‘I wanted the book as map to walk you through the city of Lagos’
The J.P Clark Centre, Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, recently organised a reading that featured the author of a Lagos-focused novel, The Carnivorous City, Mr. Toni Kan. Moderating the event was Isabella Akinseye
What was your aim when you were writing this book?
I wanted to make people cry. I also noticed from all the books that I read about Lagos that they were either talking about just the Island or just the mainland. No book about Lagos has talked about both the Island and mainland at once. So that became my challenge, to write a book that will have both sides of the city. Then I started thinking about a story I could write that would do this. I worked in the banking sector for eight years and I had colleagues, who came to work everyday like me, but never able to get a house on the Island. They go into the bank and they go home; they didn’t know anybody that lives on the Island. There are also people on the Island, who will never come to visit any house on the mainland. So, I wanted to tell a story that will have both sides in it.
Growing up, I always knew Toni Kan to write books about romance, poetry, but when I heard that you had a crime fiction, I was wondering why the deviation. So, did you have to put in a lot of research into it or you still told a love story using crime as the backbone?
Before I wrote the book, I thought that if you kill somebody, you have murdered and even if it was accidental, you will go to jail. You couldn’t just do something wrong and go free. Before this, I had done an article in 2006 about a boy, who was lynched, called Tikila Samuel, and that was when I really did my research on police haunting and the rest of them. So, I had an idea on what I really wanted to do.
So, I have read the book and there is still a love story. So, is this still a love story with a crime background or a crime story with a love background?
There is nobody in this world, who doesn’t react to a love story. In the whole world, every book you read, there is ugliness and beauty. Ugliness refers to everything that is bad and beauty, everything that is good. That is why I decided to write a love story with somebody missing; it is basically about two people falling in love.
So, you can’t run away from your love background?
No, I can’t.
So when you were writing the book, did you want people to get a feeling that in Lagos you might do bad things and get away with it and you might do good things and still get killed?
There is a saying that says ‘those the gods love die young.’ So, if you look at it, there are people, who should not be alive, who were so evil when they were young. They may be with cancer or some other ailments; maybe God is punishing them, but they are still alive. I don’t think God is as angry as he used to be in those days, when our forefathers were still alive. I don’t think people get punished for wrongs they do immediately. I don’t think the punishment we look for is the way God deals with the evil of man. There are different ways of punishing people.
Your journalistic background is all over the book, where it talks about how Nigerian newspapers cast lines, how journalism, in general, runs. It is more like a subplot. It does not retract from the entire story but it is still there and that goes unsolved throughout. Was that intentional?
I went through a phase, where I read about 20 short stories and in all of them somebody died. I just wanted to know how it felt to kill people and, I did it! I own a website with my partner because we thought that Nigerian bloggers were writing bullshit and lies of all sorts. I remember three years ago, I was in a panel and I said to them that one day a blogger will be killed in Nigeria and they were like, ‘Aha! How can you say that; they are doing their job,’ but ever since, a blogger was killed in Bauchi, and six have gone to jail already because it had to stop. So, when I was doing this book, I just wanted to kill a blogger for the fun of it.
It wasn’t really a blogger you killed, but a publisher, but you succeeded in doing that. I know these are fictional characters with different experiences but long after you typed the last sentence, did you still think about them? Do you still imagine what you will do beyond the book and, maybe, even consider doing a sequel?
The first people, who read the book said to me, ‘Would there be a part two?’ I said to them, ‘I don’t plan on doing a part two.’ My stories are always open ended. I don’t know how to end stories and say this is the definite end. I think that is what makes the story more interesting. I don’t like movies or stories in which you know how it ended, and doesn’t leave anything for you to think about beyond the book. So, the stories I write do not end just like that; they go on beyond the last words.
Have you thought of making the book into a crime film or TV series?
Yes. We have actually started working on the script and, hopefully, we will do it this year.
In terms of the characterisation, did you find in the writing process that there was an urge to develop more characters, or you felt like you needed to even kill off more of them?
Everybody had his or her time to shine. Santos, Ada, Abel; everyone of them can stand as an individual with their own story. My key characters are Abel, Sunny and Ada; other people were incidentals to the story. Without those key players, the story will not work. The other guys also play a part in completing the story.
Some of these stories are very familiar, like a married woman coming to confront her husband’s mistress. I just wondered whether a lot of these stories are facts or a bit of facts with fiction. Did you just pick out people’s stories or experiences and put them in the book or you made a lot of it up?
You know, somebody said you can’t invent facts; whether you agree or not, it actually happened. The part about somebody throwing ‘shit’ on someone actually happened in Akure. I read it in Vanguard years ago. There are some events that occur and just stick to your memory for long.
So, you are saying that most of the stories in the book are from newspapers, conversations, and real life experiences?
Most of the stories are fictional, but there are experiences that you just remember while you write your stories and decide to add them. Like somebody dying in traffic was an actual event that happened before. There is a lot of attention to the description of directions. One would literally feel like the book is taking you through a journey on Google map; the directions are so clear and specific. You can actually recall some of these places. What struck me is that you went ahead to mention actual brand names.
So, did they pay you, and why did you choose to mention some and not mention the others?
Nobody paid me. I wanted a situation where the book could be used as a map to walk through the city of Lagos. In the review Helon Habila wrote, he said ‘this book brings Lagos to life like no other book I have read,’ but the new book I am writing will do more than that. I want in 20 years, God help me, people to read my books and get a picture of how the old Lagos used to be.