Interview

Interview with Toni Kan, shortlisted for his novel The Carnivorous City


Where and when did the idea for The Carnivorous City come from?

I carried around the seed of this novel for over 15 years. I wanted to write a very good Lagos novel; one that would attempt to wrap its arms around this city with some success, by capturing the seediness of parts of the Mainland as well as the shiny opulence of the Island.

I had actually written one which got me a fellowship to Germany but, away from Lagos, I realized that what I had written didn’t capture the essence of this city - so I ditched the manuscript and wrote a novella instead. That was in 2003.

Fast forward 7 years later and I am sitting in a bar/nite club with the Kenyan/Ugandan writer, Parselelo Kantai and watching an amazing scene unfold. That was when the idea for The Carnivorous City hit me. It was some sort of epiphany.

Can you tell us a bit about place or places you wrote The Carnivorous City from?

I made my notes for The Carnivorous City here in Lagos where I live and work but as a PR practitioner, writer and editor, there wasn’t really much time to finish a novel.

The first draft of this novel, which was submitted for the Kwani? manuscript competition, was written, marathon style, over 23 days at the Civitella Ranieri castle in Umbertide, Italy, courtesy of a Civitella writing fellowship. I am very grateful to Dana Prescott and her team as well as to Maik Nwosu and Chika Unigwe.

What inspires you to write?

Life inspires me. The city inspires me. I am constantly seeking to understand human motive and action. Why do we do the things we do? I am also fascinated, as a city dweller, by the urban dweller’s constant, unending and often futile battle to conquer the city. It is Sisyphean.

Tell us about 3 writers you admire and why?

Making lists always get you into trouble.

I became a writer because of Ben Okri. He was my earliest influence. He had a firm handle on the narrative of the city and he was an amazing storyteller who wrote books that were very evocative of the city and man’s place in it. I cried for a long time after I read his debut novel, Flowers and Shadows and I did my final year thesis on The Famished Road.

I love Toni Morrison because of her use of language and her imaginative narratives which marry myth and magic (with a light touch) in a way that they are not so clearly delineated from the real and quotidian.

I love Sefi Atta. I think she is the most under-rated or rather, under-celebrated contemporary writer in Nigeria. Her novels and short stories evoke and celebrate Lagos in a way that no-one else does.

How did you hear about the Kwani? Manuscript Project?

I saw it online. Not sure where?

If you had to describe The Carnivorous City as a cross between two other novels, what would they be?’

That’s a tough one. I would say 3 novels: Mukoma Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat because of the criminal element, Maik Nwosu’s Alpha Song because of the oversized tales and larger than life characters that people the Lagos he presents and Sefi Atta’s lusty engagement with Lagos.

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