Q&A with Femi Kayode, author of ‘Lightseekers’

AiW Guest: Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè

AiW note: Femi Kayode grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. He studied Clinical Psychology at the University of Ibadan and has worked in advertising over the last two decades. He was a Packard Fellow in Film and Media at the University of Southern California and a Gates-Packard Fellow in International Health at the University of Washington, Seattle. His writing credits include several award-winning works for the stage and screen. In 2017 he was awarded the UEA Literary Festival Scholarship, which helped to fund his MA in Creative Writing Crime Fiction. Kayode lives in Windhoek, Namibia with his wife and two sons.

Winner of the 2019 Little, Brown UEA Crime Fiction Award, Kayode’s debut novel Lightseekers (Raven Books, released 4th February 2021) is the start of a new crime series introducing investigative psychologist Dr Philip Taiwo. The novel follows the brutal murder of three young students in a Nigerian university town, whose killings – and their killers – are caught on social media. As the legal trial begins, Philip Taiwo becomes involved in finding answers, but he soon feels dramatically out of his depth.

Ahead of his review for Africa in Words of Kayode’s Lightseekers, Tọ́pẹ́ Adégòkè spoke to the author about celebrating publication, the crime fiction genre, cult systems in Africa, and Kayode’s relationship with Nigeria.

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Tọ́pẹ́ Adégòkè: I stumbled on a video where you celebrated the release of your book on my Facebook feed. Congrats. I must say the incredulity in your voice on seeing your name on the spine of a book for the first time is chucklesome. Could you share some of the excitements of that day? 

LightseekersTotally surreal. I was at work, and because of the pandemic, I never received the proofs before then. So it was literally my first time seeing the book in print. I must admit I was quite emotional, and I remember sharing that feeling with Oyinkan Braithwaite and she said ‘They should bottle that feeling’. I thought that was an apt way of describing the complex mix of euphoria, sense of achievement, a certain trepidation about putting yourself out there and there is now no turning back. And there is nothing like the smell of printed paper. 

Lightseekers is a crime fiction book, a genre that is not very well appreciated by some readers because they believe that it is formulaic, unlike the literary genre. I don’t want us to dwell on this but could you tell why you chose this genre for your story? Or was it the story that chose the genre itself?

Lightseekers was my thesis for my MA in Crime Fiction at the University of East Anglia so I had no choice but to write in that genre. Although to be fair, I didn’t want to write any other genre. With that said, I am of the opinion that the writer’s first job is to tell a good story, in whatever form or genre. I have worked in TV, radio and stage and that belief holds true across the board. To your question, while writing, I really wasn’t thinking of genre as much as writing a good story. The genre was an academic requirement that I just took for granted. 

Anyway, the story is so good that it transcends the genre tag. The story is based on the tragic event of the Nigerian university students burnt alive. You have said that writing the story was a sort of exorcism, can you speak about the impact the tragedy had on if you may? 

Thank you for the compliment. I think you are aware of the Aluu 4 tragedy. The whole saga just shook me to the core when I heard, read and then watched the events on YouTube. For some of us in diaspora, I think we still want to hold on to a romanticized version of the Nigeria that we left behind. At least I know I did, and mostly still do. We hear stories of bad government, poor infrastructure and more, and we think; ‘well, that happens everywhere, one day we will get our act together as a country and we can all come home.’ But when this happened, this cruelty of the everyday man on another, I was shaken. This was not police brutality, this had nothing to do with drug dealers causing mayhem and tarnishing our image, this was us, doing this to us. I think that set me on a journey of self-reflection – if this is who we are, and I am from this place, does this mean I am as capable of this atrocity as the next man? Is this an act that could happen anywhere else in the world? Could it be explained away by one singular reason or excuse, or, was it a complex mix of factors? I had many questions and because they were almost existential in nature, I think writing through it was the only way I could rid myself of the burdens that Aluu 4 tragedy placed on me. 

In Lightseekers, Godwin is a privileged child, like Kevin, whose parents I think want to have the ‘Nigerian experience’ away from western influences. Many Nigerian parents are like that. They bring their child back to Nigeria to come to school in the hope that they will be acculturated. What is your perspective on this kind of migration given the fact you currently reside outside Nigeria?

I have to laugh a bit at this question because it brings to memory an incident with a colleague of mine here in Namibia. I get to his house and he has all these African paintings, will only play Oumou Sangare (whom I love by the way), and the like. Then he would come to my house, and we are playing jazz, blasting Anita Baker with the same ferociousness as Tupac, and he was totally perplexed. ‘Aren’t you Africans?’ my friend asked. I remember my wife answered him: ‘Africa is me. I don’t need external manifestations of what is already my DNA. This frees me to explore other cultures and experiences, because I am comfortable in how I am.’ I thought it was the perfect answer.

I truly believe that wherever I go, I will always be Nigerian. It’s in the food I eat, the clothes I wear and even the stories I tell. It defines me, but does not confine. I also chose to live in Namibia because I am African second, but tomorrow, I can choose Iceland because I am a global citizen third. I believe that is how we should see ourselves as humans on this earth. 

My elder son was born in Nigeria and the second here. They went to an international school in their formative years and it cost us the earth, but we were determined that they would see themselves first and foremost as humans, before they define themselves by their race. But one thing we never ever compromised is the fact that they are Nigerians. I don’t know whether that answers your question though but I love the fact that you say ‘reside’. Because I reside in Namibia and as much as I love the country with all my heart, I am, and will always be Nigerian.

Dr Philip Taiwo, the protagonist, is also a returnee. Creating him for the role he played is so perfect. How did he come about to you because it must be somewhat outlandish using a regular detective to unravel the mystery in Nigeria’s context where experience and resources are scarce?

Femi-Photo_INDEX-1060-x-858

Femi Kayode

I think that’s the very reason that I had to do it and make it work; the very fact that it was outlandish, crazy even. And also, he (Philip) knows this. He is a fish out of water that needed to learn how to approach the case away from the high perch of academic knowledge and exposure to Western training and technology. I think he was also a necessary creation because he was the only one I could think of who would ask the kinds of questions plaguing my mind about my home country. To a large extent, he was a medium; a conduit for a lot of the complex emotions that fill returnees and Nigerians in diaspora when we think of, or visit Nigeria. And like some of us, he also needed to be schooled, humbled even, because say what you will about that country, it remains a phenomenal one with the most resilient and convention-defying citizenry ever known to humanity! Philip needed to experience this, and learn from it. He went into the investigation with preconceived notions and a lot of prejudice but came out more matured, more forgiving, and even less arrogant after all of that experience. That, for me, is the kind of protagonist I wanted to write about and because I could not see a lot of that in print, I decided to take the late great Toni Morrison’s advice and write mine. Voila, Philip Kehinde Taiwo!

To be candid, an aspect of the novel is the just the kind of story I had always wanted to write. I had my BA at the University of Benin, Benin City and I’m sure you know what that means. I had first-hand experience of campus cult oppression and all that. It’s so important you touch on Nigerian campus cults but I think it’s a careful deliberation on your part to write about fraternity. It seems like you want readers to be able to make a distinction between them?

Absolutely. And that they exist everywhere across the world – where do we think the ‘old boys club’ of Wall street emerge from? Search any society, you will find groups that start out as one thing and evolve to be something else, sometimes good, and sometimes bad. In the case of cultism in Nigeria, it was important for the reader to get a sense (not everything) of how this phenomenon came to be. It was neither intentional or planned, it was an organic outgrowth of a dysfunctional post-colonial system. It was the rotten fruit of a nation that failed to fulfil its potential. I think that needed to be said, and to almost see the evolution of the fraternities to cult as a reflection of the evolution of the nation itself from what it could have been to what it is today. 

There have always been cult systems in African societies long before the colonial disruption. Empires like the Oyo and Benin kingdoms have impeccable cult structures, even a cadre in which the age group of young boys and girls fit in. Do you think the violence that campus cult groups have morphed into is a result of the erosion of our traditional structure and system, and to curb the violence on campus, cult groups should instead be made open so they can be in public eye and monitored?

That’s a school of thought and is quite valid. I must admit that I have not quite given it that level of thought. But you’re right. When one considers that the power of the abuser in an abusive relationship is linked to secrecy, then it is quite logical to assume that ‘opening’ the fraternities and cults can curb the violence. But I also know that human structures thrive on hierarchy and separatism. Accessibility does not confer exclusivity. To my mind, what these cult members crave, beyond the power as expressed in violence, is exclusivity. If they are de-secretized (I know, not a word, but you understand me abi?), I suspect they will morph into something else to ensure that exclusivity status, which to be honest, has been entrenched across all strata of the society over decades. So, I am sorry. I think the issue of cultism on Nigerian campuses is truly a multi-headed hydra, and one singular action cannot cut off all the heads. There’s no magic bullet either, which is reminiscent of the helplessness we mostly feel when we talk about fixing the country’s myriad of problems.

The triumvirate of Dr Taiwo, Abubakar Tukur and Dr Chukwuji Nwamadi is an example of the many ethnicities in Nigeria that lived harmoniously and at the same time their unique friendship, or let me say bond, is an attestation of the founding principles of Pyrates Confraternity. Would you take this as a force for nationalism and ethnic integration that should further be encouraged?

I believe so. How we can go back to the beginning and rethink this country called Nigeria is a mystery to me. For years, there have been calls for a consultative council, some kind of national discourse of nationhood, but nothing has happened. Even the national youth service programme that was supposed to engender this nationalistic feeling is floundering. But yes, those characters were carefully selected to represent what is possible in a nation as diverse and full of promise as Nigeria.

The social media is a volatile space as it can be used to enable large scale violence through mass disinformation. Recent events in Nigeria, for instance the #EndSARS protest, show that many of our sentiments can easily be triggered through social media. You end the novel on this wary note as if pessimistic about its use.

I wouldn’t say pessimistic, but rather cautionary. The idea that social media can be used to effect massive change in societies is as old as the Arab Spring, but look at those countries today, where are they? There is no doubt that social media can awaken something, ignite a yearning or feed passions but I am extremely sceptical that it possesses the depth required to withstand interrogation, reflection and sustainable action. Do I think the whole space needs to be regulated? Not really (besides who will do it?), but it certainly needs new laws governing its usage that will mean an overhaul of everything including our educational system. As we are now, I am not sure we are prepared for the responsibility social media places in our hands – as individuals and governments. As the Americans say; something’s gotta give, and it ain’t gonna be pretty.  

You did brilliantly well concealing the actual culprit in the plot to the very end. I was sleuthing along but the revelation threw me off balance when you unravelled it – I hope I’m not giving away any spoiler. Can you talk about sequencing the plot, how different is it, if there’s any, from the literary genre? 

I am not being facetious when I say I honestly don’t know the difference between the literary genre and other genres of creative writing. I really don’t. I think the hat you wear as a writer depends on the story you want to tell and to be honest, genre is all part of humanity’s need to place (things) in a box, categorize and seek a sense of familiarity with the world the writer has created. Some have even called it a ‘marketing mandate’. 

For me, I am creating/writing a story, so the same rules apply all the time: find the best way to tell a good and compelling story, every time, all the time. To do this, I must strategize. For instance, with Lightseekers, I knew from the beginning that this was a story that was more concerned with the ‘why’ of a crime than the ‘what’ or ‘how’. So, I deliberately gave a lot away, as a device to get the reader to create their own explanations for the ‘why’. This took careful planning because you are trying to get the conventional crime reader to think in another way. It was one of the reasons I employed the first-person narrator in present tense. It was a way to make the audience see what Philip sees, and in time think like him. As soon as I felt that was a comfortable strategy to explore, the rest was back to the basics which is to write a good story, well told. I can only hope I succeeded.

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FB_IMG_1584468179903Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè is a traveller, literary critic and writer from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and Africa in Words. He enjoys travelling and cooking. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.

You can buy Lightseekers in hardback or as an eBook from Bloomsbury here.

Lightseekers is also available from Mulholland Books here.



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