Chigozie Obioma image via Los Angeles Review of Books
BY LILY MEYER
CHIGOZIE OBIOMA IS a modern-day mythmaker. His 2015 debut, The Fisherman, earned him huge acclaim — and a spot on the Man Booker shortlist — for its lyricism, wisdom, and emotional reach. InAn Orchestra of Minorities, Obioma spreads his arms even wider. Narrated by a chi, or Igbo guardian spirit, An Orchestra of Minorities tells the story of a young Nigerian chicken farmer named Chinonso who leaves Nigeria to attend college in Cyprus. All he wants is to impress his wealthy girlfriend, Ndali, and her parents, but instead, he finds himself spinning further and further from home.
Chinonso’s story is heartbreaking, even to his chi, who’s seen it all before. The chi’s refrain, in fact, is “I have seen it many times.” The chi is an exceptional narrator: inquisitive, funny, loving, and supernaturally wise. Both Chinonso and his chi are willing to fight destiny — Chinonso for love, and the chi for Chinonso.
I spoke on the phone with Obioma, who is as thoughtful as one might expect from a writer able to embody the voice of a centuries-old guardian spirit. We discussed his own relationship with Igbo religion, the parallels between Chinonso and Odysseus, and whether or not a person can successfully fight their own destiny.
LILY MEYER: How did you develop the chi’s voice? And what elements of your writing did you have to change to make it work?
CHIGOZIE OBIOMA: Conceptualizing the chi was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life. When I write fiction, I start with a personal story. For An Orchestra of Minorities, the personal story belonged to Chinonso, who is an avatar for a guy I knew in Cyprus. In some ways, at least. The guy I knew killed himself. Well, there’s debate about whether it was suicide, but like Chinonso, he was defrauded. He goes to Cyprus, finds out he’s lost everything, drinks very much, then — see, I’m speaking in present tense. I’m already talking like it’s the novel. But the real guy went up a three-story building, then fell to his death.
Once I had the personal story, I began thinking about the right form and structure to do the story justice. When the idea that this story’s structure should be the chi came to me, I fought it. I thought, How could I have a chi tell a story? But I kept thinking, and thinking, and gradually the voice took shape. I understood that I’d connect Chinonso, the chi’s current host, to its past hosts, and that the chi would be a constantly reincarnating spirit, around 700 years old, that spoke with an antique, prelapsarian eloquence, and that would be able to deliver these sagely philosophical reflections about how the Igbo people saw the world.
How did you, as a 32-year-old, write the chi’s explanations of human emotion and behavior, which are based on seven centuries of knowledge?
I wanted to write the Paradise Lost of the Igbo people. I’ve always been drawn to the metaphysics of existence and being, to these very primal questions. I live in America, so I see how the West has developed from the primal idea of free will — but what concept was at the bedrock of Igbo civilization, which has been trampled by colonialism? People in my dad’s generation, and in my generation, often have no idea about the complexities of the ways their ancestors lived. To write the chi’s reflections, I had to read a lot, and do field research with my dad. We went to very rural villages where there are still people who practice old Igbo religions. I outlined what I learned from them, and worked that knowledge into the book.
Did that research change your personal worldview? For example, do you react like the chi — which is to say, unhappily — when somebody says, “It is well” or “It will be fine” to you?
Yes! The last time I was in Nigeria, somebody said, “It is well,” and I found myself laughing almost hysterically. I’d just sent the last draft of the book to my editor, and I remembered the chi right away. Or yesterday, while teaching my last class of the semester, I began talking about the concept of grief. I found myself telling these American kids my ideas about grief, which are now mostly Igbo cosmological and philosophical beliefs.
I’m curious about the interplay between Igbo and Christian ontology in the book. The chi seems pretty annoyed by Christianity, but how much does it affect Chinonso’s worldview?
Chinonso used to be Christian. He stopped going to church, which came from my idea that there are multiple forms of colonialism. In some forms, the colonized nation got to retain their civilization, religion, or culture. But in Africa, due to the erroneous belief that black people were not sophisticated in any way, colonialism was seen as a civilizing project. It was very sweeping. Nations were dismantled completely. While I was writing An Orchestra of Minorities, I went looking for a 16th- or 17th-century house. I wanted the chi to be able to describe how the Igbos used to live. I managed to see one in Nigeria, but I saw six or seven in Virginia, in a place called the Frontiers Museum. It’s a living museum, with reenactors, and there were more Igbo houses than I’d been able to find in Nigeria. When I wondered what the chi must think about Christianity, I thought of the houses, and I decided the chi would be repulsed. It would want Chinonso to depart from Christianity completely.
An Orchestra of Minorities relies strongly on fate and predetermination. How did you use those ideas to create dramatic tension?
When I was a child, I always heard my granny and my parents talking about chis. They would say, “This was the agreement between that person and his chi.” I was sickly, and when they took me to the hospital, I’d hear them tell each other, “This child has a weak chi. His chi can’t bargain for its host to get better.” That idea is very different from the Judeo-Christian belief in free will. Take Paradise Lost. Milton believed in foreknowledge, not predestination. His God wanted humankind to be able to choose. That was Milton’s explanation for evil and sin.
The Igbo tradition doesn’t have that orientation. Instead, there’s a reliance on supernatural transactions. Your chi has to fight on your behalf. You can make choices, but your chi will warn you, and steer you away from mistakes. It neutralizes your complete ability to choose. I wanted to reconcile that force with the idea of free will, to write about those two concepts competing in one individual’s life. An Orchestra of Minorities is the result of me putting those two opposing ideas together. It’s a very complicated process, and one I don’t fully understand yet myself.
Chinonso is a complicated man, but he likes to act in an un-complicated way. I’m thinking particularly about a moment in Cyprus when the chi gets frustrated because Chinonso has so many questions, but doesn’t ask them. Why did you write him that way?
I was thinking about Jay, the man I knew in Cyprus. I wanted to create a man of basic innocence. There’s a line about how Chinonso’s experiences change him, and that works because he starts so innocent. He’s connected to nature; he tends chickens. In Nigeria, he’s very low in the stratified class structure. He’s not respected; he doesn’t have much ambition; he doesn’t aspire to do much in the world.
Why does Chinonso call his girlfriend Ndali “Mommy,” rather than a more conventional endearment? Ndali asks him about it a few times, but I want to know how you came up with it.
It comes from an eccentric guy at the first college I attended in Nigeria. He was a very humble person, I think. He was diminutive in structure, not very tall, and he was elderly, but he called everyone “Uncle,” even those of us who were younger than him. This is in a society where respectability is a very serious thing. One of the most cardinal sins you can commit is to call an elderly person by their first name, but the guy called us “Uncle.” So when I was trying to create Chinonso, the lowly man, I remembered him.
The chi loves comparing Ndali and Chinonso’s relationship to Penelope and Odysseus’. Why is that?
I’m very fond of the Odyssey. I read it when I was a child, and I’ve never stopped thinking about it. Here, Chinonso’s return to Ndali is like Odysseus’ return to Penelope. From the moment he leaves Nigeria, his journey to get back to her begins. And since Chinonso knows the Odyssey — he’s watched the movie — the chi can use that parallel love story as a device to encourage him to keep going.
Do you consider Chinonso an epic hero?
Yes. His journey spans continents. He displaces himself, and then has to recover what he’s lost. You know, during my research, I learned that the Igbo people believe in a forgotten kind of reincarnation: not the reincarnation of the body or the spirit, but the reincarnation of events. Something can happen to you in 2010, then come back in a different form 10 years later. That’s another way to see Chinonso’s journey. It begins when he saves a gosling as a little boy. His father kills the mother goose, and Chinonso saves the gosling, then loses it. That event repeats in his life.
Do you feel more emotionally connected to the chi, or to Chinonso?
Chinonso. I know most people will think An Orchestra of Minorities is the chi’s book, but to me, the personal story is most important. I always say that the books I love lend themselves to a tripartite level of interpretation. There’s the personal, then the conceptual, then the author’s commentary. So the book has all my ideas about free will, fate, destiny, and love, but the personal story comes first.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, DC.