Toni Kan Onwordi, better known simply as Toni Kan, is a poet, writer of short fiction, Public Relations and Advertising executive and Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Sabinews.com. A widely anthologised writer, Onwordi is a recipient of multiple literary awards and international fellowships. He is the author of Nights of the Creaking Bed (short stories), Ballad of Rage (a novella), and the poetry collections Songs of Absence and Despair and When a Dream Lingers Too Long. Naza Amaeze Okoli interviewed him for Africanwriter.com
Naza Okoli: After Hints, and Nights of the Creaking Bed, you are almost now seen as the sex writer. What is your obsession with sex?
Toni Kan Onwordi: (Laughs) It is not an obsession. Incidentally, I’m just reading Igoni Barrett’s new novel, Blackass. He is a young man living with a young woman, and a lot of sex happens. This is a city where a lot of sex happens, but people tend to gloss over it. Imagine when someone says: “He kissed her; they went into the room, and she has a baby.” But that doesn’t happen that way. Sex is an act. But when I write about sex, it is not graphic. It is just that this is what life is about and it has to be represented – the way it happens. If people find it a bit too realistic, it’s not my problem. But there are stories that I have done that do not have sex in them. But if there has to be sex, then there will be sex, and it won’t be muted.
Naza Okoli: So you feel Nigerian writers aren’t adequately expressive when it comes to sex?
Toni Kan Onwordi: There is prudishness over something that we do a lot. I mean Nigeria has a very large population; how did they come about? It wasn’t because the man spat on the woman and they had a baby. So, I think people are prudish about it. But if you read my stories, you will find that they are essentially very real; every aspect of it has to be real
Naza Okoli: So where exactly do the boundaries lie? At what point does it become graphic?
Toni Kan Onwordi: The word I would use is censorship. Every writer who is responsible should be self-censored. But there is a problem when people begin to censor you. If you are responsible, you should know where to draw the line.
Naza Okoli: You haven’t written any story in a long time.
Toni Kan Onwordi: My last book came out in 2009. It has been six years now. But in that space of time, I have published four other books – a collection of poems and three different biographies. So I haven’t been idle; I have been working. So, what it means is that in the past six years, I have published four books. How many Nigerian writers have published four books in the last six years? None.
Naza Okoli: But we’re really talking about literature
Toni Kan Onwordi: It is all literature. You see, it is just that thing that Nigerians do. Talking about “Literature” with the capital ‘L’. Biographies are bigger in the West than “Literature”. Because for every person that is important, there is a book about him. There is a book about Justin Beiber, Lady Gaga, Rihanna. How many books have been written about Tu Face? The first one was only just published. Biographies and autobiographies are important because they help us to understand where we have been, where are, and where we are going. Until we begin to understand that those are critical aspects of our literature, we miss the way. When I was much younger, I did not read biographies. It was Helon Habila who read biographies like those of Henry James, DH Lawrence, and so on. I read their fiction. But as I got older, I realised I needed to understand where we were coming from, in order to understand where we are and where we are going. I write biographies with my partner Peju Akande. Apart from the fact that it gives us good money, it is also something that teaches you. What we learned from writing biographies is something people would not learn in school if they do a first degree and a second degree. I can tell you the history of Nigerian entertainment industry, sitting down here. I can tell you the history of Nigerian pre-independence and post-independence, sitting down here. I can tell you about Awolowo, Akintola, Fani-Kayode, Bode Thomas. How do I know this? Because I have done biographies of people around them. I have interviewed kings, politicians, businessmen, and so on because of this biography project. So, it is not a small “L”. It is a capital “L”. It is as big as Nights of the Creaking Bed.
Naza Okoli: You are a product of Traditional Literature – the one with the capital “L”. I mean you have BA and MA degrees in English. But I think many people would describe you as a writer of “popular literature”. Doesn’t it seem like a betrayal, given the friction between both genres?
Toni Kan Onwordi: What has happened is that because I have managed to remain relevant in writing in all areas, people tend to think I’m not a serious writer. There isn’t any anthology that featured my contemporaries that didn’t include me. There is no reputable award in Nigeria, apart from the Caine Prize that I haven’t entered for – and in all cases, it was either I was highly commended or I won. I did not get into writing to be a poor writer. I became a writer because I knew it would feed me, give me a good life, and take care of my family. So , when I write a speech for an MD, I get paid half a million naira for it; but my book would sell for two years before I can get half a million naira. So which should I prefer?
Marlon James won the Booker Prize. Before he won the Booker Prize (after and before he was shortlisted) he had sold only 12 000 copies of his books – all his books. My last book has sold 10 000 copies. Well, now that he has won the Booker Prize, he might sell another 100 000 copies. That means if he didn’t win the Booker Prize, Marlon Jones would have sold just 12 000 copies of his books. Is that what I have to live on? But on the strength of that book that has sold 10 000 copies, I can do other things.
The point I want to make is this. Out of every one hundred writers in Nigeria, only two can be successful in terms of publishing. And that publishing cannot even feed them. Quote me: the only Nigerian writer who can live on his or her writing is Chimamanda. Nobody else can. So beyond the fact that you can write a poem or a short story, you have to learn to write other things that can feed you. Do you know that when a new phone comes out, there ought to be a manual, and somebody has to write that? First Bank gave us a job last week; they have a new card from VISA. We had to write the introduction for it, and we were paid over a thousand dollars. So, my point is that if I wasn’t Toni Kan, they wouldn’t have called me. It’s because I have won awards, and they know I can write.
Naza Okoli: So these other kinds of writing don’t remove anything from Toni Kan the creative writer?
Toni Kan Onwordi: My new book is coming out; you will see it. I’m calling it the ultimate Lagos novel. That is how I see it. It is called The Carnivorous City. It’s a novel, and it will be released in June next year. When it comes out, we will see. We will see if anybody has a book better than that in Nigeria about Lagos. You see, I have heard people say “Oh, he’s a romance writer.” Do you think it is easy to write romance? It’s not easy.
Naza Okoli: Now, you were recently named Samsung’s Ambassador. It is an unusual honour for a writer – by your own admission. How did it all happen?
Toni Kan Onwordi: Why did they pick me? How many Nigerian writers have done four books in the last six years? None. Nobody has. I’m not talking about pamphlets. I mean books of 200 or 300 or more pages. So, that is one. But I don’t know why they chose me; I didn’t ask them. But I think it’s in many ways because I have been here for a long time. I have been here since 1992 doing this thing – writing for Hints, Guardian, ThisDay, Daily Independent, The Sun, and Post Express. How many Nigerian writers can say that? However, if any other writer had been chosen, I would have given the person my full support –because it is good for us to move away from music and movies to writing. We are all members of the creative industry, but writers are often seen as the poor cousins.
When they gave me this deal, I said to them “I don’t want the money. But what I want is that this thing should extend to other writers.” They should support writing festivals, book exhibitions, and so on. Then it will become something writers can benefit from. Because if they pay me whatever they pay me, it is something I can make from writing one book for a politician. So it comes down to the fact that it is just money. But for picking me, I think that there is the likelihood that they will pick another writer another time, which will be very fantastic. So that is what the endorsement means to me – it opens doors to people like me, who do what I do, who haven’t been so recognised in the past.
Naza Okoli: Well, you have said most Nigerian writers aren’t like you. Don’t you think it might affect their chances of ever being recognised this way?
Toni Kan Onwordi: Aren’t like me in what sense? The point I am making is that writing shouldn’t be seen as static. There is a young writer who I am very fond of. His name is Dami Ajayi. He is a poet and medical doctor. He writes a movie review every week. He is the only person I see now who is more like me when I was young. When I was young I wrote for Hints – the so-called romance paper. But I was also the mainstay (along with Pius Adesanmi and Akin Adesokan) of Post Express. We made Post Express what it was. People would say “Toni Kan is just a businessman; he’s a banker.” No. I am one of the most literary people in this town. No Nigerian writer of my age has written more reviews of Nigerian writing, movies and music than I have. It is not something I started doing today; I’ve been doing it for a long time, and with purpose, integrity and wisdom. I have mentored more people writing in Nigeria than anybody else. So when you ask: “Why did Samsung pick me?” I don’t know. They may have their own criteria. But it wasn’t a bad choice. What I have done for the brand since I was picked, they know. On the first day, after it was announced, we had 1000 comments, likes and shares on Facebook alone – under five hours. Pick someone else and let’s see. I’ve been here; I’ve been praised; I’ve been insulted. But mention any writer in Nigeria, and I will tell you how the two of us are connected. Either I have reviewed their book or I read their manuscript or I published them.
Naza Okoli: Ok. Let me take you to the undying debate as to whether e-books have come to displace printed books. Is the traditional book under any threat of extinction?
Toni Kan Onwordi: No. I’m 44 years old. I can’t read e-books.
Naza Okoli: Ok. But that’s just you.
Toni Kan Onwordi: Well, I read online – like everybody else. But when it comes to reading a novel, I want to be able to hold the real stuff. I do reviews. I use a pen or a pencil; I make marks on the book. It feels better that way.
Naza Okoli: What about 20 years from now?
Toni Kan Onwordi: I don’t know. Maybe we may evolve new ways of making books. But I don’t think that newspapers or ordinary books will die, as long as my generation remains alive. There is a smell that comes from opening a book. Last week, I got three books from Farafina to review. There is something it does to you – having those books in your hands.
Naza Okoli: It seems to me that there are too many people, especially young people, writing today in Nigeria. You find them on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, books, journals, everywhere. It’s like a renaissance. Have you noticed this? What do you think is responsible?
Toni Kan Onwordi: I met Helon Habila at the University of Jos; we were classmates. I used to put up my poems on a board at the department. And I think Helon assumed that board was mine, because he walked up to me one day and asked: “Are you Toni Kan?” and I said “Yes”. He asked if he could put his own poems there, and I laughed and said “Go ahead and put them. Why are you asking me” I read them; they were lovely poems. And we became friends after that. There were many of us writing at the time – very many of us. And we were young. But there was no internet; and because of that many people did not know what we were doing. Nothing has changed today. It is just that we have become more aware. When my first review was published in Guardian those days, I was in class, and my friend brought it to me. And I started shouting. Imagine what it was to publish a review in a newspaper in those days. It was big. Nowadays, anybody can do a review and put it on Facebook, and people would start praising him, even when the write-up is nonsense.
Naza Okoli: Sabinews.com – that is the online news portal you recently started. Again, it is not the core literature. You have news, entertainment, and so on. It’s still new, but people have said a lot of good things about it. What’s the inspiration, and how have you been coping?
Toni Kan Onwordi: It is owned by me and my partner Peju. It is over a year old – a year and six months. We wanted a website that would be truly Nigerian. We started with the name. Our first name was Good News Africa, because we wanted to publish positive stories. But then we found that bad news is good news too. So we came up with Sabi News – which means “I know news.” Before we started, we did a survey; we asked people to name fifty Nigerian journalists they know. Only about three people named a journalist, and the only person they named was Tolu Ogunlesi who has won the CNN Prize. The rest were columnists – Samuel Kolawole, Reuben Abati, etc. All the people who have won the DAME prize, NMMA, CNN Prize, etc, were not mentioned. That means that people remember columnists more than reporters. So we decided that our site would have more columnists, and fewer reporters.
We are today the first Nigerian website to have fully paid columnists. People thought it would not work. I know I could get people to write for me free; but if I demand that people pay me for writing, I should also pay people to write for me. I may not pay like a bank would pay; but I pay. And how many Nigerian online papers pay? Very few. We have about 10 writers. The first one year was tough because we used our money for everything – even though we got our first advert in ten days.
Naza Okoli: Everything you have done is writing. I can sum up your career with just that one word. And you are very wealthy. That means writing is a profitable venture, right?
Toni Kan Onwordi: It is profitable if you know how. I was with Binyavanga yesterday, and he told me that African writing is just the same as African law, or African oil and gas, because if you finished from a university as a geologist and you don’t have an uncle at NNPC, you would be at home with your first degree. I came into Lagos without knowing anybody. I met people who helped me or offered me jobs, because they saw I was good. They did not say “Oh, he is Igbo; let’s find someone from our own tribe.” In the same way, I have done things for people in this country without minding where they come from, because that’s not what’s important. One thing I learned from my own experience is that in this country, forget about where you come from, or who you are, focus on merit, and you would succeed.
Naza Okoli: What are your thoughts on the Booker Prize recently won by Marlon James?
Toni Kan Onwordi: I would say it is the biggest affirmation for Lola Shoneyin and Ake Festival, because Marlon James was with us at the festival two years ago. And we didn’t know who he was. Now he is a Booker Prize winner. It is important for people to understand that it takes a lot for someone to discover a hidden talent. Shoneyin could have invited any Jaimacan writer, but she chose Marlon. She should enjoy this moment. It means that her festival has come of age. Every year, she brings the whole world to Nigeria – the whole literary world. So I think in many ways it is Marlon’s prize and Lola shoneyin’s prize.
Naza Okoli: On a final note: are prizes important?
Toni Kan Onwordi: It depends on what you want to do with your life. But I think they are important because they canonise you faster than if you had tried to do it by yourself. Besides, when you send a child to school, you do not say: “Go and learn but don’t take the exam.” There is always a measure. But then, prizes are also subjective. So if you ask: “Are they important?” I’d say yes. But “do they make you a good writer?” No.
Image courtesy Taovaoson [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons