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Chigozie Obioma In Conversation – Africa Writes 2019

I recently attended the 2019 Africa Writes literature festival. This year, its headlining event included an interview with the celebrated Nigerian author and 2015 Man Booker Prize finalist, Chigozie Obioma. The interview was conducted by Irenosen Okojie, an award-winning Nigerian-British author.

Here I provide a brief summary of the panel. You can read more about Africa Writes and this event: here. A recording of this interview will also be made available at a later date, so be sure to keep up with the Africa Writes Twitter page.

Chigozie Obioma reading an extract from ‘The Fishermen’ during the 2019 Africa Writes headlining panel. Photo by: Louisa Johnson.

On Obioma’s intention behind The Fishermen:

“I made this journey from Nigeria to North Cyprus in 2007 to go to school. […] I grew up with my siblings in a very crowded house and I always thought that I wanted to get out. […] But being so far away from home, I became very surprised at how that distance generated some serious nostalgia for [my siblings]. I decided that I was going to write a story celebrating what it means to have a brother or a sister.”

On finding his authorial voice in The Fishermen:

“For The Fishermen, there were a lot of drafts. I am a very mechanical writer. I decided that, after a few drafts, I wanted Benjamin to tell the story [from a retrospective point of view, through his childhood memories]. So it was actually a trip to Nigeria that did it for me. I saw my youngest brothers — one of them is actually named Benjamin. And they were around that age that Benjamin is in the novel. […] And I noticed something in the way that they communicated with me. He was always making associations with things, in order to understand other, more complex things. For example, Benjamin, my brother, loved comics. So if he wanted to describe a guy with big muscles, he’d be like, ‘This guy is like Rambo or Superman’. I thought to myself, ‘How about I imbue that quality in Benjamin’. He’s a lover of birds and animals, and so to understand the complex cities around, or the job that his father or mother do, he just compares them to those things. So that’s really how I got that voice, if you can call it that.”

On the temporal structure of The Fishermen and An Orchestra of Minorities:

“I have been toying with this thing I like to call ‘the fiction of witness’. If you read some of the defining texts in the Western canon, for instance, the Odyssey, there is always an invocation of something you are not seeing. I find that dynamic something that you could trace historically to, say, the Igbo ways of telling stories. There are twice-told tales […from…] the part of Igboland where I’m from, where the story is told as if it is to a jury – to a group of people. So my two novels have been constructed in that way. […] When you create something like that, you move more fluidly between time. […] You’re telling the story to a jury, so you’re under a lot of pressure to dig up as much evidence as possible. So, in that sense, you could describe something that happened today, but then you discover while speaking that there was something that happened five years ago that could be stronger evidence, so you loop that in as well.”

Chigozie Obioma signing copies of ‘The Fishermen’ at the 2019 Africa Writes literature festival. Photo by: Louisa Johnson.

Chigozie Obioma signing copies of ‘The Fishermen’ at the 2019 Africa Writes literature festival. Photo by: Louisa Johnson.

On the stage adaptation of The Fishermen by playwright Gbolahan Obisesan, starring David Alade and Valentine Olukoga:

“I objectively believe that it’s one of the greatest things I’ve seen. I saw the premiere of the first run in Manchester and I was captivated by the talent. But I also give a lot of credit to the writer, Gbolahan Obisesan. The guy took my novel and did something different with it. As you saw, there are [only] two characters [in the play] but they embody everybody else. I really think the play version is wonderful. […] I am not a guy who cries, but I almost did.” *laughter*

On the true story that inspired An Orchestra of Minorities:

“I discovered upon getting to Cyprus that I was one of the very lucky Africans to come there for school. Because most of the Africans I met there had been deceived. The are these con people who tell them ‘Cyprus is like the UK or America’. I remember one of the most comically-tragic scenes that I witnessed was: my friend and I went into the city centre in Cyprus and there was this Nigerian guy who was there asking us for the next train to Manchester. *laughter* […] So this guy who inspired An Orchestra of Minorities suffered a similar fate. He came and thought it was a better place than it was, but upon discovering [the truth] he became very depressed. He broke down before my eyes. And one day, he drank so heavily, he climbed to the attic of a building and fell to his death. He wasn’t discovered until he began to stink. It was a very sad experience. But he had mentioned, almost in passing, during the few days that I knew him that he was in love with a woman in Nigeria and was engaged to her. And he wanted to get back on his feet and make money so that he could go and be with her. And I just started to think to myself ‘Okay, how do I recreate his journey? What was between them that could have made him take that step?’ So this story was me trying to recreate his journey to Cyprus and back to Nigeria.”

On ‘second novel syndrome’ and how he found his rhythm with Orchestra after the daunting success of The Fishermen:

“I am always working on a number of things at once. The incident I described earlier happened in 2010. I started writing The Fishermen in 2009 so the idea for Orchestra was there while working on that one. […] So I never had a problem with coming up with the story. In that sense, because I already had the vision for it, I wasn’t pressured by whatever The Fishermen did. In some ways, I was more encouraged. But of course there is the anxiety on publication day: ‘How will people receive it? Will it match up to The Fishermen?’ But I guess it’s more the book itself [that caused the anxiety]. It’s an extremely Igbo novel. It’s not Western at all. I think that’s where most of the anxiety came from.”

On the Igbo cosmology in Orchestra:

“The story of this lonely and lowly poultry farmer who meets this girl and falls in love is told by his Chi. In the Igbo world view, we believe that every individual has a Chi living in them. So the Chi is in some ways a guiding spirit. There is some debate over whether the Chi exists on the inside or the outside. There are schools of thought. I am with the Achebe school: they believe that the Chi exists inside of you, but has access to the exterior spaces. So the Chi is the one who tells the story. Sometimes it’s able to come outside of this character — especially when the character is unconscious — and go into these different metaphysical spaces. But because the Chi is giving a testimony of the life of the host, it is also telling its own story. Being a reincarnated spirit (the Igbos believe in reincarnation), it has lived for 600 or 700 years. So it is able to look at the histories. So I used that to map the history of the Igbo civilisation. So you have landmark events like, the encounter with the Europeans, slavery — there’s a host who takes the Chi and Soul to Virginia in the 18th and 19th century. Then there’s the Biafra War, and, of course, the present time. So the Chi has a lot of function for me. On a technical level, [using the Chi] also allowed me to push the boundaries of what we can do with a point of view. We have the first person and the third person, right? The Chi is both. When the Chi is telling its own story, it is in the first person mode. When it’s telling the story of Chinonso it can see both the past/present, it has access to the history and, to some extent, even the future of the character. […] It was a daunting task at first, I have to admit. Because I had to equip it with a different kind of eloquence. I mean this is an ancient Igbo spirit. So it has Prelapsarian language, it has a Middle-Age kind of language, but it also understands the modern way people speak in Nigeria.”

On the importance of incorporating Igbo culture into Orchestra:

“Sadly, Nigeria is not where it should be. […] Because of that, a lot of us are leaving, really. There’s an exodus happening now. […] I myself now live in the U.S.. I have a daughter there. And I think to myself: ‘This girl was born in the U.S. Even if I teach her Igbo…the probability that she will return to Nigeria, and live there, is close to zero really.’ And then you go back to the country itself. Even the people there — even my dad’s generation — we are forgetting much of our culture and our heritage. So I just thought to myself: ‘Well in the Western tradition, you have most of these things documented.’ […] So how do you create this kind of textual monument that people will come to tomorrow if they want to read about how the Igbos saw the world? […] For instance, you could trace the sociopolitical structure of most of the Igbo communities in precolonial times to the Chi. So 85% of Igbo villages and towns did not have a monarchical structure. So what they had was an egalitarian system in which age was seen as approximate to wisdom. So the oldest members of the particular clan were the ones who gathered together as the village council to make decisions. To some extent, the British had a hard time colonising Igboland because of that. Because, you know they would come and go to the palace or the king, but there was no palace there. So they would impose some kind of [temporary] monarch there — you saw that in Things Fall Apart, for instance, [the characters] hated the District Commissioner that was imposed by the British. And the reason for that was because the Igbos believed that if everybody has a Chi, it means that we were all divine in some way. So they disposed of a kind of hierarchical structure in society. It was very democratic. […] But if you ask a typical person in Nigeria, they probably don’t know this, or they’ll tell you this is just non-civilised stuff or something like that. So I feel like it’s my passion in some ways to recreate these things in fiction.”

Chigozie Obioma signing copies of ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ at the 2019 Africa Writes literature festival. Photo by: Louisa Johnson.

Chigozie Obioma signing copies of ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ at the 2019 Africa Writes literature festival. Photo by: Louisa Johnson.

On the nature of the novel form:

“In the fictional form, you seem constrained in some ways because the novel is very European in its origin. For example, you have to have a character with agency; if you have a character who is bound and cannot do anything, that’s not really a novel — it’s just a series of events. So somebody has to have a desire, and then be met with a conflict, you know, this rudimentary stuff. But agency is not always defined in the Igbo imagination. We can believe, for instance, if you were destined – if there was some kind of spell cast on you to act in a particular way, then where is your agency? You are just acting according to the force that is propelling you. So trying to twist through that even though you are constrained by the regimented form of the novel is not very easy.”

On the various readings of Abulu in The Fishermen:

“Abulu is the force that comes from the outside and disrupts the unity of the family. The boys were unified until they met him, and his words changed the family dynamics and their lives forever. It is kind of a philosophical commentary […] In some ways, I wouldn’t say me, but it is entirely possible to see Abulu as that external force that haunts [Ikenna] from the outside — Britain, in the case of Nigeria.”

On his ‘headspace’ when writing novels:

“I tell my brothers: ‘The Fishermen was a tribute to you guys — a love story’. And they’re like ‘You’re crazy’ *laughter*. I always tell myself I’m going to write this feel-good novel, and then, before you know it, it turns. *laughter*. I have vowed to The Guardian interviewer, I am going to write a very joyful novel for the third one. *laughter* I feel like it always comes from the source material. So [Orchestra] is inspired by that particular story. […Orchestra…] is in some ways a kind of psychological measurement. At every point in time, we ask, ‘What is he becoming?’ And we see that transformation happen gradually. So I guess that’s why it turns dark.”

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