KEN Bornale Wiwa sits behind his glass topped, forged hand-cast, antique iron table, tapping away on the laptop in front of him, in a pose reminiscent of his late father, Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa, in another age, behind a different table, tapping away at another kind of typewriter.
And just like his father, Ken Saro-Wiwa used to do, Ken Bornale Wiwa also has a deadline to meet. As a columnist in one of the world’s most respected newspapers, he knows he has his work cut out for him.
What is missing from the past and present slides, are the glasses, often seen dangling down the older Saro-Wiwa’s neck to his chest, held by a string (Ken Wiwa appears to have corrected his eyes, so he does not use glasses), and the Pipe with the curved stem, kept just within arms length, accompanied by a box of matches and the perfumed tobacco container. The attire is also different, for while Ken Saro-Wiwa would favour the traditional “jumper” caftan, Ken Wiwa has a more avant-garde outlook. But there is no mistaking the same passion and intensity with which he punches away at the laptop, honing and chiseling the syntax and morphology of the narrative to a certain stylistic perfection, which is both exhilarating and sufficiently satisfying to justify the engagement in this great love of his life; the written word, just like his father.
The noise from the ever bustling Aggrey Road filters into the cool of the air-conditioned room like a steady din and from somewhere far away, the wailing echoes of African China’s hit song “No condition is permanent” wafts over the surreal ambience and floats away, like a bubble genie uncapped after a long decade of existential solitude. Distractions!
The situation is not helped by the fact that Ken Wiwa is only just recovering from a bout of flu, complemented by jet lag, after several long hours in the air from London to Nigeria. He dismisses the flu bug with a wave of his hand and a spontaneous staccato of small coughs; “It is the end of a long creative process for me and I have been totally drained. Naturally, the body system must react. It will pass,” he concludes, with a definitive assurance that defies contradiction.
Ken Wiwa’s is a very definitive personality. Dressed in a green face cap, black round neck sweat shirt, brown chinos pants and nondescript leather slippers, his choice of clothes can be said to symbolically mirror his divergent existential pre-occupations. His office on the last floor of the famous 24 Aggrey Road is painted white, and he is surrounded by paintings of emerging Niger-Delta Artists; Perin Oglafa, Palmore Abassah, Diseye Tantua and Moses Osas. “The white brings out the paintings in greater relief,” he says with a smile.
At 24 Aggrey Road, Ken Wiwa is the epitome of simplicity and action.When he speaks, his baritone voice, laced with power and scholarship, tends to be quite intimidating. But Ken Wiwa operates with four different voices. First is the indigenous Nigerian voice with which he converses with you. “I am still trying to find the nuances and cadences of my original voice,” he says, nicely easing himself into the discussion.
The second is the Western voice, laced with the refined Queen’s English accent, which reveals his fine academic pedigree and elevates his intellectual profile by several big notches. This voice of course operates in the realm of long distance calls from interests across the seas. The third voice is the operational, business voice with which he grapples the rudder of the Ken Saro-Wiwa business estate. Here, you encounter the serious businessman and Director of Saros International. This is a commercial investment and the responsibility to keep it afloat raises fundamental personal re-definitions.
The fourth voice is the literary and artistic voice which, from all indications, he enjoys invoking with a passion and bias that gives him tremendous satisfaction. “I live five or six different lives; family, literary, political, business, every minute and sometimes everyday of my life. I have to organize the business, and this takes time. Then I have to write my column because this is where I earn my livelihood. Then there is my creative life, which I must (re-activate). And then there’s the family too.
“My father had the same kind of life. He was a complicated man; family man, businessman, man in the public eye, father to his children, husband, son to his parents and most importantly, a writer of books. I guess I am being thrust into the same kind of existence,” he says, with a twinkle in his almond eyes, as though relishing the prospects of the jab and parry of this snap interview and indeed the huge confrontations he must anticipate in his new life. “I don’t know how I clear the space to accomplish all these things. In fact, as the saying goes ‘I need a room with a view’ he says with mirth dancing in his eye. The intriguing thing about all his voices is that they are all delivered with perfect diction.
How has the last ten years been for him, following the death of his father on November 10, 1995?
“Come and ask me in 30 years,” he says with a laugh. “But seriously,” he continues, “a lot of it is in my book” by which he means; In the shadow of a saint. “The last ten years for me has been like a processed and edited version of a raw and unprocessed set of emotions. I try to cope with the fallouts and benefits of my father’s legacy.
Initially, I wanted to find what actually were the questions, i.e. How will you carry out the legacy, what were the priorities and things like that. I needed to organize my life in line with what my father represented for me and what I necessarily needed to do as a man; where I was in the cannon, my history in relation to the present and future and the existential and philosophical questions. I needed to satisfy personal needs, test-run my political ideas, run my father’s business through to the process of consolidation and then find time for all the people in my life. I think I have managed to stabilize to a great extent and I don’t introspect anymore as I used to do five years ago. Thought and action are what impulses all of us as humans.” This last statement may indeed possibly account for why he now prefers to be addressed simply as KEN WIWA.
On the launching of the Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation in Nigeria. (KSWFN)
Ken Wiwa says the Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation, Nigeria, was essentially meant to explore all the complexities of all the issues and puzzles that attended his father’s life and activities. The foundation is expected to draw a strategic plan, make recommendations and carry out a comprehensive assessment and define the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa.”Personally, I am interested in two major areas,” says Ken Wiwa.” The first is the grave site and memorial garden which must be preserved. The second is that Ken Saro-Wiwa’s literary legacy must be honored.
A biographer must be contracted to gather all the archival materials available which will help answer all the outstanding issues on Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life. Too many people out there are pretending to be Ken Saro-Wiwa’s biographers, and we need to set the records straight by appointing an official biographer for the job.” Of course there are other areas to look at, continues Ken Wiwa , “areas like the promotion of literature, environmental issues in the Niger-Delta and other related matters. But these are matters for others to look at.”
On the success of his Book, In The Shadow Of A Saint
Ken Wiwa is very modest about the success of his book. Says he: “I was lucky enough that I had a story for which I did not have to go looking all over the place for a publisher. But again I think I wrote the best first book I could have written at that time. I think I can be a better writer, if only I can find the time,” he concludes with a chuckle.
Ken Wiwa has three books in the pipeline, but he is greatly hampered and frustrated by the lack of time to pursue the stories to satisfying conclusions. “I need more space to write,” he complains. “Part of my anxiety is that I should have written something which defines me as a writer. I am surrounded by all these activities about my father and all I was trying to do (with my first book) was to hold up my hand in all that Ken Saro-Wiwa traffic so I could be recognized as a writer myself. Of course, my identity still remains but I was conscious of the stylistic and representational skill of the cannon. However, I was not sure that I had passed muster.”
On The Generational Relevance Of His Book And Nigerian Literature
“I know I belong to a new generation but I am not particularly conscious of the generational lump. I never knew or met Helon Habila or Chris Abani until after they had become popular. In fact, the first time we met was at the ASA meeting in New Orleans in 2000, and since then, Helon and I have been very close. You know, writers of every generation are secretly competitive. Every time one of us produces a book, it challenges you. It is wonderful to belong to this movement and enjoy the attention and importance which publishers in the West accord this new group of Nigerian writers.” Initially, it was difficult for him to break into the group because many of the writers regarded him as being out of reach, but with the assistance of the likes of Sarah Manyinka, he has been integrated into the group. “I am an open person,” he says. “My frustration is that of a sense of belonging either to a small atavistic grouping or the larger universal grouping of say the Rushdies and Coetzees. Our environment has now become global and this discourages the kind of close collaborations and bonding which the older writers like my father and his generation enjoyed. Most of our well known writers are scattered all over the world and this has greatly hampered that sense of a generational movement for us.
We only get to meet sometimes when one is travelling across Europe or the Americas. I feel emasculated living outside the country. I, like most of my generation of writers like Helon, Oyeyemi, Sefi etc., write of Nigeria, but from somewhere else.” This, according to him, creates its own peculiar complications especially in defining the generational lump.
On his efforts to realign with the Nigeria literary community
“I am keen to re-align, to be embraced and to be part of the Nigerian literary constituency. But the community has to show me the way and accommodate me. I cannot just come barging in and break down the door and take a seat in the midst of the gathering. I like to also feel that people will show me the way. I am not aloof. In fact, I am like an orphan in a way; a simple person who just wants to do my little bit to improve the quality of life around me without copying anybody.
So far, the accommodation is still metamorphosing. “I guess when I spend more time in Nigeria as I plan to, and get involved in more literary and artistic creative undertaking, I will truly become one with the literary family and the community.”
On the Nigerian literary environment
Ken Wiwa says the literary environment is not particularly conducive. “Writers generally do not have it easy anywhere in the world, but it is particularly not easy in Nigeria. There are great writers here but the frustration is that environment is not particularly conducive.” What he implies of course, may not be far from the suffocating atmosphere, the harsh economic realities and the existential exigencies which clog the space of creative engagement. However, Ken Wiwa is not too enamored by the fact that there is so much poetry around; “I am baffled by the level of poetic production in Nigeria. Why is this so? Why not more short stories or novels?” He, however, gives kudos to the likes of FARAFINA which is creating a publishing environment for writers in Nigeria.
On the influence of the West on our literature
“The West validating our work sets a standard that may not be very healthy for our literature. We have to create our own market,” he says. He makes appropriate allusion to Nollywood, which he believes has set the example of establishing a wholly indigenous market for the Nigerian movie industry. This, in his opinion, is what Nigerian literature needs. However, Ken Wiwa is also quick to point to the fact that Nigerian literature is peculiar. “We are all different writers, employing different techniques and styles to get our stories across. But there is a sensibility in most of these writings that makes them accessible to the universal audience, while retaining the indigenous flavor to make them exotic enough to be described as Nigerian books. As a writer, you write to be read. A writer carries a sense of communication to an audience with him and his story is deliberately tainted (to suit the kind of audience he must address and impress).
Even the reference points of a writer’s narrative create pressures whether consciously or unconsciously and the writer finds that he/she is constantly employing multiple voices to get the story across.” The fact that Nigerian writers and literature are enjoying considerable attention and recognition is a healthy development, says Ken Wiwa. But then he decries the incidences of copycatting amongst emerging Nigerian writers, which has greatly hampered this recognition. According to him: “In order to be accepted as a good Nigerian writer (by the West), you must write a good book. The West is not particularly trying to set standards. The West is smart. They are not looking for poor and ragged representations of Africa (in our writings and literature). They are looking for things they can incorporate into their world view.
Cultures borrow from other cultures and the essential quality of culture is survival. The West is actually attempting to expand our cultures from magical realism to other selective uniqueness. Of course you cannot rule out the existence of cultural imperialism, but again, what the West is doing is also an acknowledgement of our own new cultural realizations and consciousness.”
On Nigerian literary prizes
Ken Wiwa says that “Literary prizes all over the world always come down to politics and commercialization.” But the seeming difference in Nigeria is that most of them are not promoting literature enough. A situation where there is an absence of a serious cultural agenda greatly reduces the relevance of literary prizes. “We have a rich culture,” he says “but enough is not done to promote the value of these things. Government and other important corporate entities like NDDC are more interested in building roads, providing water, etc. We are not creating an environment to encourage writers to concentrate on culture and the environment. The artistic policy in the country is notwriters-friendly and politicians are not getting behind the writers as much as they should.” The fallout of all these by implication is that literary prizes in Nigeria, instead of promoting the books or writers, end up promoting the institution endowing the prizes and this then is used as a sort of propaganda tool to highlight other aspects of the institution which are neither literary nor cultural.
On his next plan of action
“I want to create a space to promote writing and creativity,” Ken Wiwa says categorically. And then he chuckles, removes his green cap and runs his hand through his hair and instantly you are reminded of “Boy Josco” in the award-winning sitcom, Basi and Co, which thrust his father, the great Ken Saro-Wiwa, to national limelight. “Sometimes it can be quite difficult to pin yourself to a particular futuristic agenda because it can come back and haunt you years later when you fail to accomplish it. But having spent close to ten years in the limelight, I have three books to write but most importantly, I want to play a role in the development of the arts and literature in this country by creating a pathway to enable the arts to reach a wider audience.” He says he would love to attract more investment to the Nigerian literary and artistic community through the efforts of SAROS INTERNATIONAL (his father’s business concern) and the Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation in Nigeria.
Also in the pipeline are arrangements to produce Sozaboy for which Akin Omotosho has written a beautiful script. But most importantly, Ken Wiwa plans to open the literary and artistic space, especially for younger talents whose originality is still flowering and needs to be harnessed to produce authentic Nigerian and Niger-Delta Literature and Art.
On whether he still reads against the backdrop of his demanding schedule
Ken Wiwa says “I dip in and out of books these days.”