Born in Nigeria, Odafe Atogun is a writer who draws inspiration from his African society to create a unique and colourful world where humankind is consumed by a common desire for change. His debut novel, TADUNO’S SONG, was selected for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club. World rights for TADUNO’S SONG was acquired by Canongate UK. It was first published in the UK in August 2016 and in the US by Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House, in March 2017. It has been translated into German, Italian and Turkish, with other countries soon to come.
Following his two-book deal with Canongate, Penguin Random House and Arche, he has completed his second novel, WAKE ME WHEN l’M GONE, which will be published in the UK in August 2017. Now a fulltime writer based in Abuja, he is working on his third book.
Lola Shoneyin Interviews with Odafe Atogun, author of Taduno’s Song, published by Ouida Books
So you are one of the new kids on the world literary block. Tell me something about you I didn’t know before.
I was born in Lokoja, Kogi state, but I’m from Edo state. One of my names is a Yoruba name, which is Bolaji. My family call me ‘Bola’ but I decided not to use this on my public profile because I would have to keep explaining that I am actually from Edo state.
Can you tell me a little about your journey as a writer?
I started writing in 1985, a year after I finished secondary school. I am in my late forties now. Some call me a late bloomer. In 2009, I wrote a collection of short stories and sent it to an editor at Random House in the UK. I was told that short stories were hard to sell and I should write a novel. I started working on a novel and sent the first four chapters. The editor loved it and insisted on reading the rest of the manuscript. The problem was that I had only written those four chapters. I didn’t know what to tell him so I said I had finished the novel but needed two weeks to edit it. I immediately went out and bought a generator. In two weeks, sleeping only two hours a day, I finished a book of three hundred pages. I sent the three hundred pages to the editor but I was disheartened by the feedback. The rest of the manuscript did not get the rave reception the first four chapters had received. That was the learning curve for me. Afterwards, I went to work on a new book, which is Taduno’s Song. And it was the editor at Random House who gave me my breakthrough.
How did you come up with the title ‘Taduno’s Song’ and how long did it take you to write the novel?
The original title I chose for Taduno’s Song was ‘In The Time Of Taduno’s Song’, but my editor at Canongate shortened it, which I really like. It took me three months and two weeks to write. I started the book in January 2013 and finished in the second week in April. When I’m writing, I can go on for two weeks nonstop. I lock myself up and write.
Taduno’s Song came out in the UK in August. How has it been received?
It has done really well so far. I got a wonderful blurb from Marlon James and several writers I really respect. I have a two-book deal with Canongate, UK and they have been working very hard to sell the rights to other markets. Random House is publishing Taduno’s Song in the US. The German rights have been sold to Arche Books. The Italian rights have been sold to Frassinelli. The Turkish edition has just been released by Yurt Kitap Yayin. And, of course, we have Ouida Books in Nigeria!
One of the things that I was fascinated by when reading Taduno’s Song was the effortless fluidity in the shift in time and place.
I try to avoid being pinned to a particular location. That’s just my style. I don’t set out to do this, but I have realized that that’s the way my mind works. Also, the experience of writing three hundred pages in two weeks showed me that I have to write quickly. Anything beyond six months, I lose the thread of the story. I also find that social media kills my creativity. I had to close my Facebook account. It is important to me that my writing speaks for me.
I think childhood experiences have an interesting influence on how we write and what we write about. What was your childhood like?
My parents were divorced before I knew what it meant. I was about two years old and my dad raised me on his own. When he was going to go further his education, he sent me to live with a family friend I had never met. I returned to live with my father when I was about eleven but, by then, I had become a rebel of sorts.
Let me share an experience with you. The family friend I was sent to live with had two wives. When I got there, I was a soft and gentle butter boy but I quickly had to learn how to work on the family farm. There were older boys living in the man’s house and we would all eat together. The bigger boys would eat huge portions of the food and leave tiny morsels for the young ones to share. One day, one of the man’s wives declared that her smoked fish had gone missing. An older boy called Reuben (I will never forget the name) said he had seen me stealing the fish. The family members beat me up for hours. They started around two in the afternoon and it lasted for hours. They kept yelling at me to confess. At midnight, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was exhausted and confessed to something I knew nothing of. Two days later, Reuben was caught with fish stuffed in his pockets and mouth.
How did that experience affect you?
That experience spurred a story called ‘The Innocent Thief’. I was alone at the time, without the protection of my parents. I cried a lot and even at that very young age, it struck me that nobody thought to apologize when the real thief was found. To date, I’m a conscious campaigner for justice. I can’t encounter injustice and just let it go. I think that has shaped my defining principles in life.
And what are you working on now?
I have recently finished my second novel which has been approved by my UK publisher. Rights for this second novel have already been sold to Random House, US and in Germany to Arche. I’m working on my third novel now, which I hope to finish before May 2017.
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