Lindsay Cameron, a reporter for the prestigious New York Globe, always dreamed of being a foreign correspondent. But she never anticipated that her ambition would lead her into the web of intrigue and danger that surrounds her in Nina Darnton’s heart-pounding international spy thriller, An African Affair. A specialist in West African affairs stationed in London, Lindsay has lobbied hard for the job of leading the Globe‘s newly created bureau in Lagos, Nigeria—a post for which her career has seemingly been preparing her. Yet nothing could quite prepare Lindsay for her everyday life in Lagos, an existence marked by continual power failures, lizards the size of small squirrels, government officials who exist only for their next bribe, and nightmarish traffic jams that the police attempt to cure by yanking motorists out of their cars and beating them.
Very soon, however, such daily frustrations become the least of Lindsay’s worries. A prominent politician has been murdered, and Lindsay is promptly on the case, working hard to keep ahead of events that may plunge the nation into total chaos. Her reporting leads her to a one-on-one interview with the country’s president, the corrupt and threatening Michael Olumide. It also leads her to the small alternative “republic” run by Bayo, an Afrobeat saxophonist who has established his own cultlike society in miniature, complete with a score of beautiful, vacant-eyed groupies and marijuana cigarettes the size of Cohiba cigars. As she chases a story that she hopes might win her a Pulitzer Prize, Lindsay crosses paths with a series of improbable and fascinating people, including Roxanne Reinstadler, an Austrian visual artist who has gone native in the Nigerian bush; Vickie Grebow, a platinum blond CIA operative keeping tabs on the Olumide regime; and a bodyguard turned revolutionary leader, the enigmatic but strangely affable J.R.
As Lindsay pursues her story, something more ominous seems to be pursuing her. Violence and death begin to appear at every turn, and Lindsay finds herself striving not only to write a career-making story, but simply to survive. Through it all, her shining light is James Duncan, an art dealer who specializes in African sculpture and who introduces Lindsay to a world of local culture and passion. But James seems just a bit too wonderful to be true, and Lindsay reluctantly begins to suspect that he may be harboring a secret that could bring her life crashing down around her.
As fast-paced and hypnotic as Bayo’s Afrobeat music, An African Affair is a page-turning tale of intrigue, danger, and simmering revolution. Woven with rich, authentic detail by journalist Nina Darnton, this debut novel never fails to surprise and satisfy.
ABOUT NINA DARNTON
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin with a master’s degree from Columbia University School of the Arts, Nina Darnton lived in Africa for five years, two of them in Lagos, Nigeria, the setting for An African Affair. A journalist with a long list of bylines for The New York Times and Newsweek, among other publications, she lives with her husband, the journalist and novelist John Darnton, in New York. This is her first novel.
A CONVERSATION WITH NINA DARNTON
Q. You are a seasoned journalist but just getting started as a novelist. What has it been like to make the transition from nonfiction to fiction?
It’s not as different as one might think. For both, you need to master the technique of storytelling. You have to order your material in a clear way that will sustain interest and deliver your message. The difference, of course, is the source of the material. I’ve enjoyed the freedom of invention, of taking something I’ve seen and writing what implications and consequences might have occurred. And I really enjoy letting my imagination roam into whatever nooks and crannies the story suggests instead of tethering it to what I know actually happened. On the negative side, I’m a sociable person and I enjoy the interaction with others that journalism affords. Writing novels is a lonelier profession and I had to get used to spending long hours working on my own, peopling my world with characters I invented.
Q. How did the inspiration for An African Affair come to you?
When I lived in Nigeria, I was bombarded with many new experiences and observations that I didn’t always understand. I knew that I couldn’t let that kind of color and exposure to such a different world go unrecorded. I sometimes felt that I was in an exotic movie, and that thought helped me cope with some of the difficulties of life there with two young children. Eventually I started to imagine scenarios that might occur in such a setting. Then, after I left Lagos, I went to a party in London where I met the great novelist P. D. James. We chatted and I told her about my time in Nigeria. “My dear, you must write this,” she said. And I answered, “Yes, but I don’t want to write it as a memoir, I want to use it as a setting.” She answered, “Of course. You must write a novel.” I said I’d been thinking along those lines and we started to talk about what it might be. She was enormously kind and generous and it was she who suggested that the character of James be an art dealer. As we were called in to dinner, she smiled and said, “My dear, you have a best-selling novel there. It will take you two years to write it. Good luck.”
Q. You lived in Lagos, Nigeria—the setting for An African Affair—or two years. Lagos comes across in your book as a rather nightmarish place. What disturbed you most when you lived there?
What disturbed me most was the corruption that filtered down to every level of society so that nothing or practically nothing could be accomplished without a bribe. This meant that the majority of Nigerian people I met who were hardworking, decent, and admirable couldn’t make their way out of their poverty because of the lack of responsible and reliable leadership and the greed and inefficiency at the top. The specifics in my book—the murderous thugs, the threatening general, the theft of medicine—all of that is fiction, of course. But the daily frustrations were real.
Q. Why did you choose to address your African experiences in a novel, instead of in a memoir?
I didn’t want to tell a story about myself or specifically how what I observed affected me. I wanted to tell a story where what I observed became the background for an exciting piece of fiction.
Q. You have a few things in common with your protagonist, Lindsay Cameron, including a degree from the University of Wisconsin and a background in journalism. How do you see yourself as different from her?
I’m not as brave. She’s kind of like my avatar—she faces danger and keeps going; she is driven professionally in the face of daunting odds. I like her, I admire her, but I would not do everything she does. Also, frankly, I’ve been much luckier in love. I’ve been married for over forty years to a man I fell in love with in college and still adore.
Q. The revolutionary musician Bayo appears to be modeled on the late Afrobeat saxophonist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Do you have some personal memories of Fela that did not find their way into your novel?
My husband and I got to know Fela pretty well. But he was always surrounded by his own crowd, his wives, his followers, etc., and I thought we’d like to see him outside that charmed circle. I invited him to dinner. He said he’d like to bring “a few friends” and I agreed on four people. He arrived in a big bus, overflowing with all the same people we saw with him at the Shrine. They entered, put on his music, turned up the volume, and settled in while we tried to make the food for six feed thirty. Fela brought us a house gift—a large jar of what he called NNG (Nigerian Natural Grass). We had a great time that night, but we realized we’d never get to be with him alone. When he left, we put his house gift in a drawer behind some clothes and forgot about it. When my husband was picked up by the secret police some months later, he sent his driver to tell me to get rid of the marijuana. I managed to flush it down the toilet seconds before the police arrived to search our house.
Q. Your stay in Nigeria was in the mid-seventies, whereas An African Affair is set about twenty years later. How did the details of your own experiences serve your evocation of a more recent time period?
The 1970s felt too far away. I wanted to set the book in the past, but not so far in the past that it lost its urgency. I knew from many friends who either still lived or traveled there that most of the conditions were the same. Of course, the communications issue had changed—now there are cell phones and the Internet, but they were still pretty new in the nineties, which allowed me to keep the communication difficulties that were necessary for the plot. It also helped me create the sense of claustrophobia that Lindsay experienced.
Q. You and your family actually spent a short time in a Nigerian jail. Any stories to share?
The secret police arrested my husband, stripped him of all his clothes except his underwear, and locked him in a dank cell. His stories “didn’t put Nigeria in a good light,” they said. After interrogating him, they released him late at night and told him we would all be expelled the next morning. They picked us up at 8 AM. We would be put on the first plane leaving the country, they said, and took my husband to the airport to buy the tickets. This took many hours because of the traffic jams, so my two little girls, age three and six and I were first put in a room with a dirty couch and a chair at the police station. We met a young Canadian woman there, who said she had been kept a prisoner for over a week and asked us to notify her embassy if we got out. She and her boyfriend had met a Nigerian in the States and lent him money. When they tried to get it back during their visit to Nigeria, he told the police they were with the CIA—a lie, of course, but they were immediately arrested. When our jailors realized we were talking to each other, they removed us from the room and put us in a small, hot cell. I had brought Barbie dolls for the girls and tried to distract them so they wouldn’t be afraid. I told them we were in a waiting room and would soon be on a plane for our vacation. When they asked me why there were bars on the windows, I told them it was to keep the bad people out. But they were thirsty and we weren’t given anything to drink, so it was very difficult. Eventually, they took us to the airport, where we were reunited with my husband in another holding cell until we boarded the plane and finally took off for Nairobi, Kenya. When we arrived, we contacted the Canadian embassy and the young woman was later released.
Q. Though you completed work on this novel before revolutionary movements began erupting across North Africa in 2011, An African Affair addresses economic and political issues similar to those at the heart of these popular uprisings. What relevance does your novel have to current events and what insights can it offer readers?
I think it’s important to stress that this is a work of fiction. The Nigeria of today, whatever its problems, is not the Nigeria I write about. However, the book does show a picture of a corrupt dictatorship and in that way can be compared to some of the real-life North African countries in the news today. The people in my book have not yet reached the point of rebellion—they are too oppressed and downtrodden. I hope that An African Affair will enlighten people about the horrors of living under a corrupt dictatorship. The inspiring uprisings in North Africa give us hope that no matter how severe the oppression, there is a historical moment when dictators must face the people they oppress.
Q. What, in an artistic sense, are you trying to accomplish with your fiction?
I am trying to tell a good story, an exciting and entertaining yarn that, set in a largely unknown, exotic location, will shed light on what life is like for many people in the world. I set out to write a thriller, but it’s a thriller with a woman protagonist who is tough and gutsy but also vulnerable and is ready to fall in love.
Q. Do you have another novel in the works?
Yes. At the moment I’m committed to Lindsay and I am already working on another adventure for her, this time in southern Spain. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I’ll tell you that it will involve an Al Qaeda attempt to claim southern Spain as part of the Islamic Caliphate and a new love affair for Lindsay. Who knows? Maybe she’ll have better luck this time.
- Having spent two years in Lagos, Nina Darnton draws upon a wide range of experiences to bring her novel to life. Among the myriad details of Nigerian life that Darnton includes, which did you find most memorable, and why?
- Discuss Lindsay’s relationship with Martin, her steward. Which aspects of their acquaintance are most satisfying? What aspects are less so, and why?
- Many of the characters in An African Affair die violent, premature deaths. Which of these did you find most emotionally affecting, and why?
- Bribery, lies, and other forms of treachery arise again and again in Darnton’s novel. What strikes you as most significant about these symbols of corruption in a society controlled by such elements, and the ease with which Lindsay and her fellow journalists—seekers and defenders of truth by trade—navigate them?
- In An African Affair, the Olumide regime struggles to keep the upper hand against the dissident group The Next Step. If The Next Step were to gain power, how confident do you feel that Nigeria would change for the better? Give the reasons for your answer.
- An international thriller like An African Affair lives or dies by its management of suspense and its use of plot twists. How does Darnton effectively employ these elements of storytelling?
- As passionate as Lindsay is about her career, her commitment to it wavers when she begins to fall in love with James. What are your thoughts on James and the powerful effect he has on Lindsay, even after she discovers his connection to the Northern Alliance and its drug-smuggling cartel?
- The two most influential Nigerian men whom Lindsay encounters are the country’s president, Michael Olumide, and the political dissident and musician Bayo. How do the two characters differ? In other ways, are they strangely similar?
- Lindsay regards herself for the most part as an intelligent, independent woman. Nevertheless, she is used and manipulated repeatedly throughout the novel. How and why does this happen?
- An African Affair depicts various forms of power. How many can you identify? What are the strongest and weakest forms of power in the novel?
- Many authors of international spy thrillers intentionally glamorize the settings of their stories. Darnton steadfastly declines to do so, choosing instead to address the seamy realities of Lagos. How does this choice affect the experience of the reader?
- Some of the Nigerian characters in An African Affair move their diction back and forth between pidgin and standard English. How does pidgin language operate as a political and cultural signifier?
- Now that you have read An African Affair, what are your impressions of Nigeria? Do you feel or think differently now about West Africa? How so?