An author shortlisted for the Man Booker prize wrote his book while studying in north Cyprus. His second novel, set for publication next year, is partly set there. But AGNIESZKA RAKOCZY speaks to a man firmly rooted in Nigeria
It takes time to arrange an interview with Chigozie Obioma. A year to be exact. He is working on his second novel and can’t talk now, says Najla, who answers messages on Obioma’s Facebook profile. This was in response to my initial enquiry in November 2016. Here we are, a year later, when I send a reminder. Obioma answers himself. Yes, he can talk. Let’s set up a date.
Face-to-face is a given for most profiles I write. Not possible in this case since the subject is far from Cyprus. On the other side of the Atlantic to be exact. So, in a bid to visualise this Nigerian writer, before calling him I go to Google where I check out some of his online interviews.
The film and video clips show a young man. Born in 1986, he is 31 years old. A little self-conscious, a little bit ponderous perhaps. When I proceed to Skype him, I am greeted by the same mellow, West African voice as on the Youtube interviews.
He tells me his new book, An Orchestra of Minorities, takes place in Nigeria and north Cyprus, where Obioma spent five years of his life as a student.
Obioma, whose previous novel The Fisherman was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, is currently a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Nebraska. As we speak he is preparing to send off his latest novel to Little, Brown for publication next September. “You will start hearing about it in the summer,” he promises.
According to a preview blurb in The Bookseller, An Orchestra… is “about the life of a troubled young poultry farmer who sacrifices everything to win the woman he loves.” Obioma describes it as a novel about love and “how far can we go to defend that feeling”. It is the story of a man “who goes to north Cyprus because he wants to get a quicker education so he can go back to Nigeria and marry this woman who is highly educated.” She is about to complete her studies and become a doctor. “Her family thinks he is too lowly,” says Obioma. Spurred on by the need to prove his worthiness by acquiring a higher education, he sets off to Cyprus but “goes through a really hard time” before eventually returning to Nigeria where he faces his problems.
“The way the story is told has this mythic dimension about it because the person who narrates is like a god. Where I come from there is this belief that everybody has a personal god attached to them, a guardian angel, and it is the voice of this guy’s angel that we hear throughout the novel.”
The idea for the novel had been gestating for some time. An article by Obioma, ‘The Ghosts of my Student Years in North Cyprus’, was published in the Guardian in 2016. It tells the story of another Nigerian student, whom he met not long after his arrival in Cyprus in 2007.
Being among the first Nigerians to come to north Cyprus to study, Obioma found himself showing the ropes to many subsequent student arrivals. He and his friends encountered a lot of different situations. “We saw one guy who went insane because of the stark realisation that he had been deceived by an agent who arranged his studies on the island,” Obioma says. Student life wasn’t easy nor were the subsistence economics. In his own case, Obioma remembers “a girl I wanted to date” and the sting of “the day I found out she started going out with an older Turkish Cypriot man because of money…
“There was a lot of stuff like that but this guy, Jay, and his death affected me the most. When I left the island I was always thinking a lot about this guy and how he died and how it was such a waste of life. Most of what is happening in the Cyprus section of the novel is inspired by that sad guy’s story.”
The writer himself came to north Cyprus in 2007 to study at the Cyprus International University on the outskirts of north Nicosia. He went on to graduate at the top of his class in 2011 and stayed on for a while teaching at the same school. Then he left for Michigan where he completed an MA in creative writing. Looking back on his time on the island, he notes how “five years is a long period – it reshapes you.”
While his new novel reflects his connection to Cyprus, The Fishermen was almost entirely written on the island and emerged from the strong sense of “nostalgia” he experienced while here for Nigeria and his family. “For the first two years of my stay in Cyprus I couldn’t go home. I became very, very homesick. I missed my family a lot. I was thinking about them, about the way we used to live when I was a child. So I was experiencing both moments of retrospection and introspection – about the meaning of family and a growing political consciousness of the situation in my country, all of which contributed to writing The Fishermen. Coming to Cyprus shattered my vision of Nigeria, sensitised me. I could see the contrast. If I hadn’t come to Cyprus I would not have been able to write The Fishermen”.
The novel was rejected by numerous publishers who, while recognising its literary value, claimed it was too focused on Africa to attract a Western reader. Finally published in 2015, The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won several awards for outstanding new writer. It went on to be translated into 22 languages and featured in many best books of the year lists including those of the Observer, the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.
With the Nigerian tale of The Fishermen was written while Obioma was in Cyprus, and An Orchestra…, which features both Cyprus and Nigeria, in the US, Obioma admits wryly that he only can write about a place when he is not there.
The Fishermen tells the story of four brothers who, while on one of their secret fishing escapades (much against their parents’ wishes), receive a violent prophecy that the eldest brother will die at the hands of one of his siblings. Prophecy and consequences tear the family apart. “The idea came to me after a phone conversation with my father,” says Obioma, who comes from a family of 12 brothers and sisters.
“He was telling me how pleased he was that my two eldest brothers used to fight a lot when they were kids had become very close to each other. Here I was in Cyprus thinking about what my father said and I started trying to imagine what would happen if there had been a different outcome to such a brotherly rivalry. What would have happened if the love turned to hate.”
But the novel, while focused on the Agwu brothers, works on many levels. It is also a political parable set in the 1990s, when Nigeria was writhing under military dictatorship, with the once pure and locally revered river where the brothers go fishing murky with pollution as was so much else in Nigeria. These insights were sharpened for Obioma once he found himself looking at Nigeria not just from overseas but from the perspective of a tiny island country, fractured by invasive events, possessing far fewer resources than his own land yet somehow maintaining a distorted semblance of normalcy.
Ensnared by international embargoes, how could Ankara-dependent, otherwise unrecognised, north Cyprus manage to function when his own oil-rich, free and independent Nigeria was so dysfunctional? “The contrast was very disturbing and I began to wonder where did we go wrong, what the problem is.”
He reckons he would have been much happier in 17th or 18th century Igboland than he is now. He hastily adds that in saying this he is not indulging in some form of extreme nostalgia or suggesting that life back then was perfect. What he as a writer has to think about (and what people in Africa should consider) is this: were their ancestors happy, were their needs met? Most likely, yes. “So people should find what works for them and not try to adopt what the West brings to them because for over 50 years we have been trying to implement this Western system and clearly it is not working for us. Doesn’t it make sense to try something else?”
Obioma regrets that certain aspects of African identity and ideology have been abandoned as he sees it in the race to modernise. He believes a return to those values and beliefs would provide solid foundations on which to build countries in Africa. Downtrodden and ignored in the all-consuming stampede, those traditional values have not yet been totally lost, he contends.
“Our people still believe more in the old ways than in the western system. They follow the western system but they don’t truly believe in it. Nigerians don’t fully believe in democracy. They just pretend they do. But that opens the door to all kinds of corruption. What they actually believe in are the structures that we have had for hundreds of years.”
Why, he asks in a fit of exasperation, “do we pretend that we are Americans or Europeans, when we are not, when we are different?” Nigerians should stick to what they believe in. What is important is whether people are happy, able to eat, survive. They should not feel the need to hop on ships and get to Libya or places like Cyprus. They should not be suffering.
In the circumstances, it seems not unreasonable to ask if he contemplates returning to Nigeria anytime soon. For the time being his job in the US as a professor is a practical consideration. During his frequent visits “back home” he strives to put some of his ideas into practice and that is something he intends to continue doing, with, as he puts it, “one foot here, one foot there.” He concedes that relocating per se is not yet feasible because, his academic work aside, “I am a writer and my work is more appreciated here.” Writers, he notes matter-of-factly, “thrive more where there is relative economic success.”
Obioma knew from early on that he wanted to be a writer. Although The Fishermen was hailed as his ‘debut’ novel, he sheepishly admits to a prior publication, a book that his proud Dad insisted on having self-published back when he was 17. To this day, his father remains a big fan and a valued confidante. “Once I am done with the new book I will ship it to Nigeria because he needs to look at all the words in the Igbo language to make sure they are correct.”
Obioma acknowledges that writing fiction is difficult. He is no fan of the kind of commercial fiction that can be written in a matter of months and sometimes makes millions. “The real challenge is writing fiction that has a focus and heart; that is based around a concept that requires some level of complexity to it, the kind of work that will speak to a man in a very deep way.”
He was still in Cyprus when he first began thinking about Orchestra of Minorities. “I wanted to tell a story about a poor unfortunate, someone who is about to get married and is deceived and loses everything”. He remembers the painful process, the false starts, times when you think you are on your way. “Maybe you have written 10,000 words and then you see that, no, this is not the form this novel needs. So you abandon it. You almost forget about it and after a while you try again and then finally you find the form, the structure. It can be difficult but it depends on the person. Someone like me, I cannot not write. It’s not like I would be incapable of doing something else if I didn’t write but writing is a special source of happiness for me. I am more myself when I write.”
Ideally, he writes in the morning, even when he has classes at the university. Revisions can be done more or less any time. But the creative process requires sleep. “If I am creating something new I have to do it after I have slept. The best time is if I sleep early, say at 8 or 9pm and wake up at 4am. Then I am going to produce good work most likely.”
Already, An Orchestra… has been sold to seven countries. Obioma hopes to revisit north Cyprus next year, after the new novel comes out. When he does he would like to write some articles about the current situation on the island. Readers of his book will want to know more about the island, he believes.
He says he is less interested in the politics than the very idea of the Africans who come here and what motivates them to do so. He fondly recalls trips to Kyrenia and Famagusta and the startling blue of the sea. Cyprus is, he says, a beautiful island. He enjoyed living here. Maybe next time he will get to see the rest of it.