One of the joys of being an independent book editor and consultant is the diversity of the titles I read. Recently, I was referred to Dr. Jide Familoni by fine editor/writer Laura Taylor, whose novels, most especially Intimate Strangers, have charted highly on Amazon and Amazon UK for the past couple of years. What followed was the opportunity to work with Dr. Familoni and read Losing My Religion, an exceptional book about a Nigerian, Femi, moving to Canada and then the South – and facing the differences between the cultures.
Interestingly, the religion-culture in which Dr. Familoni grew up, Yoruba, is one of 11 world religions that state and practice the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It draws from the ancient indigenous tenet that man and nature are not separate, but part of one wheel of life.
Losing My Religion peers into the eyes and souls of its characters, holds tension with both its action and subtext – Femi’s strain to hold dear to his native and adopted cultures – and the final harrowing scenes. Oh yes, there’s even a love story woven in.
This is the first of a two-part interview with Dr. Familoni. Losing My Religion will be published in June 2013.)
WORD JOURNEYS: You began writing at a very young age, going off on your own, writing thoughts and observations in journals. Could you speak to how that set a tone for the way you approached your life?
Jide Familoni: I don’t remember how it came about, probably from my looking for places to be alone to indulge my voracious reading appetite. But I remember as early as when I was 12 or so writing my thoughts and emotions down. Sometimes in prose; other times in poetry. I lived in a large house with a couple of dozen brothers, sisters, and cousins. Finding a place to be alone and write probably made me seem weird.
Even as a grown man, I still believe in writing down my thoughts as a form of introspection. I think it also makes me slightly awkward and antisocial.
JF: When I moved from Nigeria, I went from being around family and friends. Canada was my first experience living overseas. Everything was different to the extreme … the social structure, orderliness, and public infrastructures. I wrote in Losing My Religion about moving into Student Residence and having a landline the next week. I remember how the telecommunication infrastructure was in shambles in Nigeria. Telephones were luxury items that only the very rich and powerful could afford. Even then, they would bribe everyone in the pipeline, from the clerk filing the paperwork to the bosses, and then wait years and eventually, bribe the technicians who would install it. InLosing My Religion, I sought to portray through Femi how my life became different, especially culturally.
WJ: At what point did you start to see yourself helping others as a doctor?
JF: A particular incident crystallized a sense of helping others for me better than any other. A good portion of my career to date had been in medical research. At some point in mid ‘90s, we progressed from an animal model to human studies in the development of a treatment that I was working on. I remember getting a page from the hospital on a weekend. It was about our youngest patient that we had implanted with this device, barely beyond his 18th birthday. He was in the ER; he had been sick for about 3 days. After a few tests, we determined that the electrodes in his stomach had somehow pulled loose. So he was nauseated, throwing up and in pain again.
Before we admitted him, he had dropped out of high school and was wasting away on account of his illness. As soon as he turned 18, we implanted the device. I questioned him because it was so unusual for the electrodes to pull out. He started smiling sheepishly and confessed that he had gone to play baseball. He had not been able to do that for years. We fixed his device, he felt better, and his mother took a picture of him with me that I keep with me today. I was humbled and gladdened that something I designed was able to improve another human beings life.
WJ: You show the distinct differences between Yoruba and Western views in an almost magical way at times. What great riches would the Western culture gain by embracing these universal and beautiful points of view more?
JF: This is an example of the crisscross between Yoruba beliefs and religions and cultures. The Yoruba people ascribe personalities to things … roads, for instance. Therefore, things that have personalities deserve respect from humans … roads, the sea, the land. If we in the Western world were to adopt a posture that ascribes personalities to nature and show adequate and appropriate respect, care of our environment would become more paramount.
WJ: Nigeria is one of the most politically attuned countries in the world; as you put it in your book, put two people in a room, and a third party will emerge. And yet, it is today a crippled country in many ways. Could you speak to the way growing up there shaped your world and political view?
JF: Even now, my friends wonder why I am so ‘political’. I love the 12 or 18 months leading to general elections in the U.S. I listen to the Talking Heads on NPR and the TV talk shows incessantly. This is in part because my father was a politician and in part because every African, especially Nigerians that I know, are into politics. Which sometimes make you wonder why the continent is not more politically advanced.
Growing up, our historical lessons blamed the ills of society on Western colonization and occupation. With independence in East and West Africa, people started expecting to collect on the promise of indigenous governance. This happened in Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Cameroun, Uganda, and of course Nigerian. Then the leadership quickly became corrupt and unresponsive. Rather than go the route of Western democracy, i.e., voting the rascals out, one by one, just like dominoes, the civilian leadership was toppled and replaced by authoritatarian and often totalitarian military dictatorship.
WJ: You also write several gritty chapters in Losing My Religion in which Femi, the protagonist, clashes with the NSO. This will remind Baby Boomer generation readers of the clashes on college campuses in the U.S. forty years ago. How did Femi’s experience – which also took place in the 1970s – mirror yours?
JF: The staging of the Civil Rights struggles are structurally similar to the struggles I grew up with. You have a population of citizens denied certain rights by government. In Nigerian, the military leadership was a dictatorship. University students formed one of the little coherent opposition to their authoritarianism.
Even today, I am very sensitive to preservation of the populace’s rights vis-à-vis a domineering central authority. I love fighting on the side of the underdog. Often when I am watching a sports event in which I have no stakes, I root for the underdog.
WJ: What dynamics of tribal/village society create your fondest memories, dynamics that you don’t experience in the US?
JF: No question – the extended family structure. No family was small. Even a nuclear husband and wife unit was part of an extended family, and you practiced it daily. Sometimes, annoyingly so. Such as when people dropped in uninvited or come looking for help. But taking together, I love the large family community and fellowship. An area in which it is obvious is the abundance of caregivers for the very young and the very old.
WJ: There’s a moment of levity when Femi moves to Canada – and goes straight from the tropics to the freezer. That was a perfect metaphor for the culture shock Femi – and you – must have experienced. What was your first winter in Canada like?
JF: God has a sense of humor. Today, I cannot stand hot and humid weather! Growing up in Nigeria, everything about Canada was a shock to my senses and systems. Although I excelled in the sciences as a student, I did not have a sensory understanding of say 15o C versus 2o C. In Nigeria, it was almost always in the twenties or higher, and I still remember wearing 3-piece suits in Lagos and being only slightly uncomfortable. It took a long time for me to master cold weather dressing. This was in part because I hated looking over-dressed and silly.