An Interview with Odafe Atogun

  • By Joye Shepperd
  • April 18, 2017

The debut novelist talks about the timelessness of music and love.

An Interview with Odafe Atogun

Taduno’s music used to bring life to his people. He is the most famous musician in the entire country until he disappears — not only physically, but also from the collective memory of his countrymen. He soon wakes up with his guitar, alone in an unknown town, trying to remember how he arrived. Taduno’s Song, the debut novel by Nigerian-born Odafe Atogun, is the story of Taduno finding his way back home.

Why do you set the beginning of the story off-stage, with Taduno waking up in an unknown city? Is it a way to sort of unground the reader?

Yes, in a way, to unground the reader. I thought it necessary to start off from a place of calm and peace so that, as the story progresses, the reader would fully appreciate Taduno’s dilemma. It is also to help the reader see the contrasts between a peaceful society where civil liberties are respected and one where dictatorship is the order of the day.

In the description of the story, “Kafkaesque” is used. Would you agree? Taduno, the main character, wakes up, and no one recognizes him. Yet, he is not the one who has transformed. Everyone else has, too. You never really tell us how everyone’s memory is altered. Would you tell readers now?

Let’s start with the second part of the question. Memory, individual and collective, can be altered by fear, by intimidation, by brutal force. Joseph K. must have realized this in The Trial. The atmosphere in Taduno’s homeland is unwholesome, made so by ruthless dictatorship. So it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that tyranny destroys memory and violence corrodes the character of a people. One of the great weapons of a dictatorship is the ability to carry out propaganda onslaughts to take control of people’s minds, such that even the dictator is left deluded.

With regards to the first part of the question, indeed, Taduno’s Song could be seen as a sort of homage. But in all honesty, I hadn’t read Kafka prior to writing it. Prompted by the description of the story as “Kafkaesque,” I read a couple of Kafka books. I have since come to believe that, sometimes, it is possible to pay homage without realizing you are doing so.  

Do you believe music has the power to save the world? If so, should it be without lyrics?

The idea of “music without words” is born of the fact that music can be enjoyed by all even if the words are alien to the listener. No matter what language we use to make music, the words of our songs cannot be lost. Rather, they are amplified. So, because of this universal nature of music, it makes it possible for us to convey the message of peace and love devoid of the rhetoric of politics and religion. Yes, music has the power to save the world.

Taduno’s guitar seems to lead the way, but is his voice still required?

Taduno’s voice represents his values — what he stands for and lives for. His guitar helps him to showcase his values in the simplest and most endearing of ways.

Star-crossed lovers Lela and Taduno share a romance that is less a reality than an idea. Is it stronger because it’s the stuff of fantasy?

Since the beginning of time, the only way man has been able to measure love is through the sacrifice we make for love. How big is the sacrifice (the ultimate being paying with one’s own life)? The sacrifice both Lela and Taduno must make shows the timelessness of their love; their lives are at stake. So, sharing a love life that lives in the past actually helps to gauge the strength of their love, considering that they are unable to consummate it in the current circumstances. The stuff of fantasy? This is what makes their love, like all true love, stronger and fascinating for us, I believe.

Since we, as readers, can’t actually hear Taduno’s music, which real-life song most embodies it? Can you name a musician who would be like Taduno?

The song “One” by U2. According to Wikipedia, “One” is often used by the group to promote human rights or social-justice causes, and the song lends its name to Bono’s charitable organization, the One Campaign. The musician that would be like Taduno: Bono.

There is a distance in Taduno’s Song between the reader and the narrative, a wonderful sense of a different time, an allegorical tone, as if the story takes place before life begins. Why?

I must admit that I was driven by the desire to write a timeless story. As such, I had to capture it in such a way that the reader can absorb it from another time and place, hence the allegorical tone. Because the decision that Taduno must make is so difficult and unpleasant, I tried to present the story as a phase in human history that marked the end of tyranny. So, it is a story of hope.    

Joye Shepperd is senior features editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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