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By Toyin Akinosho

“You ask what book established me as a writer”, Toni Kan says in response to my query.

“I’d say it is Nights of the Creaking Bed.

“First of all, it’s the story around how it happened. That the book came out in either 2006 or 2007. And it hasn’t been out of print since it came out”.

It’s a surprising response, for me, considering that Kan (full name: Anthony Kanayo Onwordi), had been widely acknowledged in the Nigerian scene as a writer, a long while before then.

Toni Kan, who turned 50 in June 2021, has been involved in the publishing of 23 books in all, 10 of which are his own (including five novellas, published in the Hints Series, two poetry collections, and three fuller length works of prose fiction). He has also been involved in 12 biographies, written with Peju Akande, and a nonfiction work, co-authored with Jahman Anikulapo and Peju Akande, exploring identity in Nigerian culture. 

Toni Kan…I had the manuscript, but didn’t have the money to produce

I had asked the question because I was exploring pivotal moments in Nigeria’s cultural life. The theme of the 2021 edition of Lagos Book & Art Festival, which I co-curate, is A Fork in The Road. This interview is part of the work leading to the Festival, in November.

We were sitting in the garden close to the “cells” in the Freedom Park, a leisure space/cultural centre, converted from a large, colonial-era prison yard on Lagos Island, doing a videotaping of a discussion about a pivotal period in Nigeria’s literary history. Prior to this question, Kan had explained why he thought the 1990s and early 2000s, should not be dismissed as a break-before-the flood period in Nigerian literature.

On the current subject, Kan continues: “About Nights of the Creaking Bed I am thinking of what they call in marketing ‘the Lindy effect’: If an idea lasts for one year, then it will last for two and if it lasts for two it will last for four, if it lasts for four it will continue in a long while because it now persists”. The law was propounded by Nassim Taleb, who argued, Kan explains, that for every year an idea or thing survives without dying out or going extinct, its longevity is extended and assured.

“The way the book came out; we were at a point that we now had diaspora writing in Nigeria.  So, Chimamanda was there. Helon had moved. E. C …hehn.

“We now had a bunch of Nigerian writers writing from abroad and getting published by, you know Penguin Books and the rest of them, which didn’t happen before. It was either a self-published or African Writers series. So, we now had a flowering of Nigerian writers who were bonafide literary superstars”.

Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, publisher, Cassava Republic Press…expanded the horizon

Kan finally comes around to how ‘Nights’ happened.

“I was coming back from work that day when my phone rang and somebody said: ‘Oh my name is Bibi, we are looking for writers to publish, do you have any novel?’ I said I had a collection of stories, and she said she’d like to see it and I said: ‘but I don’t have money to publish this now’…She said No. they were going to publish it for me. It was like, you know, different. Typically, you wrote the story and you now look for…one guy to print it for you and you organize your launch and stuff and suddenly you have 500 books in your house”

‘Bibi’ in the foregoing paragraph, is Bibi Bakare, publisher of Cassava Republic Press, a publishing outfit which has turned, in the 15 years since it was established in Abuja, into one of the most significant contributors to the Nigerian book trade.

“They went through the process…got me an editor in London, Eve Kerswill and you know, it took a lot and the book came out.

“I would say I was the first Nigerian-based writer to get a publishing deal of that scale.

The original cover of Nights of the Creaking Bed

Nights of the Creaking Bed had sold about 20,000 copies by 2019. Kan admits having received as much as two million naira in royalty. He recalls getting a bump in royalty payments when the audiobook came out and that’s how the royalty got to two million. But that’s a digression.

“We went from there…The book came out and it was well-received. Most people thought it is an extension of my life as a Hints/Romance writer and stuff, but…I knew that would come. I remember that in the collection, I added one story at the end….Age of Iron, which was a reference to a book by J. M.Coetzee. And that story, Age of Iron, I always tell PJ, every time people review my book…they never mention that story, because they never even understand it. I put it there as a ‘shut up…You think you can write, let me give you a literary story that you cannot even begin to figure out what it says and they all just talk about the other ones which are easy to understand”.

Kan is a part critic, part-observer, and part-immersive producer of culture. He runs two websites: this is Lagos (General News) and the Lagos review (arts, culture, and media). His conversations are always having-consciously or unconsciously-a “them and us” narrative bent.

“I look at that collection”, he says, continuing the story around Nights of the Creaking Bed. “In it, I talk about Bro Sonnie and the ferment of conservative Islam and you see it’s happening today. I talked about people being kidnapped and put in the booths of their cars and it is happening every day now. People focus on the risqué part of it, but there were some serious stories that, from my own point of view…

The latest cover of Nights of the Creaking Bed

“But it’s okay. Any story that can ..how did (Cassius) Longinus put it? He said that sublime literature is one that pleases all men at all times in every clime. Well, this book pleased them in 2007. It pleased them in 2017 and…

“I don’t think there’s any Nigerian book that had stayed in print this long and I think that’s an achievement for me.

“I think that’s what established me as a writer of note”.

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