Seeking the light with Femi

Namibian based author, Femi Kayode trained as a clinical psychologist in Nigeria, before starting a career in advertising. He has created and written several prime-time TV shows. His debut novel, Lightseekers, was selected as a Best Crime Novel of the Month by The Times, Sunday Times, Independent, Guardian, Observer, Financial Times and Irish Times and was longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award. Femi sat down with Observer Weekend on the eve of the launch of his second novel, Gas Light.

Your journey is quite an interesting one: from psychologist, to creative director and now author. Can you share this fascinating journey with us?
I never think of my journey as fascinating until someone points it out. For me, I was just living, exploring, and sticking to the things that worked for me and shedding, very quickly, those that didn’t. And there were quite a few that didn’t. For instance, I studied Animal Science as my first degree, and was on track to going back to study medicine. 5 years of biochemistry cured me of that ambition, plus a morbid fear of cadavers. My undergrad was filled with academic work that did not excite me and long nights at rehearsals at the theater where I was acting in several plays. In fact, in those days, everyone thought I was studying Theater Arts, including the professors! It wasn’t long before I started writing plays and this inspired my curiosity about how the human mind processes the world. Human beings fascinated me. And that drew me to psychology. By the time I finished Clinical Psychology, I realized that the real lived experiences of people can be quite mundane. It was like watching Big Brother on loop, without the highlights. The drama was what excited me, the quirks, the action and reaction that created dramatic conflict. I like to think psychology deepened my love for drama, and helped me to learn to unpeel the layers of human behavior especially when pushed to the edge. Venturing into advertising came through dramatic writing. I won an Mnet scriptwriting competition which led to a workshop where I met a fellow participant who said, ‘you’d make a good copywriter’. I asked what that meant, he invited me for a copy test at Grey where they were looking for a copywriter with a science background to work in their healthcare division. The rest, as they say, is history.
You were born in Nigeria, live in Namibia, but at the same time you are an international citizen. It’s quiet a balancing act
And I wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s what I think my parents worked for and what I strive for with my children. We are humans and the world, every part of this God’s own earth, was created for us. As long as I am aware that this truth comes with responsibilities – one of them being to be respectful of the people and the land — I think my global citizenship will be well earned.

Has psychology always been your first love?
Writing has always been my first love. I have always written. Plays, radio, screenplays and more. I like to think that everything I have studied (and I love school and even now, I am currently finalizing my PhD) and all my professional experiences have contributed to my journey as a writer. In between, I have been a teacher, created TV shows, studied Film, International Health, and Futures Studies. Every one of these detours, so to speak, has added to my writing.

And clearly it came in very handy with your debut novel, Lightseekers?
Absolutely. My protagonist is an investigative psychologist who is more interested in whydunit than whodunnit. It gave rise to a different kind of procedural, one which the psychological underpinnings that drive people’s actions were more important (and to my mind, constructive) than the crime itself. The villain suffers from split personality (an allegory for the post-colonial dysfunction of the Nigerian political system). So yes, psychology is key to my work, but I daresay, it is the same with most, if not all literary work. The difference is, I understood the theoretical frameworks that governed human behaviour while other writers without my background tend to spend time doing careful research. The result should be the same.

What got you into advertising and the creative industry in general?
I was always a creative person, and I was lucky to have found the opportunity to express myself in the advertising space. The balance between my day job (advertising) and my other creative pursuits (writing for film or the novel form) has always been the challenge. But it helped that I saw the transitions from one medium to another as a continuum.

How did your journey as an author begin?
I have always written in one form or the other. My first play was produced when I was 19 and had one of the longest runs at the university theater. My first screenplay, A Place Called Home, was an adaptation of a stage play I wrote in my undergraduate days. I developed and wrote several hours of TV drama and films until sometime in 2017 when I just got tired of it all. Film is an extremely collaborative process and in Africa, I didn’t feel the writer was getting enough credit. I felt lost in the process. I wanted something that I could own from beginning to end. Looking back, I think it was an identity crisis. I was in my forties, working in advertising that is even more collaborative to the point of making the creators of a concept as anonymous as possible so that the brand can shine. Writing a novel was almost like me saying: “hey, I am here. I matter! I have a voice and a story to tell and its all mine!” My insecurities made me feel I couldn’t do it on my own, so I went back to school. I obtained an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and Lightseekers was my thesis.

What inspired you to tell the story in Lightseekers?
The story of 4 university undergraduates who were victims of vigilante justice in Nigeria always repulsed and fascinated me in equal measure. It was an incident that shocked the world and got me asking several questions about why people do what they do, and what pushes them to the extreme end of evil. So really, it was an exploration of sorts. My authentic need to understand this incident inspired my creating a fictional version of events.

The story itself shocked Nigerians, didn’t it?
Oh, it did, but to my mind, not enough. Till date, we still have an alarming number of vigilante justice in Nigeria and indeed, many parts of the world. It’s hard to prosecute, despite the fact that in almost every country, jungle justice is illegal. So, yes, Nigerians were shocked, but shock is not enough to change things. We need outrage, a passionate outcry of “never again!”. Without that, shock is just for shock value. It does nothing.

It’s a truly authentic African thriller, but with international appeal as well. How did you manage to tell the story in that way?
For one, I went to school and not just any school, but one of the most prestigious and the oldest creative writing programs in Europe. I think that helped me to balance the perspectives. It was important to hold on to my identity as an African because I was the only black person in my cohort, and yet I was in this magnificent space where almost all the prescribed texts were western, and not quite speaking to my lived experience as an African. I think the school gave me the framework to tell my story in a manner that an international audience was familiar with while staying true to the content and context.

The book has been internationally recognized. Can you share some of those accolades?
I have been very lucky indeed. Lightseekers was picked as a Book of the Month by the Times, Sunday Times, Independent, Guardian, Observer, Financial Times and Irish Times and was longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel. The paperback was chosen by Waterstones as their Thriller of the Month in July last year. I was really proud of that. I was in Amsterdam during that time and can never forget how it felt to see the grand display of the book at the Waterstones outlet at the city center.
I cried and laughed for about an hour. Passersby thought I was high! In Germany, Lightseekers was on the bestseller list for 6 weeks, and in France, it was shortlisted for the Elle Crime Novel of the Month. In the US, it was shortlisted for the Strand Award for Best Debut Novel.
It has really been gratifying and humbling to know people all over the world are experiencing storytelling from Africa in novel ways that are changing the post-colonial and ‘otherizing’ narrative of the continent. I am really looking forward to sharing the sequel, Gaslight, which is due for publication in November. Just this week, Waterstones revealed the cover. I love it.

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