Analyst and author of ‘Ken Saro-Wiwa’s “Sozaboy”: What War Literature Teaches Us About the Political Economy of Violence’, Ndidi Akahara, is always excited to talk about history and literature: ‘reaching into the past offers us a wealth of experiences that can help inform how we live today. Good literature on the other hand, stretches our present circumstances to make room for the experiences and ideas of others.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up, I read quite a bit as we had an ever-expanding home library. When my parents noticed that I loved to read, they helped sustain our family library with all sorts of books. I read a lot of Jacqueline Wilson at first. I loved her stories, and I was incredibly proud of my Jacqueline Wilson collection in my pre-teen years. I also read quite a few classics, Dickens, Austen, the Brontë sisters. I loved the stories that featured young female protagonists like Jane Austen’s Lizzy Bennet and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. My proudest achievement at age nine was almost finishing Jane Eyre, which seemed to me like the longest book in the world at the time. Of course, I told people that I had actually finished it because it wouldn’t satisfy my vanity to admit that I stopped reading the book 100 pages away from the end. However, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus was the first novel I read, where the protagonist was a young African girl and I have read it so much that the signed copy is now in pieces, but still very cherished.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
At the moment, there’s a sense of urgency that underpins my orientation to life. I am trying, almost frantically, to make meaning of it as I feel like I am entering a different phase of life, so there is a very strong sense of possibility. I’d really like to say my life reads like a Jane Austen novel, but right now it feels more like I’m a character out of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, on the way to Mordor to destroy the One ring to rule them all. Similar to Tolkien’s Frodo, I am very thankful for the people who accompany me on this journey.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
I was reading Plato’s Republic recently and there were many aspects of it that could not lend themselves to my twenty-first-century sensibilities, especially his thoughts on ordering society. I still consider myself a Platonist in some respects, so I have learnt to love Plato the way you love that 70-something-year-old professor who sometimes says strange things, but cares deeply about his students’ welfare.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus was the first novel I read, where the protagonist was a young African girl and I have read it so much that the signed copy is now in pieces, but still very cherished.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy really changed my view on justice and how it could be achieved in a material sense. It is full of gripping, painful stories of hope, redemption, and a cool, peaceful circumspection in the face of injustice.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I was originally an over-thinking writer, and I wanted each sentence to come out perfectly, straight from my mind and onto the paper. For some reason, I was afraid of editing (as that is where most of the work lies for me). I am currently learning to write first and edit after without thinking that editing somehow diminishes my ability to write well. As many wonderful writers have said, starting is the best way to write.
What was your process for writing ‘Ken Saro-Wiwa’s “Sozaboy”: What War Literature Teaches Us About the Political Economy of Violence’?
Funnily enough, that article started out as an essay for graduate school, and I didn’t do as well as I thought I would on it. I had fallen in love with the novel and the way it aptly depicted a very true aspect of the human condition. Very few writers can handle such difficult topics with a protagonist as open and as funny as Mene. I remember telling my professor in class that Saro-Wiwa deserved a Nobel prize for Sozaboy. My experience of the book was central to my writing process, and it was incredibly fun to read articles on the novel by other authors. It was almost like I was in a discussion group with them, and I found myself nodding along as I read articles by academics, critics, and even other writers. William Boyd’s introduction was also a great help to understanding the book and the author better, but I tend to read the introductions to books after I have read the novel. Of course, the article would not be what it is today without the thoughtful assistance of the editors at The Republic. I have found that good writing must meet good editing to make for an impactful story.
I am currently learning to write first and edit after without thinking that editing somehow diminishes my ability to write well. As many wonderful writers have said, starting is the best way to write.
What do you look for in book reviews? Or what do you think a book review should achieve?
Some of my favourite book reviews have deepened my understanding of the subject matter by providing context. It is fairly easy to summarize a story, but those book reviews which place both writer and written work in a contextual framework help us understand how that work contributes to a larger conversation about the human condition. And ultimately, that’s what a lot of writing is about. John Updike’s introduction to Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory serves as one of the best book reviews I have encountered as it provides the much-needed context to understand the haunting imagery that Greene portrays in the novel.
And why do you think Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life and works resonate with so many people?
I think Saro-Wiwa was such an impactful author because of his honesty, as good literature requires openness from the author. I have come to understand that openness and simplicity (which are the foundational characteristics of our beloved protagonist Mene in Sozaboy) are the exact characteristics needed to engage with the world meaningfully. Saro-Wiwa was also very active and the injustices he witnessed moved him to action in a way that is deeply encouraging. Here is to hoping we will be simpler and more open in our engagement with the world.
What three books on African history and/or politics would you recommend to a beginner on the subject?
I think Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa would be a fantastic place to start. Meredith’s book is expansive and yet incredibly detailed. The other two suggestions will have to be fiction, because I believe novels have great teaching power. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the African classic to read because it wholistically approaches the colonial project in a way very few other works of literature have. Mongo Beti’s Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (The Poor Christ of Bomba) offers another excellent view into the world of colonialism, missionary activity, and African agency. There are so many other authors, and the list is ever-expanding, for example, reading authors like Professor Toyin Falola, Flora Nwapa and South Africa’s Bessie Head would be helpful to any student of African history/politics.
I have come to understand that openness and simplicity (which are the foundational characteristics of our beloved protagonist Mene in [Ken Saro-Wiwa’s] Sozaboy) are the exact characteristics needed to engage with the world meaningfully.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
As an undergraduate, one of my favourite professors told me that ‘good writers are actually good readers,’ and by this, she meant that I would have to read far and wide if I wanted to be a good writer. She was absolutely right—some of my favourite writers spent their formative years learning, reading and listening—and I intend to do the same. In truth, the learning never stops so I always tell myself, ‘The more you write, the more you have to read.’ Of course, what I am reading is of just as much importance.
Who’s an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
I actually read Chinua Achebe later than your typical bookworm (I completely read Things Fall Apart for the first time as an undergraduate). My appreciation for his works has grown exponentially since I first read his novel. Some very close seconds are J. R. R. Tolkien and Mariama Ba, also authors I read as an undergraduate in college.
One of my favourite professors as an undergraduate told me that ‘good writers are actually good readers’, and by this she meant that I would have to read far and wide if I wanted to be a good writer. She was absolutely right.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Many of the authors I am excited about are all very dead, but beyond that, they all offer a glimpse into our shared humanity from different perspectives. Jane Austen and Mongo Beti for their wit, Elizabeth Gaskell and Flannery O’Connor for their perceptiveness and Fyodor Dostoevsky for his depth. I am a big believer in a classical education, and I believe Great Books can teach us a lot about what it means to be true human beings.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
Recently I have been reading/writing about more contemporary/political issues, but in reality, I am always excited to talk about history and good literature. I think that reaching into the past offers us a wealth of experiences that can help inform how we live today. Good literature on the other hand, stretches our present circumstances to make room for the experiences and ideas of others. Those two practices of learning from the past and developing the present are central to being true human beings. Reading Great Books encapsulates both these practices, so I am always ready to ramble on for hours about the benefits of a Great Books education. Professor Jeffrey Brenzel’s lectures with Big Think on the essential benefits of a classical education are an amazing place to start.
I think that reaching into the past offers us a wealth of experiences that can help inform how we live today. Good literature on the other hand, stretches our present circumstances to make room for the experiences and ideas of others.
What are you currently working on?
It’s funny because I am currently working on an essay that explores the benefits of a Great Books education! I am especially looking forward to including works by great African authors like Chinua Achebe and Mongo Beti to the discourse, as I firmly believe Great Books are not just a western concept. They are firstly about humanity, and wisdom is no respecter of borders. I am also working on another look into the legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa, which has been both exciting and challenging in a good way.
Question from Lanaire Aderemi: What song best describes your writing style?
Writing for me occurs in bursts, so sometimes I know exactly what I want to say and it feels very much like ‘Test Drive’ by John Powell (which is from the best soundtrack in the world in my opinion).
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
If you could cook a meal for one of your favourite authors, what would you cook? And how do you think they would react if it was burnt?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].