To write about the place you’re from is a bit of an anomaly in the world of travel writing, the point being to venture far from what you know. But for immigrants, their descendants, and children of the diaspora, it isn’t that simple. And for me, that experience produces the best that travel lit has to offer. In her travelogue, Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, writer Noo Saro-Wiwa leaves her base in London to return to the country of her birth, the country that executed her father, the Ogoni environmental justice activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. She views it through the tourist’s lens, “as part-returnee and part-tourist, with the innocence of the outsider,” and passes along her dispatches. The result is a comprehensive narrative guide to Nigeria’s 36 states, hundreds of ethnic groups, 186 million people, and the ways they engage with religion, corruption, slavery, and schooling. From the typical museums and parks to the worlds of sugar mummies and Nollywood, Noo’s reach is far and her gaze is complex, offering much detail and research in her narration but confidently assessing Nigeria’s dilemmas and triumphs with her two (and sometimes, three) cents. As a Westerner who has never been near Nigeria, Transwonderland was a serious schooling and a relief from so many books on the African continent written by foreign white travel writers. In this chat, I asked Noo about writing on the homeland as a diasporan, the inherent Otherness of touring, and demystifying Nigerian issues in ways that non-African writers don’t.
You’ve been writing guidebooks for a minute, but Looking for Transwonderland is your first narrative nonfiction book. I wonder how you got into travel writing in the first place?
I have always loved travel and writing. When I was a student I wanted to combine those passions by becoming a news reporter. However, working in TV news followed by a year at Columbia Journalism School made me realize I didn’t want to report on hard news stories. It’s the observations of everyday life that interest me the most—the stuff that doesn’t make the headlines. Literary nonfiction was the perfect outlet for me. So I saved up some money after grad school and headed to South Africa.
It’s extremely rare that travel books, especially on places where people of color are concentrated, especially on the African continent, are written by people from there. Were there any stereotypical tropes you wanted to complicate, replicate, write against, or play with?
I didn’t consciously set out to confirm or smash stereotypes. It’s about seeking the truth, recognizing your preconceptions and being open to them being confounded. I don’t believe in sidestepping stereotypes, especially when some of them are actually rooted in the truth (for example, Nigeria’s intense religiosity). But it’s very important to accompany your observations with context, explanations and analysis. For example, when I noted that Nigerian workers can sometimes arrive late for work and be unproductive I also explained that they haven’t been paid a salary in months. I wanted to demystify certain issues, especially when some non-African writers don’t. Once you’re able to rationalize certain phenomena you’re less likely to get defensive about them. Or evasive.
It’s common that diasporans who write about “the homeland” do so under a microscope, receiving more criticism than other writers. Did you feel the heat?
Yes, you get more heat when you’re from the diaspora. You can observe that “sunny skies are blue” and someone will inevitably try and contradict your opinion or claim you have no right to issue an opinion at all. But such criticism is usually borne out of insecurity. The world tends to get its information and perceptions of Nigeria from the Western press rather than Nigerian domestic media. Homegrown Nigerians can be frustrated by their lack of agency in that regard—there’s a perception that diasporans have more control.
While you were born in and returned to Nigeria for holidays as a child, you spent the majority of your adulthood abroad, living in London and traveling for work. How did you know when the right time was to return to Nigeria as an adult and a tourist?
I had traveled a lot around Africa in my twenties. Consequently, toward the end of that decade, I began to feel curious about Nigeria as a travel destination. By that stage I wanted to write nonfiction travel books, and I had already written an unpublished narrative about my travels around South Africa. Spending a month in that country really piqued my curiosity about Nigeria, so I decided to make it the subject of my next book. My father had been gone 11 years. I felt ready to return and exorcise the negative associations I had with my homeland.
My identity is at odds with much of Nigerian culture, but it’s OK because I don’t live there. It’s easy to accept your Otherness when you’re merely visiting and observing others.
I was really drawn to Transwonderland as an Ecuadorian from New York working on a book about living and traveling in Ecuador. Your double (and sometimes, triple) Otherness is brought up here and there, but overall, you don’t seem to have any hang-ups about your identity, keeping the anthropological eye of travel on the Nigerians. If you were to write Transwonderland as more of a memoir, how do you believe this aspect would differ, if at all?
Writing a full memoir would be more personal, so I would include a few episodes from my trip that I didn’t mention in the travelogue. But the end result wouldn’t be vastly different—I got quite personal in Transwonderland anyway. My identity is at odds with much of Nigerian culture, but it’s OK because I don’t live there. It’s easy to accept your Otherness when you’re merely visiting and observing others.
Respectfully, it seems an alternative title for your book could be Everything Wrong with Nigeria. Did you feel any pressure or receive any feedback to add a positive spin or a happier ending to it during the editing process?
My book wasn’t solely about Nigeria’s flaws. I wrote about the beautiful rain forests, the gorillas and chimpanzees, the Mandara Mountains in the north, the indigenous cultures, the kindness of the people. Those aspects of the book are sometimes overlooked by some reviewers. Many readers have told me Transwonderland actually inspired them to visit Nigeria. The country has so much potential but it has not been fulfilled—that is what my book was about—flawed beauty and unfulfilled potential. My editor understood that, so she never asked me to put a more positive spin. You have to be truthful in your observations. Most Nigerians complain about the country as much as I do, if not more so.
Much has changed in Nigeria since you traveled there in Transwonderland circa 2011. Have you or do you plan on returning since you wrote the book? Have you observed any changes you would find positive or are excited about?
Yes, I plan on returning in the next 18 months. Toward the end of Transwonderland I observed that Nigeria was improving in many ways but I was fearful that something might come along to cancel out our gains. Since then parts of the northeast of the country have been terrorized by Boko Haram, and the Niger Delta is still unstable. However, the Nollywood film industry has improved and there is greater Internet penetration and reduced child mortality. So it’s a mix of good and bad.