose book A Month and a day: A Detention Diary inspired me to write fiction.’ What is it about Ken Saro-Wiwa’s book that gave you the inspiration to write?
KA: In that book, Ken Saro-Wiwa talks about discovering his talent to write and deciding to use it as a voice for his people. I could put things in perspective after that. Instead of sitting and fuming over the fact that there were still so many Nigerians who had the wrong perception of the situation in the Niger Delta, I could try to reach some of them through fiction. Most of the things I had written were for academic institutions and other organizations that made them not accessible to the general public. I thought, the same way that you have documentaries and feature films dealing with the same issues, with the Hollywood feature films having more mass appeal, the same thing could be done with literature, and I had experienced it. One of my favourite writers is Edwidge Danticat, and you cannot read a Danticat novel and not encounter the history, politics or culture of Haiti. So I wrote that short story, Yellow-Yellow, which eventually became the novel by the same title.
GR: You make several references to Ken Saro-Wiwa as the story unfolds. Who is Ken Saro-Wiwa? Can you introduce him to us?
KA: Ken Saro-Wiwa was an Ogoni writer, businessman, and activist who was killed by the General Abacha Regime in 1995. Saro-Wiwa brought global attention to the environmental destruction resulting from the exploration and exploitation of oil by Shell in the Niger Delta in general and Ogoni land, particularly. He was jailed several times by the Regime and in defiance, he continued to challenge the Regime and Shell, blocking their operations in Ogoni land, and instilling in his people a sense of pride and entitlement to enjoy their environment free of the environmental, social and cultural destruction that came with oil. He articulated the ‘struggle’ in the Ogoni Declaration. He was finally charged, along with some other Ogoni elders, with inciting the killing of some chiefs and elders in Ogoni land. They were found guilty and killed in the most gruesome way, as the world rallied to secure his release. They were reportedly hanged, dumped in a hole in the earth and acid poured over their bodies to disintegrate them. Ken Saro-Wiwa was a man of small stature, and for all his faults as a man, you had to admire him for his courage and defiance up till death. His message lives on; he elevated the image of his people (the Ogonis are a minority ethnic group even in the Niger Delta) and when the history of Nigeria is told, for years to come, his name will/should be in it.
GR: I presuppose that Ken Saro-Wiwa’s A Month and a day: A Detention Diary should be one of (if not the sole) favourite book you’ve ever enjoyed? Otherwise, which book(s) would you put as your favourite?
KA: It is not, actually. It inspired me to write fiction and for that I will always remember it. It also gave me a better understanding of the man and why he did some of the things that he did. Up until that point, I just knew him as the family friend who could drive everyone crazy with his obstinacy. I don’t have one favourite book. I have enjoyed books such as ‘In the Castle of My Skin’ by George Lamming, ‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Samuel Selvon, ‘The Famished Road’ and ‘Songs of Enchantment’ by Ben Okri, ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver. I also tend to be a follower of some authors so that I try to read anything they write; people like Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Helen Oyeyemi, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende, Oonya Kempadoo. If you ask me tomorrow, some other books will probably come to mind.
GR: You won one of Nigeria’s highest literary awards – thus – the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature in the year 2008. Were you surprised for winning this special award?
KA: I was. I went in happy that it had even been shortlisted. I had no expectations, really. But I am happy that I got the award.
GR: Your book also won the 2007 ANA/Chevron Prize for Environmental Writing. Tell me, did you win this award because your book speaks about environmental issues? Or, to what extent does your book talk about environmental issues?
KA: I am not quite sure what the criteria for that category of the ANA prize are. I don’t remember. My book talks about environmental issues to the extent that it impacts the daily existence of people in a community/society/etc, so I guess it qualified on some level.
GR: You are also the editor of TAKAii magazine. How much of your editorial work influence your writings? In other words, what are some of the similarities and differences between editorial work and book writing?
KA: My work in Dtalkshop (which publishes TAKAii) is what I do full-time and has very little parallels with my creative writing life. Of course TAKAii involves writing and editing but Dtalkshop is about law and all things legal. Dtalkshop is a social enterprise that aims to increase legal literacy and awareness in Nigeria. We believe that the law defines all of our interactions in society, therefore it is important that everyone is reasonably aware of these laws, their rights and responsibilities especially given the postulate that says: Ignorance of the law is no excuse.
GR: In your book, you draw sharp differences between living in the village and living in the city. In fact, we follow Zilayefa as she moves from the village to the city in Nigeria. What, in your view, prompts the mere villager to move into the city? Is it the case of better living and opportunities in the city?
KA: Most people seek a better life and for some people it means moving to the city, others are content and happy in the small cities. Some people move to escape and gain some level of anonymity and independence in the big city. If you had tracked me down days after I received my degree in sociology over 15 years ago, maybe I could have given you a more profound response.
GR: You write interesting narrative about the Niger Delta issues in Nigeria. A whole number of literatures on similar issues about the Niger Delta case has come out of Nigeria. What is it about the Nigeria Delta region that needs to be addressed? Are things that worse? Do you think the oil in that region has been a curse to all Nigerians?
KA: The Niger Delta issue is just as complicated as all other blessed regions in Africa. The issue is justice, or, in this case, injustice. When a people feel raped, pillaged and marginalised, there are bound to be problems. Nobody, not even a two-year old child, wants to feel cheated.
GR: You have interesting historical narrative that runs through your book. For instance, you talk about the Ijaw people among others. To what extent is your novel dependent on research work? How much of research went into the writing of the book?
KA: A lot. I earned a living from research writing before and while I wrote Yellow-Yellow.
GR: Your story also transcends beyond the issues of the Niger Delta issues in that you have a rich narrative about issues on racial marriages, love and relationships. For instance, we noticed that Zilayefa’s mother married a Greek man who later ran away. In real life, did this often occur in Nigeria where Greeks, Lebanese and Syrian businessmen and sailors married Nigerians and later run away to their home countries?
KA: Hmmm. I don’t know if I would put it quite that way, but it did/does happen in the coastal areas because of the mode of access for trade (the ships). I think it is a trend you find along coastal regions, not only in Nigeria. They are heavily influenced by the people they come in contact with and that contact is sometimes intimate, even if brief.
GR: Is it appropriate to say that Zilayefa wanted to confide in his lover, Retired Admiral Alaowei Amalayefa so as to make up for the void created for not knowing her father?
KA: I’ll leave that up to the readers to decide or interpret.
GR: What is on your writing table at the moment? Any book(s) in the pipeline?
KA: Working on my second novel, but studying for a law degree and running a business keep that project at the bottom of the pile. In the meantime the story continues to brew in my head.
GR: Where can readers get copies of your book to buy?
KA: Silverbird Media Store, Accra Mall.
See my review of her book, Yellow-Yellow.