Monday, 29 September 2008

Writers and Artists - Hanif Kureishi @ Göteborg Book Fair 2008

Hanif Kureishi (CBE) was at the Göteborg Book Fair. His seminar (discussion), hosted by Kristofer Lundström (on Friday 26 Sept; 13.00 - 13.45) was themed SEX, IMMIGRATION and LAUNDRETTES.

Like many writers who have to regularly do book tours and speak to (large) audiences (who hang on somewhat desperately to every word, almost pleading to be made to laugh, or at least chuckle), he had a sardonic, self-deprecating sense of humor, couched in a somewhat detached tone, and he fired off quips and quotable quotes like an elderstatesman comedian (or poet-laureate) on RedBull.

Image (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

I very much enjoyed listening to him talk, and soon found myself feverishly copying his many excellent one-liners (which would of course sound more profound heard than read, as it always happens).
*Interestingly, my email signature, which I set up weeks ago, ends with a Kureishi quote (can't remember where I got it): "I have no education at all. If I've learnt anything, it's through other people."

L-R: Kureishi's Swedish Publisher, Kureishi, Cecilia Gärding (AfroSvenskarna); background, Kristofer Lundström
Image (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

Here's what I was able to get down:

On his writing
"I write about my little patch of earth"
On being awarded the CBE by the Queen in the 2008 Honours List:

"The Queen loves me man! She loves me!"
Asked if the CBE Award surprised him:
"Surprised me? I've been waiting for it for ages!"
Asked why there was a lot of sex in one of his books:
"Sex is a good way to bring the characters in a book together... especially an orgy, with an orgy you can bring five, six disparate characters together..."
Still on the CBE (and this of course was meant only tongue-in-cheek!):
"The Queen only gives medals these days to blacks and Asians"
On the "For God and For Empire" inscription on the CBE Medal:
"I can't think of two finer clauses together."
His description of the writerly life:
"Indolence, perversion, uselessness and hanging around"
On Prizes:
"I'm grateful for any kind of prize at all..."
On being fascinated by the idea of people waking up in the morning to go to (a 9-5 style) work:
"...after all many people spend more time working than they do having sex..."
On psychoanalysis:
"... I've had therapy myself... it's been very helpful..."
On Writing:
"It takes probably ten years to learnt to become a writer, and during that time you need grants and support and encouragement..."
On Identity:
"My father wanted me to be a British kid. I grew up wanting to be British and Asian; on The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix - and then I met all these kids who wanted to be Muslim..."

And of course I did manage to get a pic with him :-)
(PS. No, I don't think I'm that tall, I suppose I'm simply standing on a higher step)

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Photos from Göteborg [2] - Smokers' Paradise

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

Friday, 26 September 2008

Photos from Göteborg [1] - Feeding Frenzy

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Göteborg - International Book Fair

The Göteborg International Book Fair, the largest in Scandinavia, kick off tomorrow. It's past midnight, and I've got a train(s) to catch to Goteborg at 7 in the morning, and I have to sleep and ...

I arrived from Oslo less than an hour ago (around midnight Wednesday), but I just had to check my email and see what's been going on on the internet behind my back... 24 hours away feels like an eternity

PS. My head and notebook and camera feel like they want to burst under the weight of Oslo's Experience... I've convinced myself that one day I shall buy a home in that city...

My Göteborg Itinerary

From 13.30 - 13.50 on Thursday 25 Sept I will read from my poetry and have a discussion on POETRY with Mai Palmberg.

On Friday 26 Sept, from 10.00 - 10.30 I will be speaking on the theme 'WE HAVE TO WRITE OUR OWN STORIES'. This will be as part of the Internationella Torgets (International Square) programme of the Book Fair

The Seminars programme is available here

About the Göteborg Book Fair
25–28 September 2008 are the dates for Göteborg Book Fair 2008, at the Swedish Exhibition Centre in Göteborg. With over 100,000 visitors this is the largest cultural event in the Nordic region.

Scandinavia and the world meet in Göteborg
The Göteborg Book Fair is the best place to get an overview of the literature from the Scandinavian countries. You will also meet many of the world's most prominent intellectuals who come here to discuss, debate and voice their opinions.

Latvia in focus
This year, Latvia will be the theme country. 24 authors, politicians, historians, translators and many more are taking part in the seminar programme. Take the opportunity to learn more about our Baltic neighbour! The spectacular Latvian stand offers an extensive programme. Latvian music, photography and art vill be at the forefront of events in the city of Göteborg.

-The esthetics of resistance during the Soviet era has evolved into the esthetics of freedom after the restoration of independence. Writers are no longer the spokesmen for their people, but rather individual voices, says Juris Kronbergs, poet, translator and project co-ordinator.

Seminar programme of international class
This year you will also have the opportunity to hear voices from Romania and India. Read more about all the participants in the seminar programme.

The seminar programme contains 442 seminars of which 60 will be held in other languages than the Scandinavian.

Welcome to meet Nobel Prize candidates, well known writers, new names and many other interesting participants at the 24th Göteborg Book Fair!

Book Fair website here

Monday, 22 September 2008

Oslo - X Mag launch...

I'm off to Oslo [Norway] tomorrow, guest of the Norwegian magazine X. It recently translated my short story, LAWS, originally published in the New StoryTeller into Norwegian as "[an] example of foreign literature not (yet?) translated into Norwegian", and the issue will be launched tomorrow.

I will be reading from the English version of LAWS, and there will also be a panel discussion on the topic:

"Should there be more of literature from the South? How do we get to it, and what are the challenges?"
Fellow discussants are:
Ellen Lange - Theme editor of X
Ika Kaminka - Leader of the Norwegian Translator Association and coordinator of the Flerstemt project
Live Kure Buer - Translator

I shall be speaking on what it means to be a writer in Nigeria - language, publishing opportunities, translations, etc

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Notes from Uppsala [3]

As published in the Guardian Life magazine (Lagos), Sunday, Sept 21, 2008


I have come to the conclusion that Nigerians – our conquering business sense and general assertiveness (gra-gra) apart – are not really the adventurous people we like to believe we are. No, we cherish the comfort and safety of the familiar; the routine, and will protest when the status quo is upended. Ironically we live in a country where the truism ‘Change is the most constant thing in life’ is super-true. Everything is in a state of flux / uncertainty: electricity, water, fuel queues, life even. Our reaction therefore, in the midst of all these, is to instinctively build patterns and habits that help cushion the psychic impact of the wild swings: the unending cycle of Saturdays spent at owambes, Sunday mornings spent at church and Sunday afternoons spent at home; I-pass-my-neighbour generators that stay on all night even when NEPA has restored power because we know that they might seize it again, etc.
Surrounded by so much discomfort, against which we have to daily battle, the last thing we want to do when we leave the country is to have to face another set or series of drastic changes. And who doesn’t know that language is one of the most significant ‘upsetters’ of the settled waters of existence. It is therefore this search for minimal foreign discomfort that explains why we will continue to flood to London and Atlanta, and Houston and Dubai, places where the Nigerian Foot has trod a well-beaten path, where at any point in time there is another Naija within sight to speak vernacular with; and where the aroma of Naija cooking hovers permanently beneath the nostrils.
Alas this is not the case with Sweden. It is only two weeks into my stay here but I have resigned myself to the fact that, if I want to taste anything that remotely resembles Nigerian cooking, it will have to come from my own hands (purchased from a Ghanaian-run store in Stockholm). Initially I thought it was a 'Uppsala' thing, perhaps there’d be plenty of Nigerians and Nigerian joints in Stockholm, the capital.
I spent Sunday in Stockholm. I went visiting, a Nigerian friend who’s lived in Sweden for years was going to show me round the city. When it was time to find something to eat I asked for a Nigerian joint. I took for granted that there’d be one, knowing that our people’s tentacles are deeply embedded in virtually every country in the world. My friend said she was not aware of anywhere were one could get a Nigerian meal. This is not to say that she was absolutely certain that there was none, but she did not know any. Of course there are loads of Chinese and Indian and Middle-eastern restaurants, and American brands – McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King. We eventually settled for a bustling food court where it seemed as though every continent – except Africa – was represented on the cartes du jour.
My brief brainstorming session with my friend on the above-mentioned vexatious matter threw up the following ‘communiqué-style’ conclusion:
Nigerians do not particularly like Sweden, despite its tuition-free tertiary education system, because of the cold weather, and the language barriers. As our people would say it, awoof dey run belle.
Language is a key. It turns this way or that, but for the same purpose: to lock. To lock one in, or out.
A Nigerian will sooner allow himself to be deported than learn a new language. Exaggeration. But it is true that learning things like that, for which the end result is not a certificate that can be converted directly into money, prestige or a promotion at work, is not something we like to do. How many Nigerians will ever go out of their way to learn something just for the fun of it, especially language? Look at the thousands of youth corpers that criss-cross the length and breadth of the country annually, how many have “learn a new language” on their to-do lists? Of course the NYSC obligatorily hands out relevant language manuals, but who cares about paper booklets? Na language we go chop?
If the Nigerian Government said that, starting 2010, there’d be a welfare system for the jobless, but that the condition for qualifying would be fluency in Chinese, I bet it that in a matter of months, even illiterate market women across the country will be speaking fluent Chinese. Students will be answering WAEC English comprehension questions in Chinese.
It is not that we cannot do anything we want to do. It is that we cannot be bothered.
The weather is not as insurmountable as language I think. Sweden can’t be that much colder than, say, Canada, which has a significant Nigerian population. But of course Canada, like America, is a well-worn path. And they speak English.

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

Friday, 19 September 2008

Images from Uppsala's Cultural Night - Sat, Sept 13, 2008

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Losing Faith in Food

The poem below is actually not new, it predates Sweden; it owes a lot of its inspiration to my brief sojourn in Belgium & Holland in 2005, where "nothing ever taste[d] as it look[ed]..."

Sweden has reinforced it... my confidence in food has been irreparably damaged, sigh, somewhere between the plate and my tongue, food conspires to play unkind tricks on me... nothing is plain, everything is a melange... a "Smörgåsbord", which, quite interestingly, Wikipedia defines as "a Swedish word which refers to a type of Scandinavian meal served buffet-style in Swedish cuisine" -I didn't know that before now, had no idea the word had culinary roots...

Now I spend my days haunting McDonald's and Burger King and doing the occasional Chinese buffet (where I stick to rice and prawn crackers and other readily identifiable stuvs), and my nights assembling rice, beans, garri and gizzard. And plenty of pepper.

Photo taken on my return from the inaugural shopping trip to Stockholm in search of Nigerian food (raw materials, that is)...

by Tolu Ogunlesi

African tourists all, sitting
At The Quay, filling our mouths
With words as we await the white man's food,
Stiff and flattened between the pepper-less pages
Of a carte du jour.

“I'll be darned if Antwerp’s bland sauces
Haven't wriggled their way
Into the dishes of Ilfracombe.”

“The first culinary commandment of Europe,
For a first time African visitor is this:
Nothing ever tastes as it looks!”

“Every helping of white food tastes
Like it was shaven clean. A distant world
From the spiced afro of African cuisine.”

We shall find no rest here –
Not in these bits that sit glumly
On monogrammed plates.

We will eat,
But it is the memories that will silence
Our rumbling stomachs –
Of Lagos, our Lagos, where Isi-Ewu* nightly sails

On raging streams of fresh beer, tongue-paddled,
Headed for the deep oceans,
From whose depths proverbs and Tales by Moonlight
Rise like the mirthful spirits of distant ancestors.

Throughout the days we have left
On this English soil, our backs shall be turned
To all Palaces of Prandial Pleasures. Our plates
Will have no appetites for food out of gilded menus.

We will content ourselves with the smoke that rises
From Lagos’ open-air kitchens,
Smoke that doesn’t require a visa to visit us here,
Laden with news of Home and Happenings;

Smoke that darkens the visions
Of sleepy African gods
And the sleepless tempers
Of Europe’s Green Garrison.

*Isi-Ewu: Goat-head pepper-soup (A Nigerian delicacy)

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Images from Uppsala [1]

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Images from Stockholm [2]

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

Images from Stockholm [1]

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

All images (c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

Notes from Uppsala [2]


Today I visited Stockholm for the first time in my life.


There’s a sign in Stockholm declaring that Stockholm is the capital of, wait for it, Scandinavia. Interesting stuff. Think of this: Lagos is the capital of West Africa.
But no one will think of saying that, because while there is something to be gained by a city audaciously positioning itself, Lagos remains a city in which very few people care for any thing beyond personal positioning; the power of bread, butter – and parking space.


Life in another man’s land is a tasking endeavor. Especially in a case like mine where my being here is not merely a brief holiday, to be lubricated by a motley band of hosts who have no other duty beyond showing me sights and generally impressing me with their city (or perhaps merely with their knowledge of their city). I have therefore found myself – as Jesus Christ advised – a little child once more, utterly at the mercy of hows and whys and whens too complicated for me. Lagos has to be unlearnt, and Sweden learned. And when you do not even speak the language, the whole conundrum hops one more step up the complexity ratings.


It is easy to unlearn Lagos. Very easy. You may find it hard to not miss the city, but you will very quickly unlearn it. You may confirm from all those people you know who have escaped its vice-like grip. You will unlearn all those weird psychological defense mechanisms that your body evolved primarily to keep you primed to tackle LASTMA, Council Boys, Windscreen-cleaning scouts, Anti Highway-Crossing Brigades, Parking Space Warlords (whether at the office or at fast food joints). This is my latest theory: trapped within every Lagosian is a soul desperately seeking to unlearn the City. In my case, for 3 months, I shall be free. And then I shall return. Hopefully they’d have reopened the 3rd Mainland Bridge, and completed the Oyingbo-Iddo road, and perhaps even laid the foundation stones of the 4th Mainland Bridge.


What is not easy to do is to learn the ways of the New World. Take this whole fire/security alarms business for instance. Here at the institute where I have my ‘office’, the security alarm automatically comes on at 9pm on weekdays, and stays on all weekend. What this therefore means is that anyone entering the office at these off-hours has to learn how to activate or deactivate them as required. I have been given the code. To lock and unlock. But there is one more code. That is the code that I will dictate to the security company managing the building, on the off chance that by an act of ill-treatment the alarm system goes off and goes ahead to notify the company. In that situation this is what will happen: A (bored, mustachioed) security man will have to come over and find out what the situation is. To dissuade him therefore I shall have to dial a number to speak with him, and supply my ‘open sesame’. It is that (second) 4-digit code that I give him that will stop him from coming over to see things for himself. In other words, that code is “for insiders only.”


The hotel which is home also has its own fire alarm. But it also has a kitchenette. So life has to be lived negotiating the high and narrow road between cooking and upsetting the fire alarm. No frying, is rule one. No frying, because, no smoke. And we all know (or have at least been told) there’s never any smoke without a fire. So, no fire, period. And I am left to wonder how any Homo Sapiens in their right minds can be expected to cook without smoke. Let the Europeans come and tell that to their African brethren. Let them come and tell that to all those hungry University students spread across famous male hostels in OAU and UI, for whom the first stage in cooking anything is the chemical conversion of palm oil to groundnut/vegetable oil. By ‘frying’.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Notes from Uppsala [1]

As published in the Guardian Life magazine (Lagos), Sunday, Sept 7, 2008


I just arrived in Uppsala, a University town forty-five minutes (by train) from Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. I am here to write, strange as that may sound. Yes, write. What does he want to write that he cannot write in Nigeria, you may want to ask. Well, nothing, I have to confess. Nigeria is a tough place to live in, true, but it’s a place that can be lived in and survived in – and written in. PHCN or no PHCN, a half-closed 3rd mainland bridge or not, stories can still be told in our country. In fact it is in the profusion of hardships that stories seem to ferment. Helon Habila after all wrote his award-winning Waiting for an Angel (a.k.a Prison Stories) while a broke, struggling journalist in Lagos. And Ogaga Ifowodo wrote many of his finest poems here. And Toni Kan, and Maik Nwosu, and Lola Shoneyin (Ibadan), and Uche Umez (Owerri) and Eghosa Imasuen (Benin) and many others.
So, I am here not because I cannot in Lagos, but simply because there is an opportunity for a person to come and write in Uppsala, and I have the good fortune of being that person for this year.
The above is a (necessary) digression.
The real story for today has to do with migration and the power of the human stomach.
The way to a man’s heart, they say, is through his stomach. (Do wives still think that is true? Let that be an inquest for another day.) I just discovered however that the stomach leads to more than one place. Apart from the heart, there’s also the soul.
The way to the soul of a place is through the stomach.
The best way to discover a strange city at its deepest level is to follow (key word) your stomach. It’s better than following your map, I tell you. Better than following a tour guide. Never underestimate the power of a stomach seeking answers. Think of Lagos, and how much it is a city defined by the vegetables and stockfish and egusi and locust beans and shrimps piled high in its many crazy markets; the colors, smells and perhaps the inexplicable awe inspired by the sight of abundant food in a world characterised by scarcity of many other things.
My first major assignment in Uppsala upon arrival was lunch. What were my choices? Well, there was Swedish cuisine, there was a Thai restaurant offering a lunch buffet, and next door to that was McDonalds. Talk about the world being (a) flat (plate). Eventually my team of three – two Nigerians and one ‘Finwede’ (a Finn who’s lived in Sweden for long, my definition), our wonderful hostess, settled for the Thai restaurant.
Post-lunch, we (the Nigerians) were shown a grocery store, where we picked up – or more accurately, considered picking up – fruits, eggs, rice, milk, beans, cooking oil, tomatoes, cereal, etc. Our hotel rooms have attached kitchenettes, so cooking is a possibility that looms large on the horizon.
But what fascinated me the most was my countryman’s slight frustration at the grocery store fare, and his insistence on getting ‘Nigerian’ raw materials. Nigerian rice, Nigerian beans, palm oil. None of the canned foods and strange-looking rice grains that hide beneath the word ‘intercontinental’.
His conclusion was this: we needed to find that kind of store fast, something that offered more than the sterile offerings of a supermarket. The next day, our hostess took us to such a place. Owned by immigrants (Lebanese apparently), it’s a ‘supermarket’ with the spirit of an open market, pulsing with raw smells of spices and meats.
The meat (pun not intended) of the matter therefore is this: On these ‘personal’ journeys in search of the kind of food we want to eat, I think we are permitting ourselves to experience Uppsala at a deeper level (turn off the mushymeters please) than if we sat down at a local’s dining table and mindlessly swallowed whatever was pushed our way.
Following the stomach implies taking an active part in solving the problem of food. It means going shopping, it means asking questions, it means experiencing the energy of the marketplaces, it means attempting to cook. It means ‘getting involved’. It is only in this way of course that this premise of finding the ‘way’ into a city through food can hold true.
The map of every city in the world is sketched out on its plates. You only need to open your eyes to see. Blessed are they who hunger, for they shall be filled.
I spent a year in Asaba not attempting to cook anything more complicated than noodles. I’m tempted to do the same in Uppsala. But I don’t have any plans to give in. No plans to leave this town a three-month old tourist.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

The Battle

I arrived here just before the rains... apparently only hours before 'em.
Now they're here, and here to stay. Wetandcoldandwetandcoldand...

Life is going to be fun here. Already I've just emerged from a bout with a strange fever (malaria I guess), that kept me tossing and turning, nauseous and nightmarish, for more than 48 hours. I must have brought it from Lagos. The way I didn't bring garri, or peppers, or suya. Thankfully I came prepared, son of a father for whom luggage is not luggage without a medicine-box.

You should have seen the nightmares I had. Nightmarathon. Add to that the endless droning of BBC World News, with their endless repititions of programmes, and you get a new definition of nausea. I swear, if I have to watch another edition of Leading Questions featuring Paul Skinner (Chairman of Rio Tinto) again, I'll just throw up (something not even the malaria made me do). In the last 48 hours I must have seen it like 5 or 6 times. Uggh!

I started a short story on Wednesday, my first new short story in months (if not years). I finished draft 1 of it tonight. 4,500 words. Tentatively titled EX. Am i pleased with me? I don't know. Been so long, I sold out doing magazine and newspaper articles in Lagos.

More good things. The Library of the Nordic Africa Institute here's a heaven of african delights. Spent this evening also curled up on a chair there, devouring short stories by Ken Saro Wiwa, Chinua Achebe, Abdulrazaq Gurnah, Ben Okri, etc etc

Life is a nice mix of the nice and not-nice.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

With Nigerian Love from Uppsala

I am Tolu Ogunlesi.
I am originally from Nigeria, and I still am.
I am on Facebook.
In my spare time I write.
I am in Uppsala for 3 months to write, guest of the Nordic Africa Institute. [In other words my next 3 months are spare time]
I arrived straight from crazy Lagos into cold Uppsala two days ago; Uppsala where the weather is cold and the people are warm.

I changed my email signature yesterday to reflect my new status:

Tolu Ogunlesi
Guest Writer
Nordic Africa Institute
Kungsgatan 38, SE-753 21
Uppsala, Sweden

This will be a record of whats and what-nots, muses and musings, travellings and trifling thoughts. Everything and nothing. The only thing(s) I have sworn off are footnotes.

This is not my first incarnation as a blogger. I have been, now I am again:

And I have a photoblog as well:

I am a wandering seed of a dead blacksmith, that's what I am (apart from a pharmacist and writer that is).