Chigozie Obioma. Image: Facebook
African literature has attracted immense international interest in recent years, and a number of “Afropolitan” icons and rising stars have won acclaim from critics and literary festivals.
Yet most reading lists released by major newspapers and journals are still disproportionately Western-centric, and African literature lacks enough media attention. Despite this, more avid readers across the globe are getting to know names such as Nuruddin Farah, Alain Mabanckou, Ben Okri, Aminatta Forna and Chigozie Obioma, marking the diversification of the literary taste of millennial bibliophiles.
Literature originating from Africa often delves into the legacy of colonialism, sheds light on the tyranny of capital over labor, recounts the identity crisis that many Africans battle with, and represents the unheard voices of ordinary people and unsung heroes.
Chigozie Obioma is a 33-year-old Nigerian novelist and writer who has earned global recognition after publishing three books at such a young age. In 2015 and 2019, he was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Time magazine described his novel “An Orchestra of Minorities” as a “mystical epic” that confirms his “place among a raft of literary stars.” The Guardian referred to him as the “heir to Chinua Achebe” who is “a good writer whose work has a deeply felt authenticity, combined with old-fashioned storytelling.”
Obioma is currently an assistant professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the US.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Obioma about his career, novels and the representation of colonialism in African literature.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: In “An Orchestra of Minorities,” you depict the ordeal of an unassuming poultry farmer who falls in love with a pharmacy student hailing from a prosperous family. In order to impress the parents of his beloved woman, he sells his entire belongings to take up a position at a northern Cypriot university and fund his studies. Shortly after arriving in Cyprus, he realizes that the middlemen who had promised him a university placement had tricked him and that there was no position available for him at the college whatsoever. Is this suffering a situation that many young Nigerians go through? While crafting the novel, was it your intention to raise awareness of this challenge faced by Nigerians?
Chigozie Obioma: Yes, I always say that fiction is a medium that takes lived experience and molds it into something that can become so new [that] those who have lived the experience may not even recognize it. Even more so, this novel covers how African migrants are treated in the West quite a bit, but people rarely talk about how we are treated in countries outside of the west.
It is, of course, a shame that the selfish culture of African politicians leaves their states in catastrophic states, but when these migrants go to places like India, Turkey, Cyprus, Mexico and other places, they face inhuman treatments. I myself lived in North Cyprus for five years and the travails of Chinonso, the protagonist of the novel, are similar to what I and others experienced. I wrote about my own ordeal in an essay earlier this year for the Paris Review.
Ziabari: In an interview, you said you wanted to chronicle the landmarks of Igbo history and civilization in the “Orchestra,” including the encounter with the Portuguese in the 15th century and the Nigerian Civil War. Do you think your readers have been able to absorb the historical messages you planned to share with them or is it that this pedagogic effort has been overshadowed by the supremacy of the storyline and the ups and downs of the life of Chinonso, his quest for excellence and his love journey?
Obioma: I think that this being a work of fiction rather than non-fiction — I could, for instance, have elected to simply write a historical book — I had to layer the historical portions around a particular story. So, both of them, I hope, go together. The historical portions of the novel are organic to the narrator, for it is the voice of a god. Thus, through its testimony about itself and its host, it also describes the world as it has experienced it over these many centuries.
Ziabari: You consider yourself an ontologist interested in the metaphysics of being and existence. The themes of fate, destiny and sublimity are often missing in the majority of novels written today, but you explore these territories in your fiction extensively. Do you think this approach to existence is what is winning you popularity and helping your work stand out among hundreds of novels by major literary figures?
Obioma: I am not sure why my novels have received some recognition, but I agree that the themes I have focused on are mostly marginal and not often what many writers consider. One of the reasons why I have focused on fate and destiny is because my people, the West Africans, think mostly in these terms. I want to capture the essence of their common worldview.
It is also because Nigeria to me is a paradox. This is a country that could be rich but is poor. There are, of course, deep philosophical reasons why this is so. But on the surface, that paradox stings and stares at you in the face, and it haunts my mind. This makes one ponder things that are subterranean to the consciousness — things that seems to lie beneath the surface and have no easy answers. The meaning of life, the “metaphysics of being and existence” as I always put it, is one such quandary.
Ziabari: You’ve implied on a number of occasions that your relationship with your homeland of Nigeria is a capricious one. On the one hand, it is the home that sends you away because of its lack of provisions and opportunities. On the other, it is the home that embraces you when you return from the US. Is it realistic to say your novels are partly inspired by your own story and your special connection with “home”?
Obioma: Capricious indeed! But I am wedded to it. The truth is that I am a reluctant exile in America. I wish I could live in Nigeria, frankly. That is my home. That’s where I live untrammeled, without any fear of being an immigrant or a racial minority. It is where my ancestors lived and died, and the place whose food I love to eat. But yet, I feel I cannot live there.
There is a wall that has come between my home and me, and it is a wall I do not have the courage to scale. [In a recent interview, I talked of] how this shapes the tone of my fiction in that it often leads to a sort of “tragic vision” which comes about out of the sadness of writing about Nigeria. I said there that such writing is a masochistic act because “Nigeria riles me, wounds me, and heals me at the same time. I love it entirely and loathe it at the same time, and in that kind of relationship, a certain form of despair often gets hold of the mind. My writing is sometimes an effort to rid myself of that despair through the joy of artistic creation. The witness borne then, if I might say, is a witness to my own surrendering to a light that emerges from my own darkness, and in that light, I am refreshed and made alive.”
Ziabari: Why do you think so few prominent writers have shed light on chi in Igbo cosmology and that old African cultural heritage is neglected by the youth? Do you consider the postcolonial influence of the West on Nigeria to be a negative one?
Obioma: I think many African writers and thinkers have tried to encourage an embrace of our heritage. There was Chinua Achebe, for instance, but also, to some extent, Wole Soyinka. The purpose for me is to reassure our identity as people who had some culture and civilization prior to the coming of the West. I think because of colonialism and slavery, followed by the underdevelopment of most African countries, there has set in this self-damaging inferiority complex — the idea that we are no good.
I was in Abuja around two years ago and some people were debating on national radio whether we should be recolonized. Now, this is a mistake. We only need to learn history, to look back at the sophisticated sociopolitical systems we had, the economic systems, the egalitarian political structures to see that precolonial Africa was not one night from which the West rescued us. I think without this reassurance, this strengthening of our identity, this solving of our identity crisis, we cannot recover.
Ziabari: Your debut novel, “The Fishermen,” was acclaimed by critics and shortlisted for a 2015 Man Booker Prize. Why do you think the novel captured so much attention and elicited positive reactions globally, considering that it was your first novel? Many aspiring writers, who happen to write captivating novels, struggle for years to win publicity for their work. What was the key to the success of “The Fishermen” as a debut?
Obioma: If I knew the reason why anyone enjoyed my work, I would be very glad. I think, humbly, it is simply to work hard and believe in the vision you have for a particular project and to be true to that vision. I have always wanted to write a novel about siblinghood and that celebrates family and consanguinity. I think that is what “The Fishermen” does well above anything else.
In that sense, it has universal appeal and touches on aspects of humanity that are recognizable and relatable. I also often think that there is something profoundly human about the relationship between the four brothers and how, just by speaking words, a stranger could cause an irreparable fracture between them. I think this is what many readers — across the 30 or so countries where the book has been published — connect with.
Ziabari: You once said that you wouldn’t have written “The Fishermen” if you hadn’t moved to Cyprus to study. How did being based in Cyprus influence your understanding of Nigeria? Do you ascribe the creation of “The Fishermen” to homesickness that possibly invigorated your sense of belonging to Nigeria?
Obioma: An Igbo proverb says that we hear the sound of the udu drum clearer from a distance rather than from being close by it. This is very true of writing. When I am in a place or close to a place, it is often difficult to imagine it fully. But when I am separated from a place and have distance from it, I am better able to see it, to fully conceive it imaginatively. Since fiction is all about creativity anyway — the invention of the nonexistent — trusting in hindsight.
If I sat across from you at a cafe and I was to describe that moment on the spot, I would write about the obvious things you did. But if I lie down in my bed later that night and the light was off and I closed my eyes, the fine-grain details will trickle in. I will remember the unobvious things, the person scratching their wrist, or hawking into a napkin — those fine details that enrich fiction. It is when the person is gone and the meeting has ended and the day is forgotten that things become closer, clearer.
Ziabari: Many critics have compared you to the legendary Chinua Achebe and called you his successor. Does it make you feel proud to be compared to Achebe in the eyes of noted literati and authors? Do you personally admire Achebe’s work?
Obioma: In some ways, “The Fishermen” shares an affinity with“Things Fall Apart,” Achebe’s seminal work. Achebe wrote “Things Fall Apart” to document the fall of the Igbo civilization, the African civilization or culture. I am looking at a more specific fall of Nigeria — of our civilization, too, but in relation to Nigeria specifically. So, it’s a similar project. And in the ways in which Achebe tried to reveal the Igbo civilization to his readers, and “An Orchestra of Minorities” does a similar job.
Ziabari: A final question. Where do you think African literature, in general, and the literature of Nigeria, in particular, are heading? Should we expect more Man Booker and Nobel nominations?
Obioma: Ah, I hope so of course. I think African literature is in good shape. There are wonderful writers popping up here and there, and I won’t be surprised if we have more nominations and wins.