Tuesday, 17 May 2016

In the shadow of empire: Chigozie Obioma and writing Nigeria

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, September 2015

Anyone checking the odds for the Man Booker Prize shortlist in the week leading up to the announcement of the final six novels on September 15, would have found Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen rather languishing as an outsider among the 13 long-listed works.

Many literary commentators, however, felt momentum was stirring around the Nigerian’s debut, and so it proved as the novel duly made the final six. This honour, which comes to Obioma when he is not yet 30 years old, positions him as among Africa’s most dynamic young literary voices, with The Fishermen lauded in critical circles in Europe and the United States, even if it did meet with some coolness from Africa itself, where the unfortunate suggestion of tokenism in relation to the Booker has emerged.

Obioma’s appearance in Australia in August for the Byron Bay Writers Festival came shortly after he had been named on the Booker long-list, news which he seemed to greet with smiling bewilderment, and which also ensured that one of the nation’s biggest regional writers’ festivals enjoyed an extra frisson of excitement over the nascent author’s presence. “I’m just looking forward to whatever comes, and enjoying the fun,” Obioma said at the festival.

Obioma was born and grew up in the southwestern Nigerian city of Akure in a large family, a fact that heavily informed the theme of brotherhood in his novel. He eventually left to study in Cyprus, his journey through academia resulting in his recent appointment as a professor of literature at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, via a stint living in Turkey. He confesses to missing Nigeria constantly and visits regularly, but his absence from his homeland has been essential to his fiction. “I think [being away] has shaped my perspective in a way it wouldn’t have been had I remained in Nigeria. As much as I miss home, there’s something about that view that I think I’d lose if I went back to Nigeria and became immersed in the society there.”

Originally a short story, The Fishermen was published in Australia in February. Set in Akure in the nineties, the novel’s premise is undoubtedly compelling: whilst fishing at a river, four brothers encounter a local madman, Abulu, who prophesises that one sibling will be killed by another. The plot that unfolds invokes myth and hints at magical realism and is sad, whilst asking questions of Nigerian identity, familial ties and psychological fortitude. 

The narrative is told from the perspective of a grown-up Benjamin, the fourth brother, while it is the eldest brother, Ikenna, who the prophecy most affects. However, it is the character of Abulu that is perhaps key to an understanding of The Fishermen. Abulu, a soothsaying mentally ill vagrant who commits shocking acts of sexual deviance and onanism, is employed by Obioma for reasons beyond merely driving the plot. Abulu represents a disturbing nationwide trend in Nigeria of dispossessed mentally ill people being “unclaimed”, roaming the street, feeding where they can and sleeping rough. The creation of Abulu was partly designed to draw attention to their plight.

“It used to bother me as a child,” says Obioma. “There were times when there were many of these people in Akure, and sometimes you’d even grow relationships with them. As children we’d be playing soccer and would see one pass and we would say ‘dance for us’ – we felt this was an adult that we could command and make requests of. We would play with them and mock them, but then you wake up one morning and see one of them dead in the road.”

Obioma has established, with some friends, a website – and potentially a campaign – to draw attention to and help ‘Abulus’ across Nigeria.

Obioma’s other, more complex, intention for Abulu reflects another essential theme of The Fishermen: that of colonialism and its lingering legacy in the author’s homeland. The story is an explicit allegory for Western influence on Nigeria, which, he says, “came in from the outside and altered the unity and civilisation of things”. Obioma cites American historian Will Durant’s oft-quoted words, “A civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”. So as the British Empire infiltrated Nigerian culture and society to transform it from its insides out, Abulu’s portent of tragedy for the young brothers works in similarly destructive ways for this family.

“I wanted an external force that could come in from the outside and sow a seed within a structure so that the destruction begins from within, and in the book that seed is of course the prophecy.”

A further layer in this, Obioma says, is that in other Nigerian literature, most notably Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), perceived madness is aligned with colonial forces. Obioma says, “Anything that comes in and disrupts what is happening is labelled a madman in African culture. In Achebe’s book, the white man was foreseen as crazy, but at the end of the day they were successful in overpowering the tribes.

“The symbol for the West was the madman, who has entered our house, claiming the single truth of the universe.” Abulu’s impact on the brothers represents, in essence, the encroachment of Western imperialism on Africa, complete with its far-reaching and long-term consequences.

Though the book’s socio-political priorities are overt, The Fishermen is also a novel about childhood, family and, importantly, recollection and memory. The story is told by an adult Benjamin remembering his youth, with all the unreliable, ambiguous literary qualities that come with that. Yet it is also a paean to Obioma’s own nineties childhood, with its madmen, brothers and fishing, and it is into the vat of memory that he has plunged for his material and inspiration, rather than any more academic or journalistic form of research. This inexactness and freedom to embellish and exaggerate personal experience, is partly what defines Obioma’s style.

“I have come to prefer relying on hindsight, or just what I imagine something was, more than a complete snapshot of things,” he says. “Recollection works in strange ways, and it’s good to have it malleable, so I can fill in the blanks. All you need is the tip of the iceberg and you can draw a massive portrait from that.”

“I still think fiction is an untrammelled zone, you can do whatever you want with it, even if you want to write historical fiction.”

As a Nigerian author writing about colonialism, it is arguably inevitable that comparisons with the late Achebe, who for many shaped and defined Africa’s literary identity, will arise at some stage. The New York Times review of The Fishermen went as far as to dub Obioma as Achebe’s direct heir. It is an unfortunate yoke for him to carry – though deeply respectful of Achebe and flattered by the comparison, Obioma’s more seminal influences include other Nigerians such as Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and younger writers Chimananda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila.

In the critical response to The Fishermen, the spectre of Achebe shows no signs of going away, however. The New York Times’ pronouncement, Obioma says, has aligned him with Achebe to the point that “nobody wants to listen to what I have to say”, while he also points out important differences between The Fishermen and Achebe’s most celebrated work, Things Fall Apart.

“Although we both tackle the effect of colonialism on Africa and Nigeria, Achebe did not have the mythic dimension that my book has, and his setting is very different – mine is set in contemporary Nigeria and his was historical.”

Achebe never won the Man Booker Prize for one of his novels, though he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize, for a body of work, in 2007. The only Nigerian to date to take the Man Booker Prize was Ben Okri in 1991 for The Famished Road. The 2015 prize is announced on October 13, and though the odds on his winning will probably be long once again, Obioma will surely focus on simply enjoying the swell that propels his novel toward further acclaim and a wider readership. It is conceivable that The Fishermen’s journey could surprise even its author yet.     

The Fishermen is available through Scribe Publications.

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