Chigozie Obioma is an award-winning Nigerian writer. He is also an Assistant Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Chigozie Obioma has been dubbed ‘the heir to Chinua Achebe’ by the The New York Times. In 2015, Chigozie Obioma was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, and won four other awards – including an NAACP Image award and the FT/Oppenheimer prize for fiction for his book The Fishermen. Such is the success of his novel, that it has been translated into 26 languages and is being adapted into a stage play. In 2015, Chigozie Obioma was named in the top 100 Influential People by Foreign Policy. He is now working away on his new novel, which will be released in 2018. Please enjoy my interview with the wonderful Chigozie Obioma…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I say that I am a writer, a teacher, and an African Igbo philosopher.
I am mostly reading The Daemon Knows by Harold Bloom and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I have been enthralled by Bloom’s work as he is a great literary scholar. I fear that he is getting too old to continue producing and recently wrote to him in appreciation, and to comment on some of his ideas on Melville and the others. In return, he read my novel, The Fishermen, and said “it had promise.” As vague as that assessment might be, I find it an honor that he would even say that of my work.
I have been wanting to read Marquez for many years, but am now finally getting to it. I have just completed a novel about a distinct civilization, and I wanted to see what he made of Macondo. Next, I will pick up the galley copy of What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Arimah, which I recently received.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
I recall a crowded home, birds, and football. I recall books: reading, re-reading, and acting out plays. I staged a play at around 11 years old for which the people in my part of the town of country often came to identify me with. It was called “Vegetable Kingdom.”
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
In essence, it must have been that play, which I’m thinking of rewriting now, although I do not have the script.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
It was the case that Nigerian kids in the early 1990s were often asked the generic question; “What is your future ambition?” I remember consistently saying, “a novelist.”
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
I believe that my school aged self would look at me now and complain that I now read few books. I read other things, articles off the internet, student papers. But I don’t read books that often—at least not as many as I would love to, even though I continue to purchase and chase after them.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
I’m not certain that I have left education. I’m being educated every day, every time I engage with anything. For I do not know very much of the world. But the book that I think of as so all-encompassing in scope that it may well encapsulate an entire civilization and its body and spiritual politics is The Odyssey by Homer. That is if I should name one book, if not, it would be the biblical book of Genesis.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
I read in randomness, but mostly in any situation where I find a kind of recumbent ambience. And it depends on the place where I am. If sitting on my couch, I can read a book. When at my desk, I cannot read, but only write. Or read on my computer. But when I lie down on my bed, I like to listen to something being read.
Can you talk us through your writing process, from the first spark of an idea, to having your first completed draft?
The germ of the idea can come to me from anywhere. In the case of The Fishermen for example, through a phone conversation. Then I spend time thinking about it and allowing it to gestate in my mind over a period of time during which I do not write anything down. Most times, this period can span months. Then, eventually, when I feel it has fully taken shape, I put pen to paper. I write down the entire plot in one sitting usually. Then, afterwards, I let it sit for a while, take it up afterwards and develop it. It is in this stage of development that the actual writing happens. In the end, when I feel I have a first draft, I begin to revise.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?
I was fascinated by the works of Amos Tutuola, especially the first African novel in English, The Palm Wine Drinkard. I came to reading, and then writing, through that book. When I was a kid, I used to pester my father to tell me stories. And for a long time I had thought that he was the person who alone could tell such beautiful stories. But, years later, I would come to understand that the stories he told me were taken from books. So when, one day, I asked for a story. He gave the sharp retort: “Read them yourself!” He handed me a book which, on opening, happened to be the most fascinating story he had told me at the time: the story about the skull who borrows body parts to go into the world and returns with the most beautiful woman in the city.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
Asking people to read more now is cliché. So, I will say, don’t get carried away with your politics and whatnot. Great literature, as Alfred Kazin used to say, is to be marked by objectivity.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
None that I know of.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I think The Palmwine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola might be that book.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I think I prefer fiction, of course. This is because, while non-fiction is often focused and written for a particular audience, and can tend to be didactic in its nature. A book about fishery is specific, curated for interests in fishery. And so is an autobiography of a football player. It will most often be of interest to those who follow the sport. But fiction is a miracle: it is the creation of a story, an endeavour in abstraction. Its wonder lies in the fact that although it is make-belief, its transaction is made possible by human and emotional truth. It is then also a miracle because as I said in a recent essay “fiction, in its untrammelled nature, has the potential to speak to no one and by so doing speak to all.”
Do you think reading is important?
I think there are four types of education: the heart, the spirit, the soul, the mind. While there are various means by which the first three can be educated, the education of the mind can mostly come through reading and a relentless quest for knowledge.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
I’m enjoying Marquez’s classic, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Name a book that you feel everyone would benefit from reading and explain why.
I think that every body should read Paradise Lost by John Milton. It is a great book that talks about the origin of man in the Judeo-Christian sense, which in turn tendrils into the provenance of western civilization.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
I think the book that’s had the most impact is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The Igbos of West Africa have not recovered from colonialism and the suppression and even demolition of our once thriving civilization by the “madman” who, claiming universal truth, upended the entire structure. Achebe’s book was an attempt to show the west that we had a thriving civilization. It was written to challenge their preconceptions. My novel The Fishermen does the same thing.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
I think of great books like Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy as books everyone should read. I also will add Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock and Seasons of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I am reading more on the civilization of the Igbo people and their history. I also hope to read Days Without Ends by Sebastian Barry, The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron, and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
I’m not sure I would do such a thing.
If you’d like to learn more about Chigozie Obioma, you can find him on his website, Facebook and Twitter.
Image credit: Zach Mueller.