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‘We Can Learn So Much From Historical Fiction’

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Nike Campbell-Fatoki is a Nigerian author born in Lvov, Ukraine and now lives in the Washington DC area of the US. She is the author of the historical novel Thread of Gold Beads set in Dahomey of the 1890s. She was in Nigeria recently for the Ake Arts and Book Festival and Sunday Trust’s engaged her on her work.

US-based Nigerian writer, Nike Campbell-Fatoki is emerging as a sensational new voice on the literary scene. While most writers set out on their literary escapades with tentative works that mostly draw from personal experiences, Nike assuredly launches onto the scene with a 415-page historical novel, Thread of Gold Beads set in the ancient Dahomey kingdom at the end of the 19th century.

Knowing that she had been living in the DC area for long,  with her husband and three children, having moved to the States 18 years ago, perhaps one would expect Nike’s first book to chronicle the immigrant experience. But she slithered down to her roots to dig up the story of her great-grandmother and serve it with artistic aplomb to the world.
“Growing up with my Grandparents, I had an earful of so many stories,” she says, reflecting on the inspiration for the story, “but the story my grandmother told about her grandmother’s flight from the war-torn Kingdom of Dahomey (which is present day Republic of Benin) stayed with me.”
In those stories her grandmother told, the seeds of a love for historical fiction grew in her mind. But it was her curiosity that spurred her on from being a consumer to a writer of such works.
“I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction.  My curiosity   for the most part has always centred around why historical events happened and what we can learn from history so we don’t make the same mistakes of the past,” she says.
Thread of Gold Beads centres around Amelia, the teenage princes of the Dahomey Kingdom. Her life is nothing short of exciting with intrigues as numerous as the secret passages in the palace and numerous attempts to dislodge her from the palace are met with counter plots, conspiracies and deeper intrigues. But it is also a story of a kingdom on the verge of collapse with the strong winds of western influences howling just on the verge of the forbidden forest, bearing down on the troubled kingdom. It is a story of a deep secret that forces Amelia to flee to a new land where the secret stretches it arms and disrupts, yet again, the new life she is building there.
British writer Hilary Mantel has given historical novels a boost with her two booker winning novels, Woolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies. These have firmly put historical fiction back in the front burner of literary consciousness.
But Nike wanted to write something different, something that draws from the jam-packed chest of African history and legends.
“I hadn’t come across historical fiction like that, and to be honest, I wanted to be the one to write it,” she says.
It took her years of painstaking research though to write the novel. She started research in 2006 and didn’t stop until 2011. She interviewed people from the Republic of Benin, including descendants of King Gbehanzin, who also featured as a character in her novel. She read from libraries and off the internet and considers herself lucky to find several books on the Dahomey Kingdom. In all, writing the novel took her six years.
All this period working on a story she felt she didn’t choose!
“I think the period and the story chose me.  It was coincidental. One thing I will say is that we can learn a lot about Africa as a whole with the influx of the west.  At one point, Africa had the strongest empires impenetrable by the western world, but things changed not because the westerners got stronger (yes, they had the weapons), but because there were weak links within the kingdoms.  Africans should learn from these events in history. We will continue to be dominated if we aren’t loyal to ourselves and protective of our resources,” she says.
Her research is evident in the work. There is so much detail that surprisingly doesn’t clutter the work as the story flows at pace. The details are important to Nike because she wanted to achieve something.
“It was important that I did not leave out details because I wanted readers to walk within the courtyards of the kingdom, listen to the folktales told by the old men as the sun went down and shiver at the war cries of the female mino warriors as they prepared for battle.  I also wanted them to feel the urgency of the times  and the danger within and beyond the kingdom walls,” she says.
But despite her best efforts, finding publishers proved daunting. Nike, not one to be put down easily, and convinced of the power of her story and the importance of her message, decided to go the self-publishing route. She published with Three Magi Publishing in Burtonsville MD and with Lagos-based Origami, an imprint of Parresia Publishers.
Her book was one of the festival books of the 2014 Ake Festival and already this October, there was a stage adaptation of it in Washington DC. Often writers are flustered by adaptations of their works. Nike seems pleased with the effort.
“My first thought – it not easy to adapt a book into a play or film.  Kudos to those who do it.  I think it’s a great avenue to reach an audience that hasn’t cultivated the habit of reading.  The adaptation was great.  The feedback from those who watched was that it was captivating, sometimes intense,” she says.
She is also not ruling out a film adaption. “There’s always that likelihood. I would love for it to be adapted into a film.  Stay tuned,” she smiles.
Whenever this happens, it will sure be a grand movie, full of spectacles and many intrigues. That is something that already reaches out to the reader from the book. Nike is also not ruling out a sequel, as some of her fans are already asking for it. However, she thinks doing a trilogy might be pushing it a bit too far.   554139_351831378245052_1210537954_n
But in the meantime she has turned her attention to a collection of short stories set in contemporary times. I asked her if this is an attempt to recover from having immersed herself in a time far gone.
Nike laughs. “That’s funny, ‘recovering from writing TOGB.’  I should have recovered after two years.  No, it’s not.  This is something I’ve always wanted to get into.  The short stories  cast a spotlight on the plight of those who cannot speak for themselves.    It’s also an opportunity for me to challenge myself to write something different,” she says.
But from the way she talks, you get a sense that she would at a point return to historical fiction.
“Everyone has their calling.  Writing is diverse, and writers have that one genre that they write effortlessly, probably because they enjoy it. I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing historical fiction.  The ability to write about the past in such a way as to draw people in and also teach some life lessons should be nurtured.”

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For someone like Nike, who has always wanted to be a writer and having grown from her days of scribbling in her private journals to be the author of a sprawling novel, there seems to be more stories in her throve that she is intent on sharing it with the world.

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