28 Mar Chigozie Obioma: I am Interested in the Metaphysics of Being and Existence
On Sunday, 24 March, 2019, P.A.G.E. Book Connoisseurs, organised an evening of reading and conversation with Chigozie Obioma whose second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, was just published in Nigeria by Parresia. It was a very rewarding encounter with Obioma, who was born in Akure, Ondo State, to an Igbo family of 12 children. He read English Literature at Cyprus International University (CIU), Northern Cyprus. Because he made a first class in his set, he was chosen as the student commencement speaker on 23 June, 2011. In his speech, Obioma spoke eloquently about the necessity for courage, diligence, hard-work and gratitude. He made a solemn promise to make good use of all he had learnt from CIU. As a story-teller, he has been steadily fulfilling that promise. He was 27 years old in 2015 when his first novel, The Fishermen, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Among other prizes, the novel has won NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, The Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction and Nebraska Book Award for Fiction. Before then, he was in Ledig House in New York for a residency and at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he completed an MFA in creative writing. He writes occasionally for The Guardian of London, Newstatesman among other publications. Chigozie Obioma is an Assistant Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, state of Nebraska, USA. In the course of his conversation with KUNLE AJIBADE, Executive Editor/Director of TheNEWS and PM NEWS, the edited transcript of which is published here (including an interview AJIBADE had with him on 10 March, 2019 by email), Professor Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel Laureate in Literature, made a video call to the gathering, congratulating the author on his second novel, and his literary achievements so far. Obioma was grateful for Soyinka’s kind words.
Were you strongly drawn to literature very early? You speak Igbo, Yoruba and English fluently. How have these languages expanded your creative imagination?
I was born in Akure in 1986 to a family of an Igbo banker who was transferred to the city that same year with a promotion in the Central Bank. Hence, the name: Chi-Go-Zie, which they intended as a statement on the auspicious circumstances around my birth. I acquired almost all three languages at about the same time, Yoruba becoming more dominant than others for a long time until our parents forced us to learn Igbo. I think that the languages add certain eccentricities to my diction. There are times when I use specific tonality or flair that one can only attribute to a particular language other than the English language. But these languages can also be stifling sometimes. I speak Turkish too and when I first learned it, I recall how difficult it was to communicate extemporaneously in English for a while.
It is simply because he doesn’t like to take credit for anything and to even be named or thanked. To a great extent, my parents—especially my father—were instrumental in my developing into a writer. First he helped me cultivate a fecund mind by telling me stories frequently and then he provided the books to help enrich that landscape of my imagination. I wrote for The New York Times last year about how I came to writing first through the stories they told me and eventually by becoming obsessed with reading.
Benjamin, the narrator of your first novel, The Fishermen, is earthy while the narrator of your second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is an ageless, omnipresent, chi, who moves smoothly between our world and the metaphysical realm. I find the innocence of Benjamin and the experience of this elemental chi very striking. Obviously, these are deliberate, strategic artistic choices. Could you explain these choices and how they have helped you to achieve what you set out to do in the two novels?
Indeed, they are deliberate. I have often been drawn to alternate ways of story-telling. In The Fishermen, my intention was to have the narrator tell the story by association—that is, to try to understand phenomena by first comparing them with other things, things that he understands more as a child. Thus, to fully comprehend why his father leaves the house frequently to look for food, he has to associate it with the eagle’s trips to hunt for food. For An Orchestra of Minorities, I wanted to look at the questions of fate and destiny through the prism of the Igbo worldview. By having the chi as a narrator—a 700-year-old reincarnating spirit—I was able to chronicle landmarks of Igbo history from the first encounter with the Europeans to the Biafra war. But also, by being loquacious and wastefully confessional, the chi is able to discuss various aspects of the Igbo odinani—from the process of childbirth to the metaphysical plain of the ancestors.
Also, I’m always looking to play with narrative techniques in ways that feel fresh or new to me. To that end, the chi works both as a first and third person throughout the novel. There are times when—while within its host, Chinonso, it is speaking in the first person—but when the chi goes into the metaphysical space, it speaks in the third person.