Segun Afolabi Interview*

Could you tell me about your book?
It’s called a “Life Elsewhere” and it’s a collection of stories about immigrants, people in different stages of their lives, old people, young people, children middle aged people in marriages going through crisis, people trying to discover their identity and their idea of home.

How long have you been writing?
Over 10 years which is a long time, I’ve never been a full-time writer. I’ve always worked full-time but have eked out hours in the morning before going to work. I’ve always treated writing as a hobby to be honest until fairly recently.

I was at the event earlier it seemed that winning the Caine Prize was a breakthrough for you as a writer?
It wasn’t a break through. I had already gone through the process of getting an agent and a publisher. Going through a process of rejections and then I got a two book deal with a novel coming out next year the Caine prize happened a year after that. People think I got a book deal because of the Caine prize but not the case at all. It was wonderful to win the prize getting the exposure, being able to associate more with African writers and African writing. Because I’d always considered myself to be a writer, I’d never really thought about it. I’d just based my stories and novels on my experiences not that I am writing about my life but I am writing about people who have been born in one place and live in another place. Or have moved around a lot and the different experiences they have been through the difficulties and joys of their lives.

Could you tell me a little bit about your background, have you always wanted to be a writer?
No, I wanted to be a pilot when I was younger, then latter and architect I was terrible at maths and drawing so all the things I really wanted to do I didn’t have the skills for. So later on during my first year at university where I studied economics and management, I discovered the library and literature and the works of people like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and John Steinbeck. That was the first time I had taken writing seriously beforehand it had been Steven king not light books because they were very well written. But books that just meant something about being black about living in the world and going through the difficulties that people of various nationalities go through, so yes that was the start for me.

So, these authors inspired you to write?
They inspired me to read properly because beforehand reading had been a past time reading for pleasure like reading comics in away. When I discovered people like, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and later on people like Caryl Phillips who through his writing would have to go through a process of discovery himself because at the time there were so few role models. Reading books like the European Tribe really brought home to me how difficult it must have been then to be black and want to be a writer but not have role models to base your writing on. His whole experience has been invaluable to me.

When you were younger did you read any books by black authors?
Yes, at school growing up in Lagos, we read books by Achebe and people like that but it was very international because I went to an international school. So we were reading not only African literature but literature from around the world, Charlotte Bronte and people like that, so it wasn’t African focused.

What I find interesting that when I was a teenager there didn’t seem to be that many black authors that were producing a range of stories that I could Identify/ empathise with as a British-Nigeria. It’s really nice now to see a lot more African writers emerging writing about a wide range of subjects including modern day Africa.
Yes, it’s so encouraging to see people like Diana Evans, David Okende, Chimamanda Adichie and Helon Habila, so many people are writing now especially Nigerians, which is fantastic.  Going to the Cape Town book festival this year it was very South Africa focused but at the same time there were writers who had moved from the rest of Africa to South Africa to emigrate and that was a whole new experience for me. They were treated as outsiders, they were writing about their experiences as outsiders in South Africa. That completely blew my head because I’d assumed, always read about Africans or people from countries in the West having these issues to deal with but it was very interesting to read about an African within Africa going through these problems instead. So many people telling their stories it’s wonderful.

Related links/more information:
http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/authors/segun-afolabi
*Interview conducted during the 2006 Edinburgh International Book Festival, (1/5).

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