“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.

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