Do you ever dream your plots? Before or after writing them?
I think I tend to visualize my plots, but this mainly happens while I’m in a conscious state. For example, the words “Madman, idiot!” shouted down the hallway of my university dormitory followed by a rush of laughter can burst into my mind and imprint on it the vision of a man dressed in rags doing idiotic things. Then things begin to align, to come together; pieces of datum and fine streaks of events are slowly nailed and tacked together until a movement of things begins to happen, i.e., the man in rags (‘the madman’) begins to move about, going into a store or church and doing ‘idiotic’ things. Once this force is set in motion, I wait for the next shout down the hallway; the next phone call; the next sudden flicker of imagination — the next anything that can form a fitting motional part into what now stands as a fraction of this, yet unknown, whole.
Is The Fishermen the kind of novel you always wanted to write, or did the process of writing it surprise you in any way?
I will build the answer to this as segue to the first: As these referenced parts form, I don’t put anything down as yet. There is an internal gestation period in which I arrange and rearrange the plot, the parts and pieces of the work, etcetera. And once this creature has formed, I write everything in a tempestuous rush. So I write an entire novel in a matter of days. This was the case with The Fishermen. So, it was the gestation period and the revisions that took long and surprised me. The novel itself, as it stands now, was — and still is — largely my original vision as I had it in 2009.
How did the fact that you were living abroad while writing about your home, Nigeria, influence your writing?
I think I would not have written this novel if I was living in Nigeria. The Igbo say that we hear the sound of a beating drum clearer from a distance than from close proximity. This proverb might not make much sense unless you know what kind of drum they mean here. It is an udu: a vessel made of clay. It is spheroidal, with elongated demi-john-like neck that is banged to emit a deep thunderous and even hypnotic bass. In the hands of a deft player, it can release such a loud sound that the Igbo people — until the apocalyptic hurricane of Western civilization swept much away — believed the sound reached the realms of the dead, the ancestral pit, which is the Igbo version of Elysium.
So you get where I’m taking this: That I could not have heard or seen the novel as I see it now had I been in Nigeria. Since memories of the place were already firmly lodged in my mind, I was able to see a sharp contrast between the geographical makeup of Nigeria and the sere plains, sparse population, and desolate foliage of Cyprus. This contrast enabled my vision of Nigeria to become sharper, so much that it seemed as though I was peeking into something that happened in my past for which I had no memory, and could, by so doing, hear the voice of people in realms of yesterday.
Who were your favourite writers when you were growing up?
I was fascinated by the works of Amos Tutuola, especially the first African novel in English, The Palm Wine Drinkard. Since Nigeria was once a British child, I had relative easy access to the works of British masters like Shakespeare, Milton, John Bunyan, and many others whom I loved. But amongst this gallery of faces, I found extreme delight in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which, even now, I still regard as the masterwork of 19th-century literature. But most of all, I found a stronger affinity with the works of African writers, and these writers had strong impressions on me as a child: Chinua Achebe, for Arrow of God, a harrowing, sweeping novel; Wole Soyinka, for The Trials of Brother Jero; Cyprian Ekwensi, for An African Night’s Entertainment; Camara Laye, for The African Child, and D.O. Fagunwa, for Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀, which I read in its original Yoruba version. And lastly, I devoured and was fascinated with mythology, the Greek myths. I read Homer’s Odyssey at age fourteen, over the course of three months because the library at my school could not let me take it out.
Why did you set your novel in Nigeria in the 1990s rather than Nigeria today?
Chiefly because of the nature of the novel itself: A tribute to my growing up with my siblings, which mainly happened around the 1990s. But it was also because of the literary logistics of events in the book. I wanted to build a portrait of Nigeria at a very seminal moment in its history (the annulled presidential elections of 1993), and by so doing deconstruct and illuminate the ideological potholes that still impede the nation’s progress even today.
Your novel is narrated by the youngest of four brothers. Do you identify most strongly with his voice, or do you see parts of yourself in all the brothers' personalities?
I think it is tricky. While I might identify mostly with Benjamin, the youngest of the four brothers, he is almost entirely divorced from me. Yes, we share the same fascination with extra-human creatures and a belief that whatever exists in this world exists in relational comparison with something else. But he doesn’t see the world as I do. I am as superstitious as Ikenna; as playful as Boja; and as enthusiastic about literature as Obembe is. In each of them, though, many of the different qualities of my siblings abound.
Your novel is about to be published on three continents, and in many translations. How do you think it will be received in your own country?
I have always said that I’m not writing this book simply for Nigerians, which is why I am so delighted about the international platform opening up. It might be changing now, but we, West Africans, simply don’t read. There’s the saying that if you want to hide anything from the African, put it in a book. Believe it or not, five times more Americans have read Things Fall Apart than Nigerians. That’s why, in a nation of about 140 or 160 or 180 million people—depending on whom you ask—there are only two or three functioning publishing companies. And it is worsening. If there was once a thriving, enthusiastic literary culture started by the great fathers—Achebe, Soyinka, Tutuola, Elechi Amadi and others—that is now decrepit and gathering dust. So my worry isn’t about how it will be received in Nigeria, but whether it will be read.
Which professional path would you have chosen if you hadn't become a writer?
I would most probably have played football, but that would have been a long shot. Perhaps I would have wanted to be some kind of artist, engineer, or even a farmer — I love birthing things, bringing something that didn’t exist into being. And I still hope to own a farm someday, no matter how small. I also love taking something from a different world into another world, which is what transporters and fishermen do. So, perhaps, I myself would have been a fisherman.
If you can speak globally, what is the best thing about the times we live in now? And the worst?
I couldn’t speak globally. I think, however, that the best thing about this time is the fact that we can easily see other cultures and travel while still having a home — our home as our home. Hence, globalization is a good thing, and I think literature has done much to foster this spirit. The worst thing, in my opinion, is the reverse effect of globalization: The melting together of cultures and the destruction of diversity. How rich would the world continue to be if the Igbo do not all become English; if they preserved their own language and culture rather than everybody in the world, as large as it is, becoming of one mind and body. That is, to me, scary.
Your book is full of animals. Do you have a favourite?
The sparrow: A formidable bird, unblemished in its perceived philosophy of shared ambient existence.
Can you answer this last question in one sentence: Who is Chigozie Obioma?
He is a man who has grown on the fence of time like a wallflower, and who is now trying, hard, to dance amongst the rest of the brush, but who continues to fail, time and time again.
Chigozie Obioma was interviewed by Elena Lappin (November 2014)