“I’ve focused on biographies because it pays the bills” – Toni Kan
If 50 is still considered golden in these days of cancel culture and whatnot, then Toni Kan struck gold long before hitting the golden age on June 11 as many of his family, friends and colleagues, who showed up Friday to usher him across, will attest.
But where did this remarkable story of grit, guts and gentlemanliness begin? Who but the scribe Michael Jimoh to tease out the juicy bits in this interview everyone should read like a bible of discovery or manual through life.
TK, please, tell me about your younger years, where was it, how was it and when did you start browsing the books in your father’s library?
I had a peripatetic childhood. My father was a principal and he kept getting transferred around the old Bendel State so I ended up attending six primary schools. I was a quiet and studious child who did not engage much in physical activity and I also did not socialise a lot mostly because I had a stutter. So, because I couldn’t play football, I read. As a child, no one gave me toys or football as gifts. I got books as birthday presents. You started reading at a very early age. Certainly that influenced your becoming a writer.
When were you finally convinced you were going to be a writer?
Yes, I started reading quite early mostly because my father who studied at the University of Ibadan and took his Master’s from Temple University Pennsylvania had a huge library and I was drawn to the books. My mother was a sculptor but I can’t draw to save my life even though my late older brother became an artist and studied at ABU. It was books that drew me to them and as I have said in many fora and interviews, I became a writer because of Ben Okri. I was 11 and for my birthday, my father sent me three books – The Last Duty by Isidore Okpewho, Cross of Gold by Laureta Ncobo and Flowers and Shadows by Ben Okri. By 11 I had read well over 200 books, many of them in the African Writers Series but those three books from Longman’s Drumbeat series left a different rhytm in my brain. After reading Ben Okri’s debut novel, I sat on the stoop in front of our house at St. Thomas’ College, Ibusa and shed tears for Jefia, the protagonist.
That was the moment I knew that I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to write stuff that would make people cry. Lol. That was my ambition.
I remember you won some literary awards, Liberty Merchant Bank Short Stories, Muson Poetry Prize and many more. Can you please reprise them and the years, starting from the first to the last.
I started winning writing awards from primary school but it was in secondary school that it began to get attention because I was a science student who was getting the highest scores in literature. But the big one came in my second year of uni. I had applied to JAMB for three years to study medicine and I kept getting offered biochemistry and chemistry so frustrated my uncle who was helping with my admission at the University of Jos said “what else can you study?” I said English and off we went to the Head of Department whom he was friends with. The man looked at my WAEC and GCE results and said he would take me
on one condition; I would be kicked out of the department if I failed a test or assignment. I said, “game on”.
It was funny because when they gave us our list of books for one of our courses, it was a two-semester course, we had 48 books and I had read 47 of those. Guess who came tops? I ended up as Best Student and got a scholarship. The HOD was ecstatic and said he knew I would do him proud from the moment he saw me. The next year I entered for a British Council competition for Nigerian universities and came second in Nigeria. That was the defining moment. I went for Summer School at the University of Edinburgh and from there I knew I had found my niche. It was on the strength of that award that my friend, Ralph Bruce introduced me to Kayode Ajala and Rueben Abati who were the big boys at Hints and my career as a writer began.
A year later, I won another one organised by the Swiss Radio for all of Africa and I went to Switzerland. I ended up graduating as Best Student in my class and then coming to Lagos to work at Hints.
In Lagos I won the Liberty Short Story prize (The top prizes went to UNIJOS alumni. I was third while my partner Peju Akande, who was my classmate, took second prize.)
The Muson prize came later and then the ANA prize and NLNG shortlist. It goes on and on but I am particularly proud of the fellowships I have attended: Heinrich Boll, Civitella Ranieri and Yaddo.
Can you, also, state your publications so far, when they were published and the genres?
At the last count, I have published over 20 books not counting the novellas and biographies I wrote at Hints. Diana: Princess of Wales, which I co-wrote with David Njoku, should rank as my first published book and deserves a place in the annals of Nigerian literature. We wrote it over three or four alcohol-fuelled nights and it sold 50,000 copies in one week.
I remember that a scathing review by Oji Onoko of ThisDay was good PR. His caption was – History Told in a Hurry! My first published book of literature with a “CAPITAL L” as stuck up purists like to say was When a Dream Lingers Too Long, which got honourable mention at ANA and was followed by my novella, Ballad of Rage, which was shortlisted for the inaugural NLNG prize and then Nights of the Creaking Bed, which won the ANA/Ken Saro Wiwa prize and is probably the only Nigerian book that has not gone out of print since it was published in 2008.
I also published another poetry collection, Songs of Absence and Despair in 2009. My first novel, The Carnivorous City, was published in 2016. Since then I have focused on biographies because literature with a “CAPITAL L” does not pay the bills. In the space of 10 years, my partner, Peju Akande, and I have co-written and ghostwritten over 12 biographies and autobiographies for subjects like Julius Agwu, SO Shonbare, Newton Jibunoh, DJ Jimmy Jatt, Ali Baba, Austin Avuru and others that we cannot mention. We have three in the making right now.