Geosi Gyasi: You lived most of your childhood in the United Kingdom. Do you consider Nigeria home?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: In a fundamental sense, yes. Nigeria is where I was born, it’s where I’m from, and it’s where my ancestors are from. But I’ve always lived in the UK, so in a practical sense that’s where my home is.
Geosi Gyasi: How would you describe your childhood? Did you have a privileged upbringing?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: Yes and no. My childhood was comfortable and modest by UK standards. I didn’t have lots of toys and clothes or pocket money. My parents sacrificed a lot to give us a good education. But good schooling puts you at a huge advantage, so in that respect I would say I’m very privileged.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you consider your family name a burden in public life?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: Generally no, but it can be a burden at times. People have expectations of you – some of them unrealistic – and you have to live with that. But you can choose to ignore it all and just be your own person. At the end of the day an expectation is not a command.
Geosi Gyasi: Your debut book, “Looking for Transwonderland” is non-fiction. What influenced this genre?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: I’ve always loved non-fiction books. I prefer them to novels because I get a buzz out of learning and debating ideas while reading. However, I also love storytelling prose, so travel writing is a perfect way of combining that creativity with my love of non-fiction.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you get published? Is it difficult for women to get published?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: I first wrote a book about my travels around South Africa, back in 2005. I found an agent (after seven agents turned me down). She wanted me to write about Nigeria first. I had wanted Transwonderland to be my second book, but my agent persuaded me to postpone the South Africa one and work on Transwonderland instead. So I wrote a proposal for it, and the publishers Granta eventually made an offer for both books.
Getting published is not the easiest thing, but you stand a fair chance if you’re a good writer, you have an original idea, and you target agents and publishers who might be receptive to your type of writing. Thanks to novelists like Chimamanda Adichie and Helon Habila Western publishers are more open to African literature (and female writers) than ever before.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you decide you were going to be a writer?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: I was 24 years old, attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Within the first week of semester I knew I didn’t want to be a hard news reporter. Then, after reading Joan Didion’s Miami and Ryszard Kapuczinski’s In the Shadow of the Sun, I realized my passion lay in literary travel. It was a beautiful epiphany, bringing together the things I love: prose, travel, history, economics and culture, etc.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you obsessed with travelling?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: Yes. As a child I used to stare at maps all the time. I still do. The concept of air travel is incredible – that you can wake up in the morning in one country and go to bed that evening 5,000km away. When in foreign places I learn so much about myself and human nature. I’m also aware that we’re living in an extremely privileged time in history – the world is relatively peaceful, and if you earn a First World wage you can visit several countries without being a millionaire (I once flew to Austria for $40). I doubt humans will be able to travel so freely in the future, especially if oil becomes more expensive or the current capitalism model goes bust. So I want to make the most of the opportunity now.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your plans for the future? Would you consider venturing into other genres of literature?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: Yes, I have recently felt a desire to dabble in fiction. Writing about real-life events can be restrictive, so the thought of making things up is quite appealing (although so much freedom can also be daunting). I’ll have a go at penning a novel at some point. Non-fiction will always be my priority, however. I want to write more travel books.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any special thing you admire about your own writing?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: Nothing sticks out for me personally, but quite a few readers have told me I have a sharp eye for detail.
Geosi Gyasi: Your father was a brave human rights activist who was painfully executed for speaking his mind. Could you comment on this statement?
Noo Saro-Wiwa: My father’s bravery never ceases to amaze me. He took on one of the biggest multinationals in the world and Nigeria’s most oppressive military dictator. He knew the risks, but it was important for him because the Niger Delta is an issue that goes right to the heart of everything that’s wrong with the world: exploitation, corruption and destruction of the environment.