“I have said it one million times, I don’t and will not, and cannot write for Nigerians. Nor do I write for the West. I believe that fiction should speak to no one, and by so doing, speak to all.”
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is a metaphor for the Nigerian State. It portrays the author as a multi-tasked artist–a painter of vivid images of his environment; an historian narrating events of 1993 to 2003 in Nigeria; and a story teller recounting the experiences of a people, issues of economic inequality, political instability, as well as the resilience of youth.
A first book from author, Chigozie Obioma, an Assistant Professor of literature and creative writing at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who has been described by New York Times as “the heir to Chinua Achebe”, and one of “100 Global Thinkers” of 2015 by Foreign Policy magazine, The Fishermen has been translated into 25 national languages, and won about a dozen distinguished international awards. Some of these include the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review Editor’s Choice and Financial Times/Oppenheimer award for fiction from Africa and the Middle East, etc.
Set in Akure, South-West, Nigeria, and centered on the family of Mr. Aguwu and his four sons–Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin, it tells of how their lives are shaped by a father’s quest for economic sufficiency. This is until their encounter with a mad man, Abulu, and the ensuing of conflicts, which spawn a series of deaths.
The Fishermen is largely metaphorical, with most of its characters represented by animals, equally hinging the fatalism that becomes operative in the experiences rendered. Between Abulu–the “Leviathan” –and the rebounding vitality of youths–the “Egrets” –the essential enactment of the narrative plays out.
While themes in The Fishermen meander through a canvass of violence, injustice, bravery, deceit, political instability and hope, the author places redemptive hope on the shoulders of Nigerian youths. In The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma joins many other Nigerians to advocate for change in Nigeria. He is not shy to challenge political leaders to the virtues of good governance, accountability and sincerity–values he sees as militating against the development of Nigeria.
In this interview anchored for PREMIUM TIMES, Wealth Ominabo Dickson and Contributing Editor, Chiedu Ezeannah, engage author, Chigozie Obioma, on his art and craft, and what motivates these.
PREMIUM TIMES: Most debut novels almost predictably reveal an abundance of facts and situations from the author’s lived experience: would you say that your first novel, The Fishermen is an exception to this tendency?
Chigozie: No, in fact, they always say when writers set up to write novels there is this tendency to write what they know, that much is true of The Fishermen. But fiction in itself is in many ways a kind of collage of many things: some fragments of true life and lived experience; others are just fictional. So, you mould things in such a way that those who could have recognised won’t easily recognise it. To an extent I can agree that my book is working in that mode as well.
PREMIUM TIMES: So how much of fiction is in The Fishermen?
Chigozie: its probably eighty percent fiction. But I’d like to say that Akure itself is represented in the book as I remember when growing up. There are certain aspects of life then when I was a child, like the 1993 election. Abiola’s campaign was very ubiquitous. Everybody heard about it; it was all over Akure at the time. Things like that were replicated. Of course, the boys meeting with Abiola has been invented. The character of the father is in many ways from that of my father; he was a very eccentric man.
PREMIUM TIMES: For literary scholars, there is this notion of ‘faction’, which is a blend of facts and fiction in a literary work. Can we say that you have also made an attempt at this in The Fishermen?
Chigozie: No. People have done this, even in the writing of autobiographies. AKE by Soyinka, for example, is written in the third person when it is actually his own story. So there is a long tradition of that. What I mean by eighty percent fiction is that I could take this restaurant, for example, which in your own word is a ‘fact’, but people it up with abstract characters that don’t exist. So I could substitute those of us here with other characters; then it becomes fiction. This becomes just the setting for the fiction. Of course Ararome Street exists, M.K.O Abiola existed and Akure exists. Also, what happened to those boys could happen to anyone.
PREMIUM TIMES: What is the significance of animal figures in your novel? There is a consistent usage of animals to describe characters. Also, every chapter starts with the introduction of a new animal. What is about this style?
Chigozie: I wanted to write something I have never read before. I wanted tell a story in a new way; in the way that memories work, especially for children. So, I came up with two things: if a child wants to understand the world at a young age, especially at eight or nine, most of the time he or she does so through association–something that she recognises and knows very well, and imports the qualities of that thing into a newer thing. A child who loves comics, if bullied by a big guy, would probably say this guy is like superman. Benjamin, in the novel, loves animals and that is how he is able to understand the world. For example, he calls his father an eagle; he knows that eagles go out to look for food and understands why his father goes away every day. That is the concept behind the structure of the novel.
PREMIUM TIMES: How does this help, in the development of the plot of the novel?
Chigozie: In many ways it doesn’t allow for a kind of linear narration of the story, even though at the end I hope a kind of coherence is achieved. Each chapter tells the story of a metaphorical figure.
What some of those critics don’t get is, we do not believe in the same politics. They probably have bought the idea of Nigeria as a viable state, I haven’t. That’s the whole point of “The Fishermen”. I think Nigeria is a Western idea that needs to be rethought and turned into an African construct to be viable.
PREMIUM TIMES: Why so many deaths in the novel?
Chigozie: It is a very violent book. I dedicated it to my brothers and they asked, “why dedicate to us”? This book is very bloody. It was inspired by anger; indeed I am an angry man. You know when I became angry? I woke up one day and I told my Dad that I wanted to study literature; that I want to read all of these great books and study them. He kept discouraging me but then woke up one day and told me that if I must study literature then I must go to where people really appreciate literature. I was to go to the UK but had issues with the visa, so I ended up in Cyprus. When I got there, I was so shocked at this desert with just one million people that has everything that Nigeria does not have. Every day, I would wake up and ask myself: ‘How come?’ ‘How did we fail?’ ‘What is the reason for this?’ So I kept thinking. And thinking. It was after like two years that I came to the conclusion that it was because of the British incursion into Nigeria; that the incursion is at the very source of this problem. Not that the country is essentially wrong, but that Western civilisation is incompatible in many ways with what we have, and we have been struggling to understand it, and that is why we have been failing.
Let me give you an example: One of the major problems of corruption in Nigeria is cronyism, as you must be aware. That was an aspect of Igbo culture middlemanisim. It’s about how dare you go and talk to a girl that you want to marry her. You have to go through somebody first. Even if you want to buy a land you have to go through somebody first, who will now mediate for you. So once we got into Western civilisation, we imported some aspects of our culture into it. The mismanagement of western civilisation is what we call corruption. So if this phone, for example, is corrupted it means that it is not functioning the way that it should function. That is the problem. It is because we lost some part of our culture; our identity, and we are trying to live the way some other people are living which we don’t understand. So, that is the whole idea about my book.
These boys were living well, their lives were good; one wanted to be a doctor, another a lawyer, and one day a mad man told them you are going to live like this. The same thing the British did to us. That is why it is so tragic because there is nothing good about the story of Nigeria.
PREMIUM TIMES: So the many deaths in the novel have nothing to do with poetic justice?
Chigozie: No. I call it an Igbo tragedy because it is a different kind of tragedy. It is not working in the same way the Shakespearean or Grecian tragedy works. It is our own kind of tragedy – my own form of tragedy.
PREMIUM TIMES: Commitment is a vital ingredient in all literary works, in the context of The Fishermen, what are you committed to?
Chigozie: It is multi-various. But one, it was inspired by anger, my trying to understand the reasons why we failed so much. So, it is depicted as the intervention that disrupted our unique African civilisation. Am not trying to provide an answer. The Fishermen was written as an inquiry: Why did we fail? It is political in many ways. I have this theory that a novel should be able to work on one of at least three levels. It should be able to work on the level of the personal, which could be that it is a family story; that is about some boys, a family drama. That is at the primary level. The second level would be the philosophical one, which is the political angle; and the third is the conceptual level, which is the structure that just described. My novel works on these three levels.
PREMIUM TIMES: I see that Abulu is very significant in the development of the story; the plot revolves around the prophecy of Abulu. What is the place of history in this text, as well as the role of Abulu?
Chigozie: The thing with The Fishermen is that the books I love are always very complex; they unravel themselves in different ways. One thing about this book is that I have tried to describe the development of Nigeria within an attempt into the inquiry of why we fail. The novel begins technically in 1993, during the campaign of Abiola, and ends in 2003 when the character, Benjamin is freed from prison. It is a perfect decade: When Nigeria attempted after a very long time of military rule to gain a democratic system of government and failed; when Abiola’s attempt was subverted, to when we had the first civilian-to-civilian handover. Everything in the novel is intended as it is; there is nothing coincidental in the structure of the novel, which is why you have all these history. And I try to make sure that some time markers like Abiola are there.
By 2015, when it was first published in Britain, I had rushed to get a job because I had thought it was something that would just come and then disappear, and that I would maybe sell a few copies. But I was shocked at what happened. Now we have it in about 25 languages.
The book is a metaphor for the development and foundations of Nigeria. As I mentioned earlier, in the beginning these boys were a happy family–one wanted to be a lawyer, another a doctor, but this man (Abulu) comes in and destroys their lives. Let’s use the Igbo as an example: Prior to the coming of the British, we had a socio-political system that was egalitarian. In terms of progressiveness and liberalism, it was more sophisticated than what the British had in the 19th Century. They had a monarchical system, although it was not a dictatorship; a woman was ruling them. We didn’t have any one person that was ruling us. We had a complex sophisticated system of government until the British came and dismissed it as nonsense; as inferior and barbaric. And they told us, “live this way”, and we have been living their ‘great’ life; we have adopted their results. That is what Abulu did–that person who destroys the unity of anything. In Yoruba thought and even in Igbo thought, as found in Akure where I grew up, if we are having a meeting and someone crashes in and starts making noise, the first instinctive thing the Yoruba would say is, “were!” – madman! That is where Abulu comes from: Anything that disrupts the unity of another thing, be it a family system or something else. It is such a figure.
PREMIUM TIMES: In the book, the boys’ father thanks Benjamin for trying to eliminate Abulu. What is the significance of the statements made, in line with what you have just explained?
Chigozie: Well, they wanted to solve the problem of the madman. Some Western critics have called my book an allegory, which I fought against because once you make something an allegory, it dulls the agency and everybody looks out for symbols: So what does this symbolise? I would rather say it is a metaphor. Not everything is symbolic. But as I have said, there are three levels upon which The Fishermen is working: the personal level is the primary level–a coming of age story. It is a family drama, and once that family has been destroyed, the father, of course, wants to avenge the man who did this to his children and that is why he said ‘you guys have tried by trying to take him out’, even though he would have love to do it by himself.
PREMIUM TIMES: What has your publishing experience been as a first book author?
Chigozie: Once The Fishermen was about to be published, I sold the right in 2013. We had it in about six national languages then, which was surprising. By 2015, when it was first published in Britain, I had rushed to get a job because I had thought it was something that would just come and then disappear, and that I would maybe sell a few copies. But I was shocked at what happened. Now we have it in about 25 languages. We have also gotten a stage dramatisation right sold. It has won three awards and has been nominated for eleven others. I have been very encouraged by the reception. Even here, apart from a blog post, actual reviews have been enthusiastic.
PREMIUM TIMES: For the interest of many readers who are not aware, can you please mention some of these awards?
Chigozie: I don’t think it sounds good for me to mention the recognitions that my book has received without specific contexts. But I will say that the book has been successful, and surpassed my expectations by a great deal. But for the sake of those who will slander, I will mention the Financial Times/Oppenheimer award for fiction from Africa and the Middle-East, and which was judged by three Africans and others.
PREMIUM TIMES: The NLNG prize for literature is one of Africa’s biggest prizes. It is surprising that you didn’t enter for the award. What could have informed your reason for this?
Chigozie: First, there is a personal reason, which is my skepticism about the Nigerian literary establishment, and my reluctance to be a part of it in the sense of participation. But more because I feel that we have too many problems in terms of ethics in this country that not just myself, but many other writers, will skip stuff like that. Look at the award’s history and lists; you will notice that some of the big names aren’t always there. It isn’t just me. Also, I’m not sure the prize merits the hefty sum it is allotted, given that, to quote our realist president, Nigeria is now a poor country. Not to think that the publishing industry in Nigeria is not in a great form, nor is the reading habit of the public. I also have ambivalent feelings about the oil industry in Nigeria, especially how much destruction they have wrecked in the Niger-Delta, amongst my people, and their lands, and when the people rise up to protest, they are violently dismissed. It bothers me. Plus, The Fishermen, after having won more than three big awards, and received more than 11 other nominations, I don’t think needs more lift.
PREMIUM TIMES: What are your views about the administration of literary prizes in Nigeria and across Africa? The point is, there are many of them all over the place do they really matter?
I have said it one million times, I don’t and will not, and cannot write for Nigerians. Nor do I write for the West. I believe that fiction should speak to no one, and by so doing, speak to all.
Chigozie: I hope they do, really. But I don’t follow closely, to be honest. I do not engage, even, except for the African Book Fund prizes for African writing, which is run by Kwame Dawes, my colleague at the University of Nebraska. I will soon be joining the team, and I feel excited about that.
PREMIUM TIMES: Even the most cursory reader of The Fishermen would point out immediately two major literary influences: Chinua Achebe for the story telling flair and the precision and depth of the prose, and Amos Tutuola, for his macabre realism. Do you agree?
Chigozie: Indeed. I like to say that Tutuola was the writer who first showed me that large-human stories could become books. I also got introduced through him—and in concert with writers like Homer, Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Melville and others—to the “mythic” element of fiction writing—that which, in its deep-soil planting, can lend transcendence to a work of fiction, or poetry.
PREMIUM TIMES: Some other literary critics have dragged Tolstoy into the matter. Who are the other “culprits” that have inflicted enduring ‘wounds’ on your creative and novelistic consciousness that the reader feels so palpably on every page of The Fishermen?
Chigozie: “Wound?” Ha, I’d rather steer clear from such a violent metaphor. I will say that I have not read much of Tolstoy, and that it is very interesting when I hear my writing being compared to writers of that scale and magnitude.
PREMIUM TIMES: The Fishermen seems to have provoked some controversies from Nigerian in the social media; mainly about your use of some linguistic registers. What‘s your attitude to the mostly hateful responses to your person?
Chigozie: There is a herd instinct that social media helps create; it has the essential effect of logrolling. It might be, in my opinion, bad for any human being to engage deeply in that stuff. So, the ‘Nigerian literary social media community’ is not an exception. One person has an opinion, and, without thinking, everyone else follows it. We also have an inflated sense of pride in Nigeria, even though we have a failed country. Elites, who live in New York or elsewhere in the West, sit over their computers and feel insulted by representations of Africa they don’t approve of. They try to censor writers; this–they say–is how you should write. Seeking, as a result of their ego or their vested interests, to turn the writer into a slave, or establish arbitrary hierarchies (“writers who live in Nigeria are better than those who live abroad”); “If you italicise ‘molue’, you are writing for the West.” And, writers are constrained. While others from other places, like my friend Eleanor Catton, or Eimeer McBride are writing shape-shifting novels, we are worrying about meaningless trivialities, and affirmative action/activist writing.
Listen, I have said it one million times, I don’t and will not, and cannot write for Nigerians. Nor do I write for the West. I believe that fiction should speak to no one, and by so doing, speak to all. What some of those critics don’t get is, we do not believe in the same politics. They probably have bought the idea of Nigeria as a viable state, I haven’t. That’s the whole point of The Fishermen. I think Nigeria is a Western idea that needs to be rethought and turned into an African construct to be viable. So, why then should I write for the people of an arbitrary construct? If there are any people that I would write for, it would be the Igbo people, but then, I was born in Akure, and see myself also as a Yoruba person–by birth and grooming at least. So, you see? It doesn’t make sense to write for any particular group.
But the establishment, feeling a sense of ownership of the discourse, and empowered by some writers, continue to exert this ridiculous discourse. It is a massive waste of time and energy to engage in veneer-shaping representation of Africa in fiction. Write what comes to you as honest. Yes, there is stark poverty in Nigeria; write it so. Forget about making it look good. If your writing is not honest, your readers will know—at least the percipient ones. It is not “brave”—as some of these folks will have us believe—to write dishonestly, for the sake of receiving the plaudits of this clipped group. Nor is it brave to adorn your writing with tasteless provincial prose, or, where needless, native languages, or corrupted forms of English. If the work demands it, do it. If it suits your need for the work, do it. And if your aim—like mine—is to take the English language to the best possible place and write the kind of prose you love to read in the writers you love (Nabokov, Hardy, Melville, etc.) then write that way. Let the establishment bark on twitter or Facebook or blogs till they tire. You will be rewarded by honesty, and your reward would be genuine.
PREMIUM TIMES: The Nigerian literary scene seems to be exciting at the moment. Just a while ago you said you have followed modern Nigerian poetry. Have you also dabbled into writing poetry? Who are the contemporary fiction writers—Nigerian, African and worldwide—that you are familiar with? What you think of their works?
I get depressed every time I visit home, which is always once a year at least. I am disheartened, really; very bothered by the failure.
Chigozie: I do, of course. I like Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc. very much. But there’s Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a necessary novel in my opinion. But Ben Okri’s The Famished Road stands tall in my mind. And very recently, I called Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun an original, and it is.
PREMIUM TIMES: Your recent essay titled “There Are No Successful Black Nations”, published on Foreign Policy speaks to the Africans worldwide and Nigerians. Can you give a brief recap of your arguments there?
Chigozie: That we need to wake up, push aside the passive posture of the partridge, the we-cannot-succeed-because-of-colonialism argument and form a sustainable nation, without which we—black people—cannot have dignity in the world.
PREMIUM TIMES: Your novel The Fishermen is seen in most quarters as a political novel, hence many readers see you as a writer that is committed to political change in Nigeria. What is your take on the political happenings in Nigeria?
Chigozie: I get depressed every time I visit home, which is always once a year at least. I am disheartened, really; very bothered by the failure.
PREMIUM TIMES: It is in the air that your second novel is already in the press. Is this true? What is the title? And when should your readers expect this new offering?
Chigozie: It is not yet in the press, but I have completed it. I think we will make an announcement in a short time. You can be on the look out for it.