Why in the world would you write a book about Nigeria?

Authors note: My third novel z2 is currently on blog tour through the fine folks at Reading Addiction Virtual Book Tours. The post below is part of that tour and it appeared a few days ago on Always Jo Art, a fun blog about books, motherhood, and product give-aways. My thoughts were inspired by a post I wrote here back in 2012, three whole books ago. A lot has changed for me since then, but apparently other things haven’t changed much at all.

http://nollywoodonline.info/?p=5After I finished my first novel, x0, I was told that writing about Nigeria was a poor choice because it just isn’t a place that particularly interests many readers. Paris or London would have been better. I found this funny. Lots of novels take place in Paris and London and it seemed to me that the world didn’t need one more. Nigeria, on the other hand, has a plethora of rich stories to tell which are far less known, at least in Texas where I live.

I chose Nigeria originally because I wanted to write a tale of two very different women helping each other. About the same time that I started the book, I also started a new job exploring for oil in the Niger Delta and had the chance to work with many Nigerians. One day I asked my office mate, a Nigerian geologist, to describe to me how his tribe, the Igbo, were unique. He responded by telling me a legend about Igbo slaves coming to America. It startled me at first that he would even speak of such a thing, but in the end I was touched by both the moving story he told, and by the powerful way in that he told it. I tried to capture each of those when I retold this scene in x0.

95As I wrote, I discovered how much the fascinating details of a far off land appeal to me. That meant that I had to find a location for my second book, y1 that was even less well known. Once I found it, I was writing about the remote Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, exactly on the other side of the globe from my first story.

The plot of my third novel, z2, dictated that my characters not wander off too far from Texas, so instead I found a way to let my readers wander around in time. Although z2 never leaves North America, it includes visits to a Mayan village under siege in Guatemala and the camp of eighteenth-century lumberjacks on the coast of Belize.

image014No, I’m not done with my armchair travels yet. There are three more books in this collection and the one I’ve just finished, c3, takes place partly in the isolated Himalayan nation of Bhutan. The one I’m working on now is taking me to the far North, where I am learning fascinating things about Greenland and Iceland.

Why Nigeria? Why anywhere. Every spot on this earth is teeming with tales of its own and with great settings for new ones. These stories not only have the capacity to entertain us, but they can also give us new information and a fresh perspective.

 

Understanding the underwear bomber

As a human, I wish fervently for a world filled with empathy and mutual respect amongst the many nations, religions, races and preferences that fill this globe. As a writer, I understand that a story filled with nothing but such enlightened people probably isn’t going to be much of story. Instead, I must create, understand, and bring to life those who would do others harm.

hippiepeace5The worst villain I have created may be the crime lord in my new novel c3, a ruthless man who harbors a taste for unwilling virgins. Or it may be my Nigerian fanatic in x0, who works to blow up an airplane leaving Lagos right before Christmas 2009. Of all the characters I have ever written, I struggled the hardest to understand both of these men, and to describe how they justified their actions to themselves.

How realistic is such horrible behavior? Clearly most of the folks in line with you at the grocery store are not capable of these kinds of atrocities, and we are all thankful for that. But even my worst characters are based on information I have come across in real life. Some of x0 was born out of my interest in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, known as the “Underwear Bomber”. A 23 year old Nigerian, he hid plastic explosives in his undies and attempted to detonate them while on board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009.

I think his story tugged at me because a week later I began work as a consultant with an oil company exploring in offshore Nigeria. I immediately got to know several young Nigerian men who were about his age. As I became friends with my new co-workers, I puzzled over the story of of this youngest child of sixteen, son of a wealthy Nigerian banker and his second wife. I learned that such huge families, encompassing multiple wives, were not uncommon in Nigeria and I could now personally attest to the fact that they produced people as loving and talented as families structured the way I was used to.

So what makes anyone decide to kill a bunch of complete strangers who have done him no harm? As I began to write x0, I knew that the villain in my book would be older, far more manipulative, and not tied to Muslim terrorist organizations or their goals. Nonetheless, I felt that I had to better understand this underwear bomber in order to create the character that would drive the plot of x0.

I read. A fellow student said that Abdulmutallab started every day by going to the mosque for dawn prayers, and then spent hours in his room reading the Quran. Unusual, especially for a young person, but hardly evil and even what some would call praiseworthy. “He told me his greatest wish was for sharia and Islam to be the rule of law across the world,” said one of his classmates.Okay, now I was getting somewhere. It’s one thing to immerse oneself in a religion, quite another to decide that every other human on earth should believe and do the same. Clearly those of many different faiths share this zeal to convert or even coerce, but in my heart, once you think that you know what everyone else should believe, you’ve entered rocky moral ground.

taboojive1Luckily the bomb went off with no injuries except to Abdulmutallab who was apprehended as he left the plane. When he was sentenced to life without parole in 2012, he declared that Muslims were “proud to kill in the name of God, and that is what God told us to do in the Quran.” I don’t know a single Muslim who agrees with that, although my knowledge base is limited to co-workers who share my hope for a peaceful world.

The underwear bomber did not hope for peace. He preferred destruction to a world that wasn’t the way he thought it should be. Once I understood that fact, I understood him. Understanding is not agreeing. I abhor what he did, I abhor death caused by anyone of any faith who thinks that the people of the world are better off bleeding than being free to make their own choices. Those who would kill to convert are about control. They are not about God, or love or peace.

(Please like the HippiePeaceFreaks and TabooJive pages on Facebook for these two clever images. Please see my y1 blog for a post about why I made pharmaceutical companies my villain, and see my z2 blog for an upcoming post about my tale of researching racist groups in America.)

Happy 53rd Birthday Nigeria!

My novel x0 was supposed to take place in Saudi Arabia because I wanted my oil industry protagonist to develop a telepathic link with a Saudi woman. It was going to be a story of two outwardly different people who bonded over similar concerns for their younger sisters. Except that every time I started to write, it just didn’t feel right.

http://www.unfpa.org/public/global/pid/1050Meanwhile, I began a new job as a consultant for a company exploring for oil in the Niger Delta. There are many cool things about my current employer, but one of the best is that they are a very African centric company. I found myself sharing an office with three Nigerians, and learning about a country and a blend of cultures that was far more intriguing than I had ever imagined. I am endlessly curious about places far away from Texas anyway, and my patient office mates never stopped answering my questions.

http://nollywoodonline.info/?p=5 This went on for months. Working late one evening, I had to shut out a conversation between a Nigerian geologist at a desk three feet away from me and his younger brother back home.  Apparently little brother had a big test in chemistry the next day and my co-worker was trying to both tutor and encourage him. I used to do that for my sister. “We are so much alike the world over,” I thought. And it clicked into place.

About eight months later I finished my first novel. It tells the story of an American woman who befriends a Nigerian telepath who is trying to help her younger sister. While writing the book I got to learn even more about Nigeria and how it was created by the British and “given independence”  October 1, 1960. These outsiders lumped together millions of people with strong tribal affinities of their own, but with no common language and a great deal of mistrust  of the customs and cultures of the other tribes with which they were forced to share a country. Not surprisingly, Nigeria has had its share of troubles and bloodshed as the individuals within its borders struggled with the structure that had been imposed on them.

http://www.everyculture.com/Ma-Ni/Nigeria.htmlThe Nigerians I know are without exception resourceful and hopeful, and I see this in the country’s history as well. They are now fifty-three years into trying to make Nigeria as well-functioning and peaceful as most Nigerians would like it to be. I applaud them for how far they have come under difficult circumstances and I wish the country and its people the very best. Happy Birthday Nigeria.  As your national motto says, may “Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress” fill your future.