Looking for Transwonderland, a review
By Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Looking for Transwonderland, written by Noo Saro-Wiwa, is a rollercoaster journey through Nigeria’s cities and regions which, at the same time, cleverly reveals Nigeria’s diverse and complex ethno-geographical identities and personalities. At times, it feels like walking through West African history, especially the period when West African empires and trade routes held sway. The journey is dotted with Saro-Wiwa’s childhood memories when she visited Nigeria from Britain to be with her father. In this book she has returned to rediscover Nigeria with a more open mind. But this is a brutally honest and unflattering view of Nigeria which at times is hilarious but other times coloured by Saro-Wiwa’s anger at a country that brutally murdered her father. It must be said however that Saro-Wiwa handles her father’s huge presence in the book, which could have been overpowering, quite superbly. He is neither romanticised nor repressed. He comes across as a typical middle class African father of the time who happened to be an activist.
Nigerian cities, like much of Africa, have collapsed into disrepair because of corruption since independence but somehow the people function. Saro-Wiwa is not encouraging you to visit Nigeria and Nigeria does not care. We see a chaotic, loud south where everything is grotesque. You don’t want to go to Lagos yet Abuja with all its imported affluence is sterile. Saro-Wiwa’s venom is pared down in the north probably because by then her anger has turned to sadness. This could also be because she is getting close to home where her displaced existence is most poignant. At first, when Saro-Wiwa gets home she is excited that among her people her name is pronounced right but then she cannot converse with her cousins in her language and this isolates her. Here her ambiguity of her being home but not being at home is felt intensely.
Out of Africa, Nigeria is the most narrated country in literature. Many lovers of African literature are familiar with its cultural, geographical, and political make up. But Nigeria is normally narrated from an Igbo or Yoruba point of view. It is therefore refreshing to get a fresh view from an Agoni a minority, though Saro-Wiwa is doubly a minority as she is at the same time British Agoni.
The main problem with the book is that in search of Nigeria’s modernity Saro-Wiwa takes the European way of life as a normative. It is against this that she paints the chaos and decay in Nigerian cities and structures. Statements like ‘cultural stubbornness’ sounds uncomfortably like colonial frustration. I got the feeling that Nigerian cities were unfairly compared to London, New York and Miami. To me, these Western cities and their personalities will never be replicated in Africa, nor is it really desirable. It is therefore absurd to go looking for Europe in Africa. What’s jarring most is that this Euro-centric perspective, at once distanced and distasteful, is juxtaposed with ‘we Nigerians’ and ‘us Agonis’. Saro-Wiwa speaks at once from within as a Nigerian and from without as a Briton and at times it was problematic. But then again, this is the knotty issue of double vision of a Diasporic writer with all the tensions and contradictions that come with it.
In the end, Saro-Wiwa has found both beauty and ugliness in Nigeria, but the ugliness is too overpowering for her anglicised way of perception to sound an optimistic note. For me this enhances the irony of the white Zimbabwean immigrant view when he points out to Saro-Wiwa that, “We are going where you are coming from, and you are going where we are coming from,” and Saro-Wiwa’s view at the end of the novel when she feels like hugging her father for “raising me abroad and expanding my life choices.” I guess it all comes down to perspective.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a creative writing PhD student at Lancaster University.