Chigozie Obioma’s brilliant debut novel, The Fishermen, is part love letter and part lament to both the author’s family and his country, Nigeria. At Fiona’s Open Book Club Meeting on Wednesday evening (5 August 2015) at Avid Reader, regulars and many others came along to hear Chigozie in conversation with Fiona.
For me the evening took on elements of a grand odyssey in the true meaning of great literature. Great care was taken with the smallest details. There were exquisitely simple but ingenious hors d’oeuvre offerings of slices of crisp green cucumber topped with a creamy hummus, and garnished with a triangle of avocado. A symmetrical arrangement of glasses offered just the right amount of red or white wine.
Also apt was the romantic-looking young bookseller charged with the task of keeping the wine glasses ramrod straight. “I always see you when I am hanging around the drinks table,” I said. “That’s my job,” he said and smiled. He told me he was a local and being such a regular visitor to the bookshop, he was offered a part-time job while he completed his Arts degree. A more authentic vision of a young bookseller you could not hope to see. I doubt even a casting agency could produce a bookseller with his Bryonesque bob, jeans faded to exactly the right hue, and appropriately scuffed boots.
Our usual meeting space had been reformatted to cater for the larger crowd and, rather than the large circle of seats which is usually formed, rows of chairs were set out to face the courtyard. Fiona and Chigozie were resplendent at the centre amongst the greenery and the backdrop of the wintry night sky, southern hemisphere stars, and a still luminescent moon.
The international success and acclaim for The Fishermen (it is one of the ‘Man Booker Dozen’ and in line for 2015 Man Booker Prize) has already added depth to contemporary Nigerian writing. Chigozie Obioma’s name sits comfortably alongside the other literary greats of his country such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, Buchi Emecheta, and Seffi Atta.
Chigozie Obioma has bucket-loads of charisma and he seemed at ease with his literary persona. He read a moving passage from his book and even treated the audience to a song in his native Igbo language. Immaculately turned out in a navy blazer with a gold insignia embroidered on the breast pocket, he looked every inch the gifted and young (not yet 30) assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan. Chigozie is an admirer of Donna Tartt (who was also a literary prodigy for her university novel, The Secret History) and I thought to myself that perhaps he looked to her for some wardrobe inspiration for book tours.
This is not to discount the gravitas of The Fishermen in any way. It mixes the traditional English novel form with the oral storytelling tradition, dramatising the conflict between the traditional and the modern.
The story is set in a small town in Nigeria and is narrated by Ben (Benjamin), an observant but not excessively precocious nine-year-old and the youngest of four brothers, whose ages range between nine and 15. When the boys’ father, Mr Agwu, is transferred to a bank in a nearby town, the boys use his absence to go fishing at a forbidden local river.
The brothers (Ikenna, Boja, Obe, and Ben) encounter Abulu, the local madman, who prophesies that Ikenna, the eldest, will be killed by one of the other brothers. From this point onwards, the strong family bond is broken and a tragic chain of events ensues.
Not everyone in the audience had read The Fishermen. Fiona and Chigozie were very careful to say ‘spoiler alert’ if they were discussing a key sequence in the novel. But, I don’t think it will spoil anyone’s reading pleasure to let you know that both the fictional Ben (and the real Chigozi) are fans of the Australian television show, Skippy The Bush Kangaroo.
I will also say that the writing is perfectly tuned; lyrical in places and bracing in others. A long-time member of the Wednesday book club quoted the following sentence with pleasure: Clouds are revealed hanging in the sky, filled with cupfuls of dust. This quote is in perfect alignment with the allegorical elements of the novel (although Chigozie told the audience he prefers to think of his novel in terms of metaphors).
Fiona asked Chigozi about his creative process. Did he use a vision board or some sophisticated computer package which allows authors to document timelines and character traits? He said no. The genesis of the story forms in Chigozi’s subconscious where it remains and continues to grow, sometimes for months on end, until it is time for the story to be written. Chigozi then sits down to write and does not get up until it is finished. Extensive edits and revisions follow to ensure the lyrical quality of the writing.
We also learned that Chigozi and a group of friends have started The Abulu Sightings Project on Tumblr to help make known the plight of Africans with mental health issues who walk the streets all over the continent because they are homeless. There is no funding available for community housing for such people.
Chigozi Obioma is a name to watch both from a literary and humanitarian perspective.