Historian, author of What Britain Did to Nigeria and ‘The Wizard of Kirsten Hall’, Max Siollun, thinks that most people have the wrong perception of pre-colonial Africa: ‘Many people do not realize that many Africans were literate, educated, and lived in complex societies with democratic governments, and even had international diplomatic relations with each other and with European countries.’
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?
I had eclectic reading tastes as a child. I was a voracious reader and read things as varied as folk-tales, history, sci-fi, sportsbooks, and even comics!
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
Not one classic text. If I had my way, I would replace the plethora of one-sided biographies about the civil war by asking the authors to get together and collaborate on writing a new revised history of the war together. It would be great to get multiple perspectives from them in the same source.
If I had my way, I would replace the plethora of one sided biographies about the civil war by asking the authors to get together and collaborate on writing a new revised history of the war together.
What’s the last book/article you disagreed with, and why?
Not one publication per se. However, I am not a fan of the ‘Nigeria is doomed’ literature genre from some segments of the American and Nigerian writing community. Nigeria definitely has serious problems. However, the constant production of apocalyptic predictions about Nigeria places people on an emotional knife-edge and discourages people abroad (both Nigerians and foreigners) from visiting or investing in the country. By all means, we should highlight problem areas. However, the constant threat warnings about an impending Nigerian apocalypse sometimes appear like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What’s a common misconception about African history?
There is a common misconception (even among Africans) that pre-colonial Africa was a backward and primitive place full of illiterate people until the Europeans arrived to colonize and civilize Africans. Many people do not realize that many Africans were literate, educated, and lived in complex societies with democratic governments, and even had international diplomatic relations with each other and with European countries. One of the largest universities in the world was located in West Africa and it had 25,000 students as far back as 500 years ago. Unfortunately, centuries of propaganda regarding African ‘primitiveness’ have so deeply ingrained into the African psyche, that Africans themselves contribute to the inferiority propaganda.
There is a common misconception (even among Africans) that pre-colonial Africa was a backward and primitive place full of illiterate people until the Europeans arrived to colonize and civilize Africans.
How has the pandemic changed/affected your reading tastes/habits?
The constant bombardment of bad news with daily death tolls, caused me to take a step back from popular news media. I, instead, tried to do more holistic reading that was better for my body, health, and mind. More podcasts and reading about exercise and nutrition. Less reading popular news!
What three history books should be on every Nigerian’s bookshelf? (And why?)
In order to be objective, I will obviously disqualify my own books from this question! I would recommend The Brothers’ War: Nigeria and Biafra by John De St Jorre, This House Has Fallen by Karl Maier, and also Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. The latter is not about Nigeria but is a treatise on how to build a nation, how to manage conflict, and how to relegate personal ambition for the country’s greater good.
Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is a treatise on how to build a nation, how to manage conflict, and how to relegate personal ambition for the country’s greater good.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
My writing process is excruciating! Research-write-research again-edit-revise- reword…repeat. Because I am so dedicated to accuracy, and to making the text easy for the reader to absorb, I devote an extraordinary amount of time to writing even one completely accurate and error-free page of a book. I would never want to produce a book that has a glaring error. I might, for example, spend two days conducting painstaking research—which will produce just one paragraph of text. It is an emotionally exhausting way to write. I hope the work comes through in the finished book though. I take great pride that although some people may disagree with my interpretation of historical events, I have never been accused of inaccuracies in factual rendition.
What was your process for writing Nigeria’s Soldiers of Fortune?
It was emotionally challenging because the events it covered are relatively recent. Many of the key protagonists and their families are still alive so I had to write about some events carefully. For example, when writing about the deaths of Abacha and Abiola in one astonishing month in 1998, I had to strike a balance between putting the reader in the room as they died, and also navigate sensitivity to their families. One of the most challenging things was deciding what to leave out. There are so many back stories to that era. 1990s Nigeria was a terrifying time. Far more scary and tumultuous than 2021. The country was on a knife-edge throughout that decade as there were so many near-death experiences for the country. So much happened and I could not include all of it in one book.
My writing process is excruciating! Research-write-research again-edit-revise-reword…repeat.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
‘If you want to be a good writer, be a good reader.’
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Some of the pre-colonial Nigerians such as Mohammed al-Kanemi and Nana Asma’u. Their prose was absolutely beautiful. Even when they wrote letters, their syntax was so beautifully composed that one feels as if you are reading a poem rather than a letter.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I try to diversify my reading habits by not just focusing on the genre I write about. Given the great sporting summer we have ahead with three great international sporting tournaments scheduled (Euros, Copa America, and the Olympics), I read a lot of sports content and also about sports psychology. We can learn and borrow a lot from reading about the mentality of elite athletes. To this end, Carlo Ancelotti’s Quiet Leadership is an excellent sports psychology book that can be applied to everyday life. The Secret Footballer has written a series of very good books, and in the non-sports arena, I like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.
I try to diversify my reading habits by not just focusing on the genre I write about.
What can we expect you to write about next?
I am going ‘back in time’ to write a prequel to my latest book What Britain Did to Nigeria. The next book will be about pre-colonial Nigeria. I think people will be very surprised to read how sophisticated pre-colonial Nigeria was. The Benin, Kanem-Borno, and Oyo Empires were remarkable, as were Arochukwu and the Sokoto Caliphate. Nigerians will be surprised that even before Nigeria’s formation, the people of these different states visited and lived in each other’s lands, and had trade treaties with each other. Pre-colonial Nigeria also had some fascinating characters and protagonists. The cast of characters and drama in Oyo and Nupeland especially; beats Games of Thrones for shocking cut-throat drama!
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What’s a book about Nigeria that has not been written?⎈
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