‘The Son of the House’, written by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, is one of the three books shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2021 sponsored by Nigeria LNG Limited. Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, a professor of Law at Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, talks about the novel, writing, and expectations for the prize that will be awarded later this month in this interview. Excerpts:
CONGRATULATIONS on being a finalist for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2021. Did you expect to make the final shortlist, and are you anxious?
I am happy and thankful to have got this far in the competition. It says something about the positive and warm welcome this book has received from regular, everyday people and a critical perspective. As a writer, it is heartwarming and an encouragement. As for expecting it, I hoped, but there were also good books on the list. There is little to be gained now from anxiety.
Why do you write?
I longed to be a writer from childhood. Stories move me and what it means to be human in the world. Writing, with its tool of language, is one essential means of sharing stories about how we carry and exhibit humanity, how we happen to the world and how it happens to us. I am grateful to be able to write.
What would you say writing has done for you, and what do you hope it will still do?
Writing is one way that I interact with the world, writing and reading, and it gives me a medium in which to convey our stories. In that sense, it is both what I do and one of the things that gives meaning to life.
What do you hope to do with the $100,000 prize money?
I haven’t quite thought this far. I suppose if I win, I can spend some time thinking about this.
How does your book reflect contemporary challenges?
My book is, in a sense, historical, though it is recent history. Many of the themes remain contemporary challenges, however. Underage girls still serve as domestic servants. A woman’s place in inheritance is still not firmly assured in communities around the country. And, while gradually changing, the prime position of sons persists in certain areas.
You painted a bleak picture of girls who get some redemption as women in your book. Do you think society is against girls/women as you portrayed it?
I think my book, or the stories in my book, are only one or some perspective, a few stories out of many but important stories that we must recognise. There is a degree of misogyny that is not often recognised or called by that name. It is insidious, deep-rooted, sometimes visceral, other times hiding in plain sight in various guises. You need only look at our political space to see a snippet of it. Listen to politicians’ utterances, scan through social media, or work in gender-based violence, amongst other spaces.
Who and what are your influences as a writer?
Life. People. The stories I heard and saw as a child. Those I hear and see today. I have said elsewhere that in terms of writing influences, I am sentimental about the authors I read as a child: Onadipe, Achebe, Amadi, Nwapa, Emecheta, Ekwenai, and those I read on getting older – Marquez, Mantel, Mostly, amongst many others.
How much would you say The Nigeria Prize for Literature has energised writing in the country?
The prize money is a draw. And you can imagine why. I think much more could be done in the form of readings, incentivising publishers perhaps with a prize, supporting the work of the longlisted and shortlisted authors. At the minimum, I think much more could be done to promote longlisted and shortlisted books, especially when there is a single prize. Being listed should take the books from obscurity to notoriety and make it a win for the excellent books.
You are a law professor who is telling stories. Should we expect a law-centred fiction from you soon?
I am not sure. We will see.
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