Fiona Leonard: An Interview

The African Book Review hosted a live interview with Fiona Leonard, author of The Chicken Thief on Saturday, July 5th. Here’s a condensed version of our interview, filled with Fiona’s playlist of African songs she listens to when writing, the inspiration behind The Chicken Thief and her plans for her next books.

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Fiona Leonard

ABR: We’re hosting a live interview with ‪@FionaJLeonard author of ‪The Chicken Thief, a fun tale involving chickens, politics, & revolutionaries. Hi Fiona, you’re in Ghana right?

FIONA: Hi ‪@AfricanBkReview thanks so much for suggesting this! Yes, I’m in Accra, Ghana. I’ve been here for almost 5 years.

ABR: I know you’ve travelled around the world a bit. How did you land in Ghana?

FIONA: My husband is Ghanaian (& Filipino). We’d been travelling for a year in the US & Canada and decided to…come to Ghana and spend some time here with his family. We originally thought it would only be for a year or so, but then we stuck around! It’s been a very creative 5 years for us

 

ABR: Especially with you just publishing a book! Tell us a bit about The Chicken Thief

FIONA: It tells the story of a young thief who accidentally rescues a war hero who has been held prisoner for 25 years. That sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to bring down the entire government

ABR: I think that’s what captured my attention when I first read the book, the intersection of harmless chicken and serious politics. I suspect there’s a funny anecdote behind why Alois (the main character) steals chickens? Why chickens? 

FIONA: One day when you have time Google ‘how to hypnotise chickens.’ I found it by accident and it really appealed to me. I loved the idea of someone who could do that. (Apparently Al Gore is a chicken hypnotizer of note!)

ABR: Wait what! I was a bit mind-blown by all the chicken-stealing details! And they’re all real? That’s awesome.

FIONA: Well, I can’t say I actually tested them, but everything I’ve read and watched suggest it’s possible!

ABR: So what was it like doing research for The Chicken Thief

FIONA: I lived in Zimbabwe for 3 years and travelled a lot in the region. I read widely especially about liberation struggles so that was a big part of it. And a lot came from talking to friends and people who had lived through those times. Plus the Internet is a godsend to writers!

ABR: Did that play a role in why ‪it’s set in Africa? 

FIONA: Definitely! There were so many stories I wanted to capture in some way.

ABR: What was it like, getting people to talk about the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe? Was it difficult? Or were people open?

FIONA: No, people talked about it. And there are great films like Flame, Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa (amongst many others) plus all the fascinating works out of South Africa. My story is all fiction though. It’s not a rendering of any particular event or person.

ABR: Fiction sometimes is able to capture the truths that nonfiction can’t. It reminds me of ‪Juan Gelman and ‪Ariel Dorfman, who wrote poems and stories during the Dirty War and disappearances in Argentina and Chile. It sometimes gets to the heart of an issue the way other sources can’t. Did that influence setting the novel in an unnamed African country?

FIONA: I left the country ambiguous, because I didn’t want people to bring preconceptions to the story, especially because the President is a character. I didn’t want people thinking ‘oh she means Mandela’ etc. He could be any one of many. It gives the reader power over the story. Reading should be a dynamic exchange, if you wanted to read this as a story about the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and someone else (reads it as a story about) Mozambique that’s fine with me!

ABR: Going back to Alois, I loved all the complexities he embodies. What ultimately, does he want?

FIONA: I’ve always felt this was a book about independence, both what it means for a country and for an individual. Alois is searching for that independence, finding his place out of the shadow of his father in particular and working out what he has to contribute to the world.

ABR: All your characters have a great sense of wanting to be more or do more for their country. Was it fun creating each character?

FIONA: Yes, I have a soft spot for them all. My family think I’m insane because I talk about the characters as if they are real, which of course they are. And they seem to resonate with readers. I mentioned on Facebook one day that I was thinking about killing one of them in book 2 and there was an outcry as people discussed who it couldn’t be!

ABR: I’m joining that outcry! Also, there’s going to be a second book? That’s exciting! What’s your writing regimen? Do you do anything to get you in the mood to write?

FIONA: Yes, the second book is finished and I’m a chapter and a half away from finishing the third. I try to write every day, 1000 – 1500 words. I have a playlist to fallback on when I can’t get my head into the write space. There’s a nice unintentional misspelling! I meant right space, but write space is true too!

ABR: SHARE? Please?

Continue reading “Fiona Leonard: An Interview”

Sefi Atta: An Interview with a Leading Nigerian Author

The African Book Review’s editor, Etinosa, had a conversation with renowned Nigerian author, Sefi Atta about her new book, A Bit of Difference, the changing roles of women in Nigeria and the unique position of young Nigerians growing up in the diaspora.

ARB: A BIT OF DIFFERENCE seems to take a moment in Deola’s life and use that as a lens for exploring a host of social issues. What inspired the book and did you have a goal when you set out to write the novel?

ATTA: I was inspired by the poster I described at the beginning of the novel. I saw it at Hartsfield-Jackson international airport in Atlanta, where I catch my connecting flights to Nigeria and England. My goal was to return to the territory of my debut novel Everything Good Will Come. I had stayed away for a while but I felt the time was right to revisit it.

ARB: One of the things that stood out to us in the novel was how astute the protagonist was in both noticing and maneuvering how other people perceive and categorized her. Is Deola symbolic of Nigerian youth caught between the varying (and sometimes conflicting) expectations of western and Nigerian societies? (Do you think being in that position is more difficult or advantageous than say, being a Nigerian born, raised, and residing in Nigeria?)

ATTA: Deola is tired of failing to live up to other people’s expectations, but I don’t know that her predicament would be any different if she’d never left Nigeria. She might not have to deal with the perceptions of foreigners, but she would have to deal with the perceptions of other Nigerians. I live in Nigeria, England and the United States. I have my working life in Mississippi, my social life in Lagos and a bit of both in London. I enjoy being able to escape from one country to another when I can.

ARB: To a fair extent, the female body is often regarded as social property to be regulated not just by the woman, but by society at large under the guise of morality. However, Deola stands out (and was truly inspiring) in her willingness to be comfortable and assertive with regards to her femininity and sexuality. Is this a reflection of modern Nigerian society? And what ideally, do you want the future of the Nigerian girl to look like in terms of the choices society affords her, and the choices she can make for herself?

ATTA: I would be lying if I said I thought about any of these issues while I was writing the novel. I will say this, though. We express our femininity and sexuality differently, depending on the generation to which we belong, our religions and cultures. The growth of the telecommunications industry in Nigeria has also radically changed how we see and project ourselves. It has increased our choices, but not necessarily in positive or empowering ways. I see Nigerian girls who are sexualized too young, who model themselves after celebrities and hip-hop video girls. My thing is this: Use your brains, whatever you do. Nigeria is not forgiving of anyone who makes stupid decisions. Thankfully, I see Nigerian girls who are enterprising, hardworking and smart.

Continue reading “Sefi Atta: An Interview with a Leading Nigerian Author”

A Bit of Difference

Who: Deola Bello

What: Exploring what it means to be a contemporary African woman.

Why: Female, thirties, working for international charity, soon pregnant, single, Nigerian. Nothing is unusual, nothing is as it should be.

Should I read it: Necessary for women everywhere and all the men in their lives.

Qq: “[Deola] gave up her virginity when she had no more use for it. Losing her virginity was like discovering her hair was not her crowning glory” – Pg 97

A Bit of Difference presents a commentary on African femininity, specific to Nigeria, yet easily applicable to women worldwide. The novel is assertive in its exploration and insightful in detailing the complexities, limitations, joys, and paradoxes of being a Nigerian woman, living within or outside the country. Using the life of Deola Bello, a single auditor working for a British charity, Atta explores everything from Western perceptions of Africa and indeed African women, to the contradictions inherent in social expectations for women and their abilities to meet, ignore, or defy set expectations.  A Bit of Difference, much less a novel than a brilliant portrait, successfully achieves what all good poetry strives for; it picks a moment and explores it. Atta offers no comfortable narratives or righteous solutions; instead her honest voice challenges the reader’s understanding of what it means to be Nigerian, African, British, European, American, but above all, what it means to be a woman inhabiting the battle ground that is the female body.

A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta

Interlink Books | 2013 | ISBN: 978-1-56656-892-0

Read our interview with Sefi Atta here.

Ghana Must Go, A Novel

Ghana Must Go

Who: The Sai family, a loosely knit yet inexplicably bound group, each facing different directions yet somehow holding on.

Why: Failure, Success, Expectations, Betrayal.

Should I read it: On a cool day with lots of time to spare

Qq: “It was the reason, he thought they built churches so big, and investment banks so impressive. To dazzle the faithful. Arrogance by association. The machine was in control, and so he was in control who belonged to it” Pg 69

The women of Ghana Must Go, are creatures who exist in a manner that few other writers have captured. Many times excuses are made for the humanity of characters, banal characteristics used to code and justify their existence. Selasi however, grants her women an existence that does not need justification. They are because they are. Yet they somehow remain intangible to the reader, vessels suspended in the space between critical consciousness, and intimacy. Selasi’s writing style maintains a distance that sometimes successfully works emotion and tenderness into the tale. At other times, the narrator’s distance is much too far and the reader feels as though in a Brecht play, too conscious of the fourth wall, unable to grasp the humanity of the characters, or view them as anything other than threads succumbing to Selasi’s convulsing attempts to weave an intricate tapestry. Intricate it might be, but a complete tapestry it is not. The reader is therefore left with convoluted knots, spaces with unraveling threads, coupled with brilliant patches that underscore Selasi’s genius and force one to keep reading in the hopes that the rest of the narrative maintains such illusive brilliance. It therefore comes as a surprise when a grey character exudes a contentment that is critical to, yet almost overlooked in Selasi’s tapestry. Her contentment weighs as the anchor of the book, the place towards which each character is destined, but never quite arrives. It is audacious in a way that echoes the unfulfilled aspirations of Ghana Must Go.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Penguin Press| 2013| ISBN: 978-1594204494

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Who: Ishmael Beah

What: The coming of age story of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone

Why: War

Should I read It: Absolutely!

Qq: ‘When I was little, my father used to say, “If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die”’ –Pg 54

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, leaves behind the distant jargon of discourse surrounding war, and in a gorgeously frank voice shows us the humanity such discourse avoids. When we hear about rebels taking over a city, women raped before their families, suicide bombers in crowded marketplaces, and focus on the violence, we catalogue it as ‘news’ but never engage with the emotions, the people, the humanity lost, found, and altered within such violence. Memoirs of a Boy Soldier isn’t just about war, it’s more than a coming of age story in a desperate situation, it’s a tender vice that slowly expands reader’s understanding of how much humanity is. A Long Way Gone shows that in spite of all the pain and horrors humanity can inflict and accommodate, the lengths the human spirit will go to hold us together, to reach out to other people, and find in our hearts, new spaces to call home. Beah notes, “If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die” (54). A Long Way Gone is evidence that perhaps there is always good lying ahead, and the human spirit is capable of fighting very hard to get there.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

Sarah Crichton Books | 2007 | ISBN: 918-0-374-53126-3

Check out our interview with Ishmael Beah here. 

Ishmael Beah: An Interview

We were fortunate enough to get an interview with the author of our first review (A Long Way Gone), Ishmael Beah. We had a great conversation, not only was Beah gracious in accommodating our probing questions into the intense emotionality behind the book, but also astute in discussing Sierra Leone today, his hopes for his country, and efforts to make it a place that matches those hopes. 

Ishmael Beah

ARBWhile reading A LONG WAY GONE, we were both moved and intrigued by the way you wove past and present to provide a fuller narrative. How was the process of going back and sorting through your memories to put the book together?

BEAH: It was very difficult to relive the memories of the war during the writing of the book. It was also the first time that I had allowed myself to delve back fully into what had happened as I needed to relive it again to be able to write it with the same emotions, feelings of the boy I had been in the war.

I wanted the reader come along the journey, to see hear, smell, and be close to what it felt like.

Of course this brought about nightmares and flashbacks again. I am happy that I did though; it is a small price, remembering, however difficult it was during writing, to pay so that people can know the story.

I survived and that comes with a responsibility.

So I wrote all I could remember and double checked the memories. The ones I doubted, I threw out and of course I also decided to leave out some things so that the book didn’t become a celebration of violence but rather showing what violence does to the human spirit.

Continue reading “Ishmael Beah: An Interview”