Toni Kan @ Fifty: A Road Well Travelled

Toni Kan

BEVERLY HILLS, June 06, (THEWILL) – Some kids get all the luck, sired by wealthy and educated parents who parcel them off to Ivy League schools where rich parents’ kids go and then end up in blue chip companies where they invariably become directors.

Some kids get some of or half the luck, born to not so rich but educated parents, attend mid-level institutions and through self-application end up in managerial positions in reputable companies. Some kids get no luck at all, a vulcanizer’s son, say, with no education who may end up himself as a vulcanizer.

Toni Kan Onwordi, TK as some of his close acquaintance call him, is smack in the second category. His father was a school principal, oftentimes transferred at short notice from place to place in the old Bendel state.

For that, young TK “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 socialize a lot mostly because I had a stutter.”

If you had to make yourself clear in five or more minutes what took your mates two or less, you will most certainly become the butt of jokes. If you didn’t play football while your peers romped around on the pitch, you will most certainly be distanced from them. TK was. What did he do to engage himself? He read.

“I read, mostly,” he told me via email this week. “As a child, no one gave me toys or football as gifts. I got books as birthday presents.”

The first books were presented to him by his father whose library followed his numerous transfers wherever he went. In retrospect, TK’s fate was being decided at just that time – a writer in the making.

Many more books followed, most of which he read while his peers tooled around in wooden tricycles or kicked leather. There was, for instance, The Last Duty by Isidore Okpewho, Cross of Gold by Lauretta Ngcobo 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 rhythm 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. That was my ambition and motivation for becoming a writer.”

If there is one word that best describes TK from his younger years to now that he will turn 50 on June 11, it is focus, more focus and more focus. He started winning writing prizes right from the get-go, in primary school right through secondary up to university and thereafter.

“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.”

At Jos, TK entered for a British Council competition for Nigerian universities. He came second. “It was a defining moment for me,” he reminisced. On the strength of that prize, he attended a Summer School at University of Edinburgh, Scotland. On the strength of that prize, again, his close friend and classmate Ralph Bruce introduced him to Kayode Ajala and Reuben Abati who were the reigning scribes at HINTs magazine where TK would hone his skill as a writer.

One more ward came courtesy Swiss Radio for all of Africa necessitating his travelling to Switzerland. All of that was while he was still in Jos, from where he was contributing to HINTS, a soft sell magazine he would also edit for years. But before then, TK graduated as the best student in his class.

The first indigenous award came from Liberty Merchant Bank Short Story competition. TK was third while his current partner, Peju Akande came second. The chap who came first died before the presentation ceremony in Lagos. One striking thing however was they were all Josites, as graduates and undergraduates from the Middle Belt institution of higher learning are called.

More prizes have followed, from MuSoN Poetry prize to ANA/ Ken Saro Wiwa Prize. And then the fellowships which TK has attended; first, there was Heinrich Boll in Germany, Civitella Ranieri in Italy and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs in New York.

Though a science student in secondary school, and owing to his early contact with the masterpieces in his father’s library, he took up literature. He always topped his class.

TK would most probably have been a medic if he’d followed his original course of study at the university – medicine. For whatever reason, the University of Jos offered the chap Biochemistry or Chemistry. He was not impressed with either. Enter his uncle who was a lecturer at the university.

“I had applied to JAMB for three years to study Medicine and I kept getting offered Biochemistry and Chemistry,” TK told me. His uncle was so frustrated and so asked his nephew what else will he 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, Introduction to Fiction, a two-semester course, we had 48 novels to read and I had read 47 of those. Guess who came tops? I ended up as Best Student and got a scholarship.”

What might have been if, by any chance, the university hopeful was offered medicine as his first course of choice? Given his focus, keen intelligence and tapering fingers ideal for surgery, TK would have made good as a medic, more than average, for sure. But the pull of writing was ever stronger, no doubt, than the lure of the theatre or wearing surgical gloves.

By the time he got admission to read English, the young man seemed perfectly at home plus he would meet some of his lifelong friends and mates in the same department (Peju Akande, Ralph Bruce, Helon Habila, Dave Njoku, Peter Okwoche,) all of them united by a common interest – writing.

Both Helon and TK were particularly drawn to one another as classmates, having read some of the prescribed texts. There is a story of the two always being the first to answer questions in class – a character in A Passage to India or the relevance of plot in Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster. Of course, that will deepen their relationship and also trigger a subtle academic rivalry, a kind of Mailer/ Vidal competitiveness without the acrimonious shout downs and punch ups.

Moreover, Helon and TK have remained consistent in their creative output, perhaps, more than any of their contemporaries in Nigeria. With a number of books to his credit (Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time, Oil on Water and most recently Travelers) Helon is a professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University Fairfax, Virginia.

On his part, TK has held on gallantly on the home front, having published over 20 books ever since his very first Diana: Princess of Wales he co-wrote with Njoku while he was editor at HINTS, a romance, soft sell weekly that was a staple for many a secretary and female university undergraduates back in time. As TK tells it, Diana: Princess of Wales took him and Njoku “three or four alcohol-fuelled nights” to write.

Published just on the cusp of the tragic death of Lady Di, it was a commercial success, selling 50, 000 copies in just a week. A reviewer with THISDAY at the time, Oji Onoko, panned the publication, with a rather insulting headline of “History Told in a Hurry!” Dismissive as the reviewer was, he inadvertently gave Diana: Princess of Wales good publicity.

It wasn’t that TK couldn’t write serious stuff. Coming from the University of Jos, an institution notorious for its academic rigour especially in the Department of English and Literature, and with a burning desire to be a writer, TK soon published his first, When a Dream Lingers Too Long. It got an honourable mention during the yearly annual convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors the same year.

Next was Ballad of Rage a novella published in 2004, shortlisted for the more prestigious Nigeria Prize for Literature sponsored by gas giant Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas. Another, Night of the Creaking Bed followed. This time, it got the ANA/ Ken Saro-Wiwa Prize. The author insists it is “probably the only Nigerian book that has not gone out of print since it was published in 2008, though that is debatable. A year later, TK published Songs of Absence and Despair and in 2015 The Carnivorous City.

TK has added to that oeuvre, concentrating more on bios now because, in his words, literature with a capital L does not pay the bills. So far, he has co-written half a dozen or so bios with his partner Peju Akande, ghost-written some, mostly of prominent Nigerians: Austin Avuru, Ali Baba, Julius Agwu, Newton Jibunoh, DJ Jimmy Jatts, SO Shonibare.

TK’s collabo with his partner Peju Akande has paid off handsomely in their personal and professional lives. Both run their public relations firm, Radi8 together. Of their relationship from 1990 till date, Akande recalls they met in school when her mother entrusted her to TK’s care, a sort of male guardian. And such is their closeness Ms. Akande now refers to TK as “my partner in crime because he’s the one person I told all my issues, things I couldn’t with my girlfriends or family.”

Those who know the pair intimately say of their union as two rivers flowing in parallel directions but destined  to meet somewhere, somehow, an intellectual and romantic union comparable to celebrated French writers, Jean Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir, who were never married but lived together for much of their lives.

TK, Akande wrote to me, “has been a most consistent friend and partner.”

Another close buddy, Ralph Bruce, whom TK has known for more 21 years says of his sense of humour as “massive.” They met in Jos in 1990 and they’ve not parted ever since. “He’s been loyal, profusely honest when it comes to life matters and he thrives on healthy competition, fast with the double ‘F’ and, above all, my best friend.”

 

Himself a senior journalist, poet and novelist, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu has worked closely with TK for decades. Reflecting on TK’s journey so far, Uzoatu told me from his base in Awka that “Toni Kan is a natural leader, very respectful, a person you will see as a younger brother that you will want to do anything for. No wonder they call him Mayor of Lagos because he is a crowd puller. His attention to writing, the literary world is well informed. It is difficult to find people who are dreamers who actually actualize their dreams. He is a thinker, doer,” concluding that TK “can go the distance.”

There have been incredibly sad moments as TK made his journey through life. The first was in 2009 when he lost his elder brother, Charles, to cancer. Undetected early, the cancer had advanced pretty quickly. Within weeks, the formerly bubbly chap had shriveled to half his size and later died in his mother’s arms.

Charles’s demise got to the entire family. But it was the matriarch who was most affected. Seeing your first born wasting away on account of a degenerative disease is bad enough. Having him die in your arms would certainly be disastrous. It was for Mrs. Onwordi. The toll was simply unbearable. She never got over the unexpected loss.

TK, I also know you’ve had some incredibly sad periods in your life’s journey – losing Charles to cancer, parting ways with Wendy, mum’s sickness and demise. So, what year(s) did these sad events happen and how did you cope?

My brother Charles died in December 2009 just as I had quit my job and was gearing up to start my first business venture. His illness got worse over a few days and by the time he died and was buried I had run through my savings which ran into millions back then. It was a tough time and I remember sitting outside my house one evening after the burial and crying and wondering what to do next.

Then a few years later, in 2012, my marriage crashed. That was crazy too and the crash of my marriage remains the most devastating failure in my 50 years. I did not think it would happen to me because I was one of those who married for love and put in the energy to make it work. As the French say, c’est la vie.

My mother took my brother’s death hard because he died in her arms and I think that triggered her battle with Alzheimer’s which finally claimed her life in 2020.

So, yes, there have been sweet and sour moments in this 50 years journey but these are the saddest.

Generally, what would you say of getting to 50, has life been fair, dealt you a good or bad hand? What are your expectations from now on?

If God gives me an opportunity to come back, I will live my life the same way. I have had an amazing 50 years of it and wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been a whole lot of fun being me, I swear. My expectations are simple; good health, my faculties in order and enough ends to meet my needs which are simple; seeing my kids through university, write more biographies and have a healthy old age.

Tell us about TLR, the most serious online publication on and about Nigerian, nay, African literature.

Most serious, wow. Peju and I co-own thelagosreview.ng with our friend, the poet, Dr. Dami Ajayi. We wanted something that would help introduce young writers to a discerning reading audience like Nduka Otiono and Harry Garuba did alongside people like you and Akin Adesokan with The Post Express Literary Supplement which was modeled in many ways after Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi’s The Guardian Literary Series. I have never said this before in an interview but when I came to Lagos I wanted to be like Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi – academic, journalist, business man. He is suave, intelligent, a people’s person and a PR maven. I think I am not doing badly sha. So, TLR is almost two years and even though I don’t have enough time these days I keep pushing because I consider it a labour of love and a legacy project.

As far as Nigerian literature is concerned, for more than three decades up until now, you’re a point man. How do you feel about this, especially now at 50?

I wanted to be a writer. Writing was the gift God gave me and I wanted to do it well and make a good living. It started from Hints and has continued over the years even during my sojourn in corporate Nigeria when many said I had sold out. They say you are a lucky man if your gift and passion can feed you. On that score, I consider myself very blessed by God and very lucky as I turn 50.”

In a profile published in TIME magazine of June 16, 1997, on Steve Spielberg at 50, Richard Corliss and Jeffrey Ressner wrote that “50 is an age for realists…A man takes stock of his dwindling physical inventory and starts thinking not of empire building but of simple maintenance in health, family and career, the preservation, for just a few more years…Fifty is a time for holding on, for hoping that time and gravity will not pull you down.”

In good health, bouncing and all he could ever wish for at 50 at his fingertips, whether by chance or choice, TK’s prompt response to his uncle in the HOD’s office proves beyond any doubt that his métier is a road/ route well travelled.