In a new collection, Toni Kan explores the contradictions of living in a big city like Lagos with its myriad problems.
By OLOLADE ADEWUYI
Toni Kan sat down in the hot seat silently listening to opinions about his new book. It was like a case of having to answer in the open for what one did in secret, for many writers are nocturnal beings who thrive in the quiet away from prying eyes. The audience was unsparing as they took him to task about his several subject matters during the public presentation and reading of his short story collection Nights of the creaking bed and poems Songs of absence and despair published by Cassava Republic at the Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos.
His bespectacled brow took in every moment even as distractions came in from several angles. “My stories represent urban contemporary Nigeria” he says. “They begin with joy and end with sadness”. They are typical stories about Lagos life which according to a character in the story Ahmed is “the big city that was built on water where men who were not careful took mermaids for wives”.
Kan explores his stories from a child’s view point having first come to Lagos himself at the age 11 years. No wonder he gives a wide-eyed telling of some of the stories. Kan has described himself as a happy person who tells sad stories. Most of the stories are tinged with sadness and what he describes as the “e ya!” phenomenon.
In Kan’s Lagos, life and death are as common as going to bed and waking up. They are ever present factors in the daily life of Lagosians. He says his first time of seeing a corpse was during his premier visit to the city when he woke up to see a dead man in front of his aunt’s residence. He has never been able to remove his mind from the shock which he got back then.
Hence, Kan is comfortable with death as a topic. He does not blink an eye before putting any of his characters to the mortality test. A couple of them die easy, painful deaths. Ahmed gets electrocuted on his maiden trip to Lagos; Uncle John dies in the act of sex with a “condom that covered his erection like a shroud” and Broda Sonnie is hacked to death until all that was left of him “was a bloody mass”.
Many others explore topics on sexuality, infidelity, incest and adultery. There’s the woman in “My perfect life” who finds an old lover again. “I am the wife of a kind, loving and gentle man” she says, but cannot drag herself away from her new found fiery passion. She decides to take the path which will make the “sounds of my own laughter sound better to my own ears”.
For many Africans, a woman’s adultery is a taboo topic to write about. But Kan makes his stories come to life, effortlessly. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, his publisher, rises to his defence. She says that African women have enough extra marital affairs just as the men do. “Men commit adultery and nobody complains” she says. “But have you ever wondered who the men commit adultery with? They have affairs with married women!”
Fourteen short stories that read, sometimes, like poetry. Critic Toyin Akinosho says the best part of the book is in its good English. “Many Nigerian books are poorly written but this is a breath of fresh air” he says. It can be read at a sitting and if one wants to conserve enjoyment, it can be taken one piece at a time.
Kan has described his inspiration as the “Page Three” stories of everyday people in newspapers. Stories, he says, that make you look at the human condition in a new light. He surely scores a pass mark with the way his characters embody the human frailties, beauties and contradictions, something that abounds in Lagos.