Kingsley Kobo’s Interview
Posted May 27, 2009on:
A transcribed radio interview
Radio FM Maya: You seem to be a newcomer, can you tell us about yourself?
Kingsley Kobo: Well, I’m son of the Nigerian author and novelist, Alfred Vhovhen. I started my career as a scriptwriter while studying Physics Education at Delta State University, Abraka, Nigeria. I submitted my first movie script to a major studio at age 17. I later left the sciences to concentrate more on writing because I realised I was manipulating words better than figures.
How did your dad feel when he learnt you’d written a book?
Oh great! He was very, very elated. He called me and asked for a copy. He said I was making him proud and that he was short of words.
You started your career as a scriptwriter. How does that differ from novel writing in the task of storytelling?
Personally, I love both. Scriptwriting is more practical and conversational. It gives you the grace and space to throw people (characters) in real verbal confrontation. You don’t need to explore and provide the internal conflicts of your characters unlike novel writing. But, novel writing somehow stands out and gives you some authority that scripting will never offer.
You’re Anglophone living in Cote D’Ivoire – a French-speaking country. How did you manage to make a tale out of this place in English?
First of all, in writing and storytelling, the language doesn’t matter. It is the tale that matters. A story can evolve from or be set anywhere. It’s just the job cut out for the writer that matters. I mean the job of conceiving a book-worthy idea and presenting it in an acceptable format – that’s all. Operating from a francophone and Francophile culture gives more richness to the English literature. And I’m just proud about it.
Your book “Bitter Kiss” talks more about a very contemporary Africa. Are you trying to portray Africa differently from the likes of Akpan Umen of “Say You’re One of Them”?
Good question! I’ve been waiting for this. Let me tell you something. Much of what is exported from Africa as literature is a pure and shameful caricature of the daily realities of the continent. The…
Are you saying Akpan Uwem is lying?
No, that’s not what I mean. But he’s not saying the whole truth about Africa. In fact he’s just said what the West thinks and wants to hear about Africa. In fact he said maybe 10 or 12 percent truth of the current situation of Africa. Look, how many 12-year-old prostitutes do you have in Africa catering for their families? I don’t know, I’ve never seen it and many Africans will tell you the same. How many African children huff glue to quench their hunger during Christmas? I’ll say once again none! I’ve never seen it and many Africans will tell you that. I travel around Africa too as a researcher and writer. I’ve seen some terrible things too but also some good things as well. In fact Akpan Uwem, as a writer is a real talent but his tales in “Say You’re One of Them” are just a deliberate exaggeration of a minute darkness over an immense light. And that’s what the West loves to hear about Africa.
But Oprah Winfrey chose Akpan’s book for her book club last September.
You’re getting the point. Oprah wouldn’t have chosen the book if it related stories about an African youth who earns a first class honours from an African or a Western university. Oprah wouldn’t have chosen it if it was about a free and fair election in an African country. Oprah wouldn’t have chosen it if it was about an African businessman buying multi-million dollar business assets in Europe against the whites. Look, I’m not against Akpan or Oprah as personalities. What I’m against is the distortion of contemporary realities in Africa. Don’t raise the evil more than the good. Don’t act as if people don’t eat, drink, dance, marry, school, etc in Africa. Do you know the world’s most expensive cathedral is in Africa – Yomoussoukro in Cote D’Ivoire? Do you know more than half a dozen evangelical pastors own privates jets in Lagos? Do you know every capital city in Africa has skyscrapers and five-star hotels? Do you know, from Gabon through Lagos across Abidjan to Bamako and up to Tamaraset, you see new Hummer jeeps and Toureg rolling on the streets? News is news, information is information. If a military coup happens somewhere in Africa, it should be reported. But when a peaceful election takes place, it should be reported as well, to balance the information. In conclusion, I would say Akpan’s book is not an exact representation of what is currently happening in Africa. Africans are living three time better that what that book is campaigning.
One of your main characters bears the name Denzel – a nickname he earned from his pals because of his sharp resemblance to actor Denzel Washington. Was it a strategy to get through to Denzel Washington’s fans?
No, no, not exactly! Denzel Washington is a very popular, and adored by many Africans. Using his first name for my character can be explained as a way of presenting something my target readers will love to have in the tale. That’s all.
Your heroine, Eva, who likes Mariah Carey, Phil Collins, the late Dalida and Alpha Blondy, is a devout Catholic and seemingly a disciplined girl unlike her two older sisters. Why would such a girl accept to go to bed with a man she’s meeting for the first time?
Everybody asks me that. But it does happen. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it…
What? You’ve gone to bed with a girl you met that same evening?
Yes, and many have done. I’m not saying it’s a wise decision for women, but it happens at times. Maybe the guy’s charm and rhetoric were just too much or the girl fell in love at first sight. But it’s not a safe thing to do and you see the consequences with Eva in the book.
Exactly. Your book tells us that the condom the guy uses on Eva gets broken and he ejaculates inside. He absconds and Eva gets pregnant. How many girls in Eva’s shoes would accept like she did, to keep such a pregnancy even though they’re religious?
I don’t know. But I think Eva defended her belief even after making that mistake. She’s pro-life and wouldn’t abort no matter what. In spite of what we think and see around us, there’re still some Evas left in the society.
Would you blame Eva’s sisters – Josiane and Beatrice for castigating Eva because she bore a child out of wedlock?
Because Eva also did same to them when both bore their kids out of wedlock. But mind you, Eva wasn’t mocking them as such. She was regretting why her sisters failed to get married before bearing children.
A thing she later did herself.
Exactly. But Eva’s case is that she was deceived by her own strict and stingy ambition to be and remain a virtuous woman.
How would you interpret the role of Dr. Aka, the medical doctor who treated Eva when she fell sick in her third month of pregnancy and later started going out with her – a pregnant woman he didn’t impregnate?
I think it’s a bit funny but it does happen. I’ve seen it; people say they see it all the time. An abandoned and suffering pregnant woman offering herself to another man in order to survive. But Eva behaved exceptionally.
Exactly. She refuses to sleep with any man during her pregnancy despite her suffering.
It’s the right thing to do in Africa. Most cultures forbid a man lying on a woman he didn’t impregnate.
Eva attempts suicide in her ninth month by swallowing overdose of penicillin and she’s rushed to a hospital. With no money to pay bills, her mother decides to go and seek help from Dr. Aka whom Eva had jilted for wanting to have sex with her pregnant. Should her mother have done that?
I don’t see what other solution. Your pregnant daughter is dying, you need money for her treatment and the only person you believe can help is this doctor guy who wants to have sex with pregnant Eva because he has never slept with a pregnant woman before. If I were Eva’s mother I would do same to save my daughter. What ever comes later doesn’t matter.
Your story takes us through the delivery of Eva’s mixed twins and the comeback of her ex-lover, Adama, who had beaten and abandoned her because of the strange pregnancy. And then you cut us off to present Denzel, who’s now back from Spain to Abidjan where the whole story is taking place. To me Denzel shouldn’t be blamed because he’s completely oblivious of Eva’s situation.
Exactly. Denzel is a clever womaniser and his status as a French-born who speaks with a foreign accent and his physical charm, gives him cheap victories over girls here. So Eva is just one of the girls he’s used and dumped. He has no idea whether he had impregnated a girl somewhere who’s there suffering with his two children.
Denzel gets richer, and now wants to wed Chantal, a girl he met in Paris. Chantal says she’s a virgin even at 24. Is it common in Africa? A prospective bride telling you she’s still virgin and even beating her chest that she’ll prove it on your wedding night?
(Laugh) I don’t know if it’s common. But I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, so it’s something my target audience can relate to.
Chantal is just another innocent and good girl but this time better than Eva because she could resist Denzel – her about-to-be husband from having sex with her, telling him to wait till their wedding night. Chantal should have been the heroine, why did you opt for Eva?
I was kind of thinking how to represent everybody in a typical modern African society. You have Eva’s sisters who are careless and spend most night out. You have Eva, the good girl maimed by her society. And then Chantal, the rare and adorable example.
Despite Eva’s little success in business and education, she remains unhappy because her pretty twins lack a father. She decides to embark on a search mission to find Denzel, who’s preparing for his marriage with Chantal. What other way could Eva have done that?
I don’t know, but I think I would have done the same thing. When you make a mistake the best thing to do is to try and fix it, and that’s what she intended by embarking on that lonely and risking detective mission.
Three days to Denzel’s wedding, Rose, his former secretary storms his office and says she’s seven months pregnant from him and threatens to disrupt his marriage ceremonies if he doesn’t acknowledge the pregnancy. Is Rose’s action a good one or a bad one?
A good one. I would do the same thing if I were a woman in her situation.
Unfortunately, Denzel never gets married to Chantal. Everything gets spoilt in the morning of the wedding. Is it nemesis for Denzel?
It’s a way of tying the loose end.
Let’s talk about you now. What marvels everybody about you is that you dated an HIV-infected girl for four good years and you did not contract the dreaded virus. Was it a miracle?
A complete miracle. I can’t still understand. I can’t still explain.
And worse, you only discovered the very week you both were getting married.
Yeah. She was sweet, cute and nice. She had no visible sign of one with the virus. And after these years, I decided to take her to the altar, but she said we ought to go for our AIDS test first – for formality in fact, because none of us suspected anything. Her wedding gown was set, my black suit was ready. Two days after the test, I was called on my cell phone by the lab’s attendant to come quick and alone. There and then, I began to shiver. What could be the problem…Oh my goodness! He gave me the two envelopes saying, “Mr. Kingsley, yours is good but I regret your fiancée’s”. I tore the envelopes and saw it for myself. I was HIV-negative, she was HIV-positive. I stood gazing at the attendant dumbly for more than an hour.
So what happened to your wedding ceremonies?
I had to run. I couldn’t disclose it to her, she would have committed suicide. I lied to her that the machines at the laboratory were down and that they said we should come back to provide another blood sample. I absconded to another city and stayed there incommunicado for three months.
You ran just as Denzel did to Chantal in your book?
(Laugh) Mine was worse. I was scared of my own contamination. The attendant told me I should come back for subsequent tests that I might have the virus but maybe it’s yet to show. So I took four more tests within nine months, each time trembling to open the envelope. Eventually I was declared safe.
How’s your girl right now?
Well, I’ve seen her for long, but I hear she’s still alive and trying her hands on some business. But the news I heard was that her ex-lover, the guy she was dating before me, had died of AIDS.
And now you’re campaigning against the use of condoms. You say it “lures lovers into unwholesome liaison and abandons them high and dry.” How many people you think will listen to that?
I don’t know, but the question is, will condoms save you at the long run? A lot of people begin their relationship depending on condoms for security, but with time, love, trust and tenderness creep in and condom is neglected or becomes irregular, thereby exposing you to dangers. If it’s for a fling then you can say condom is needful, but in a stable relationship, I think both partners need to go for their HIV test before anything, and then choose how to behave thereafter. My girl and I began our love using condoms, after some months, even up to a year; we began getting so much fond of each other to the extent of saying bye to condoms. If we had been courageous and disciplined enough to take our test before anything, we would have known each other better and earlier.
What’s your message to people now?
Never, ever depend on condoms when you engage yourself in a sexual relationship. Condoms will fail you. I’ve heard of boys who complained of being unable to pull off to change their torn condom because the new sweetness was irresistible – that having it uncovered. Girls have told me during interviews that in the heat of the act (lovemaking) they’re sometimes unaware when the thing gets torn on their men. The wisest thing to do is to have a sense of responsibility. Love without conscientiousness is pure folly. Knowing your potential lover’s blood status is even a greater love and care than knowing him or her sexually. So get him or her with you to the laboratory and have your test before anything. And that’s not the end. If your result is good, stay clean henceforth or else you can contract it somehow too even after taking the first test.
You seem to have a very rich experience of the struggles of the modern African youth. In 1995, you stowed away on a ship headed for Northern Island and was captured in deep sea and was almost thrown to sharks. Can you explain this to us?
(Laugh) It happened in San Pedro, Ivory Coast. We were a group of 11 young boys determined to see the world. We all failed to obtain visas from several embassies in town. The group was comprised of Nigerians, Ghanaians, Gambians, Togolese, Mauritanians, Ivorians, Guineans, etc. For about three months we were roaming the San Pedro sea port, seeking an opportunity to jump on a free cargo ship. It finally came one early morning by four a.m. It was a Russian ship headed for Northern Island – information given to us by the seaport’s guards. We paddled three canoes to the side of the ship on target, threw a raffia rope over and climbed one after the other onto deck. We said a brief prayer together and dispersed into different parts of the ship, where we could hide. This was according to the training we had before hand. I was alone with my bag of biscuits and bottles of water. The ship sailed away and after about four hours, I began to hear horns blaring and noticed the ship had stopped. Then torch lights and “Hey you fucking black monkey, get your ass out from your hiding before we pump poisonous gas on you.” I came out hands up and they grabbed me. They stripped me naked and asked me to jump into the ocean or else they would cut my sides to bleed and throw me to sharks. I begged and begged until the captain shouted from above and asked the fiercely looking dockers (all whites) to bring me to him. He interviewed me; read my poem on Ken Saro Wiwa scribbled on a sheet of paper and said, “Boy, you’ve got talent, why risking your life on a ship. Europe cannot give you this thing you’ve got as a talent.” He radioed coastal patrol team who later came to evacuate me. I was arrested. It was then I realised that the other 10 boys had sensed danger and had withdrawn from the ship even before it sailed away. I was the only one left on it.
Again, you and some young men dared to cross the desert from Mali up to Morocco heading for Spain. But it was again aborted.
Another sad story of the struggle to “see Europe or die trying”. It was terrible, even worse than the ship adventure. Trekking hundreds of miles in the desert without food, water and clothes. Girls proposing sex to you in order to get a cup of water to drink. Young, hopeful African youths dying and burying themselves in hot sands. Confronting Touareg rebels hungry to have sex with not just women but men. It’s pity!
In the opening chapter of Bitter Kiss, Eva, speaking to Denzel who owns a European passport, said, “Today in Africa, a European visa is much more valued than a college degree.” And you, you tried to get your hands on one at the French embassy in Abidjan in 2000. You flew to Paris and was refused entry at Orly Sud airport because you had a Nigerian passport.
Exactly. Another painful experience. After trying the sea, the desert, I was on air now to finally see Europe, but they said “no” at port of entry because of what I can’t still really explain. A young black French policeman who was keeping me on guard whispered to me: “My young African brother, they’re keeping you because you’re using a Nigerian passport. You should have used another country’s passport. You know they’re suspicious of Nigerians every where because of some bad things some of your compatriots have done in the past.” After a week at the airport I was sent to Zurich Airport, Switzerland, where I spent another three weeks before they bundled me on handcuffs to board a flight destined for Abidjan. I was escorted by two Swiss police in plain clothes. Reaching Abidjan, they handed me to the airport police and I was again detained.
In Bitter Kiss, you related a current phenomenon in Africa where youths use the Internet to swindle white people – known as scam, but as for you, you used it wisely having obtained two writing certificates online from a South African writers institute and a Manchester-based writer’s college – The Writers Bureau.
At a point in time, I decided to cool it down and settle to really think out a deeper meaning for my existence. What am I really made of? What can I offer the world? What am I passionate about? And that’s writing. I enrolled and was studying online because I hadn’t the means to travel down. I had some articles published; a tourist guide published and began my career as a professional.
It’s being rumoured that your forthcoming novel is set in London but the title is shocking, “Never Kiss A Black Man.” Why shouldn’t he be kissed?
(Laugh) I think we should leave that for now. The Kiss right now is Bitter.
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