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Sarah Manyika

Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Manyika lived in Kenya, England and France. She spent her undergraduate years in the Universities of Birmingham and Bordeaux and did her doctorate at UC Berkeley. She currently lives in San Francisco where she lectures in English literature at San Francisco State University. She has published essays, academic papers, book reviews and short stories. She was married in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1994 and now divides her time between San Francisco (where she teaches literature at San Francisco State University), London and Harare. Sarah's novel, In Dependence, was published by Legend Press in 2008 and was chosen by the UK's largest bookstore chain as its featured book for Black History Month. In 2009, In Dependence, was published by Cassava Republic, a literary press based in Abuja, Nigeria.


 The Sarah Ladipo Manyika Interview
Ovo Adagha
Ovo Adagha
is a Nigerian writer. His short stories, poems and non-fiction works have been published in several online and print journals. He recently co-edited a multi-ethnic anthology of short stories, One World, published in 2009. He lives in London.

We are in fact never really “free” and “independent”

In Dependence is a story of individuals struggling to find their place within uncertain political times – a story of idealism, courage and betrayal, and the universal desire to love and be loved. In this conversation with London-based Nigerian writer, Ovo Adagha, Sarah speaks about hope, love and other compelling motifs behind her book. She provides an instructive insight into the period of colonialism to the heady days of independence and what has followed till date
I thought we might begin by comparing the critical reviews of your novel In Dependence. There are varying accounts of its texture: some describe it as a complex love story; others wager on its synthetic explorations of interracial and intercultural relationships; while some relate it with an underlying and implied tendency to history, albeit with some political extensity in tow.  How would you describe the peculiar motivations that derived it? And was it based on a biographic foundation?

SLM: I am very grateful for the attention the novel has received thus far, and intrigued to see what aspects of the novel readers find themselves drawn to.  My intention was to write a story of unfulfilled love fraught with the weight of history, race and geography and intertwined with questions of belonging, aging, religious faith and family secrets. I also hoped that the novel might speak to the complexities of contemporary Africa, its Diaspora and its interdependence with the rest of the world.  I was drawn to write about all of the above simply because these happened to be themes and ideas that I was thinking about at the time of writing the story.  In Dependence has an autobiographical base only to the extent that I am familiar with the places that I describe.  The characters and the story are made up, although, of course there will inevitably be autobiographical elements in characters that are often an amalgam of people that I have known. And I am sure that little bits of “me” have, from time to time, crept into some of my characters “independent” of any authorial intent.

: How long did it take to write? And would you say your 'intentions' were accomplished?

SLM: It took me several years to write this novel.  At the time that I began to write the novel I was looking for a really good love story set in geographical locations and historical periods that I was particularly interested in (namely West Africa from the 1960s to present day) and because I did not find that story, I ended up writing the story that I wanted to read.  And so in that sense I accomplished what I intended.  I wrote a novel and was lucky enough to find a publisher that wanted to publish it. However, there is still a part of me that wishes that some other writer, a better writer than me, might have written this story which is not to say that what I have done is not good, but only to underline how important and exciting I think this particular era was and the potential therein for many more great stories. All one has to do is look at the real life examples of Barack Obama’s parents or that of Botswana’s Seretse Khama and his wife, Ruth Williams, to realize how important such stories are.  Living in the so-called West, I often hear writers say that there are no new stories to be written, that everything has already been written about.  But when it comes to Africa’s stories and the stories of Africans in the Diaspora I believe that we are only at the beginning.  Oh – and one more thing on intentions … when I wrote this novel I gave it a sound track and envisaged it as a film.  For the lead character I had Chiwetel Ejiofor in mind, but alas, this intention has yet to be realized.

: We will return to your plans for Mr. Chiwetel as I am sure he would be honoured.  But a few things about the early decisions you made or where trying to make stoke my curiosity: Why a love story?  I see in the end the story you wrote crossed several borders but why the peculiar reference to West Africa and the timeline from 1960?

SLM: Why a love story?  Well, what could be better than a really good love story?  And as I alluded to in the previous question, it seems to me that there is a dearth of love stories written about contemporary Africans or Africans in the Diaspora.  It is not hard to find stories of war and civil strife, of tyranny, and of corruption, but where are all the grand amours, the tales of love and heartache?  We all fall in love, don’t we?  I believe it was Toni Morrison who once said that if there is a book that you want to read but cannot find, then you must write it yourself.  So this is what I did.  And yes, you’re right that the novel crosses several geographical borders, winding its way between Nigeria, England, France, Senegal, and the US, but West Africa is particularly important because the book begins in Nigeria.  Nigeria is the country that formed me and inspired the writing of this novel and so in a sense the novel is a love story to Nigeria.  As for the 1960s, these years have always struck me as an exciting period for much of the world.  This was the time of independence movements across Africa, the Civil Rights movement in the US, and various countercultural movements across Europe.  Artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Fela Kuti and the Beatles were amongst many to herald this change.  And in a way there is an interesting symmetry between this period and the present day in which Barack Obama, a product of this earlier generation, has once again championed change.  I would hope that my book evokes some of the excitement of this earlier period and perhaps leaves the reader with continued hope for today.

: As I read In Dependence, I find that there are significant issues of imperial literary history, Pan-Africanism, racism and colonialist discourse buried in the narrative. Even your characters – especially in the early stages of the book – are mired in heated discussions on these and other precocious issues. I found these discussions fascinating and in some ways I am reminded of the insurrectionary elements in Soyinka’s The Interpreters and Clark’s America, Their America. Were you perhaps striving to stimulate your readers to a higher level of awareness or is this an insightful style of delivery you are naturally drawn to?

SLM: Imperialism, Pan - Africanism, racism and colonialism are all raised in the novel because these were issues that my characters would have been discussing at the time and issues that touched them personally to one degree or another.  Soyinka and J.P. Clark emerged as significant authors in the 1960s and this too is why a reader should not be surprised to find references to their works by one or more characters in the novel.  I am particularly intrigued though, by your use of the word “precocious” to the extent that it’s one of the adjectives that I might use to describe Vanessa, the main female character in this novel.  I find myself increasingly drawn to women characters that do not conform to what society expects.  “Insurrectionary,” perhaps?

: And there is also the politics of the complex Nigerian state.  Your portrayal of the decadence and the manner in which it affected your main characters was done in deft snatches – almost laconically. Yet there still emerged a sense of disappointment. 

SLM: The other day, while reorganizing my bookshelf, I was struck by book titles.  More specifically, I was struck by the collection of novels that I teach to undergraduates, and I’m sure I heard the books whispering to each other as they sat there, quietly, on the shelves.  The books were: Things Fall Apart, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Nervous Conditions, Ways of Dying, No Longer at Ease, Waiting for an Angel, Corruption, and Every Day is for the Thief.  Now what struck me, and perhaps what also strikes you, is the sentiment carried in each of these titles – the undeniable element of despair, and yes, disappointment, conveyed merely by title.  These titles would seem to reflect the mood of our continent and the complex, lived realities that have caused many to leave.  Out of the exodus arise books with such titles as: A Life Elsewhere and Home and Exile.  But there are also book titles hinting at hope, levity, and arguably, at first glance at least, nothing to do with despair of the societal sort.  Take, for example, Everything Good Will Come, Nights of the Creaking Bed, African Love Stories, Fathers and Daughters.  But who am I to know what these books were whispering to each other?  For all I know, these books might merely have been discussing who had the better book cover, or they might have been arguing over why they were so often shelved only with other African-authored books when, for goodness sakes, why couldn’t they be mixed with books from other parts of the world? 

But whatever their collective thoughts, this preamble conveniently brings me to a discussion of In Dependence and what I, as author, hoped to convey in the book and through the title.  This novel starts in the independence era – a time of great hope for the future.  The so-called “winds of change” were said to be sweeping through Africa and indeed, when you go back to newspapers and journals of the time, you see this confidence mirrored in the writing.  There was initially, immense hope, but with time, that hope faded.  Recalling this time of hope was a conscious decision on my part and if, as a result, my portrayal of what went wrong is sometimes done in “deft snatches – almost laconically” it is only to avoid having the book being overwhelmed by despair and disappointment.  For while, I recognize the sadder parts of life, and of our country’s history; I wanted the focus of In Dependence to be on something different.  This brings me back to my earlier response in which I spoke of how easy it is to find stories of war and civil strife, of tyranny, and of corruption, but where are all the grand amours, the tales of love and heartache?  I continue to hold great hope for our country and our continent’s future (no doubt in some way influenced by the wave of hope I recently experienced in America’s last election).  That said, I am also a realist and indeed, one of the core themes of In Dependence is that we are in fact never really “free” and “independent” when it comes to some of the big choices in our lives – whom to marry, where to live, what causes to attach ourselves to.   And yet and yet …

: And yet while we speak about the bad political turns, it seems your characters are enmeshed in the same cycles of degradation, discovery and hope in their personal relationships.

SLM: Ah-ha, characters!  And just when you were beginning to think that we had exhausted our discussion of book titles, here’s one more thought:  While I was writing this novel, I considered many different titles, but for a very long time my working title for this novel was “Tayo and Vanessa,” and I mention this to highlight the importance of these two main characters.  While Tayo and Vanessa were inevitably “enmeshed,” within the wider contexts in which they lived, their lives were never completely subsumed by it.  I strove to create characters with their own unique strengths, weaknesses and contradictions.  I wanted characters with real depth, characters that readers would be drawn to and care about.  Books with memorable characters are what I enjoy reading the most, and hence why I worked so hard on character.  Of course, one of the greatest challenges about writing this story was that it spanned a large period of time in which my characters would grow and evolve as they moved from youth to old age.   Or should I say “old-ish” age?  For isn’t it interesting how with age, one’s own definition of age evolves.  Curious too, how that first person “I” just disappeared in favour of the more ambiguous, “one”.

: Seeing that you invested a lot of time and deliberation in your characterization, I reckon it’s no coincidence that your female characters – from Christine to Elizabeth, Modupe, Vanessa, Jane, Miriam, Kemi and Aunty Bayo –  were all emotionally exploited in their liaisons with men.

SLM: As a lecturer of English literature I respond to your statement with a nod of understanding for, as I often remind students, any good piece of literature is open to numerous interpretations.  On the other hand, as the author of the book in question, I respond with slightly raised eyebrows, for were I to describe the female characters in the novel, I would not have started with this particular observation.  But you are right that a number of female characters in the novel experience some form of emotional exploitation in their liaisons with men.  What is also true, however, is that many of these women, including the main character, Vanessa, find ways of either moving beyond or rising above debilitating liaisons.  And then of course, there are always those characters, such as Tayo’s mother and Madame Pagnole, who, from the very beginning, seem impervious to any sort of exploitation. 

: Let’s return to the earlier comment you made about, Mr. Chiwetel, playing your leading character, Tayo, in an envisaged motion picture of the novel. Isn’t it odd that there’s hardly any form of interaction between novel stories by Nigerian writers and the local film industry?

SLM: I first saw Chiwetel in Dirty Pretty Things and thought he was amazing (his acting was pretty good too.)  Dirty Pretty Things was a ground breaking film with its focus on a largely untold story of London’s various “illegal” immigrant communities, and Chiwetel did a superb job playing his character, a Nigerian doctor illegally working in London as a cab driver and hotel receptionist.  Sophie Okonedo (another actor with Nigerian connections) also starred in the film.  I have subsequently seen Chiwetel in many more films including Inside Man, Children of Men, and Red Belt and feel that he’s now ready to play the role of Tayo.  With his Nigerian background, his British education and his international exposure, I think he’d make a perfect fit.  I am not as familiar with actors in Nigeria’s local film industry as I’d like to be, but I’m sure there are many great actors who could play Tayo.  I find it amazing that in the space of just two short decades, Nollywood has apparently become the second largest film industry in the world!  I think it is only a question of time before one begins to see greater collaboration between writers and filmmakers for a more diverse offering of films.  Nigerians are a creative people, and the incredible success of Nollywood ought to be an inspiration and encouragement for a variety of art forms.

: Are you working on anything now? Another love story?

SLM:This question comes to me in the wake of so much terrible world news - the cataclysmic devastation caused by Haiti’s recent earthquake and the news of yet more horrendous killings in the city of Jos, my childhood home.  It also comes at a time when political uncertainty hovers ominously over Nigeria with its absentee President, and when political shenanigans here in America threaten to derail important legislative change.  At times like this, despair and sadness makes what is already a difficult process of writing even harder for me.  I find myself asking, over and over again, what is the point of writing.  In calmer moments I know that there are all sorts of good reasons for writing, not least of which is the fact that writing can, and does, make a difference in our troubled world.  And so it is against this backdrop that I am currently completing a collection of short stories with the working title of “Translatlantic Blues”.  Some of the stories are set in San Francisco, where I currently live, while others are set in London, Paris, Harare, Lagos, Delhi, Antigua and New York, and so the canvas is international and features characters from a diverse set of backgrounds.  And yes, love in its various manifestations features in this book (e.g. romantic, filial, religious, servant-master relations etc.) but it is only one of many strands in this collection.  Perhaps what is most noticeable in this new book is the thematic of identity as it pertains, for example, to women, immigrants and people in old age. 

: Can you say a word or two about your recent book tour to Nigeria?

SLM: I am so excited that the novel is now available in Nigeria.  My Nigerian publishers, Cassava Republic Press, did an outstanding job with In Dependence from the editing, to the book cover, to organizing a wonderful mix of book tour events.  Obviously one of the big differences about talking about this novel in Nigeria (versus readings done in America or England) is that Nigerian audiences generally “get” the many cultural/historical contexts of this novel in a way that allows me to spend less time explaining context. While I very much enjoy talking about my book wherever I am invited to speak, there is something extra special about being able to discuss a book in the place that has inspired its writing.  In the case of In Dependence, this place is, of course, Nigeria.  I have always dreamt of a thriving publishing industry in Nigeria and, thanks to the amazing work of publishing houses such as Cassava Republic, it looks like this is indeed a dream coming true.

: Often, as writers, we are ushered into a period of knowing and learning by the very process of our writing.  Would you say that this book has impacted on your character as a writer -  by the experiences and encounters you had in the making?

SLM: In Dependence took a long time to write and a long time to find itself a publisher, and so one would think that by now I would have a learnt a little more patience.  But unfortunately, knowing and learning do not always go together.  I still find myself immensely frustrated by how long it takes me to settle on a new project.  I am not the sort of writer who plots things out before I write (though I wish I were) and therefore my method of writing has always seemed incredibly inefficient and messy.  I do take some comfort, though, in the knowledge that other authors whom I admire, seem to face the same challenge.  Where there has been significant change, however, is in the way I deal with feedback and criticism.  I cannot deny that I still prefer praise to criticism, but I am now much less sensitive to critique, especially when I feel that there is something to be learnt from it.  As for encounters along the way that have impacted my writing, I am immensely grateful to my husband, my family, and friends for their support and encouragement.  I am also grateful to Sarah Vaughan, Hugh Masekela, Oliver Mtukudzi, Fela Kuti, Handel, Mozart, Bob Marley, Diane Reeves, and many more whose work has kept me company both when the writing was tough, and also in those rare, but oh-so-blissful, moments when I had the distinct impression that my writing was actually beginning to sing..

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