“Groping in the Dark for Answers”: An Interview with Femi Kayode




MY CONVERSATIONS WITH Femi Kayode that have taken place in the past few months have been via the virtual world — WhatsApp, Zoom, email, etc.­ — but Femi’s fizzing positive energy cannot be contained by a screen. He is the old friend you didn’t know you had, and it was my pleasure to interview him for his debut novel, Lightseekers.

In Lightseekers, Philip Taiwo is a psychologist who has returned to his native Nigeria. He is persuaded by a grieving father to investigate the “necklace murders” of three young men in a fictional community on the outskirts of Port Harcourt. The debut contains many of the elements that are the norm for crime fiction, while also addressing some of the complexities and challenges that communities in Nigeria face. It’s an example of genre fiction that brings to light the cracks in our society and those individuals who fall through them.

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OYINKAN BRAITHWAITE: As I read Lightseekers, I was drawn in by how particular mob justice is to Nigeria and climes like ours. Was there a specific incident that inspired this story?

FEMI KAYODE: The Aluu 4 incident, where four undergraduate students of the University of Port Harcourt were tortured and burnt to death, really stuck with me. By then, “necklace killing,” as it is known all over the world, was a common occurrence in Nigeria and several parts of the continent.

This one was different, though. Perhaps it was the very public nature of murders, with several people posting videos of the killing on social media. Or the fact that these boys could not have been “strangers” in the community where they were murdered — after all, they were students of the very university that was the lifeblood of the town. Anyway, it really made me wonder: what could drive people to do this to another human being? I wondered how the parents of the students are feeling. It was one thing to know your child died, but to have graphic and on-the-loop evidence of how, must be unbearable. Then, of course, I thought of the mob: neighbors, friends, colleagues, fellow tribesmen, family, and more. How did they see themselves the next morning after the incident? Did they high-five each other and congratulate themselves on a killing well executed? Or did they pretend nothing happened and go about their businesses?

Most of all, the more I read about the Aluu 4 killings, the more I could see that the town itself was a kind of microcosm of the whole country, and that what happened in that university town could happen anywhere because, in essence, the same conditions applied: insecurity, poor infrastructure, failure of leadership, unregulated social media, outdated legal structures, poverty, and so much more. I think these questions and more were what inspired the story in the form that it is now and gave me the “what if” that is the premise of any work of fiction. Because in the final analysis, that is exactly what Lightseekers is, a work of fiction.

The protagonist in this case isn’t a policeman or a detective (which his wife is quick to point out), but a psychologist. Why this profession?

As a student of psychology, I have always been fascinated by the why of human behavior. I didn’t think a detective or police officer would shed more light on the story the way I wanted to tell it. Having a protagonist who had exactly the same kind of questions that I, as a writer, had helped me to explore and tell an authentic story that went beyond the classical procedural.

The fact that he is not a professional “investigator” also helped me to allow him to make the same kind of mistakes anyone would make in such a setting. I think it made him accessible, some kind of everyman with the most fundamental skill needed to be human: empathy.

At the heart of it all is the kind of psychologist Philip Taiwo is. He is an investigative psychologist and not a clinician — this means while he might have insights into the human mind and its pathologies, he is not equipped to diagnose or treat. First and foremost, he is an expert at uncovering motivations, explaining a crime, and ensuring that the solving or investigation of such a crime is unbiased toward the innocent while being ethically fair to the guilty. He is really the kind of expert witness that either side of a criminal investigation can call on to shed more light on what appears to be obvious but defies understanding. This profession, to my mind, was the perfect one for my protagonist as it reflects my own need to understand a lot of what goes on in my country! Hence, I still say writing Lightseekers was a therapy of sorts for me.

Did your training as a clinical psychologist make it easier or harder to write this book? How much research did you do?

My training gave me the insights into what questions to ask, and the aspects of human behavior I wanted the protagonist to explore, but it didn’t make it harder or easier to actually write. In front of the keyboard, I was merely a storyteller, armed with selective information that I was using to drive my point. Of all the skills and training that I had, I would say it is the screenwriting one that had the most impact on my writing — I wanted to write an engaging and visual story that immersed the reader, and I knew the only way I could do that was to “see” the characters and their actions as visually as if I was watching or directing a movie.

I had a wonderful researcher in a good friend of mine who is also a writer and a lawyer. My research was essentially me reading tons of articles on the internet, then sending them to him to read with tons of questions around four systemic realms: political, economic, social, and technological. When I had questions regarding some of the psychological hypotheses I was toying with, I would of course share these with him to be sure they were plausible assumptions. The fact that he is a writer really helped because we could work fast — speak in codes even — and by the time I had the semblance of a story, he was able to highlight key elements that worked and those that wouldn’t. When I was three-quarters into writing, I decided that the internet and email correspondence with my researcher was not enough, so I traveled to Port Harcourt. My researcher and I spent a wonderful week driving around, interviewing people, and just soaking in the sights and sounds of the region. It was the most effective piece of research I did, despite having decided early on to base my story on both a fictional town and university.

I am not sure I do so well with research or what you can call a “faithful adaptation” of what really happened, like Capote’s In Cold Blood. There was a time when the facts of the different necklace killings and what motivated them held me back. I was only able to really be free to imagine, and write what I wanted to write, when I decided to make the whole story a hundred percent fictional. When I took that route, research became almost anecdotal, and not as integral to the telling of the story.

You mentioned that your screenwriting skills were at play when you were writing your debut, and I can certainly see that at work in the novel’s four-act structure and in how easily I could picture the various scenes; so it comes as no surprise that your novel was recently optioned for film! Congratulations! Any thoughts on who you would like to play Philip Taiwo?

Maybe because I was studying in the UK at the time of writing, or because this particular actor was in a show that I found quite moving and profound at the time, but a British actor named Adrian Lester always resonated with me. I am a big fan of authenticity in storytelling and I do believe that with the rise in the diversity of the global film industry, it should not be hard to cast a show like this with Nigerian actors. David Oyelowo comes to mind. I once saw him imitate his (Yoruba) dad at a Q-and-A and I just cracked up. He will make a credible Philip Taiwo. Another character that is very strong in my mind is Chika, and the one person I see is the stupendously talented Nnamdi Asomugha.

Lightseekers is the title you chose for your debut, and at the beginning of each act is a statement about the behavior of light. Is it a metaphor for truth, or is there something more at play here?

Definitely a metaphor for truth. And knowledge. And how these can change color, shape, or even perspective depending on how light falls on them. Of all the parts of the book I am most proud of, it really is how readers get this almost instantaneously. There were many drafts of the book, but the two constant things were the title and those laws of light at the beginning of each act.

The mental fragmentation of the villain is also dramatized through the metaphor of light and dark. This is a reference to the broken system(s) that allow such a heinous crime (necklace killing) to be perpetrated with little or no consequence.

However, there is a much more localized nuance that I am hoping the Nigerian reader gets, and that is the idea of “light” to mean electricity. A significant portion of the action in the book happens during blackouts (which as you know, are quite the norm in the country). I tried to heighten the tension by literally dramatizing the frustration of groping in the dark for answers. I am hoping it works.

Which of your characters did you most enjoy writing and why?

My villain was really difficult because I had so much information on him in my head, but I could only use very little of that in the book. I think it was the part I fought the most for, and had to make work to keep. I was allowed a limited word count for him, and that meant every word needed to drive the story forward. So, writing him was quite challenging, and frankly fun.

I loved writing Philip’s wife, Folake. Her combination of strength and vulnerability fascinates me. There is also a wisdom and practicality to her that plays off Philip very well. There are several layers to her that are still unexplored, and I am going to enjoy writing more of her in the coming books.

But the most fun I had was writing the relationship between Philip and Chika. I really wanted to capture an authentic relationship between two very different men, and the evolution of a friendship that could only be fully realized through truth and openness.

Have you had any negative criticism/feedback, and if so, how do you handle it?

Here’s how I see it: a writer who does not expect negative feedback is like a boxer who gets in the ring and does not want to get punched. I received tons of negative feedback from the second I placed early drafts in readers’ hands. I got it from agents when I was seeking presentation, from classmates, tutors, family, and friends. My wife especially did not mince her words. So, how do I deal with it? Like a boxer, I take the punch, retreat to my corner, and re-strategize how to get back in the ring, swinging.

Usually, if there is a common thread across the feedback from two or three readers, I take it very seriously. With the book published now, I can’t fix anything, so a lot of the negative (constructive) feedback I am getting is affecting how I approach the sequel that I am working on now. Is there feedback that kicks you in the gut and make you feel like throwing in the towel? Absolutely. But those ones, literally aimed at your core competence, determined to destroy, are the very ones that you should shrug off. Any critique that does not aim at making me better is not, and should not, be worth my time or consideration.

What advice would you give aspiring authors?

Writers write. No one will know if you’re any good unless there are actual words on a page to read.

Trust the writing process to make sense of the mess in your head. The power of words lies in their ability to simplify to effectively communicate. Use it.

Most of all, write in love. Love for the characters — good or bad, and the story. Love for the reader, for the craft, for humanity. An unconditional compassion for the human condition is the one true gift I believe a writer can give the world.

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Oyinkan Braithwaite is the author of My Sister, the Serial Killer.

 

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