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An Interview with Leye Adenle: Author of Easy Motion Tourist and When Trouble Sleeps

November 4, 2018

Leye Adenle is a rising star in the world of Nigerian and British crime fiction. His debut novel Easy Motion Tourist introduced Amaka Mbadiwe, ‘a sassy guardian angel of Lagos working girls’. In the novel, British hack Guy Collins becomes a murder suspect when a woman’s mutilated body is discovered near one of the main hotels in Lagos. Much of the novel is told from Collins point-of-view, and it is through him that we meet Amaka and witness the extraordinarily vibrant and dangerous character of Lagos as a city. In the follow-up, When Trouble Sleeps, a plane crash kills the state’s gubernatorial candidate. His replacement, the venal Chief Ojo, looks set to enjoy all of the power and influence that comes with high political office. However, Amaka has access to information that could reveal Ojo as a violent and depraved pervert, and Ojo will do anything to stop her from revealing it.

I found both novels in the Amaka series to be exhilarating and gripping narratives. Amaka and Guy Collins make for compelling, sympathetic lead characters and Adenle is just as adept at sketching out the eccentric, often grotesque villains who stand in their path – Gangsters with names like Knockout and Go-Slow. Adenle comes from a family of writers, and his most famous relative would be his grandfather Oba Adeleye Adenle I, a former king of Oshogbo in South West Nigeria. Adenle knows the Lagos setting intimately, and his descriptions of both its beauty and corruption are both plausible and thrilling.

Leye Adenle now lives in London, where in addition to writing novels he also acts, treading the boards not so long ago in a production of Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again. I was fortunate enough to interview Leye recently about the Amaka novels and his influences as a writer. The following exchange was conducted by email:

Interviewer: Tell us a little about the inspiration for Amaka. Did you feel intimidated by having a female lead character as a lot of male writers are criticised for failing to authentically capture a female voice?

Adenle: Amaka is largely a composite character of many women I know – this is what I’ve always thought. She even gets her name from one of them. The idea for the first book came from a discussion I had with my mother and brothers about violence against prostitutes in Nigeria. My mother has always been active in issues to do with women; officially as director general for women affairs, as an educator, and just as her. It dawned on my recently that she is probably Amaka.

I think it should never be intimidating to write from the viewpoint of someone different to one. In fact, doing so is a proven technique for creating empathy.

Interviewer: British hack Guy Collins is an equally fascinating character, being both naive but also plucky. In using him as a narrator was your aim to have a Western readership view Lagos through familiar eyes?

Adenle: The conscious decision to give Guy a first person narrative voice was for the sole purpose of giving Lagos as a character her own voice. Lagos is a fascinating place and a great character to have in any story, but how do you give a city a voice without bending genres or inventing new and jarring techniques? Imagine if Lagos spoke to us in a female voice about her long traffic jams and her sweltering nights. Through Guy we get to listen to Lagos. Through his character arc we get to know her deeply and close.

Interviewer: Who are your greatest influences as a writer?

Adenle: I would be lying if I gave a list of the writers who have influenced me the greatest. I would be lying or I would be pretending by composing a list of assumed great authors to make me look good by association. Every single book I’ve read has inspired me. Long before I wrote my first short stories in primary school, I remember reading novels and thinking ‘I could write that’, or, ‘I wish I’d written that.’ Till today I read books that make me feel, ‘Wow! I like what they did there,’ or, ‘Damn! I was going to do that too.’ Sometimes I read a book and I think, ‘Nah,’ or I’m editing as I go. The point is, every one of these authors, in their books have given me a nudge, or a hint, or a perspective on a technique I never had before.

That said, some of the earliest books I read that made me want to write were by Amos Tutuola, China Acheba, Agatha Christie, Cyprina Ekwensi, James Hadley Chase. And some of the most recent books I’ve read that I’ve enjoyed and thus, gained inspiration from are by authors such as Oyinkan Abayomi, Yuri Herrera, Amer Anwar, too name but a few. Like you I am also a big fan of James Ellroy and was recently blown away by his endorsement of my first book Easy Motion Tourist.

Interviewer: Do you see your work as a merging of both African and Western approaches to the crime genre?

Adenle: I do not see a difference between African and Western approaches to the crime genre. I do like to use the label Naija Noir as a sub-genre of noir, but in my written work and in reading other authors of crime fiction, I find that the essential elements are the same even in the different locations. Of course, for a book set in Lagos, the crimes committed will no doubt have a Lagos flavour, will reflect the social-economic drivers behind the crimes, will have protagonists with names like Amaka, and will feature the ever so sweet to write about Nigerian police force, but they will be crimes nonetheless, committed by human beings, affecting other human beings, and tackled by other human beings. Same plot, different local languages.

Interviewer: You portray Lagos as both a vibrant and intimidating city where old world superstitions mix with an emerging capitalist class. How do you think Lagos has changed in recent years, and what things in particular did you want to get across in your writing?

Adenle: Lagos hasn’t change at all in recent years. I say this confidently because Lagos is always changing and that hasn’t changed. Like any other city on the planet, old world superstitions rule, either in the guise of so called black magic or in the gods and prophets of Abrahamic religions. Humanity, for the largest part, is ruled by the fantasy of life after death and the religions both feed on and promote this greatest of delusions. My thoughts. I however know better than to declare my atheism publicly and especially not in my writing. I have only written with an agenda once in my entire memory of writing. It was a short story titled ‘Those Who Wish to Rule’ and it was a reflection on the consequence of leadership. Even at that it wasn’t a statement. I wasn’t trying to propose my view in a manner that says, hey, stop doing that, do this instead. I think I can sniff it from a mile away when a writer has an agenda, and often, when a writer writes with an agenda, I think it robs me the reader of a genuine work of creative flow. I don’t like to be preached to.

Interviewer: Amaka takes centre-stage in When Trouble Sleeps whereas Guy is largely absent. How are the two books different, and what were you attempting to achieve with the sequel?

Adenle: The Amaka Series features Amaka, a Nigerian woman devoted to securing justice for women via legal routes, or in her own way. In the first book in the series, Easy Motion Tourist, Amaka rescues a foreign journalist and witness to a murder from the police; in return she wants him to write an expose on powerful men who abuse women but first she has to get close to a potential killer to get information that will nail him. In the second book, a man is about to become governor of Lagos state but Amaka, through her work, knows secrets about him that would disqualify him and land him in jail for a long, long time. The problem is, he knows that she knows. She is the only one standing between him and the governorship on one hand, and between him and jail on the other.

Interviewer: Power seems to be in flux between gangsters, corrupt police and the new political elite in your narrative. What do you think the future holds for Nigeria with such a complex political system, and can we expect any more Amaka books?

Adenle: Gangsters always hold the reins of power – sometimes by proxy, sometimes directly through elected office. There seems to be something about the lure of political power that attracts gangsters. Perhaps it’s the immunity from prosecution that they enjoy when in office, or it could just be the practical preference to be as close as possible to the public coffers they wish to rob. Either way, politics and gangsterism will always form a symbiosis and the resulting ‘political elite’ will always recruit the police as their foot soldiers. Do I see this changing in the future in Nigeria or anywhere else? Not really.

I’m currently working on the third book in the Amaka series.

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