Who is Afraid of the Mafia: Do authors of crime novels face danger? — Onyeka Nwelue
I have never given serious thought to how writers of crime and mafia novels fared with safety. The books were a delight for me—from Mario Puzo and Tom Clancy to David Baldacci and Ken Follet. Let’s not talk about Stephen King and Jeffrey Archer. Oh, and there were a lot more than I have mentioned, all of whom I read and enjoyed. Never for once did I stop to enquire whether they were threatened or lived in fear of Mafiosi, criminals, rogue police officers and dubious politicians or spy bosses whom their stories expose in a most creative and entertaining manner.
Maybe I had assumed the personal lives of the authors to be as fictitious as their stories, hence I had been unable to tell the writer apart from the story. But lately, I have begun to inquire into the state of being of these writers to understand mine.
In 2023, I published The Nigerian Mafia: Mumbai. It is a work of fiction and the first in a 10-book novel series, with each installment set in a particular city that hosts a sizable African and Nigerian diaspora community.
“The Nigerian Mafia: São Paulo” and “The Nigerian Mafia: Johannesburg” are both slated for publication in 2024.
A Brazilian academic has nothing but praises for “The Nigerian Mafia: São Paulo”. I sent her the manuscript and kept my fingers crossed while I awaited her response. Expectations are high for “The Nigerian Mafia: Johannesburg” as my South African publisher thinks very highly of the book.
The Nigerian Mafia: Mumbai has been widely received in India since its publication in 2023. Most Indian readers and reviewers have approached the book with heightened curiosity—to learn what others thought of them and to attempt to understand the plight of African and Nigerian immigrants in India. There are also interests from concerned individuals piqued by the suggestion that some foreign mafia organisation could be operating on their soil.
I have been able to come to these conclusions from the questions that have gotten to me in the course of my Indian blog tour.
I think it is a good thing for readers to reach out with questions for the author. It shows, in my opinion, how much they have taken responsibility for a story that attempts to resonate with their realities. Certainly, Mario Puzo must have had to deal with questions from concerned Americans intent upon clarifying the suggestion that a mafia organisation from out of Italy was operating in New York, Miami, Las Vegas and elsewhere in the United States of America.
Don’t get me wrong. This is good. Every writer dreams of it—the attention. But then, was Puzo threatened by Italians or their cohorts? Because, I am.
Whoever follows my journey intently can easily say that my life has never been rosy. And they would be correct. Life has been a constant roller coaster of highs and lows. It doesn’t matter that there are many on social media who admire and envy my life from a distance, but they all know the truth—that the sacrifices, the things I constantly have to give up to be able to remain creatively relevant have come at a great price.
I have neither a house, a car, or any money-making enterprise. All that I strive and live for is creativity.
As a writer, it is my belief that fiction must mirror reality. Anything other than that should never be considered art. My stories must be relatable and believable, so much so that some readers might begin to see themselves in the pages of the book. Anything short of this becomes a testament to mediocrity. But then, should I be blamed that some reader recognizes themself in The Nigerian Mafia: Mumbai? I think not. But my reality appears to be in stark contrast with my ideals. Reliable information has reached me that drug cartel members and human traffickers are after me in the hopes of framing me up because, maybe, they consider The Nigerian Mafia series too revealing.
In 2021, while an Academic Visitor to the University of Oxford, I set up the James Currey Society in honour of the British publisher, James Currey, who can rightly be said to be the father of African publishing. The James Currey Society honours individuals in the arts, academia and media with fellowships within the British academic establishment.
Renowned Nigerian investigative journalist, David Hundeyin, was honoured with a James Currey Fellowship in 2023. This recognition of the works of David Hundeyin got many people within the Nigerian political and corporate establishment riled up. Overnight, I became the public enemy of powerful people who believed they controlled all that happened in Nigeria. For them, the James Currey Society must be torn down and the works I have done obliterated. This way, they could discredit David’s honour. Nothing was to be spared. It made matters worse that despite overt resistance, I went ahead to organise a book launch for David Hundeyin’s ‘The Jungle’ in Oxford. For this, I suffered a smear campaign and vile harassment that made me leave England and check into psychiatry in Mexico.
I am still very much in touch with David Hundeyin, and I see no reason to pander to the whims of advocates of cancel culture.
The persecution I suffered in Oxford, if anything, strengthened my friendship with David Hundeyin. But then, people have found a way to link my writing of The Nigeria Mafia Series to my association with David. There are also insinuations that I am working with the FBI or CIA.
I am not exactly worried. I do not think I am in danger. At least, not yet. But if it gets serious, maybe I should consider going into hiding or something of the sort. One of the only writers I have known to face serious backlash for their work is Salman Rushdie. I was at his book signing a few years back. But Salman Rushdie didn’t write about crime or the mafia, so I can’t really draw parallels with his life. Yet I am curious: do threats and suspicions come with being the author of a successful mafia/crime novel? If so, how did those before me navigate this aspect of their career? I would love to know.
–Onyeka Nwelue is the author of 26 books. His latest, The Nigerian Mafia: Mumbai, was longlisted for the 2023 Chinua Achebe Prize and won the 2023 ANA Prose Prize.
He is currently the director of Africa Center Mexico.