Tribute: Me, Toni Kan and The Carnivorous City – Peju Akande
I remember when Toni began to write the first draft of The Carnivorous City was back in 2009/2010. He’d been talking about writing the quintessential modern Lagos novel. He wanted to write a true Lagos story; one that would be read even by foreigners and it would serve as a literary map of the city. He would send me the manuscript, chapter by chapter as her wrote them. I would read, critique and many times, just say, “this is ok as is.” It helped, at that time, that we were also working on the Shonibare book project, “S.O Shonibare: Legend of All Time”, biography of the late Samuel Olatubosun Shonibare who built the popular Shonibare estate in Maryland Lagos. And so the more we dug into old Lagos for Shonibare, the more convinced Toni was about the book he would eventually call The Carnivorous City. He didn’t start out with that title; why did he choose this finally? He wanted something that would stand out on the book shelves. He wanted a title that would make you drop other books and pick up his own; so he vacillated between, “This is Lagos”, which he felt captured everything Lagos, the title even suggesting a snobbery of sorts but after playing with the title, he abandoned it. “It doesn’t capture what I have in my head,” he told me. What Toni had in his head was to present Lagos as “a beast with bared fangs and a voracious appetite for human flesh.” (Page 34). This was the Lagos in Toni Kan’s head! Toni is very meticulous; so even when his first drafts are mostly error free; he would still comb through and insist I re-read. He avoids the banal and when I once teased him about his “big grammar” he replied with: “How will they know that I went to school?” And Toni ‘went to school’I first met him in 1990 at the University of Jos. We were course mates at the faculty of Arts, Department of English and Literature and he ended up graduating at the top of our class. Before The Carnivorous City emerged in book form, he had dubbed it TCC. We spoke about TCC like it was a character we had both been introduced to, though better known to Toni than myself. While reading through the drafts, I complained about a few characters; Toni would take it in and then go back to do more editing, more fleshing out of the plot. He never complained about my criticism, he would go back to look at the work again then send it back to me with additions or subtractions. When I apologized for my constant needling and requests for tweaking, he replied, “If you read the book and you have questions, then the work isn’t done. I don’t mind criticisms; it means the book is doing something to you.” And indeed, it was.
The Carnivorous City by Toni Kan is more than that, I’ve often wondered where fiction stops and reality kicks in because virtually everything in the book is real. Toni is hailed as The Mayor of Lagos; one who knows Lagos inside out, the go-to person when it comes to Lagos; the one who though may have no deep understanding of the local language, yet speaks the universally accepted code on Lagos streets. Toni is fluent in the “shine your eyes” and “no dulling” code. He is eloquent in the if you “suegbe Lagos will yeye” you code and that is essentially the lingua franca of Lagos, this bustling cosmopolitan city. Toni’s knowledge of Lagos is like John Legend’s song, he knows “… all (her) curves and all (her) edges.” In TCC, the way he linked roads, streets, in and around Lagos and Asaba is deliberate. I remember him saying to me back then; “I want my book to give even foreigners coming to Lagos, a road map, tell them where so and so is…” He deliberately created a road map for readers, so that 20 or 30 years down the line, you can pick up the novel navigate Lagos. But he was also poking fun at the “yeyeness” of Lagos as you read on page 102: “Years back, when he spent his first extended period in Lagos, there were no street signs and people would give you directions by saying, “Drive into the street, turn left; you will see a water tank painted yellow. My house is second on the left. God help you if someone moved the water tank or changed the colour.” Toni Kan knew what he was doing, he was mapping Lagos like a literary cartographer Well today, Lagos keeps showing Toni how much of a Carnivorous City it is with more than a Few of the landmarks he wrote about gone. For example, the Mobil filling station, that was located in Maryland for more than 30 years, doesn’t exist anymore, it has been bulldozed to make way for BRT buses. On page 84, Toni had written: “Soni was being held at Area F in Ikeja, so Abel boarded a bus at Ojota that would take him to Maryland. He alighted at the Mobil filling station and took another bus to Ikeja roundabout.”
What also strikes one in The Carnivorous City is the hair trigger resort to violence in Lagos; Toni Kan was personal witness to more than half of the fights captured in the novel and I had heard them from him long before TCC. I was riding with him one day and noticed an ugly looking Masai stick in his car. When I asked why he carried a stick in his car, he told me, “You can never be too prepared in this Lagos.” He seemed to know when skirmishes would erupt; he seemed to be able to read people, the environment and just tell you that after a few exchange of words, “fight will soon start.” The Mushin scene in TCC for instance, one moment it was peaceful, the next blood and gore. The “shit” scene on page 95 is also real, gleaned from a newspaper story published years before TCC; Toni Kan filed the story in his head and fleshed it out in TCC. Let’s talk about a few of the characters that people Carnivorous city. Toni Kan played Esu with the characters, choosing to reveal himself in one while eschewing certain traits in another; Abel and Soni are for instance, composites of Toni Kan himself. Toni’s dad and Abel’s father, were both school principals; Toni himself had described himself as a sickly child, and having difficulty clenching a fist when sick. He grew up in virtually the same household like Abel and had a desire to go back to the classroom and teach like his father…before he fell in love with Lagos…and everything changed for him. Like Abel, Toni is unlikely to go back to teach because Lagos has sunk its fangs into him! Soni aka “9 inches” is a story I have heard Toni tell over and over again of his all boys school secondary school, St Patrick’s College, Asaba. “9 inches” was the gold standard length for boys’ penises which Toni says was also the nickname given to one of his best mates at Unijos. Nicknames were also common when Toni was in school; on page 13, Toni writes, “Soni had been born Sunderland Onyema Dike but became known by an assortment of noms de guerre befitting the person he was becoming and would become. At the university, he was known as ‘9 inches’ because he told the girls he slept with that he was 9 inches long.” I remember asking him, “So how did you know this guy is 9inches long? Did anyone measure him?” “No, he told us he was and we believed him!” Soni’s family, like Toni Kan’s lived in the grounds of St Thomas’ College while, Soni’s mum, like Toni’s could also have been described as “Sentimental”. The late Patricia Onwordi loved to play music on Saturday mornings and like Toni wrote of Soni’s mum, “… he remembered her playing loud music on Saturday mornings as she and her sister, (Toni has just one sister by the way, like Soni ) did the chores…she played BoneyM and Abba if she was happy and Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry if she was sad.” That is Toni’s mum, she loved music and had a penchant for playing happy music when happy and sentimental ones when sad. Toni is funny and his laughter can be raucous; like Soni’s and the part where Santos warned Abel about being a Lagos big boy is very typical of Toni’s spur of the moment jokes. “…As Santos pulled out of the station, he turned to Abel.”Bros, no vex o but I want to tell you something.””Sure, what?””Nothing much bros, it is just that you have become Lagos Big Boy now, so it’s not pure for you to be chopping gala like that for street.” Many of the anecdotes, the jokes, the one-liners you want to read again and again are snippets that I had heard him tell before. So to answer the question many have asked me and Toni Kan himself, is The Carnivorous City a work of fiction or a real story? I would say it’s a combo. Soni and Abel are like Toni and his brother, Charles of blessed memory who passed from colon cancer. Over 10 years later, I don’t think Toni Kan has fully come to grips with his brother’s death. Writing TCC in a way helped him purge himself of his brother’s passing just the same way Abel finally came to terms with a missing Soni that would never return. When readers ask “ What really happened to Soni? Would he ever be found?” they seem to forget that Toni already provided an answer on page 233 using the DSP working on Soni’s case to voice his inner thoughts: “…we will keep looking but I can almost tell you with certainty that he will never be found.” That part is where, I think, Toni found closure over his brother’s passing. At readings, Toni is also often asked, “Will there be a sequel to The Carnivorous City?” This is a question he always evades. But I can give you a definitive answer. No, there will be no sequel; there will be no Soni coming out from the dark like an apocalyptic Zombie, and no there will be no disruption to Abel’s well-orchestrated new life, instead there will be another captivating Lagos novel, sometime soon.