Dr. Sarah Ladipo Manyika is a child of many worlds. She is by birth Nigerian, has lived in East Africa, Europe and the United States of America, where she now teaches at the San Francisco State University. Author of the celebrated book, In Dependence, Manyika, a member of the panel of judges of the Etisalat Pan-African Prize for Literature in Africa, was in Lagos for the award ceremony last month. She discusses her work, personal life, globalisation and writing with NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI

How do you cope with your transversal of the four different countries where you live and still accomplish your work as a lecturer and writer?

I think it’s actually six countries – France, Kenya, England, Nigeria, America and Zimbabwe, as I’m married to a Zimbabwean. But I don’t live in all of these countries,  so in that respect, I’m not always moving between them. For me, I see the fact that I grew up in different parts of the world as an advantage. Often, writers are those that stand at a distance and observe what’s going on. And so I feel that because I have travelled so much, and I’m often outside or looking in from the outside, that gives the writer in me, an interesting perspective. We live in an increasingly global world and even if we are not physically travelling, the Internet brings us all closer.

You talk about writing from the outside; does that give you the space to engage the society, to pass your own judgment rather than participating in the happenings in these places you have lived in? Is it that you want to write as a neutral person?

Interestingly, I don’t think one can ever be neutral, nor would I necessarily want to be. What I would say though, is that when one is presumed to be an outsider, one is often put in a position by society where you are told either directly or indirectly that you don’t belong and this sometimes gives the writer a certain distance to be able to observe things more closely. So, for example, when I arrive here in Lagos, people will look at my foreign passport, then look at me and almost certainly assume that I’m oyinbo, with no expectation that I will know anything about Nigeria. Of course, in one sense I am oyinbo because I don’t live here anymore, but that’s not the full story.

•Dr. Sarah Manyika

•Dr. Sarah Manyika

A critic wrote something about your book In Dependence concerning idealism and humans not being entirely free, especially regarding the socio-political turbulence in the era the book is set. Now, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, two countries you are associated with are at crossroads – the Nigerian elections are coming up next year and raising concerns about the future of the country and recently Mugabe celebrated his 90th birthday, yet he is still on the saddle. Is there generally, any marked difference between the period you wrote about in your book and now?

When I wrote In Dependence, I was really interested in exploring the 1960s era when there was such idealism and hope for Africa and then in exploring how things changed and began to fall apart over the years. Nigerian students such as Tayo, a main character in my book, were going to England and America to study in the 1960s and had every intention of returning to Nigeria to make the country great. It was really a great positive and optimistic time for Nigeria and much of Africa. Zimbabwe gained her independence in 1980 and once again there were great expectations and hopes for the country. Mugabe was praised and considered a hero and even today remains a hero for many based on what he did in the liberation struggle. But so much of that initial optimism has of course fizzled today. So, I think to that extent things haven’t really changed in terms of what is reflected towards the end of my novel in the 1990s and 2000’s and now. In spite of these still turbulent times, albeit in perhaps different ways, there is also still hope.

What are these different ways?

I think what I mean by different ways is that the nature of the turbulence has changed. But I do want to take a step back and say that I’m first and foremost a writer and not a social commentator or a politician. When I write, I’m not writing with a particular message or particular political agenda in mind and nor do I have all the answers to what ails our societies. That said, what I feel that my writing can do is reflect on how people are feeling. The writing can speak to people’s frustrations and dashed hopes and to people’s expectations. And not every feeling is negative. There is a lot that is positive about both countries. I mean in many ways. I’m very impressed by what I’ve seen in Lagos. I think Governor Babatunde Fashola has done a good job; again, I’m not a political commentator but I have noticed things that seem better in Lagos than the last time I was here. I just want to make it clear that even though there are disappointments, there are also positive things – one of them being the Etisalat Prize for Literature. I think that this is a fantastic prize and a very exciting one for Africa, and not just Africa but for the whole world.

You mentioned to me earlier how globalisation affects us. How much does it get into your work, given that you are having to transverse a lot of places and cultures?

For me, I’m intrinsically interested in people that transverse different cultures and geographies because that is something that I have done. Right now, for example, I live in America and I’m particularly interested in the immigrant story. The book I’m writing now, which I hope to finish soon, is about an older Nigerian immigrant living in the US. Right now I find myself drawn to writing about immigrants and particularly old immigrants living in cultures and societies that are not theirs. So in my current book, I am exploring the question of how one experiences ageing in America when one comes from a culture that has a very different approach to aging than America.

Many people will say the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States changed the entire global immigration rules. Isn’t it?

Definitely! The challenges for any would-be-immigrant to the US are certainly much greater than they used to be. In the United States, if you are coming in as a foreigner, you face greater scrutiny and greater stereotyping if you happen to be Muslim or “look” Muslim. Yes, we live in an increasingly fractured world because of the fear of fundamentalism and terrorism.

You teach literature in the United States. I don’t know how much you follow current trends in Nigerian literature. There appears to be a gap between criticism and creative writing. Does that affect the quality of writing? 

The gap being what?

Criticism and writing – the undermining of the role of the critic.

Again, I’m not on the ground here but I certainly take an avid interest in anything that comes out of the continent, with Nigeria being where my roots are. There are some people who are writing critical pieces around the new works that are coming out of the continent, but there is certainly a need for more. I think that what has also happened is that writers themselves are often put in the position of having to be critics of their own works and the works of others and that can get a little bit awkward sometimes. I’m certainly eager to see many more home grown critics for this new wave of writing because right now it seems that it’s still predominantly Americans and Europeans critiquing African works – and that’s fine, anyone should be entitled to critique any work from wherever it originates, but in the case of Africa as with so many things Africans, Africa, I believe, needs to set her own standards. And this of course brings me back to both the symbolic and practical importance of the Etisalat Prize for Literature.

You are here as a judge of the Etisalat Prize for Literature in Africa and all the shortlisted stories came from southern Africa. Does that suggest that the creative writing enterprise has shifted to that region, given that we knew the west coast of Africa as the hub of creative writing in the past?

I won’t say a particular region has become this or that. I’d like to step back and look at the long list. There, you will see writers from a wide variety of countries including several from Nigeria. The fact is that choices have to be made and only three writers can make it to the shortlist. It is true that this year all three stories are rooted in Southern Africa but this doesn’t mean that the focus of writing has shifted to Southern Africa. You’d have to look at the prize results over a number of years I think to make that claim. And in my own readings, not just of Anglophone literature but also of literature across the continent, I see exciting work coming from a diversity of places in the continent.

I followed the conversation when the short list was announced. Some of the comments were based on nationality or tribalism. Did you follow the social media while judging the prize?

Well, I have to say that I don’t regularly follow the debates that arise in social media because I’m not on social media. And the reason I’m not on social media, even though I live in the heartland of where all of these companies are based – Facebook, Google, etc- is that I’m so busy with teaching and writing and other commitments that for me to be actively engaged in social media at this point is just distracting. But of course social media is obviously important because it helps people communicate and if I were on social media then I would be able to comment on the specifics of the controversies you are referring to.

But taking a guess at the nature of these controversies I would suspect that if there are those who feel that one group or nationality is being favoured more than the other, then all the more reason for Pan African prizes such as the Etisalat prize and even more prizes. One prize can only do so much. I really hope that one of the things the Etisalat prize does is to encourage others to start paying attention to literature on the continent. I’d love people to feel inspired by this prize and to start saying ‘You know what? We have to support the arts, let’s do more of this.’

If you are calling for a multiplicity of literary prizes, to litter prizes around the place, how do you maintain the sanctity or integrity of those prizes, given the peculiarity of our environment?

But I don’t think that prizes are littered around the place yet as I think I hear you saying.

If say, as you suggested that there should be more prizes sponsored by the big corporations, how will we be able to maintain standards such as the Etisalat prize has started?

The challenge for establishing a reputable prize is the same challenge that anyone might face when setting up something new. Let there be integrity across the board. I don’t think it is different when you are setting up a corporation, business or prize. You strive to do the very best that you can and I think it’s up to whoever is awarding the prize to do the best that they can because in the long run, if you have a prize that pays attention to integrity and so on, then your prize is going to stand the test of time. So, let people continue to encourage and support the establishment of these prizes.

Can you share with me the challenge that you had arriving at a winner of this prize especially that this is the inaugural award? 

It’s always difficult particularly when you have three strong books and you are looking for the very best. But we did have criteria that we considered. These criteria included originality, language, narrative strength and characterization and this helped guide us in the rating of each of the books. We also added additional criteria when it came to narrowing it down to the shortlist. This included how we felt the books might stand up to the test of time. And how did we feel about the books after we’d read them for a second time? So that was another way of trying to assess the quality of the books.Certainly at the end of the day, we were looking for the best possible story, the best possible writing.

Let me take you back a little to your Nigerianess. What memories do you still have about the country?

I left Nigeria when I was 14-15 years old. My formative years were spent here – six years here in Lagos and then the rest of the time in Jos. The question is, what memories do I have? I have very, very fond memories and this is why I’m continually eager to be close to the country even from a distance. This is where I grew up and I want to see what I can do in my small way even from a distance to support it.

How do you feel like when you read about the things that have happened in Jos, the city you lived in for some years?

It breaks my heart. Jos was always seen as an ideal place. People came to Jos for holidays. At the time that I lived there, my father was an Anglican pastor. And while we went to church, we also had close friends who were Muslims, Jews and, perhaps surprisingly for Nigeria, atheists too. During Ramadan, we would break the fast with our Muslim friends and I don’t ever remember there being any tension along religious lines. I didn’t grow up in a Jos where there was tension along religious lines. So, to think about what Jos has become today from what I knew of it back then, this is very tragic, it’s very sad.

Since the publication of Margaret Busby’s Daughters of Africa, an anthology of African women’s writing, many talents have emerged on the continent, including you. Can you tell me about some of those women writers and the impact they have made?

Well, this is one of the things that make me excited. There are so many emerging women voices, such as the ones that were shortlisted for this prize – Karen Jennings, Noviolet Bulawayo and Yewande Omotoso. Sefi Atta, Lola Shoneyin, Chimamanda Adichie are others and I can go on mentioning names because there are so many new and exciting writers now. They are not just Nigerians but they come from across the continent and beyond. So all these writers have certainly inspired me, but I’m also inspired by writers internationally. I’m currently enjoying the work of Lydia Davis for example. I’m particularly inspired to see how many more women we are hearing from these days, and not just in the countries of Africa but around the world.

What can people like you do to help or bring the plight of women suffering in dark corners of Africa to light?

Again, as I don’t live here I’m not in the position to speak for groups of people that I don’t have close contact with and I’m not sure which women in particular you are referring to. I always believe that we all have to do what we can as a society to ameliorate the conditions of those who are suffering around us. If we all did that then the world would a better place. I live in California right now and not everything is rosy there; there are struggling single mothers who are unemployed, and there are many whose partners are in prison.

So, there are challenges wherever you live in the world. What I’m saying is that wherever I live in the world I try to engage in the issues affecting the local community to make a difference there. I also take particular interest in Nigeria so if there is something that I feel I can do to ameliorate anything here, whether through my writing or otherwise, then I will.

To love and be loved is one of the overriding themes in your book, In Dependence. How can one wriggle out of not being accepted in any sector be it social, political or otherwise?

That’s a big question that I’m not quite sure I fully understand, but with respect to the question of love, the first thing that comes to mind is the importance of self love. A deeper understanding of self and love of self puts one in a better position to love and be loved, I think.

I ask this question in relation to your work; that continuous struggle to be heard, be loved and accepted, seen, identified with. What can we do if we find ourselves in situations where these things become challenges to us?

I think I’ll return to what I said earlier which is to stress the importance of self-knowledge. We all want to be loved, accepted, and listened to – I know I certainly do. But for me, one of the wonderful things about growing older is learning how to be more content with myself and to seek affirmation less from the world around me, and more from the standards that I set for myself.

How do you combine the three major things such as having a family, teaching and being a creative writer? And then the travels that come in-between?

I have to say it’s a challenge and one of my resolutions for this year is to pull back a little bit on how much time and energy I am spending in other spheres of my life in order to focus on my own writing. I’m determined to finish my next novel for example, but I know it’s a struggle for me, as I have a tendency to take on too much sometimes. I am also very thankful to have a husband that is encouraging and supportive of my artistic pursuits.

Your book In Dependence was published by Cassava Republic in 2009. Are we going to wait for more than a decade after publication before we have a Nigerian version of the new book?

Let’s wait until the book comes out. But I’d really love for my book to come out in this continent before it comes out anywhere else.

…Published in TheNEWS magazine