Associate professor and author of An Orchestra of Minorities and The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma, wonders what would happen if the African diaspora fully experienced the restorative power of history: ‘I’m persuaded that at the heart of our problems in Africa—and among the Black diaspora—is that we have not come to understand fully that we had successful systems before colonization, and thus embody an unconscious sense of inferiority that must be destroyed.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read widely growing up. But my reading actually began by first listening to my parents—especially my father—tell me stories while I had bouts of illnesses. I’d hear them tell stories and then I would try to imagine those stories and embody them. Then, when I was around 8, I asked my father to tell me a story and his response was that I read them myself now that I could read. It was from then on that I began reading.
My father gave me the first book I read, which was a dog-eared copy of The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola. Afterwards, I read everything in his library, which were mostly classic texts and African literatures (Tutuola, Achebe, Chaka the Zulu, Cyprian Ekwensi etc.), but also a lot of Shakespeare—I recall As You Like It, Hamlet, and King Lear, even though I could not completely understand them at the time. I also read a lot of newspapers, especially the columns my father read, like the ones from Sam Omatseye (who has become a good friend now), Aig Imokuede, and others.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
I’m not sure what those texts might be as I don’t think too much in terms of how myself, or alter ego, are represented in books. But because it is formative reading, I often think of myself as trying to achieve something much like the ‘Tutuolan’ character in The Palm-Wine Drinkard, going up to Oke Langbodo.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
Last year, I was privileged to be one of the judges of the Booker Prize, the most prestigious award for a single work of fiction. I read about 170 books and, of course, ‘disagreed’ with many as we picked 13 for the longlist, six for the shortlist, and one as winner.
But I’m not sure I can pinpoint a single book that I disagreed with, because I think that while I might oppose certain ideas in a book, it doesn’t correlate to the books being inferior or lacking in something.
My father gave me the first book I read, which was a dog-eared copy of The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I have recently been reading Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt, and I marvel at what I thought made a great writer.
Shakespeare’s common, almost, grass-level devotion to his craft and the way he tried to understand the world—everything around him from royalty to the peasants, to far off places and from religion to history—is astonishing. It flies in the wisdom of writing what one knows, and the finding of one’s ‘space’, and provincial interest.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I begin with an idea and let it ferment. It is like making palm wine. I don’t taste or drink from it until it has stayed for some time and built its internal bacteria, and become the substance I want. Only then do I write down.
Then, plot—building character as I go along. Afterwards I revise substantially, as much as I can—and there, I think, can never be enough revision! Ever.
What was your process for writing your most recent novel, An Orchestra of Minorities?
When I first travelled to Cyprus, I knew I had to write about a novel about the living conditions of Nigerians there—a condition I thought was like that of defenceless chickens who fall prey to predator birds, which is where the term, ‘orchestra of minorities’ comes from. I wrote sketches in my head until I encountered Paradise Lost by John Milton two years later, given to me as a parting gift by a British expat I knew in Cyprus. That book, which explores the fundamental fulcrum on which western civilization is based—free will—was for me an answer.
I knew then that I would tell this story through the mouth of the chi, this reincarnating spirit that has been reborn again and again for 700 years. Through it, I attempted to draw the map of the Igbo civilization, mapping in landmark events like the first encounter with the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, slavery (through the slave the chi ensouls in Virginia in the eighteenth century), the British colonial period, the Biafran war, and the present time.
The chi would be the centrepiece of the Igbo ontology, a belief that—like free will—was the foundation of the Igbo egalitarian socio-political structure. And the Igbo ontology would stand as a microcosm of the complex beliefs that we had in Africa prior to colonialism, so that I would establish that the colonial experience in Africa was not one long night from which the white man came to save us.
I’m persuaded that at the heart of our problems in Africa—and among the Black diaspora—is that we have not come to understand fully that we had successful systems before colonization, and thus embody an unconscious sense of inferiority that must be destroyed.
Shakespeare’s common, almost, grass-level devotion to his craft and the way he tried to understand the world—everything around him from royalty to the peasants, to far off places and from religion to history—is astonishing.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about An Orchestra of Minorities?
I think the reactions have mostly been humbling. The book was an award-winner, a Booker Prize finalist, and was published in many countries to rave reviews. It is inevitable that there will also be some naysayers, especially as a book becomes more exposed to broader views.
But the thing with this novel is that it is an Igbo cosmological novel, and I believe that most people don’t quite understand it because it relies too heavily on both discrete and accessible aspects of the belief system and worldview. I could have told the love story without the medium of the chi, and it would have been a different book. So, with that in mind, I expected a lesser reward than I’ve gotten so far.
It seems to me that for what I attempted to achieve, that is in monumentalizing a people’s eroding belief system, it is a book that will endure and whose glory days lies in the future. I hope that at least this will be the case.
Which part/chapter of An Orchestra of Minorities was the easiest or trickiest to write?
The section in which the chi ascends into Benmuo, the dwelling place of the ancestors, was for me, a difficult task mostly because of the research it demanded and the mythopoesis it involved.
There is scarce material on what the Igbos believed about the afterlife. What did it look like? Our ancestors mentioned it, sang about this place, but no one had ever written anything about it. I tried to recreate it from everything I could gather—from proverbs, songs, folktales, interviews, anthropological texts, and all.
Which books would you say are ‘in conversation’ with An Orchestra of Minorities?
Any cosmological novel would fall into this: so I’d say, Paradise Lost by John Milton; Inferno by Dante Algieri. But also, mythic tales of people going on journeys and returning to reconnect with what they left behind like The Odyssey by Homer.
There was scarce material on what the Igbos believed about the afterlife. What did it look like? Our ancestors mentioned it, sang about this place, but no one had ever written anything about it.
What’s something simple but surprising about writing a book?
I like this question a lot, but it challenges me. I think this is because I don’t think of writing a book when I sit down to write. I think mostly of the story I want to tell and how I want to tell it.
This is an all-consuming process of internal inquiry that takes up so much space, I miss the surprises. But I do delight in when it is going well, when the work is flowing and I’m reaching the desired point—sometimes, I’m moved to tears!
And in what ways is writing a second novel different from writing a debut novel?
I don’t think it’s much different other than the external mitigating factors like having been lauded for the first, and therefore, trying to strike the right balance with the second. But in the mind, at least for me, there wasn’t much of a difference.
More specifically, what’s one thing that you did differently while writing your second novel versus while writing your first novel, The Fishermen?
Research, mostly. Because of the nature of An Orchestra of Minorities, it demanded that I even visit a shrine around the Umuahia area and do ample research.
The Fishermen was mostly me looking inwards, into my past, and my growing up days in Akure, and trying to recollect as much as I can of that. I didn’t even visit Akure while writing it; I only did so afterwards. So, the difference in process isn’t related to the question of age (i.e., first versus second), but the specific demands of theme and genre, and of the book itself.
You’re an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. What’s a book/text everyone should read before taking your class?
Hahaha, well, depends on the class I’m teaching and to whom. For instance, when I teach undergraduates fiction, we use textbooks that have stories and exercises, etc. But when I teach graduate students, we read craft books and talk about them. I often find Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft edited by Janet Burroway et al, useful for beginning writers.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
In writing, don’t fall into groupthink. Don’t—never—submit to fads. Don’t let what is in vogue decide what or how you write. Don’t write towards an agenda or to ‘change’ the world— that is propaganda and political punditry, not the stuff of fiction.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
I admire the work of a lot of writers who are writing today, and I think of them as essential to knowing the work of your contemporaries.
I highly value the work of Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy, Arundhati Roy, as well as Jonathan Franzen, Imbolo Mbue, and last year’s Booker prize winner, Damon Galgut. I think the francophone African writer, Scholastique Mukasonga, is one of the most underrated writers alive.
In writing, don’t fall into groupthink. Don’t—never—submit to fads. Don’t let what is in vogue decide what or how you write.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I mentioned before the Stephen Greenblatt book on Shakespeare, Will in the World. I’m judging right now for the American Centre for Fiction’s 2022 First Novel Prize and reading a lot of first fiction books published in the US this year. It has been wonderful so far.
I also read The Atlantic, US Weekly, The Guardian and sometimes, your magazine—The Republic—which I think is doing a great job. I’m also very interested in the journalism of David Hundeyin, which I really appreciate, much like the work of my friend, Manasseh Awuni of Ghana.
What are you currently working on?
I have just completed a novel and have been putting together numerous pieces—non-fiction, memoir, short fiction, and etcetera. Let’s just say I’ve been keeping busy haha!
Question from Leena Koni Hoffman: What keeps you up at night?
My children—literally and figuratively. I want to be able to make sure they are doing well and getting all they need to thrive.
Next to it is the dismal state of Nigeria. I feel exhausted, tired, discouraged, annoyed, hopeless, mad, discombobulated, frightened, shocked, sad, concerned, worried, muted, disenfranchised, marginalized, aggrieved—and so on when I think of Nigeria. But, who doesn’t?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].