October 6, 2019
Chigozie Obioma's most recent novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes awarded to books written in the English language. In this episode, he sits down with Guy Reynolds to discuss the novel and how his personal experiences have shaped his writing.
Plainstate: The Podcast, sponsored by the Department of English, is a podcast about the humanities on the Great Plains and beyond featuring interviews, stories, people, and places.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KATIE SCHMID HENSON, HOST:
Thank you for listening to the Plainstate podcast by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Chigozie Obioma's most recent novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, was recently shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize. For this episode, he sits down with Guy Reynolds to have a conversation about the book, his writing, and his experiences that inform his work.
GUY REYNOLDS, INTERVIEWER
Hi everybody. My name is Guy Reynolds. I’m a professor of English here at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hi. I’m Chigozie Obioma, assistant professor of English and creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
REYNOLDS: Let's start off by talking about Chigozie's earliest memories of storytelling and fiction-making the things that perhaps formed him as a novelist to come.
OBIOMA: So in my earliest memory I fell in love with fiction—not just fiction, but stories, the abstract world—very early in life. That came about first when I used to play a lot of soccer and one of those days I ended up in the hospital and then my parents were telling me stories. They would ask me to close my eyes and then simulate these otherworldly spaces that were coming up in their stories. It became a favorite a past time of mine. The moment I knew how to read, I began to read voraciously, and the more I read, the more I ached and longed passionately for the time when I would be able to create my own stories.
I wrote my first book when I was about 12 years old. I was just starting secondary school in the British system—I think that would be grade… grade what in the American system… maybe grade five, thereabout?—and it was called “The Dwarf King.” I still remember the story very well. So that that was really how… I mean, I would say that I’ve been writing since I was a child, really.
REYNOLDS: And what were the first stories that you were listening to and hearing about? What was your early experience of literature?
OBIOMA: So those stories were mostly, as I would discover later on, gotten from books. There were two people who told me stories - mostly my mom and my dad.
My mom was semi-literate, so she told mostly stories that she had heard from people in the village where she grew up. They were mostly animal stories—things about man and nature and some of the didactic stories with tortoise and hare and all that. But my dad told stories more about human beings. I noticed that distinction quite early on, and I couldn't really tell why their stories were different. It was probably when I was eight or nine when I discovered one day, when I asked my dad to tell me a story and he just pulled out a book and said “Read it—you can now read for yourself.” It was this big epiphany for me, wow—this man had been reading these books and this was the source of these stories that he was telling me. They were varied, his stories. In fact, one of those stories was, I would discover later, Shylock. You know, the Shakespearean story about this guy who was a very mean money lender. He was very merciless towards those who owed him and he was ruthless, really. That character stayed in my mind for a long time.
REYNOLDS: Eventually, you went on a global journey across two or three different countries after Nigeria and ended up here in the United States. During that period, you began and wrote a novel called The Fishermen which has been tremendously successful. Tell us a little bit about how you began to become a novelist and what the early stages of your career were really about.
OBIOMA: So as I said, I began writing [stories]. I called them stories because most of them were just a gallimaufry of things. They were sometimes when I combined the animal stories together in this patchwork (laughter) or whatever you want to call it. I became more deliberate when… I think it was when I got into secondary school. I began to read more higher literature, so to say. I started also to take literature courses. I read Homer’s Odyssey over a three month period at about the age of 12. I think that was when I sat down and actually wrote my book. So it's been progressively me just mostly writing novels—less short stories. At some point, I think in my teenage years, I wrote some plays as well, like state dramas. Actually, some of them were acted on stage for school.
I wrote my first novel, which was young adult fiction, around the age of 16 or 17. The principal of my secondary school was a British man—no, an Irish priest, not British—and he loved it. I showed it to him and he tried to get it published, but I didn't know what publishing was at the time. I didn't know that we were dabbling into kind of self-publishing. So he raised money, my dad raised money, and they combined and paid this firm which is now defunct; they closed a long time ago. So that book is somewhere (laughter). I’ve seen people bring it to me to sign and I’m like, please, where are these, where is this still available on Amazon? So that was like the first experience.
Then, I went to Cyprus, as you noted earlier, at 21. The moment I got there, I began working on The Fishermen because I had been removed from Nigeria to this very far-flung place on the other side of the world, and I began to experience this very palpable feeling of nostalgia. That was what evoked in me a kind of awakening, and that, of course, bore the gem of the story: brotherhood, and siblinghood, and family, actually. So I wrote the book. I began working on it around 2009, I think, and I published it; I mean I worked with it throughout my stay in Cyprus, and I used excerpts of it here and there to get admission to come to the U.S. By the time I came here in 2012, to the University of Michigan, I had a complete manuscript. I sold the book while in my first year of my M.F.A. program there. By the time I graduated in 2015, it was published, and now I have a second book, An Orchestra of Minorities.
REYNOLDS: We talked a little bit about your journey to Cyprus and your first novel. That novel, your life, and then the second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, all touch on in one way or another on themes connected to migration. I was wondering whether you could talk to us a little bit about how you have developed an interest in storytelling that is about movement and migration—and perhaps also thinking about the fact that, as you said, one of the first books that you got to know was Homer's Odyssey.
OBIOMA: Yeah. Well, I’ve come to conceptualize the overarching theme of my work as not just the physical movement between places but more of the kind of movement of consciousness; everything, the total sum of an individual, their culture, their history and everything, the way in which we will move through time. In The Fishermen, there's a kind of journey that begins the moment the family unit is fractured—the movement, in some way, into youth, into the unknown by the main character who is nine at the at the point of the major conflict in the novel. And in An Orchestra of Minorities it’s much more concrete, that movement: this guy who sells everything he has to be able to journey to this far way country, not knowing for sure what he will encounter there.
I feel like one of the most interesting dynamics of our modern-day existence is that we move, and it’s both a pleasurable experience when it's going well, obviously, but also even when it's going well there is something very… should I– I don't want to use the word tragic because it feels almost cliche at this point. But there's a sense that there's a deep centered sadness to that, because where you are formed—where you grew up—is really where your anchor is. You are forever tied, consciously and spiritually, to that place. But then you uproot yourself and replant yourself in a new space.
So for me, I have used An Orchestra of Minorities to draw a more well-realized portrait of how disastrous that can be. The story of An Orchestra of Minorities, I have to say, was inspired by an actual experience, even though of course I’ve made it into fiction—and fiction is mostly you exaggerating what might seem like some lived experience. It was inspired by an actual guy who made that kind of journey—a kind of tragic odyssey. He leaves Nigeria without knowing that he had been defrauded and deceived. And getting to Cyprus and having this awakening, he is crushed by it. So the same fate happens to Chinonso, the main character of An Orchestra of Minorities, but I let him return to Nigeria because I’m also interested in a different kind of journey, which is mostly the emotional motility of characters. So how do we move from one state to the other? What can cause, for instance, a brother who loves his younger siblings very deeply and would have killed for them, to turn back to the direct opposite and hate them? What I’m very interested in is how you know a character moves from that one point to the other end of the spectrum. Here, as well, the novel begins with these almost self-sacrificial guy who not only risks—if you know anything about Nigeria, stopping in the middle of the highway is a dangerous thing, you know, there could be hoodlums hiding in the bush somewhere—so he risks his life and then he throws away these fowls that are precious to try to save this woman he doesn't know. But by the novel’s end he has become a very different person. He's been so completely changed He's filled with this passion—this revenge—to get back at the world that has taunted him this way.
REYNOLDS: An Orchestra of Minorities is a big and complex novel. It's an epic of sorts. I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about the processes of composition, of how you put together this large, long, involving epic narrative.
OBIOMA: Well, it was a kind of complicated process. I look at my daughter now—she's about 14 months—and she's always trying to create obstacle courses for herself—
OBIOMA: —so that she would do something difficult. I’m kind of like that. I said to myself, well, I have this simple story, you know, and I begin from an almost archetypal place: a guy who falls in love, and then it goes awry, and then he tries to recover; or, you know, brothers who hear prophecy and their life tumbled. But then, it becomes this more complex structure simply because I always—by the time I write the first draft—think to myself I want to tell a story, every story, in a different way. I want to see if I can capture and create something that would feel fresh. I mean, I think it's almost impossible to have something original at this point. So then I put myself on that course. Okay, let me see how this pans out. At the end of the day, once I am back on that journey, if I stay the course—no matter how difficult it might be—I might get something that I want to have. So that's how I take off. But it did start with a more traditional kind of piece, and then it morphed into this complex structure.
REYNOLDS. Mmm. So one of the things that people are going to find when they when they read the book—and I’m opening a copy of it here—is a kind of map of the cosmology of the Igbo people, which relates particularly to the chi or guardian spirit. I was wondering if you could talk to us about the chi, how you use the chi, what the chi might be, and how readers who are unfamiliar with this particular cosmology might begin to understand what you're doing here
OBIOMA: Okay, so, the chi. I first became interested in the chi obviously because of my name. (laugher) The chi prefixes my name, Chi-gozie, and many names in the Igbo tradition—Chinua, Chimamanda, you know, all these names.
But there's a phenomenon in Nigeria which began once the Africans encountered the British. Not just the British, but the Portuguese first. Most West Africans became Christians or Muslim depending on what part of the continent you are in. In the southeast of Nigeria, where the Igbo people are located, most of them converted to Christianity. Only a handful refused, and my maternal grandfather was one of those very obstinate ones who continued to be devoted to the ancestral religion called odinani. My mom grew up in that kind of household. She was deeply rooted in that culture and all of that. She would always make statements like, if something bad happened growing up, she would say okay, we can ascribe so-and-so event to the fact that this person's chi is weak or sleepy or something like that. So I became very curious about the phenomenon of the chi.
Once I conceived of the idea of having the structure of this novel be through this narrator who ensouls this character and is a reincarnating spirit who has been coming and going out of the world for some 600 years, I did more research and I discovered the belief in the chi was at the very heart of the Igbo world view in pre-colonial times. It was the equivalent, should I say, of—I don’t know, free speech, what is at the very heart?—you know, something that is realized in the institution in the Judeo-Christian or western system. You could trace, for instance, western democracy to free will. So that idea. The belief about the chi was that it was responsible for the egalitarian structure of the political system in pre-colonial times. So it is this big thing.
And so I thought, okay, I want to also tell the story in a way that investigates not just how a person is transformed by unfortunate events; but also, what is fate, and what is preordained, and how is it that our life turns out in these different ways? In some ways, I wanted to investigate the metaphysics of being and of existence. I saw the chi as the platform to be able to do that—having acquired this higher knowledge of mankind, and of the world, because it has existed several for so long and has embodied so many different people. In a way, wanted to have that very wise, annoying narrator. And also, technically speaking, I wanted to push the boundaries of point of view so the chi telling this story to this jury in metaphysical space is at once telling the story about itself and its own history and journey, while also telling the story of Chinonso, the main character. It is a first person narrator as well as a third person narrator at the same time. In fact, there are points where you could make the argument that it even begins to speak as a second-person narrator. So I wanted to blur those lines, also.
Lastly, I wanted to also draw a kind of map of this civilization, this people, their history. The chi was around when slavery happened. The first encounter with the Portuguese, and then the British, the Biafran War: all of the major events in Igbo history come together in this one being. So, in some ways, (laughter) I think if there's any ambition in this project, it’s that I wanted to tell a very specific story of a character, but also draw a map of an entire civilization and its history.
REYNOLDS: So this is the way that the novel becomes a postcolonial text, perhaps.
OBIOMA: Yes, obviously yes. The chi is trying to pay fidelity to truth, or what it thinks is truth –the concept of truth. So it doesn't idealize anything. There is a kind of testimony of everything it has witnessed: how the colonialism happened; how did the Africans forego their own culture, and religion, and all of this, and embrace that of these foreigners? Why? The chi tries to tell all of these stories while giving the story of this particular character.
REYNOLDS: It's a pretty harrowing book in places. Could you talk a little bit about that without giving away any plot spoilers? I mean, I was thinking particularly of using that word, tragic, which I think you used earlier on. Do you think it's a tragic narrative?
OBIOMA: Well, I think so. I mean, if we want to be honest, it does turn very dark. I don't know why my two novels have been– why they tend to go into those dark places. I mean, I think the obvious answer for this one could be the story that inspired it; you know, this guy dies in this very tragic way. The guy I met in Cyprus–I think I mentioned it earlier—he came and then discovered that he had been duped. He drinks and falls, so he's dead. So that's a tragic story in itself. But it's not—the chi doesn't die. The main character in this book is alive throughout, even though he inflicts some damage on other characters. But he goes through quite a bit of hardship. He's incarcerated at one point, you know, and the incarceration is one of the reasons why he becomes what he becomes later on. I think that when you try to explore this kind of deep questions of humanity—about fate, about destiny—stories tend to turn dark.
REYNOLDS: So your first novel was adapted into a play. Could you tell us about this adaptation? And are there plans for similar adaptations of Orchestra of Minorities?
OBIOMA: The Fishermen was adapted into a stage play and it just actually finished playing, and it went back to the Edinburgh Fringe as one of 10 selections by the Edinburgh Fringe. So it’s been very successful. And I have to say that I had nothing to do with that adaptation. Someone read the book—a producer—and just wrote to us out of the blue: I had this very interesting idea of like you know distilling the whole story into a two handler–
OBIOMA:—where two characters are on stage—two brothers instead of four brothers—and their two parents. So the two characters fluidly play all the roles. One character morphs within seconds from being the mother to one of the brothers. When he first brought the idea, I was like this guy must be crazy! How are you going to do that? But then I was like well, I'll just let them do it. I mean, it's not going to cost me anything, anyway, you know, whether it fails or not. It will only bring more attention to the book. I’m very grateful for how that has gone. It's going back to the London West End from September 3. Trafalgar studios. Sadly, we've not been able to bring it to North America because of the cost, but there has been a very successful production in South Africa which just ended a few weeks ago.
An Orchestra of Minorities is about to be made into a TV series.
OBIOMA: Yes! We just spoke with—I’m not going to mention the name of the producer, but it's—a very well-known person who loved the book, but they are affiliated with ABC. That was yesterday. I mean it's not completely set in stone yet, but it looks like it will be, so that is very exciting. There's nothing about stage yet for it—I think it would be a very challenging book to stage—but as a TV series, yes, I can totally see that.
REYNOLDS: Yeah, okay! And then one final question, Chigozie. We know that you're a football fan and you've even talked with me about the fact that you could have become a professional soccer player
OBIOMA: Which I still regret.
REYNOLDS: —which you still regret. So, what are the similarities between writing fiction and playing soccer?
OBIOMA: For me particularly, I mean—you've read my work—I’m kind of a maximalist. I’m living, I’m existing in an age of minimalism, especially in the American tradition. In the 70s you had Raymond and the rest coming in, and Hemingway, they created an aesthetics of American prose writing that so many of our contemporaries have stuck to. But I like you know more of like a full elevated, ornate, sometimes even exuberant prose style that's more like baroque style. That's the kind of writing that I indulge in.
I feel like what drew me to soccer—to football—was dribbling. I watched Maradona growing up, and Romario, and some of these legends, and the way in which they confuse and completely discombobulate their opponents was very intriguing for me. So I do that a lot. I’ve always been a midfielder and I dribble very well. I mean, I’ve not played the football in probably a year now, so I don't know if those skills are still there, (laughter) but yeah. I had the chance to play professionally, but I felt like… I was afraid that I would never be able to write—to commit to writing—and that scared me. If I had done that, I probably—who knows—I may not have succeeded. But if I did, obviously I would be 20 times richer than this poor me (laughter) of today.
REYNOLDS: Chigozie Obioma, thank you very, very much.
OBIOMA: Thank you very much, Guy. It's been a pleasure talking with you
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KATIE SCHMIDT HENSON, HOST:
Special thanks to Chigozie Obioma, assistant professor of English, and to professor Guy Reynolds, chair of the undergraduate program and curriculum committee in the department of English.
Plainstate is produced by Robert Lipscomb. Music by Shadows on a River. I’m Katie Schmid Henson. On behalf of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, thank you for listening to the Plainstate podcast. Tagline forthcoming.