Things Kan Only get better at 50 for Toni

Please subscribe to my newsletter here: https://mailchi.mp/2dd54326e9f8/oris-newsletter

I did the rather easy math hours ago and realised I had jumped into a bus to attend Toni Kan’s birthday celebration a decade ago. Man, see me see old age.

I had first met the man in the pages of Hints magazine, which is now one of those things about which you can only say, “If you know, you know.” If you don’t know, imagine a sex-soaked print magazine that retained some measure of literary respectability. It wasn’t a lot but it was there. You came to it for the sex but stayed back because the magazine’s writers knew how to put together accessible sentences. And so it was that my mother, a heavy consumer of magazines, stocked copies. I showed up and began to read them all.

At the point I first encountered it, the magazine had its best line-up. At least to my mind. There was David Njoku, Sunny Okim (?), some pseudonymous satyr writing about his escapades in Lagos, Bimbo, and Toni Kan, who used to end his columns with the line “things kan only get better”. He was quite fixated with his nose, which he frequently derided as big. I think Helon Habila later joined the magazine. Some of these guys stopped writing; the others are some of the recognisable names if you care about Nigerian writing like I do. TK and Habila are possibly the most successful of the lot. It is a big shame that no book was written about that magazine and other magazines from what now seems like Nigeria’s soft-sell epoch.

Please subscribe to my newsletter here: https://mailchi.mp/2dd54326e9f8/oris-newsletter

By the time I got into university in the early 2000s, the magazine was no longer as remarkable as I once thought it was. I had started to consume writing and literature of a different sort. But as the they say, you never forget your first time. In any case, like me, TK had moved on from Hints. Towards the end of my time at the University of Benin, I heard a group of writers were coming to the city for a reading. I got my writing-obsessed friend David, who was studying Philosophy to come along. The Nigerian education system being as terrible as it is, the authors couldn’t read at the university. What a shame. We had to go into town, to a spot used as a club at nights to see these authors read from their books! (If you are reading this and contemplating what to do with your ward about to finish high school, try your best and send them overseas — or maybe one of our better private schools.)

I bought TK’s collection of short stories; David bought A. Igoni Barrett’s. TK’s book would become an important part of our relationship. I wrote a review, which TK published as he had become editor of the literary pages in The Sun newspaper on Sunday. I have written about this before in the American publication Catapult. Here is a link.

We met in Abuja a while after. I was grateful for the attention of a writer I had read since secondary school in Lokoja. He was super generous at the table that night. From that moment, we became some type of friends. There were other writers of my age I met on the pages he edited, some of whom became friends, too, with TK. A kinda community was being built around those pages and when I came to Lagos I met some of them.

Being young, one measured his talent against the others. I was deep in my Hemingway phase and as you know, Papa was competitive. I am sure others weighed my skill on the page. I did the same and found that the more popular writers of my generation were a lot more friendly than talented. Some others had talent but not a lot of personality. I have no idea what they thought of my own ability. What we all had in common was our youth and some kind of relationship with TK, who, for his part, had become some kind of a mogul of words. I know he is called the Mayor of Lagos, a title which former scribbler Dami Ajayi has tried to claim as having invented, but Mogul of Words sounds more specific. The man has probably written for any big man (or woman) you can think about. He figured out the path to riches for a Nigerian writer early and has never looked back. This is a public request that he shares some of his connections…

Over the years, TK and I have had misunderstandings, heavy ones. I have been confounded by the nature of some of our issues, most of which, I think, are the result of two people with different ways of looking at the world and, in my case, being young and stubborn. I have tried to offer apologies. Sometimes, though, it seems the birds have flown. But let’s return to the purpose of this piece: it’s his 50th. I would like to mock him with “old man” chants but as you may have guessed, since that bus ride to his 40th birthday, I, too, have become 10 years older. Damn. I shall make my way to his place sometime today. He is no longer as sprightly as he once was, so maybe we won’t dance.

I am certain we can drink, though. I have now known him for about a decade and he is now 50. No be beans. We’ll double the drinks.

Happy birthday, Oga TK. You said it best in your youth: Things Kan only better!

Please subscribe to my newsletter here: https://mailchi.mp/2dd54326e9f8/oris-newsletter

Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer. Business: www.criticsandbylines.com.