Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Lagos Lady - exploring the fictional world of Nigerian Author, Leye Adenle

Leye Adenle, author of the crime thriller Easy Motion Tourist, should have been with us at the Triskele Lit Fest in September.

Unfortunately, his journey across London became entangled with a major demonstration and he never made it. We were determined not to miss out on the chance to interview the author of this fascinating and moving novel, set in Lagos amongst sex workers and slum dwellers.

The book has done particularly well in France where, published as
Lagos Lady, it won this year’s prestigious Prix Marianne.

Here Catriona Troth talks to him about his path to becoming a novelist, his inspiration for
Easy Motion Tourist, and where he is taking his characters next.

Hi Leye. Can we start by talking about your route to becoming an author?

Like most writers, I’ve always written. Starting on the back of school exercise books. I have so many stories I didn’t complete. In fact, I tried to write my first novel when I was still in primary school.

My grandfather [Oba Adeleye Adenle] was a writer. I have uncles and aunts who are writers. And my father, though he was a medical doctor, also had a publishing press. He had an extensive library – half medical books and the other half, everything! Maybe it’s because there were very few TV stations, growing up in Africa, books were our entertainment. From a very early age, when I asked my parents something – you knew they knew the answer, but they wouldn’t tell you. The answer was always “look it up in a book.”

So I have always been interested in books and stories, and in telling stories. But even though I kept starting novels, I never managed to finish one.

One day, I was talking with my mother and two my brothers. When we get together, we talk about everything. My mum is particularly interested women’s issues. She was director general for women’s affairs in Oyo state. So the subject came up of women’s mutilated bodies left naked by the side of the road. Left there, untouched, for god knows how long, until they were bloated. No one claimed the bodies. No one investigated. Because the bodies were naked, everyone assumed they were prostitutes. And because they were mutilated, people thought black magic was involved.

So from that discussion, and from thinking about how these women could be protected, suddenly, I had the idea for a story.

I went home that evening, wrote the first chapter and posted it up on Facebook. I went to sleep and forgot about it. And the next day it had loads of comments from people wanted to know what happened next. So I continued writing a chapter every day, and posting it on Facebook, until the entire story was done. Never missed a day. People were sending me Friend requests just so they could read the story.

I remember going to a friend’s house, when I was still posting chapters of the book up on Facebook, and he was talking to me about the character Amaka as if she was someone we knew. “How can you do this to Amaka? Amaka would never...” Then I knew I was really on to something. That was what made me think I should turn this into a book.  

Ben Cameron (chair of the Crime Fiction panel at TLF16) and I both loved character of Amaka, the organiser of Street Samaritans, who tries and protect the vulnerable girls who are dragged into prostitution.

I’ve had a fantastic response to Amaka. She’s based on a friend of mine. Someone I lost touched with many years ago. But not someone protecting the sex workers. There is no one doing that, as as far as I know. I wish there was.
Amaka is a reflection of many other women I have known, too. People ask me why I make my female characters so strong. It’s a bizarre question. I always answer, truthfully, “I don’t know any other kind of women.” 

At the heart of Easy Motion Tourist is a profound compassion for the sex workers trapped in a life where selling their bodies is the only alternative to destitution. Ben Cameron said, “What I really liked was that it seemed to be about humanising and dehumanising the sex-workers – if the are dehumanised, turned into mere objects then anyone could abuse them at will, while if people are reminded that they are human that obviously becomes harder.” You have a story about an encounter you had with sex worker in Lagos, when she was humanised for you.

People think this is why I started to write this book, which isn’t true. But this woman did become one of the characters in the book.

I was on a trip to Lagos with another guy, to set a business there. One night my friend told me he wanted to go out for some cigarettes, by which I knew he meant ‘I want to go clubbing.’ We ended up on a road which is really the red light district of Lagos. As we got out of the car, I was very conscious that there were prostitutes all around us. It wasn’t a world I was familiar with, or comfortable in. I don’t think I had any prejudice against these women. I didn’t think of them as ‘dirty.’ It was more like ‘You do your thing. I am not going to judge you. But there is a wall separating us and I want it to stay there.’

But this one woman was really persistent. She followed me and touched my arm, and I was really shocked. I shook her off and said “Don’t touch me.” But then I looked into her face and I could see she was really pained by the way I treated her. She said, “But you did not have to say it like that.” That really stuck with me. That moment of connection when she became a real human being just trying to survive.

I wanted to give my readers the same experience, the same sense of empathy with another human being.

That’s also why I try not to have any ‘walk-on’ characters. Everyone in the book should be a real person. Even the bad characters have a reason for being bad. Life has dealt them a bad hand. Everyone their own story.

The Easy Motion Tourist of the title is Guy Collins, a British journalist who goes to Nigeria to cover elections for an obscure cable channel. One his first night in Lagos, he stumbles on the murder and mutilation of a young woman. Why did you choose an outsider rather than a Nigerian as your narrator?

Guy is not the main character in the book. Amaka is. But having Guy as a narrator meant that I could legitimately look at Lagos as an outsider does, notice things that a Lagosian would never notice. Guy, as a foreigner, is perfect for bringing Lagos alive. His experience of Lagos changes in the course of the book. Guy is afraid of Lagos, he recoils from it, then he starts to love it. So it’s a way into the city for the reader.

This is maybe a tricky question, but Easy Motion Tourist paints a pretty bleak picture of Nigeria – do you worry about the danger of feeding into Western narrative of a dysfunctional Africa?

I didn’t think I was painting a bleak picture of Nigeria. I was painting an honest one! Not one Lagosian has said to me, “How dare you show Lagos like this?”

And you have to remember this is a crime novel. If you judged New York by the movies, you’d be afraid to walk down the street.

Or if you judge Edinburgh by reading Ian Rankin?

Exactly!

So where next with your writing?

If you’ve read Easy Motion Tourist, you know that it ends on a cliffhanger. Actually, I wrote a third book before the first one came out, but that one picks up again a year later. My publisher told me, "You can’t do that! You have to resolve the cliffhanger."

So the second book starts pretty much where the first one leaves off. It’s a political thriller this time, about corruption, and it’s set in a world of power and affluence, rather than in the Lagosian slums. Amaka is in it, but not Guy. Guy is back in London. But in book 3, Guy will be coming back to Lagos.

Some people thought I would keep writing about the street girls. That I would become the ‘voice of the sex workers’ – but is that fair on these people? That’s exploitation! That’s me exploiting them for gain.

And does the second book have a title yet?

Easy Motion Tourist is taken from the title of a song by King Sunny Adé. So I’ve taken the title of the second book, When Trouble Sleeps, from a lyric by another Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti.

I can’t wait to read it! Thank you, Leye.


You can read my review of Easy Motion Tourist on Book Muse UK here.Easy Motion Tourist is published in the UK by Cassava Republic, and in France by Métailié Noir ( (as Lagos Lady, translated by David Fauquemberg) It will be published in Spanish in 2017. When Trouble Sleeps will be published by Cassava Republic in 2017.

Leye Adenle is also the author of Chronicles of a Runs Girl, a fictional blog in the voice of a Lagos prostitute, written after
Easy Motion Tourist was finished but before it came out as a book, and originally published online anonymously.


The Crime and Thrillers panel from the 2016 Triskele Lit Fest is on YouTube here.

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