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In Lagos, Obioma, Ajibade talk Chi, literature

US-based writer and academic, Chigozie Obioma, whose first novel, The Fishermen was nominated for The Man Booker Prize in 2015, recently had a three-city reading tour of his latest book, An Orchestra of Minorities. In Lagos, the veteran journalist, Kunle Ajibade, engaged him at an evening of readings and conversation.

SOME early arrivals were already seated, eagerly awaiting the commencement of the reading while some others browsed the titles on the bookshelf. The ‘Inquisitor’, Executive Editor/Director of The NEWS and PM News, Kunle Ajibade, was also around. He was chatting with publisher and bookseller, Azafi Ogosi, whose P.A.G.E Book Connoisseurs organised the event for the latest author on their Parresia publishing label, Chigozie Obioma.

Obioma is an assistant professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, State of Nebraska, USA. He was just only 27 years old when his first novel, The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. His second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities has just been published in Nigeria and that evening’s reading and conversation between the author and Ajibade was part of efforts to promote the book which is already popular.

By the time the event began some 30 minutes after the official commencement time of 4.00 p.m., organisers had to get more chairs for the literati who had converged in numbers on the venue. Fittingly, it was an exciting conversation with Ajibade adeptly probing and Obioma, who was born in Akure, Ondo State answering with a maturity and intelligence that belied his relatively young age.

Ajibade’s first question after the author read an excerpt from the work which Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, called in later to commend him for, was how he went about writing it.

“Did you read other books for inspiration before you started writing; how long did the writing take? What kind of queries did you receive from your readers, including your editors,” he asked.

Obioma responded: “I’m a control freak. A gem of an idea comes to me. It could happen at any time; it could just spring up from a casual discussion with a friend. I grab the idea, and I begin to think about it, so there’s an incubation period when I try as much as possible not to write anything down except for some phrases that would eventually be incorporated. But the actual plot I don’t write down.  I wait for the idea to incubate in my mind; it could take anywhere from two weeks to three years. I ‘ll just be thinking about it all the time, and eventually, I come to a point where the story shapes itself and feels fully formed.

“I usually would write down the whole plot sequence at a go. For The Fishermen, for instance, I remember this rainy day in Cyprus when I began writing the story; maybe like from 2.00 p.m. and didn’t get up from the seat till 6pm. I poured everything down, but the expansion of the project is what takes time. But at that time, most of the work had been done internally during the incubation period. That’s how I write fiction. The same happened with An Orchestra of Minorities. All the while when I was writing The Fishermen, I was thinking about this story that would be told by a Chi who is like 700 years old, and who has been coming and going for so long. It was a very strange idea even to me, but the more I thought about it, the more it came together. Putting down the story on paper probably took like two years but cumulatively, I would say perhaps even five years. I thought about the book for like two years before I wrote anything down.

“Concerning the question on research, indeed, I have an author’s note on the second to the last page of the book where I recommend some materials on the Igbo cosmology and religion. Indeed, I like to say that I’ve read everything that anybody had written about that, especially the concept of the Chi. Sadly, the scholarship on that is very minimal. Achebe has an essay, then there’s a dissertation someone wrote; I’ve forgotten his name. It’s in the 1980s. It’s in-depth research on the Chi, and I also did field research with my dad; we went to various places in Abia where I’m from. So, I extensively read because it’s not fantasy. This is bearing fidelity to the actual worldview of the Igbo people, and I was going to be berated if I got anything wrong.”

“What about your editors, what queries did they raise, and how did you respond to them, Ajibade further asked the author who studied English Literature at Cyprus International University (CIU), Northern Cyprus before taking an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, where he completed an MFA in creative writing

“I was fortunate to have three editors working on the book,” Obioma began. “I sold the book to US, UK and Australian publishers simultaneously. We went about three rounds wherein they would send queries, and after having read, I would work on certain things. It’s a cosmic book, and my UK Editor had to read some books to be able to understand some of it. But there’s the human story. The personal story of the novel is that it’s a doomed love story between this poor poultry farmer and this student of pharmacology. His entanglement with her, becomes his undoing. So, that story is one of the things we mostly worked on, I took care of the cosmological part.”

Published four years apart, Obioma’s The Fishermen and An Orchestra of Minorities are dark and don’t have happy endings. Why is this so, Ajibade wondered

The writer who writes for The Guardian of London and New Statesman among others replied matter-of-factly: “I’m attracted to usually much more cosmic things, so I’m probing into deeper things. Of course, there are themes of love, migration, class but the very nexus of the book has to deal with questions of destiny and fate, so the idea of the Chi being at the centre of the book and telling the story. The Igbo believe in predestination. When you’re dealing with things like that, I discovered that you’re actually looking into the more peripheral parts of human nature.  And I think that what I often see while I’m going there is usually dark. That’s the reason. It’s not like I set out to write dark books, that are sad. It’s just that that’s what happens when you plumb that type of territory.”

On whether being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize helped his career, Obioma said: “I didn’t really give a damn about how The Fishermen would do. I hear a lot of people say that the success of the first book can in many ways inhibit you writing the second book because, in many ways, you now have a precursor, so you want to top that in terms of reception. I didn’t have that much pressure. The only thing I remember feeling was that when I was nominated for the Booker Prize, I just prayed that I should not win it because I felt that I shouldn’t win it for the first book. If I achieve this for the first book, what then do you have coming in the future?  I was tired of all the nominations, and the awards and I wanted just to get number two.  In some ways, people were surprised. The other authors were sad, but I was happy. They were like are you mad or something.”

Asked what kind of nostalgia made him once said that he would be much happier in the 17th or 18th century Igboland than in the 21st century, Obioma explained that he has no problems with modernity but “I don’t really believe in the so-called modernity that has been imposed on us from foreign ways. That’s not to say that our culture was perfect; there was the killing of twins and a few other things. That’s why I said I would prefer to be an Igbo man, unadulterated in the 17th century than now.”

Before the evening ended with a book signing and photograph session, Obioma also answered questions on the wave of populism and nationalism in Europe and America as well as if he researched poultry farming that features in An Orchestra of Minorities.

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