Navigating Nigeria: An Interview with Noo Saro-Wiwa

Noo Saro-Wiwa is a writer and freelance journalist, born in Nigeria and brought up in the UK.

She is the author of Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, which was nominated by The Financial Times as one of the best travel books of 2012. It was also selected by The Sunday Times as its Travel Book of the Year, and was included in The Guardian’s list of 10 Best Contemporary Books on Africa in 2012. The book was also shortlisted in 2013 for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, in association with the Authors’ Club.

Looking for Transwonderland was translated into Italian and French, and won the Albatros Travel Literature Prize in Italy in 2016.

In 2018, Condé Nast Traveler Magazine named her one of the world’s 30 most influential female travellers.

Noo has written travel guides for The Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. She has also written for several publications such as The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Times Literary Supplement, Prospect magazine, The New York Times, and Condé Nast Traveller.

Talking About Books interviewed Noo on her links with Nigeria and how she got into writing.

TAB: In Looking for Transwonderland, I liked the way you depict Nigeria in all its diversity, from modern amusement parks to ancient statues, from bustling Lagos to quiet Kano. In 1995, after the assassination of your father, activist Ken Saro-Wiwa,[1] you swore you would never go back. Could you tell us about your early years in Nigeria and what eventually persuaded you to return?

NSW: I grew up in England, so my parents would make us spend the summer holidays in Nigeria. I was often reluctant to go back because the cultural change was so big, and I had to adjust to a lack of superficial things such as television and McDonalds, as well as constant electricity. But in hindsight I’m very glad. It kept us in touch with our heritage and helped give us a global outlook from a young age. After my father was killed I didn’t go back for several years—I had no positive associations with Nigeria. But after travelling to other countries in Africa and around the world, I grew curious about Nigeria again. I wondered what it would be like to experience it as an independent traveller. That way I could form a relationship with it that was separate from my father’s death.

TAB: Your father is very present throughout Looking for Transwonderland. Can you tell us about him and your relationship with him?

NSW: He divided his time between Nigeria and England, so I would spend about four months of the year with him. He was loud and gregarious but could also be stern at times. He would read us bedtime stories in an entertaining way, and from a young age we were made to read books and pushed to advance our reading skills, assigning us extra homework in addition to our school stuff. In Nigeria, during the holidays he would teach my siblings and me about the political and ecological problems in the Niger Delta.

My father had very creative sensibilities—he loved travel, literature and music, and filled his study with those things. But as I became a teenager my relationship with him became more strained, as is often the case at that age.

TAB: You were away from Nigeria for many years. Did you find a big change in the country on your return?

NSW: Yes and no. Nigeria changes a lot in some ways, but there’s also a strong sense of stagnation, that life for most ordinary people hasn’t progressed. The universities seemed in worse shape, and the infrastructure hadn’t improved much. But my personal journey around the country helped me discover things I didn’t know about Nigeria.

TAB: What stood out most for you when you came back to Nigeria?

NSW: I developed a newfound appreciation for our indigenous culture and natural heritage.

TAB: You wrote about your recent visit to Lagos for Condé Nast Traveller. I love your characterization of the city: “If Lagos were a person, she would wear a Gucci jacket and a cheap hair weave, cruising in her Porsche over rain-flooded potholes.”[2] Could you elaborate on this?

NSW: There’s a huge wealth gap between a tiny elite, some of whom are corrupt, and the rest of the country, which is largely poor. Despite their wealth, those corrupt elites are content to live in a country with terrible infrastructure. Their ability to put up with those conditions frustrates and confuses most Nigerians. As I said in my book, why do they prefer to be kings of a dump rather than live amongst equals in paradise?

TAB: Tell us more about yourself. Is writing something you have always done?

NSW: I’ve never been the type of writer who practiced writing all the time from ayoung age. I only decided to write in my mid-twenties when I felt inspired by a specific project. I travelled around South Africa with the intention of writing about it, which would have been my first book but I eventually turned down a publishing deal for various reasons. Before writing Transwonderland I was a copy editor. Prior to that I worked in television news and did some travel guidebook writing.

TAB: What advice would you give a writer who is starting out?

NSW: Once you have a story you want to write, don’t wait for inspiration to arrive and spur you along—you have to put your head down and graft and overcome your writer’s block by force.

TAB: Looking for Transwonderland gave me a real insight into Nigeria in a way that I haven’t found elsewhere. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.

Read my review of Looking for Transwonderland for Women on the Road.

Go to Noo Saro-Wiwa’s website.

[1] Ken Saro-Wiwa was a writer and environmental activist who campaigned against environmental degradation of the Niger Delta by petroleum companies.


One thought on “Navigating Nigeria: An Interview with Noo Saro-Wiwa

  1. Pingback: Women Travellers Tell their Stories – Talking About Books

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