Noo Saro-Wiwa is a travel writer and daughter of the late Nigerian writer and political activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Noo attended King’s College London and Columbia University, New York, and has written for travel publications like Lonely Planet. Her first book, Looking for Transwonderland – which chronicles her travel in Nigeria after a life spent outside its shores – was published by Granta earlier this year and has amassed brilliant reviews. Demonstrating the humour and ease of expression that set her work apart, Noo tells us about spying on fellow bus passengers’ text messages, her fascination with the social etiquette of ancient hominids, and about Transwonderland being chosen as Book of The Week by BBC Radio 4.
Which of the characters in Looking for Transwonderland would you like to be accompanied by on another country tour?
The travel writer Maurice Archibong, or my aunt’s daughter Mabel. They were both excellent company and full of curiosity.
What is the first thing you remember writing?
A story about a magic bicycle when I was 10 years old. I had just received my first thesaurus and thought I was being clever in using big words like ‘phenomenon’ and ‘dilapidated’.
Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?
Being selected as BBC Radio 4 – Book of the Week was a nice achievement.
Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?
Well, the Nobel is worth $1 million dollars before tax. And winning it would boost my sales. So you get money AND prestige AND a sales boost. But if the prize money were small I’d rather sell a million copies – one million readers is as good an endorsement as any literary award.
Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?
A sustained career of good books. If you write one classic, the rest of your life will feel like a horrible anti-climax.
Best perk of being a writer?
Attending literary festivals in various cities and making new friends along the way.
Worst thing about being a writer?
Having to write. It’s a painful process.
Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.
I don’t google myself, so I’m oblivious to non-newspaper reviews. The best reviews have focused on the nuances of my observations and travel. The one poor newspaper critique was from someone who fixated on my identity as a diasporan while ignoring all other aspects of the book.
One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?
If you think writing the manuscript is hard work, wait until you start promoting the damn thing.
Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?
Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling/punctuation.
4.99: I have worked as a copy editor on several newspapers and magazines. And yes, I have checked this document thoroughly!
What do you think your writing owes your readers?
Clarity, honesty and engagement.
What is your favourite quote from literature?
JM Coetzee describes a character in Youth as “waiting for destiny to arrive”. It’s a brilliant way of summarising the act of having ambitions but not being very proactive.
Being a travel writer means my experiences are my writing.
If you were to award a prize for a Nigerian literary work published within the last 10 years which book would it go to?
There are many Nigerian novels I haven’t read yet, so I’m not qualified to answer.
What would your 20-year-old self say if she were to meet the writer you’ve become?
“The prose isn’t flowery enough! And there’s too much historical context!”
What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?
This email: “All I was left with when the book came to its close was the thought ‘I can’t wait to read her next’, you know, the same feeling one has after a bloody excellent meal.”
What is your guilty reading?
Other people’s text messages on the bus. And Hello! magazine.
What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?
I write non-fiction, so I don’t have a creative process. But trying to weave background facts into the narrative can be tricky.
And the most pleasurable?
Finding a nice turn of phrase gives me the biggest high.
What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?
Style of prose is very important to me, and I’ll give up on a book if the writing is inelegant, pretentious or dull. I don’t care how interesting the subject matter is.
What is your ultimate motivation for writing?
I feel it’s what I do best and I have something to offer. Plus it’s an occupation that doesn’t require formal qualifications – I hate exams.
Tell us your writing process – from conception to first draft.
I take an interest in a country. I then travel around the country and talk to people, constantly scribbling notes or recording things on my Dictaphone. Every evening I type up my notes and transcribe my recordings, no matter how tired I am. Then I email them to myself. I also write a diary as it’s a good way of chronicling my feelings (emotions can be surprisingly easy to forget over time). Once I fly back home, I transform my observations into prose. My writing is most prolific after midnight.
Why travel writing?
It combines my two loves: travel and literature. I love reading books that transport me to another place and teach me things about it, so I want to do the same for others.
What were the high and low points of your tour of Nigeria?
The high points were the dog show at Ibadan, the Durbah in Kano, and eating plantain and goat non-stop. The low points were seeing young kids having to work for a living, as well as visiting Port Harcourt Zoo (the conditions were so bad I was too embarrassed to write about it).
Foreign literary prizes: have they done more good or harm to African writing?
They’re a force for good. They ensure that a certain level of quality is maintained, otherwise standards might fall (you only have to compare our newspapers of today with papers 40 years ago to see how easily writing standards can drop).
Foreign prizes also lend prestige and financial support to a profession that’s not lucrative. This is important in places like Nigeria where financial hardship causes many youngsters to overlook literature as a vocation.
Do you think Africa is being fairly depicted by contemporary African writers? And is this portrayal something that should necessarily preoccupy writers?
I think African writers portray Africa fairly and in a rich variety. If people don’t like the realism they should criticise the politicians and criminals who create that reality. There’s no point shooting the messenger. Writers should worry about accuracy rather than positivity. Good literature must come from an honest place; it’s not a form of propaganda. Besides, most foreign perceptions of our continent aren’t actually based on novels – they’re based on television news.
What other books on travel would you recommend? And why?
Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France is highly subjective and biased, but the prose is flawless, funny, and her observations on Argentinian society were very prescient. I also like Bombay by Suketu Mehta. I haven’t finished reading it (it’s a huge book), but it encompasses politics, gangsters, Bollywood, business and more. It sets the standard for single-city travelogues.
If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?
Ancient hominids. I’d love to know if they could sing or dance, and whether they had any etiquette.
I’m still undecided, but possibly a book on my travels around South Africa.