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Chigozie Obioma. Photo/Getty Images

Writer Chigozie Obioma: 'The only vision I can see of Nigeria is a tragic one'

Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma, appearing at the NZ Festival this month, draws both tragedy and divine inspiration from his strife-torn country. 

“Tragedy does not occur because something has been broken,” says Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma, on the phone from Nebraska. “A thing is tragic if it cannot be mended again.” Readers of his stunning novels will know that he is a master of that which cannot be mended. The Fishermen, shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize when Obioma was just 28, and An Orchestra of Minorities, which pulled off the same trick in 2019, have been described as mythic, dark and tragic. They will break your heart.

“I don’t read reviews, but someone wrote one that he sent to me, which was weird. I have a lot of respect for the guy. I had to read it,” says Obioma. “He said that the best way to look at my work is that they’re tragedies, but what makes it odd is that people no longer write tragedies. If you look at American literature today, you don’t see modern tragedies. It’s a rare thing.” It made him think about why his work is so … tragic. “I think it’s just because of the source of these stories. I’m looking at Nigerian society in these two books and the only vision I can see is a tragic one.”

There is a political subtext to the stories, referencing slavery, colonisation, corruption, paradise lost. There is also the irrepressible vitality and mordant humour of a born storyteller. A conversation with Obioma has its share of both. To illustrate his point about tragedy, he cites his car. “I rammed it stupidly into some brick the other day, and I took it to the mechanic. And the guy gave it back to me so new that it was better than it used to be. No, seriously. My wife was looking at it, like, my goodness. So can you say that accident was tragic? No, it wasn’t.” As an example from the other end of the spectrum: his country. “I feel like the system, the Nigerian society, has been broken for a long time and there is no hope of any kind that it will be mended. This is a tragic thing.”

The Fishermen, set in Obioma’s birthplace, Akure, is the story of four brothers. Freed from their father’s stern gaze when he is transferred to another city for work, they bunk off studying to fish at a place considered cursed. They encounter the local mad seer, who issues a prophecy: one of the brothers will be killed by one of the others. The story has been called “Cain and Abel-esque”. It’s also about how human beings, and the systems they live under, can take a disastrous turn.

An ikenga, used by the Igbo people for prayer. Photo/Getty

His new book, An Orchestra of Minorities, is the intricately constructed story of a chicken farmer, Chinonso, who, after the early death of his mother, finds comfort first in a gosling he rears and then in tending his flock of chickens. The title comes from the helpless racket they make when one is taken by a hawk. “Chinonso tries to shield the birds from the larger forces of society – the hawks and the kites,” says Obioma, “and he sees himself as identifying most with those creatures.”

The Fishermen is narrated by nine-year-old Benjamin. In an audacious move, An Orchestra of Minorities is narrated by Chinonso’s chi, his 700-year-old guardian spirit, which frets over how much to intervene in its host’s life.

Chinonso rescues a woman, Ndali, from suicide with a unique sacrifice. They fall in love. He calls her “mommy”. “You are a shepherd of birds, and you love your flock,” Ndali tells Chinonso. “You care for them the way Jesus cares for his sheep, with so much love.” But she’s a trainee pharmacist from a wealthy family unimpressed with her chicken farmer. What could go wrong?

The story is mythic, drawing on the cosmology of the Igbo people Obioma is descended from. Chinonso’s story is intercut with visits to the domain of the divine, where his chi tries desperately to intercede on his host’s behalf with the gods, to temper their judgment of him in the face of Chinonso’s obsessive love and the extremes it will drive him to. The chi is also arguing for its own continued existence, after a not-so-stellar job done during its sojourn with Chinonso. And, perhaps, the chi is appealing to the judgment of us, the readers, too. “Yes. One of the things that inspired me to tell the story that way was that this is the way people used to tell stories in the past. I witnessed one of those sessions myself when I was a little child.” Those who still followed the traditions of the ancestors didn’t believe in Western courts. Disputes went to local courts. “There is a chief priest and the person accused stands in the centre of the council, swears before the gods and says, ‘I’m going to say the truth.’ The stories they told under that kind of duress have a fidelity to the truth. You believe that you are standing before an entity that can see when you lie.”

But there’s also the human need to make your case, to explain yourself, to soften the truth. “So, they just try to dance around it. There’s a circumlocutory way which they arrive at the point. It’s a roundabout storytelling that was very fascinating to me because of the things they include along the way, the history they bring up. So the chi, having lived for these many centuries, would be able to be a chronicler of history and make of this story something completely different.”

The chi is the ultimate omniscient narrator, largely reliable but with its own axe to grind. Some of the book’s humour comes from its efforts to help in the face of its host’s pratfalls. When Chinonso goes to Ndali’s home for a grand party, her brother puts him to work directing cars. There’s a visceral sense of Chinonso’s humiliation, his suffering set to the music of the party entertainment, a famous singer “making unintelligible sounds akin to those made by termites crawling on dead wood and the crowd was braying like senseless lambs”.

We know very early on that Chinonso will do something terrible, something unlikely to be mended. A pivotal disaster – a reader will groan aloud – befalls Chinonso as he tries to better himself in the eyes of Ndali’s family. He sells up everything, including his beloved chickens, to go to university in Cyprus, where he finds all is not what it seemed and his life spirals out of control.

Obioma also attended university in Cyprus. Chinonso’s disaster is based on the experience of a person he knew there who was scammed. “Like every other person who was deceived, he came to Cyprus and then he discovered he’d been cheated. Almost everyone else I knew survived,” says Obioma. His friend did not. “Just him. So why? It’s something that has always tugged at me: to what extent are we actually in control of our lives? In modern times, science and technology have been able to create this sense that we are in control of almost everything, but it’s not always true.”

Photo/Getty Images

In the fatalistic words of the chi: “The ill luck that has befallen a man has long been waiting for him – in the middle of some road, on a highway, or on some field of battle, biding its time.”

So, is the Igbo cosmology that animates the book a fascinating world view for its writer or a spiritual base? Both, he says. “My mother is someone who grew up in the religion and her dad used to be a priest when he was younger, and he was persecuted a lot by the Christians.” Obioma doesn’t practise the religion, but the philosophy behind it has huge force. There’s the Igbo idea of the chi being a reincarnating spirit in every individual. “And, therefore, the idea that every individual has divinity in them … It was the main reason why the Igbo were the only society in all of Africa that did not have a kind of monarchical system. It never existed in pre-colonial times.” Elders represented their people at village councils. “When the British came to Igboland, they had a hard time colonising that part of Africa. Where is the palace? So they kind of had to impose arbitrary kings on them.”

Not everything in the Igbo philosophy is good, he says. “That’s one thing I like about the chi. It doesn’t idealise. It is biased to the world-view of the Igbo people but it also kind of rebukes the so-called great father.” There is a wonderful Igbo proverb Obioma cites: “Let the kite hawk perch, and let the eagle also have a perch. Whichever begrudges the other the right to perch, may he break a wing.” The meaning: “You are punished when you try to deny the other their humanity.”

Obioma’s own Cyprus education had a happier trajectory. He teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Plot should be a function of character, rather than the other way around – that dictum is what I tell my students all the time,” he says. “But I want to be challenged. I would joyfully thank you if you can convince me otherwise.” He finds he is not often joyfully challenged. “I can come into anywhere, a school in New York or in Nebraska, and pick 20 professors at random and, without knowing any of them, I can say, ‘This is what you think about this, this is what you think about that. You are very predictable’.

“I think the worst thing that a human being can be is an ideologue. I think because I was a voracious reader, I was always in the debating team. I was very interested in dialectics. So, it is very difficult for me to be close-minded about anything – I don’t know how to. Once you come to a point where you have made up your mind about anything, how can somebody talk with you? You already know everything.”

Not everyone has been happy about Obioma’s portrayal of his country in his fiction. “During the Booker Prize ceremony in 2015, the Nigerian consulate member was invited. He was saying, ‘We love your work but your depiction of Nigeria is bad.’” Obioma’s reply? “I am somebody who is writing about society as I see it. I’m not making anything up. Is there any exaggeration here? Is there any untruth here? If you find one I will correct it. Am I saying what is true? If that is the case then there’s nothing I can do about it.

“If you make Nigeria as good as New Zealand, of course I will start writing – what do they call these novels – sun, beach …? Beach reads,” he says, laughing.

Don’t expect any beach reads any time soon. He admits, near the end of our conversation, that he was a little put out when I called. “In fact, I should have been annoyed with you because you interrupted,” he says genially. He’s working on a new novel. Be warned. “These guys who are saying, ‘He’s writing a dark novel’, well wait till you see this one. It’s about the Biafra war.”

More than a million people died in the two-and-a-half-year war from July 1967 to January 1970 between the government of Nigeria and the secessionist state of Biafra. “So, it’s the war novel where I’m down in the trenches with these guys who are fighting.”

It’s also a joyful book, he insists. He’s having the time of his life. “It’s like when you fall in love as a teenager – you know that sensation? You almost agonise because you want to meet that girl who lives in the neighbourhood as soon as possible. So, that’s what I’m feeling right now. Only [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie, I think, has written a reasonable novel about the war, so let me do one.”

It sounds far from stories of fishermen and a chicken farmer but, for Obioma, it’s all of a piece. “In my two books, my biggest project has been to try to document, in a way, what I think has gone wrong with my people. So, if you look at Nigeria, if today we want to have 24-hour uninterrupted electricity all across the country – right now we don’t have, it might surprise you – we can do it. It is very possible. The resources are there.”

In An Orchestra of Minorities, the chi is able to reflect on history, culture, the chaos of a post-colonial world. There is much that is good, Obioma says. “Western education and all of those things. But something has been lost.” So he is offering not just social critique, not just tragedy, but also some tools for the work ahead. “That is my hope, honestly.” Perhaps, like the chi, he is also making his own case to the gods, those of the literary world.

“That’s what makes these books appealing to all these different [Booker Prize] judges,” he says. “There is something that I’m trying to do that is beyond just telling stories. It’s at the very heart of the project.

“I’m hoping that, [with] true documenting of some of the history, some of the culture, some of the beliefs that the chi sometimes reflects upon, people might discover a better version of themselves.”

Chigozie Obioma is in conversation with Brannavan Gnanalingam at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts in Wellington on February 23. 

AN ORCHESTRA OF MINORITIES, by Chigozie Obioma (Hachette NZ, $34.99)

This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.