27 Mar Chigozie Obioma: Writing is a Gamble, not Vocational by Olukorede Yishua
In An Orchestra of Minorities, the narrator speaks of “the land of lack, of man-pass-man, the land in which a man’s greatest enemies are members of his household; a land of kidnappers, of ritual killers, of policemen who bully those they encounter on the road and shoot those who don’t bribe them, of leaders who treat those they lead with contempt and rob them of their commonwealth, of frequent riots and crisis, of long strikes, of petrol shortages, of joblessness, of clogged gutters, of potholed roads…and of constant power outages”. ASSOCIATE EDITOR OLUKOREDE YISHAU spends time with the 33-year-old author, Chigozie Obioma, in Lagos:
Chigozie Obioma, author of the Booker Prize shortlisted The Fishermen and the wave-making An Orchestra of Minorities, has a problem: He hates telling stories the traditional way. This problem led Obioma, who is an Assistant Professor at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska, to write an over 500-page long novel in which the narrator is the chi, the guiding spirit in Igbo cosmology. “I don’t like to tell stories in a traditional way so I am always thinking of an invention,” he says in a restaurant in Ogudu-GRA, Lagos.
The chi tells us the story of Nonso, a poultry farmer, and Ndali— set largely in Umuahia, slightly in Lagos and Abuja, and a lot in Cyprus. Nonso, a 24-year-old lonely orphan, sees Ndali trying to jump off a bridge into water. He persuades her against it. To show how painful it will be, he flings two of his prized fowls into the water.
She rescinds her decision and both of them go their separate ways. They run into each other months later. Ndali feels she owes him her life. He is to find out that heartbreak was responsible for her attempted suicide. A relationship soon starts and before long, Nonso feels like marrying Ndali and tells her his plan. And then begins the real drama of their lives.
Ndali’s father is rich, stupendously rich, and finds it difficult to accept an illiterate poultry farmer as son-in-law. Through Ndali’s brother, Chuka, Nonso is humiliated a couple of times. The humiliation gets him thinking and talking with Ndali and a friend, Elochukwu, and in the long run, he discovers that getting an education may swing things in his favour.
Another dilemma sets in: with universities in Nigeria ever on strike, he wonders how many years it will take to complete a degree. Still, he picks the matriculation form, but soon opts for the option of selling his valuables and heading abroad for studies. Everything appears set until he gets to Cyprus and discovers he has been scammed.
Cyprus turns out hellish. Passers-by call him “slave”. He is mistaken for the Brazilian football star Ronaldinho, and the jealous husband of an expatriate nurse from Germany who helps him turns things upside down. He turns out one of the minorities in faraway land and his shouts for help or his cries for bailout sound more like an orchestra without efficacious power. Returning home only aggravates things. And a lot more sad events follow!
An Orchestra of Minorities is the story of the power of love, the sacrifice a man or a woman is ready to make for love not to suffocate and die. It is a wrestle between destiny and determination. It is rich in folklore and it is a morality tale, with betrayal and revenge as major themes.
This tragicomedy is far more ambitious than Obioma’s critically acclaimed debut The Fishermen. No one knows you better than your guardian spirit, and using this all-seeing spirit as the narrator gives Obioma the opportunity to tell it all despite the fact that the narration is in first person. The omniscient nature of the chi also gives Obioma the leverage to dwell in the spiritual realm, such that parts of the book read like magical realism.
We see the spirit taking leave of the host’s body to spy. We see the chi putting thoughts in the host’s mind in order to influence his actions. We see chis of two beings having a chit-chat. We also see a ghost crying in a bus pleading against a marriage on account that the suitor is a murderer.
Of course, the one the ghost is speaking to cannot hear, only the chi does. And we see the chi at times helpless while Nonso faces the adversities of life.
The novel, Obioma says, was inspired by the death of a Nigerian, Jay, while he was studying in Cyprus for a degree. He says: “The guy whose story inspired the novel, why did he so badly want to get out of the country? He had been deported from Germany, then hardly had he come back to Nigeria that he wanted to badly to get out.
“People walk through Sahara Desert, through Libya at a time when ISIS was beheading people. They saw this but still they were undeterred. It is because it is almost as if Nigeria is a hellfire. Why will you so badly want to leave?”
Jay, says Obioma, came to Cyprus because of a woman he was betrothed to. He needed to make money to be able to give her the best in life.
Unlike Chinonso, Obioma has had a pretty good life. He grew up in a home with twelve children. His banker-father ignited his love for reading in Akure, the capital of Ondo State, where he learnt first to speak Yoruba before speaking Igbo and English. He would later learn Turkish while in Cyprus.
The very interesting dynamics in the house, he believes, made him a writer: “I was not the very playful type. So, I sought a sort of privacy through reading. Reading was an escape from the noise. It was very early in life that I develop interest in reading and writing.