Looking for Transwonderland – Noo Saro-Wiwa

It’s Monday! And we’re all still alive!

Today’s book is Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria.

I just finished reading this. It took four days. Four days, for me and a regular length book, is a lot. We’re going to go into that shortly.

I picked this book up for a few reasons. First, it was published last year (keeping up with my current “assignment” of reading new travel books). Second, it was written by a woman. Third, it was written by a woman of color (hard to find travel books not written by white people, let me tell you). And, fourth, it was nominated for the Dolman Travel Book of the Year award last year.

This seemed like a win all around.

But, as with most things, one person’s opinion is not the same as another’s. And one person’s likes can be someone else’s hates. Not that I hate this book, mind you. It’s just not the type of travelogue I personally enjoy.

To get into that…

I would not classify Transwonderland as a travelogue. Yes, it is a travel book. But there’s no “logueing” here. (That was a word joke. I know it was bad.)

What Transwonderland is, when it comes to travel books, is more of a series of lengthy reports on Nigeria with sparse narrative stringing them together. As I was telling a friend, reading Transwonderland was like reading a 305 page long news article or Wikipedia page.

There wasn’t much in the way of prose in its pages. There was hints of self-reflection at the end of every chapter, but it felt more like it was tacked on to try to create a sense of having a narrative, rather than part of her experience.

It was very formulaic. Her own formula, mind you, but still a formula. Each chapter would start off with her going out to see or do something, she’d spend a few pages talking about the thing (in a Wikipedia format), she’d meet someone while she was seeing the thing, have some dialogue, describe the thing, then spend a few more pages talking about modern Nigeria in relation to the thing.

Every chapter was able to stand alone. Nearly every paragraph was the same length. Reading it gave me the sense of being in a large brick house, listlessly wandering from identical room to identical room.

It made me realize where I was doing similar in sections of my own book, which was good. Also… ugh. More things to fix.

Such a high percentage of each chapter (and thus the whole book) was devoted to page upon page of impersonal information on Nigeria, that I felt I never got to know the author. There was so little of her in the book. I mean, she was there, but she always seemed to be holding herself back, always seemed to be distant from what she was seeing and relaying to us.

I read some reviews that said they liked her (writer’s) voice, that she was lively and modest. But I couldn’t find her voice. If I had to identify a passage she wrote among four others, I would only be able to do so by eliminating those passages that had character until I was left with the one blank slate.

It left me wondering if this was a choice on her part, trying to get an emotional distance from the subject, which could have been a sensitive one for her. Or if she, with her background in writing guide books, had picked up an unbreakable habit of distance and reporting facts that travelers might find of value. Or the result of being raised to adulthood in Britain.

I grabbed the quotes below because they were the closest things I could find to a voice within the book, bits where I thought her writing began to shine. Most of the selected quotes, though, were selected because she said something interesting.

I don’t know, honestly. I just feel let down when I look at them. Especially this first one, on the second page of the book. I thought it was an indicator of the book’s style, but it wasn’t.


“If Lagos were a person, she would wear a Gucci jacket and a cheap hair weave, with a mobile phone in one hand, a second set in her back pocket, and the mother of all scowls on her face. She would usher you impatiently through her front door at an extortionate price before smacking you to the floor for taking to long about it. ‘This,’ she would growl while searching your pockets for more cash, ‘is Lagos.'”

“We emerged from the trees onto a wide, empty beach: the Point of No Return. Palm trees rocked in the wind against the gentle roar of the green-blue waves. Here, the slaves boarded a small schooner and were taen to a ship anchored further out at sea. My mind’s eye pictured them chained to the deck on their backs for months on end, squirming in tides of faeces, urine, menses, vomit and brine as the boat rocked along the Atlantic waves. On the other side, I imagined them getting washed down, branded with hot irons and displayed for sale at the slave market where –for one time only– their humanity and personalities were acknowledged: ‘hardworking wench’, ‘insolent and untrustworthy young man.'”

“According to the Bible, God made the earth in six days and took a rest on the seventh. But by creating Nigerians, he ensured that that was the last day off he’s enjoyed ever since. Twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week we all upon his services, connecting with him, singing his praises, establishing dialogue with him (and extremely loud dialogue at that). In my time in Lagos I had heard hairdressers singing their hallelujahs at salons; evangelical radio stations resounding in internet cafes; bus passengers collectively breaking out into ovine choruses of ‘Jeezos is my father… he never, never fail me.'”

“As the manager repeatedly stepped onto the platform to push the cars along, I wondered why nothing ever lasts in Nigeria, and how institutions like Transwonderland kept going long after their economic viability had expired, like twitching corpses that refuse to die. The amusement park must have prolonged its wretched existence through the life-support of slave wages, power conservation and minimal maintenance.”

“Abuja was a relatively new metropolis and the cleanest, most orderly one in Nigeria. In the late 1970s, the government anointed it as the new capital city, stripping this status from the incorrigible, Yoruba-dominated Lagos, and moving it to a central region not overrun by any of our three biggest ethnic groups. And so today the local cars’ number plates carry the motto ‘Centre of Unity’, which describes Abuja perfectly, since the city seems to have united Nigerians in the view that it’s the dullest place on earth.”

“The area just outside the village entrance was scattered with tamarind trees, and a baobab tree which the Sukurs believe will turn you into a hermaphrodite if you touch it. As if to emphasize the seriousness of the threat, the tree had been cordoned off with tape, which only made me want to touch it even more.”

“Suddenly, my cable car stopped. Perhaps the electricity had cut out. My car hung noiselessly, suspended in mid-air. Fighting an urge to throw my notebook out of the window, I eyed the valley floor through the glass floor. For three minutes I sat back and daydreamed in the cool, tranquil air. Stillness of this kind was hard to come by in urban Nigeria; I inhaled deeply savoring every moment, amazed at the restorative power of a few minutes of dead air. My mind was made up: this is what I ultimately needed, to be away from the commotion of people and okadas, and away from the oppressive sterility of quiet hotels–hanging in the middle of absolutely nowhere, in a mist of white nothingness. Sometimes, changing altitude, not latitude, was the best way to find peace.”

“Whatever happens, Bane is the one place on earth that feels like mind, whether I want to stay here or not. I need no title deeds to this place; and found comfort in the thought that my genes alone grant me an undisputed claim to the land.”