Chigozie Obioma was born in Akure in the southwestern part of Nigeria. As a child, he once spent a few Christmases confined in the hospital, with only his books to keep him company, and his father telling him stories by the bedside. These were the first moments, Chigozie says, when he started his lifelong passion for reading and for appreciating stories.
I’ve known Chigozie for three years now and it’s hard to imagine the same Chigozie as that sickly child he once said he was. During Friday soccer, he leads his team with his amazing kicks, turns and passes. His fervor extends to his writing—his debut novel The Fishermen has already come out in Europe to rave reviews and hits American shelves this week. Before embarking on another book tour, he sat down with me at a coffee shop to discuss his novel.
When did you first have the impulse to write The Fishermen?
It was around 2009, I was living in Cyprus for two years and I became really homesick. I kept thinking of my family and of returning home but my parents didn’t have the money. During a conversation with my dad on the phone, he told me about the growing bond between two of my oldest brothers, who were age-mates. They used to have a lot of rivalry growing up. But now in their thirties, they have somehow bonded and have become almost inseparable. After the call, I started to reflect on a novel idea I’d been working on. It became a very exigent need for me to write something about my brothers, about what I was feeling at that time. I was closest to my brothers even though I have sisters, too. What was the worst thing that could happen when my brothers fought? I wanted to create a story about a close-knit family whose unity was incised and destroyed by an external force. I chose the madman as a catalyst, as a force.
Part of the novel’s impulse is that I have been looking for a way to capture what I feel is an elemental dilemma of the situation in Nigeria: Why is it that Nigeria can’t progress? We have abundant oil, a strong elite educated class, a sizable youth population of 70 million under 35 years old. Why are we still backwards as a people? The issue I think lies in the foundation itself. The distinct tribes, like Yoruba and Igbo, they are their own states. They used to have no contact and they progressed in their own way. But then a colonizing force came in and said, “Be a nation.” It is tantamount to the prophecy of a madman. Why are we subscribing to this British idea of a nation? Why can’t we decide for ourselves?
Tell me more about the madman. Is his character someone you perhaps based on from childhood memories, or is he entirely made up?
“Can Abulu be real?” is a question I’ve been asked again and again. The phenomenon of a madman or madwoman is very common in our society. They were derelicts who would walk around, unclaimed, mostly coming from another city. They would walk about picking dirt on the street. Some of them would become very famous especially in small towns. People would sometimes ask them to dance. I used to be very disturbed by the sight of them. But as children, we would feel like adults around them because we can command them. We used to see ourselves as grownups when we meet them because we’d think we had more wisdom. Then one day, you’d see them lying dead, perhaps hit by a car. I wanted to bring their plight to West African politicians.[Interviewer’s note: a group of Chigozie’s friends have started a Tumblr to help bring to attention “the plight of African derelicts who walk the streets all over Africa.”]
Most madmen weren’t considered prophetic, but I wanted to explore the superstitious aspect in the novel. The African is inherently superstitious. They think that whatever you may have is given to you by a supernatural force. For example, my mother wouldn’t believe that I came to this program without someone helping me, or through some prayers. I’ve heard a story about a woman in Florida who has a good marriage. But then she meets someone who reads her fortune in tea leaves and tells her there is a divorce in her future. She goes back to her husband. They’ve been married five years, and she tells him about the tea leaves reader. The husband tells her to forget about it, that it’s nonsense. But she insists. They get into a fight until, eventually, it develops into a major fight. It lasts for months. In the end, the marriage is destroyed. Similarly in the novel, is the prophecy fulfilled because the kids believed in it? Or is there actually an extraordinary power, a juggernaut, whose force cannot be contained?
The use of prophecies and prophets is also in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. In your novel, Achebe is mentioned several times, especially in Obembe’s plan to kill Abulu. How much has Achebe influenced you as a writer?
What I got from Achebe is the Igbo philosophy and culture. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is another influence. But most of all, I would cite Amos Tutuola, who wrote the first English novel in Africa (The Palm-Wine Drinkard). In Tutuola, Greek and Shakespearean tragedies meet.
What about the use of Igbo proverbs and sayings?
I don’t think I can make sense of a work without them. For me, for a work of fiction to be successful, it should satisfy three things: 1) it should have something definite to say; 2) it should be constructed in an effective plot that has an arc, a beginning and end that can be told orally; and 3) it should be grounded in some form of a philosophical framework. Take The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. What happens to a civilization when no one is looking? What happens to a man, the best of human beings, when he’s pushed in another world? The story is serving its purpose. The plot could be easy, but it is the philosophical framework that could give it as much depth as War and Peace. The Igbo proverb I used to open the novel: “The footsteps of one man cannot create a stampede.” It’s very deep; I can write a 100-page essay just talking about that. Yet the British did decide the future of generations, of millions of people. Perhaps even one man. Let’s form this country Nigeria, he might have said. And years after he’s dead, people are still suffering from that decision. But the fault also lies with us. What the American historian Will Durant said: a civilization cannot be destroyed from the outside, only from within. If the people didn’t believe, the White man could not have succeeded. Should Ikenna not have believed in Abulu’s prophecy, things would’ve been different. But once people believe, that belief becomes an institution.
Let’s talk about the language of the novel. There are multiple languages and code switching in this world. Yoruba and Igbo, standard English and pidgin, even British and American English.
One good thing we got from the British is the English language. It is a beautiful synthetic language that is malleable, you can do anything with it. It has untrammelled possibility. Regarding code-switching, I played with the languages because it has big political implications. I wanted to be able to capture as much as I could the body politic of Nigeria. That would encompass the multi-various languages. Nigerians by default are almost always multilingual from birth, or at least bilingual. I grew up in the West, which speaks Yoruba. But my parents speak Igbo. In the book, the family speaks three languages. The best way to navigate through this territory, the best way I could show this is that each character is associated with one primary language. The Father, a lover of Western culture, is always speaking in formal English. The Mother, being more traditional, always speaks Igbo. The Children, being playmates with other local kids, speak Yoruba. So English, when used, creates craters between family and friends. When people switch to this language, they intentionally create distance. When the Mother or Father is angry, he or she switches to English. Pidgin English is used by the uneducated, it is the “official language” of the masses. It is very specific and yet all the traits of the major languages of the area are in it.
And are your drafts written in British English or American? I notice that the book uses both.
British English. But by the time I went through the revisions, I’ve already picked up enough American English that it somehow became incorporated. My editors decided to let it stand the way it is, to reflect the multi-national aspect of my writing. But I still consider British English as my primary writing language.
More on the language of the novel—what about the animal metaphors?
That goes back to the philosophical framework. It’s a complex thing. If I have to write a craft book, it’ll be a polemic on the three tropes of effective fiction. The novelist has to think of a structure that would effectively deliver what he’s trying to say and the philosophy behind it. I do think that the subject of memory, of telling a story has a very fascinating dimension. I was on a BBC interview talking about this, the way a human mind works, when you want to remember something. Especially Benjamin, my narrator, who is two decades removed telling the story; he is already in his thirties looking back to when he was nine. That kind of memory doesn’t come in linear form, but in bounds and leaps depending on what is in the foreground and the background of your mind. Some of the more sensational things can jump out and cry for attention while others whimper, don’t vie for attention. So, how do you tell a story effectively? How do you form a chronology? To represent a kind of coherence, one tells the story by association, with what one is fascinated about. And Ben is fascinated by animals. So, for example, by saying that his brother is a sparrow after he died, Ben diminishes the weight of the tragedy to a level that is manageable to him as a child. That gives him comfort. When I myself was that age, I always thought of things by association. My father is Superman because he can lift a chair while I can’t.
So did you think up the animal metaphors first and structure your novel around them?
I did a lot of moving around. In the beginning, the encounter with the madman was at the start, but I decided we needed to see what the family’s like first. I would write the chapters as the story progresses. The associations—the animal metaphors—were mapped out early, the chapter headings, and what I’d do with them. I always knew Benjamin would be a moth, but I didn’t where to put his story. He’s very self-effacing, so I decided he should go last. He’s very dependent. He doesn’t make sense of the world on his own. So when his brothers leave, and he’s alone, that’s when we get to understand him the most.
I always try to write something I’ve never read before. I have this idea of “symbiotic metaphor”—I want to have two birds perched on a tree as if they’re copulating. I want my readers to see this birds from a distance, through the obfuscation of distance, and to see the birds as one. Benjamin might be a moth, but at the end of the day, I want readers to just see him as Benjamin.
Which character in the novel do you sympathize with the most?
Well, all of them. But I do feel a lot of sympathy for Abulu. It’s always a dilemma—is he supposed to be hated or pitied? I don’t have an answer. What I find most fascinating is that he wreaks so much havoc but he’s also so benign—he doesn’t know the harm he’s causing. He doesn’t realize he’s done damage. I’ve always tried to explore the power of the order, the destructive order, what is it that will destroy you but that you won’t realize is destroying you? Every year the BBC does a documentary on the paradox of Nigeria. But they don’t know that the problem we’re facing today is because of their own nation’s influence. I’m not blaming the British for everything; they are long gone. We are to blame, too.
Did you tell this to the BBC during your interview?
(Laughs) Of course! They know the novel is a critique of the British occupation of Nigeria.
How much research did you do to write the novel?
I imagined everything. I tend not to believe in research when it comes to fiction. There are some exceptions. The part about M.K.O. Abiola, because he’s a real historical figure, I tried to ground it in reality. But the world is much more than we can understand. Supernatural things happen on the same plane as reality.
What about the jail and court scenes?
Didn’t do any research. I might have read some stories in Nigeria, one or two stories I came across. I have an idea of what might happen in a courthouse.
We’re wrapping up our time here as part of the MFA program at the University of Michigan. How has the program influenced you?
I didn’t know how to revise until I came to the MFA program. The workshops really taught me how to revise, which is a very important skill. This novel, The Fishermen, was actually already finished before I came here. So I didn’t workshop it at all. In fact, I already had an agent at the time.
There was a review on my book in Australia in which the writer said the novel came out as a result of my MFA. There’s a tendency for people to generally look down on you, to say certain “MFA traits” are showing up in your work. I don’t think MFA programs are bad in themselves. But what irritated me was the assumption this writer made, without knowing the truth. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the novel has been workshopped or not. What matters is whether or not it succeeds as a work of art.