SARO is a multigenerational tale of betrayal and restitution, love and war, inspired by true events that will take the reader from the rocky terrain of Abeokuta and burgeoning city of Lagos to the lion mountains of Freetown and Hastings of Sierra Leone, from the 1830s to the 1850s.
“This sweeping African tale which spans kingdoms, countries, and lifetimes begins under the protective rocks of Egbaland with the bold declaration that we are all kings. Campbell deftly brings alive, complex history through the unflinching eyes of flawed yet resilient characters who leave us yearning with them for stolen identities and new dreams.”
– Yejide Kilanko, Author, A Good Name.
By Adedayo Onabade
Q: You have said that your family’s story inspires Saro. How has this history, coupled with your origins, being born in Europe and now living in America, marked your sense of home and identity? And how were you able to marry history and fiction to create this work?
A: I was born in Lviv, Ukraine. Back then, it was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). However, I have always considered myself a Nigerian first. And though I’ve lived in the United States for over 20 years, my sense of home and identity are grounded in my African and Yoruba roots and heritage. Ironically, it was when I left home to study in America that I began to appreciate my culture and home.
I attended Howard University, which is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). I interacted with students and observed how they all yearned to visit the motherland. The curious ones asked the meaning of my name, and a few loved my accent and tried unsuccessfully to sound like me. All this, I realized, was part of my identity, which I had never given much thought to. My distance from home has only made me realize how fortunate I am to be able to trace my roots to my family compound. I have found a home abroad, too, though. As you know, home is where you feel welcome and safe. I have found many homes in my journey of life and with people that have stayed for a season and left their mark and others that are still on the journey with me.
History provides the framework for narrating the story. I enjoy historical fiction because it gives me the ability to create possibilities. What I love the most about writing is being a small god, at least on paper. The ability to blur the lines, as you say, marry history and fiction occurs when I begin to weave in details that support the events of the period and also add substance and intrigue to my characters and plot.
Q: Saro comes packed with a depth of history dating back 200+ years! What was your initial disposition to taking up a work of this stature? With the benefit of hindsight, how did you feel writing through its horrors?
A: Initially, it seemed daunting, but my curiosity and sense of responsibility to write this story outweighed any concerns. After writing my first historical fiction, Thread of Gold Beads, which was inspired by my maternal great-grandmother’s life, a princess of Dahomey, Benin Republic, I wanted to find out more about my maternal Grandfather’s family as well. Growing up, I had heard about the young king and his family who were lured to a slave ship and sold. I dragged my feet on talking to my grandfather, but when my grandmother passed away and just over a year later, my grandfather passed, I felt a sense of urgency to research. I felt it was my duty to pen this story, inspired by my ancestors’ lives.
Writing about the horrors was inevitable. I knew it had to be done, so I bit the bullet. I did not know how different or difficult it would be to read other slave stories and watch the movies. This felt personal because it happened to people whose blood flowed in my veins. Imagining what each of them had endured and then being forced to live in a foreign land was something that consumed me while I wrote. It was a deep and immersive experience.
Q: Through Dotunu, you touch on mental health issues. For a topic largely unknown in our clime at that time, why did you choose to spotlight this, particularly society’s treatment of it as a form of spiritual prowess? More so, was it deliberate that you did not further explore Dotunu’s powers to a greater degree?
A: Yes, I touched on mental illness. It could be traced back to the women in Dotunu’s lineage. Dotunu was an enigma, as was her mother. These women possessed powers that left them with indelible marks. People are afraid of what they do not understand. Even her father could not fully understand despite his knowledge and did everything to protect her. Our mental health is just as important as our physical health. Society elevated one to the detriment of the other, but it is refreshing to observe that there is more emphasis now on mental health.
Further exploration of Dotunu’s powers wasn’t deliberate. The story had a mind of its own, and I followed its lead.
Q: Saro gives a glimpse into the capture of slaves by both sides of the Oyo-Dahomey divide. As with your other works, it touches on the shared connection between different societies, with the characters dealing with identity issues and a shift away from home. Why is this concept of place and location a recurring preoccupation for you?
A: It seems like that, doesn’t it? It could be because of my personal experiences. I have had to adapt to different environments within a short period, but in all these circumstances, I had to center myself and rediscover home. So when I see stories needing to be told, I gravitate towards the ones dealing with identity and what constitutes home. It is a community - of people that are like-minded and pursuing similar goals and passions. I am fascinated with how African cultures transcend borders, thanks to the transatlantic slave trade. For instance, the Yoruba culture is evident in Benin Republic, Brazil. Cuba, to name a few. There are certain customs, even among the Gullah tribe in America, similar to African cultures. These customs and traditions have stood the test of time, persecution, and hate crimes, which is powerful. Our connections are boundless.
Q: The representation of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther–a monumental figure in our collective history–is unarguably a refreshing development, especially for many young readers. What did you hope to achieve by infusing his character into the story? Will you say that that purpose was well served?
A: I fear that historical figures of our nation will soon be forgotten if we do not infuse them into our stories. A lot of this history is no longer taught in schools. I infused Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther so that he can be remembered for his life – a boy taken away as a slave, his work, and his impact. It was an ideal opportunity because the story was during the time he would have been present in Sierra Leone. I imagined him talking to neighbors, giving a sermon in church, a walking testimony, and hope to new settlers in Freetown. When I visited Freetown during my research for Saro, I stopped at Fourah Bay College Library, and right there on the ground level was a large framed painting of Bishop Crowther. I must have grown an inch standing next to it. I was, and am still proud. He is still remembered there, and I hope he always will be. I believe the purpose of preserving his legacy was achieved.
Q: Let’s talk about the names of your characters. How did you come upon names such as Siwoolu, Osolu, Dotunu, and more, as they’re not names we’ll conventionally hear today?
A: The names are actual names of the Okikilu Coker family. My mother gave me a large printed family tree with their pictures! They are definitely not conventional names. They’re old school. I wanted to preserve as much of the facts of the story, most especially their names, and what a treat to have a confirmation in print.
Q: Forced displacement trauma and the longing for home are dominant conditions that many formerly enslaved people experience throughout the novel. Yet, a couple who were taken together seemed to have distinct reactions to returning to Ake. What do you think is responsible for this varied reception to the promise of home?
A: They had disparate experiences prior to leaving Ake. One feared his actions had placed a curse on him and deserved everything coming to him. Besides, who would respect and bow to a king who could be easily kidnapped? The relocation to Sierra Leone was a blessing in disguise. His wife, on the other hand, had fully come into her power and embraced who she was in Ake. To return home meant the restoration of her authentic self. She would no longer have to hide her true faith or powers.
Q: Osuntade, who personifies the rejection of everything western, tells Dotunu, ‘Many converted to the white man’s religion a long time ago. Many were born into it. It is hard, almost impossible, to change a mind that has been bent to submission from birth.’ Do you believe this statement still holds in how Nigerians practice religion today?
A: I truly believe many people are practicing religions not because they have had a personal conviction or encounter but because they have been told since birth to do so. Many of us were born into Christian and Muslim households. We never thought for one second to question why we practice. It’s just what we did. However, there comes the point in our lives, should I say a crisis of faith, when our beliefs are questioned, and our faith is tested.
Q: Osolu’s statement that ‘Home did not seem so far away after all’ can be likened to what many African Americans feel when they finally find their roots. How would you reconcile this with their tendency to spiritualize African culture and heritage?
A: African Americans gravitate towards spirituality in African culture because they seek identity. Culture and heritage embody that. Many have not had the opportunity to visit Africa, so they will seek out what is within arms reach. Rather than denigrate their tendency to spiritualize, I applaud my sisters and brothers for making an effort. Now, we that are from home, the motherland, should be trusted guides to introduce them to the different cultures we originate from.
Q: In a twist from what is the norm, your story presents a royal ascension that does not follow the conventional birth order in the family. What do you think this says about ‘destiny’ or one’s orchestration of their own path?
A: True. Fate is inevitable. We can attempt to orchestrate our destiny, but we are only puppets in the hands of fate. The best-laid plans are often upended by what seems inconsequential, but things always turn out the way they are supposed to.
Q: Let’s talk about the climax. Everything the characters did or otherwise led to the culmination of the story. As the writer of Saro, what lessons about humanity would you say this leaves with you?
A: We are all flawed, but that’s exactly what makes us unique. We have all had to do something in our lives that we justified. That doesn’t make us bad people. We need more empathy and less judgment.
Life comes at us suddenly sometimes. Trauma is real, and it is generational. We need to recognize that people are going through things they can’t even whisper. We need to remember this and be gentle with each other.
Above all, we are resilient. We are powerful and can overcome anything.
Q: Outside of novels and historical fiction, are you open to exploring other genres?
A: Children’s fiction, speculative fiction, and psychological thrillers, definitely.
Q: You have been awarded and accoladed for your writing. What is the most vital thing you want each of your works to leave with each reader?
A: I want readers to experience the worlds I have created to the fullest and leave with a new fact they wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t read my novels.
About the Author
Nikę Campbell is a Nigerian-American, born in Lviv, Ukraine, and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. She was a finalist for the 2018 Red Hen Press Fiction Award for her historical fiction manuscript. A selection of her short stories from her collection, Bury Me Come Sunday Afternoon, has been adapted for film, which has won international awards.
She is the author of the historical fiction, Thread of Gold Beads. SARO is her second work of historical fiction. Nikę is based in Florida, USA, with her family.
Adedayo Onabade is a Nigerian essayist, fiction, and poetry writer. She holds a B.A. from Olabisi Onabanjo University and an M.A. from the University of Lagos, both in English Literature. Her works have been shortlisted for SynCity's 'Poetry in times of Corona' and #TwitterWritingContest.
Adedayo volunteers with STER (Stand to End Rape Initiative), a social justice organization that works to combat sexual and gender-based violence against women, girls, and vulnerable people. Outside writing, she is fascinated by NatGeoWild, art galleries, reading, and documentaries.