By Noo Saro-Wiwa—

Unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don’t do it.

Wise words from Charles Bukowski. You write because you have something to say. You are someone with a story in search of an outlet. Don’t be the author in search of a story. If you find yourself rummaging for a narrative theme, then you’re at a disadvantage. Some writers can pull it off, yes, but it is risky.

Don’t try to write like others, wavering between influences (Maybe I ought to do short sentences like Hilary Mantel… then again, I’m feeling the flow of Philip Roth’s protracted sentences!). Each of us is born a unique individual, therefore only true self-expression can give you a distinctive voice. To imitate is to deviate from your god-given individuality. Drop the verbal gymnastics, the culturally alien idioms. The simplest of prose will be compelling when conveying meaningful facts and anecdotes and genuine emotions—these are the things that fan the fire of your writing.

Do not repeat the same-old, same-old out of a sense of obligation. Breaking the rules is doable so long as it is done skillfully and for good reason. However, certain rules should never be flouted. That’s the rub—literature is a tightrope.

Have an insatiable curiosity. Take an interest in a wide range of subjects and bring those varied insights into your work. Find those gaps in the world’s knowledge of Africa (god knows there are plenty of those) and fill them.

Be self-aware. Understand your limitations and biases. You are writing neither to glorify yourself or a place or a phenomenon, nor to denigrate. It’s about presenting the truth as you see it. Feathers will be ruffled, but it doesn’t matter because you have applied yourself honestly. Lean in towards any backlash.

If you can follow all the above, then you have my attention as a reader.


Noo Saro-Wiwa was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and raised in England. She attended King’s College London and Columbia University in New York.

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (Granta, 2012) is her first book. It was selected as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week in 2012, and was named The Sunday Times Travel Book of the Year, 2012. Shortlisted for the Author’s Club Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award in 2013, Looking for Transwonderland was also nominated by The Financial Times as one of the best travel books of 2012. The Guardian newspaper included it among its 10 Best Contemporary Books on Africa in 2012.

Photo of Noo Saro-Wiwa by Chris Boland 

Submit to the Saraba Manuscript Prize before December 15, 2015.