parallel lives

Femi Kayode, changing the narrative of how the Western world sees Nigeria

By Olivia Snaije

Posted on June 16, 2023 12:06

 © Femi Kayode, author (photo Nicholas Louw)
Femi Kayode, author (photo Nicholas Louw)

Most students enrolled in a creative writing programme don’t land a book contract based on their thesis, but it happened to Nigerian crime writer Femi Kayode, whose second novel ‘Gaslight’ comes out in November.

Kayode’s debut crime novel, Lightseekers, published in 2021, introduces the character of the Lagos-based investigative psychologist, Philip Taiwo. It is about the grisly “necklace murders” of three students near Port Harcourt and has been optioned for a film series by a US company.

His second book in the Philip Taiwo series, Gaslight, will be launched in November.

This time, Taiwo tackles a case in which the bishop of a Nigerian megachurch is accused of murdering his wife, Folasade. When her body is found in a lake, Taiwo begins to investigate Folasade’s complicated life and the power and corruption surrounding the church.

Crime fiction as a happy accident

Following his degree in clinical psychology from the University of Ibadan, Kayode fell into working in advertising when he won a writing competition and was recruited by an advertising company looking for a copywriter with a scientific background.

“I gained a sense of humanity and the spectrum of human behaviour. No one is perfect,” says Kayode, reflecting on his studies in clinical psychology. “And a strong sense of wonder over human minds that we can never quite fully understand, but we can do our best to try.”

Kayode arrived in the crime fiction section of the creative writing programme by chance because it was the only slot available, Kayode tells The Africa Report from Namibia, where he lives. He studied was awarded a scholarship for a master’s at the prestigious University of East Anglia in the UK, which has produced authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Annie Enright.

Understanding whydidits

Taiwo, his main character, is a family man, whose wife is a strong-willed lawyer. The couple has lived for many years in the US and recently returned to Lagos with their family. This allows Kayode, who also lived in the US, to give Taiwo an insider-outsider approach to Nigeria.

Kayode may be writing crime, but he’s also keen to put a spotlight on society – in Taiwo’s case, Nigeria – and the genre is a good way to do it.

“Every good story has crime at its heart. It can be a betrayal or an infraction that drives conflict, and conflict makes good drama. It’s one of the best ways to check a society’s values, its systems and its heart,” he says.

“When a crime happens, the way we react to it is a representation of how we view the world.”

Kayode based Lightseekers on the horrific Aluu 4 incident, in which four University of Port Harcourt students were accused of theft, tortured and burned to death in a mob killing that was filmed and posted on social media. Kayode asked himself why human beings would do this to each other.

“I don’t write mysteries, or whodunnits but whydidits. It’s understanding the why. If we focus 400 pages on finding the killer and then find them, then what? In Lightseekers, I ask what makes it okay for us to burn people,” he says.

“By asking why, we can hope to fix this, change this. It’s similar with Gaslight. What makes it okay for a woman [like Folasade] to lose her sense of agency?”

Otherising the Western gaze

The issues Kayode chooses to examine via Taiwo are socio-cultural. This desire comes from wanting to make parallels between human experiences and “to stop the otherising of other cultures and countries”.

When Taiwo is investigating the students’ killings in Lightseekers, he recalls case studies of lynching in the US. By bringing in ghastly killings elsewhere, he shows Nigerians “are not barbarians – this problem is a human problem that can happen anywhere”.

In Gaslight the bridge between the US and Nigeria is explored through religion, says Kayode. “Everyone goes on about Africa and new age churches, but they came from America.”

He looks for opportunities to draw parallels in human behaviour to challenge how the West perceives the continent as ‘other’.

I can’t have a car chase in the novel, for example, because the traffic is too bad in Lagos

Africans are often described as different, he says. “As though we don’t feel what others feel, we don’t think the same way. When a mother loses a child, the feeling is the same whether you’re from America, Botswana, Lebanon or Ukraine.”

Kayode says his aim is to change the narrative of how the West sees his country by providing context and authenticity in his novels.

Taiwo does a considerable portion of his work from a car while he is stuck in traffic. “I can’t have a car chase in the novel, for example, because the traffic is too bad in Lagos,” he says.

The author also plays around with accents. Abubakar Tukur, the police college commandant who is of Hausa heritage, gets his ‘p’s and ‘f’s mixed up when he is excited, while other characters speak in pidgin English.

Some Nigerians thought this was patronising, says Kayode. “I wanted to show the heterogeneous nature of Nigeria – people come with their different speech patterns and history, and they all have to live together. It’s a way of showing levels of complexity and authenticity without glossing things over.”

Listening to readers

Does he plan the layout of his novels the way Taiwo investigates a crime, noting down thoughts, clues and evidence on sticky notes?

“Philip Taiwo is the kind of person I’d like to grow up to be,” says Kayode. “He doesn’t plan much but has a clear idea of where he wants to begin, and what the last sentence is. The middle is the process. You have to take a step back and plan a chapter and other times you let it flow.”

Kayode used comments and feedback about his first novel to inform what he wrote about in Gaslight. The characters in Lightseekers were overwhelmingly male and some readers felt that female characters were missing, hence the woman protagonist in Gaslight.

“In Nigeria, women are very strong and purposeful. I wanted to write a story where the victim has agency, where she has the power to change her destiny. I wanted to explore the sociological system and how it treats women and how women treat each other. The characters just kept coming; I’ve had these stories inside me for so long.”

Although he is contractually bound to continue the Philip Taiwo series, Kayode says one day he would love to write a book set in Namibia, his home for many years. He also envisions a “beautiful crime story set in Zanzibar. I see a dead body washed up from the sea…”

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