Part of Man Booker Prize nominee Chigozie Obioma’s new novel is based on his experiences as a Nigerian student in northern Cyprus
By Agnieszka Rakoczy
“An Orchestra of Minorities”, the second novel by renowned Nigerian writer and Man Booker Prize finalist Chigozie Obioma, has just been published with part of the story unfolding in northern Cyprus.
The main protagonist, Chinonso, finds himself studying for a university degree in the north that he hopes will advance him upwardly on the tricky rungs of Nigerian society’s class ladder once he returns home.
Chinonso, a young poultry farmer, is driven by love for his girlfriend, the well-educated Ndali. However, her family thinks him too lowly to be a suitable marriage prospect. Determined to prove them wrong and to win her hand, he sells off all his belongings and heads away from Nigeria to a university in northern Cyprus where, devastatingly, he comes to the numbing realisation that the plan on which he pinned all his hopes for future happiness with Ndali has no chance of success.
Instead of embarking on the envisaged road, he finds himself in an illegal country recognised only by Turkey, loses all his money and despite many efforts to stay afloat, his struggles become increasingly difficult as circumstances threaten to overwhelm him.
More than this, Obioma, who himself once lived, studied and taught in northern Cyprus, refuses to say in conversation with the Sunday Mail. He does admit however that his novel is partly based on the life of a fellow Nigerian – Jay – he had been acquainted with during his own student days on the island.
Obioma met Jay within days of the latter’s arrival in northern Cyprus. Jay was consumed by his dream of changing his life for the better and marrying a woman who was waiting for him in Nigeria. It wasn’t long before his dream was crushed and his hopes crumbled with the stark realisation that whatever he had hoped to achieve in northern Cyprus was not going to happen. Just days later, Jay plunged to his death down the elevator shaft in the dormitory building where he lived. Looking back, Obioma admits that even though he believes Jay’s death was an accident, he never completely ruled out the possibility that it was suicide.
“There was an element of self destruction in Jay once he realised that being in north Cyprus was not going to help him to become rich and successful. He was devastated,” says 33-year-old Obiome in a phone interview from the United States where he now lives.
“After he died I often wondered if the woman he loved ever learnt what had happened to him and what he sacrificed in order to be with her. We, his friends, tried to find her address to explain things to her but we never managed to. I always knew one day I was going to write about this story. It has never left me.”
Obioma’s new novel is not only a story of great love and tragic failure but also offers a fascinating account of the role played by the Igbo people’s spiritual beliefs. Chinonso’s adventures, disappointments and struggles are related by his chi — a guardian spirit who, according to Igbo cosmology, watches over human beings and negotiates on their behalf before the gods.
As the 700-year-old chi tries to come to grips with and explain some of Chinonso’s wrongdoings, it reveals the whole Igbo universe to the reader, describing previous reincarnations including the lives of some previous host bodies such as a man taken to Virginia as a slave centuries earlier or the protagonist’s own uncle.
“In Igbo cosmology everybody has a chi that helps them negotiate their life,” Obioma explains. His own name Chigozie, he points out, includes the word chi as does the name of his novel’s protagonist.
“The chi doesn’t die. At the end of one’s life, the chi represents its host in front of the supreme god. In the book, the protagonist Chinonso’s chi also tries to make a case for him in front of the supreme god and even though Chinonso doesn’t die the chi tries to convince the god not to punish him… The chi can also try to communicate with his host through his conscience but it doesn’t always work…,” the writer adds and you can sense a slight smile down the line.
He allows that he used the chi concept because he wanted “to explore the life of his protagonist and his mistakes from a different perspective and therefore didn’t want to use a traditional first person narrator”.
“I wanted to write a cosmological novel and explore Igbo history and metaphysics in it as well so I needed somebody who could do both,” he says. He points to the tradition in western literature of “using the cosmology of various people as a literary device, like in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost'” and notes that he wanted “to do something similar with the chi concept and this is the result.”
For the last two months Obioma has been busy with promotion activities for his new novel, with rounds of interviews like this plus publishing articles in a number of leading international newspapers and journals. In some of his articles he has returned to his own experiences as a student in the north.
He is quick to admit how he himself was quite lucky insofar as his parents covered all his expenses which meant he didn’t have to work to get by. However, he paints a rather bleak picture of what African students, including himself, had to endure while there.
In one of his articles he cites recent reports by Nigerian and other African students of alleged discriminatory exploitation and racist behaviour directed against members of the northern Cyprus African student body. Some authorities criticised or denied the claims while others, social media users, acknowledged that there was some truth in the allegations.
Asked if he is angry or resentful about some of those experiences, Obioma however says no and makes clear that attacking northern Cyprus is not on his agenda.
“Did I have bad experience when studying there? Yes, I did, but I don’t want people to think I wrote this book because I wanted to attack anybody. This book is not about portraying somebody in bad light. There are also Nigerians who scam other Nigerians and I write about it as well and Nigerians always tell me I should only write good things about Nigerians. This is such an unrealistic expectation. Whatever I write about Nigeria or northern Cyprus I just write it the way I feel it. This is just a story, a fiction, created from real life and events but nonetheless all fiction…”
“An Orchestra of Minorities” by Chigozie Obioma is published by Little, Brown and Co.
An explanation of Chi
In his essay “Chi in Igbo Cosmology”, the famous Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe writes:
“There is a story of how a proud wrestler, having thrown every challenger in the world, decides to go and wrestle in the world of spirits. There he also throws challenger after challenger, including many multiple-headed ones, so great was his prowess. At last there is no one left to fight. But the wrestler refuses to leave. The spirits beg him to go; his companion praise-singer on the flute pleads with him. But it is all in vain. There must be somebody left; surely the famed land of spirits can do better than this, he said. Again everyone begs him to collect his laurels and go but again he refuses. Finally his own chi appears, reluctant, thin as a rope. The wrestler laughs at this miserable-looking contender and moves forward contemptuously to knock him down whereupon the other lifts him clear off the ground with his little finger and smashes him to death.”
And he comments:
“The story of the headstrong wrestler in addition to all the other things it tells us also makes the important point that man’s chi does have a special hold over him such as no other powers can muster. This special power that chi has over man (or the man’s special vulnerability to his chi) is further exemplified in a proverb: ‘No matter how many divinities sit together to plot a man’s ruin it will come to nothing unless his chi is there among them.’ Clearly chi has unprecedented veto powers over man’s destiny.”