Fred Soneka is a novelist living in Freetown, Sierra Leone, who recently published two novels: When The Axe Swings (2012) and Looking for Tanana (2013).
When The Axe Swings explores the dynamics of a polygamous marriage as the woodcutter Woody Bajan struggles to manage the relationship between his two wives, Mariama and Abi. Two interconnected threads run parallel through the novel: the conflict between the two wives, especially after the pregnancy of the junior wife, Abi; and Woody’s attempts to cut down the great tree known as ‘The Rock’.
Looking for Tanana, meanwhile, is set in post-war Freetown, and explores the tender relationship between Joshua, a humane older man, and Sango, a young boy who was a rebel during the civil war. Joshua takes Sango in after Sango runs away from his mother Tanana and nearly dies on the streets. Joshua gradually helps the boy to recover from the trauma of his experiences during the war and to reintegrate into his community. As he does so, we discover a tragedy in Joshua’s own past which causes him to act with such tenderness to the troubled young boy. The novel explores, with delicacy, the possibilities for reconciliation and hope, and for understanding across generations.
Fred was kind enough to grant Africa in Words an interview in which he described his writing life, the ideas in his novels and his view of the literary scene in Sierra Leone.
Rebecca Jones for Africa in Words: Could you tell us a little about how you became a writer?
Fred Soneka: I started reading together with my siblings at an early age comics like ‘Jack and Jill’, ‘Billy Bunter’, etc. provided by our parents who later enrolled us at the British Council Library and later at the Sierra Leone Library Board. We were allowed to borrow books for pleasure only at the weekends so as not to interfere with our school work during the week. We had to narrate to our parents and each other what we had read and what was of interest to us.
As I moved through secondary school (the Methodist Boys High School), I found composition exercises very exciting and scored very good grades for assignment and examinations. By then I had graduated to novellas. Going through Fourah Bay College, University where I studied French and English Literature, kept the reading fever at peak and I was tickled to start my own writing. Listening to short stories over the BBC, I plunged into short story writing more for my own pleasure and practice and did not submit them to publishers.
I was a member of the Sierra Leone Association of Writers and later, the Sierra Leone Chapter of P.E.N. International. But these institutions were not financially strong enough to encourage upcoming amateurs.
From all the writings I set myself, I realize there was a potential if developed further. The internet brought publishing opportunities closer to me, as writers were encouraged to publish online.
Africa in Words: What have you been your experiences of getting your novels published? I understand the novels are partly self-published, as are an increasing number of books these days. Can you talk us through the process of sell-publishing and what you see as its role for contemporary writers?
Fred Soneka: I have not had much experience in getting my novels published. I once sent a story to Longmans which was acknowledged and then nothing further was heard from them. I also sent a script to Heinemann, only to find out that their program for African Writers was closing down.
The Macmillan Writers’ Prize for Africa competition afforded me the opportunity to showcase my novel When the Axe Swings in a simplified form. I received recognition for style and characterization which were published on their flyers. They wanted to publish it for schools but the Ministry of Education in Sierra Leone was lukewarm to the idea. And I then developed the novel to what it is now.
The process of self-publishing is exciting but traumatic, as the author has to do everything concerned with publishing (financing, advertising, marketing etc.). For contemporary writers, self-publishing offers the immediate avenue for accessibility to reach out to readers.
Africa in Words: Both of your novels suggest an intense interest in and understanding of the complexities of intimate relationships – between Woody and his wives in When The Axe Swings, and the relationship between Joshua and Sango in Looking for Tanana (which is very much a father – son relationship even though they are not actually related) and then between Joshua and Tanana too. I was really struck by Joshua and Sango’s relationship in particular, which displayed so much tenderness from ‘father’ to ‘son’ – I feel this is a relationship which is relatively rarely depicted in fiction, and I found it rather moving. Could you tell us a little about what you see as the importance of these relationships to your writing?
Fred Soneka: In When The Axe Swings, the intimate relationships are to show that a polygamous marriage does not generally succeed. One of the wives is usually at a disadvantage, since ‘love’ is not for sharing. Conflicts, jealously and hypocrisy are endless. Moreover when a wife is not fortunate to have a child, especially a son, she may easily become a butt-end joke and be treated with contempt. She could only end up being considered just a property of the man or used only for menial work.
In Looking For Tanana, the relationship is to show how a role model parent (Joshua) can influence a child. Because Joshua is patient and understands child psychology, he succeeds in winning Sango: gets him transformed into a good and well-behaved boy, serious about his education; and develop a hobby in music (saxophone playing). After Joshua had explained to Sango how the late Mike, his former ward, was dutiful and well-behaved, Sango himself says he would like to please Joshua like the late Mike. We do see in the love relationship between Joshua and Tanana, an intense, emotional chemistry. Tanana displays a firm “sense of purpose”, once their minds are focused. She is not swayed by Bunu’s advice to ignore Joshua even when Bunu suggested Joshua might have been a rebel leader. Tanana is able to see in Joshua the wonderful man that he is, with his fine qualities, just as Joshua is able to see Sango’s potentials in becoming somebody of merit.
Africa in Words: Your novels are also intimately grounded in place – the forest in When The Axe Swings, and post-war Freetown in Looking for Tanana. I wondered if you could tell us more about your novels’ relationships to places, both real and imaginary.
Fred Soneka: In When The Axe Swings, the forest is both real and imaginary and the setting is to highlight Woody’s close interaction with nature. He is part of the forest, where he goes for comfort when distressed. He has to be in the woods to tone his axing skills and uses the forest, the trees as an idyllic setting for his romantic escapades with Abi. In Looking For Tanana, post-war Freetown presents a convenient setting for the action after there has been reconciliation. It is easy for Joshua to help Tanana get over her trauma over Sango and the rebel atrocities and open up a rosy future for her. Joshua offers the kind of future she longs for together with Sango.
Africa in Words: Your novels are dense with symbolism – wood and weather in When The Axe Swings, for instance, and music in Looking for Tanana. I wondered whether you are also a poet, since your language is often rather poetic? Could you say a little about the importance of language in your writing?
Fred Soneka: I am not a poet though I enjoy analyzing poems. The importance of my use of poetic language is to embellish the story; it creates suspense. Sango drowning at the beach in Looking For Tanana; Woody battling with the Rock in When The Axe Swings allows readers to emphathise etc., for this kind of language appeals to readers’ senses which make them feel as if they are also part of the events or actions, and they can see themselves in the shoes of the main characters.
Africa in Words: Did you set out to write a post-war novel in Looking For Tanana or did the novel emerge in another way?
Fred Soneka: I set out to write a post-war novel and the idea emanated from incidents where families had been torn apart by their children (boys as well as girls) being abducted, or willingly joining the rebels, thus bringing shame to their communities. Many girls impregnated were considered outcasts and their families embarrassed. This unfortunate situation is seen in many war-torn countries the world over. The boys are stamped as killers, drug addicts, not fit for good society, especially their home communities. In the end these children end up in the street, homeless. The novel Looking For Tanana illustrates how forgiveness and reconciliation can make the difference to the children and the community.
Africa in Words: How do you see the literary scene in Sierra Leone these days?
Fred Soneka: The literary scene, in my opinion, has not emerged as it should, due to lack of publishing opportunities that can accommodate writers. Readership is weak as the young generation are more into films (home videos), music etc. They are unaware of the need for the development of the mind through reading apart from their school texts for exams. Moreover, I cannot recall awards being offered for literary achievements which might have prompted some people with potential for creative writing to come forward.
Africa in Words: Do you have a sense of who reads your novels, and do you get feedback from readers?
Fred Soneka: My novels are for adult readers. I have received encouraging feedback from a sizeable number who incidentally all commented that when they began to read the books they could not stop till the very end. In Looking For Tanana, they were impressed also by the unwavering sense of purpose displayed by Tanana standing firm for Joshua and Joshua standing firm for Sango.
Africa in Words: What for you is the purpose of writing? I noticed that Looking For Tanana is classed as ‘Juvenile Fiction’ on Google Books – was this your sense of your audience for it, and if so do you see Sango’s story as instructive for young people?
Fred Soneka: My purpose of writing is to educate, entertain as well as to record historical, cultural and religious events for posterity, portraying the various characteristics of human beings. Also I want to inspire other Sierra Leoneans so that they too can be encouraged to bring out their potential literary creativity. My intention for writing Looking For Tanana is to satisfy teenagers, young adults and adult readers. The story is instructive for the young who are generally running wild and missing a bright future; also for all age groups to show that with some patience, understanding and love they can influence positively the upbringing of a child.
Many thanks to Fred Soneka for this interview. His novels Looking for Tanana and When the Axe Swings are available via Amazon.com. Fred is currently working on his third novel, Dancing With The Enemy, about an English missionary who comes to post-war Sierra Leone only to find himself entangled in a tug-of-war with a clever rogue over the heart and mind of a young street boy who is talented in music.