It’s fair to say Chigozie Obioma has the world at his feet. His debut novel The Fishermen has already garnered a boatload of accolades, and been translated into eight languages. Born in Nigeria, Chigozie now resides in the United States, where he is a professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
We are very lucky to have CHIGOZIE attending our Open Bookclub next week where he will be in-conversation with Avid Reader owner Fiona Stager. Fiona recently asked Chigozie some questions ahead of what should be an amazing evening.
The Fishermen is beautifully written and rich in literary references from Western and Nigerian traditions. What are your favourite books?
I have had a long-term affection for the stories and books that shaped my love for storytelling. And high on that list is the first African novel in English, The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola. It is an unbelievable feat of the imagination couched in a language not of this world—vibrant, child-like, vivacious and rollicking. It is a timeless mythic tale of African alcoholic who, upon the death of the “tapper” who alone could tap enough palm-wine to satisfy his appetite, goes on an impossibly frenzied journey into the realm of the dead to retrieve him. Close to that are many Shakespearean plays, especially Hamlet, King Lear, and even Macbeth (although the last play was not in any way the inspiration for The Fishermen, even if it contains a prophecy). I also return again and again to these books: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy; Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe; The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy; and the Greek mythologists, especially Homer and Euripides.
The power of language is a strong theme in the novel. How many languages do you speak? And which language do you dream in?
Language is, for me, the greatest element of literature. As I recently spieled in an essay dubiously titled “The Audacity of Prose,” language is the only canvas we have as writers, and by extension, artists. Yes, as much as many people seem to be forgetting, we are artists. And if we are indeed—undoubtedly, by the way!—artists, why then should our art not be artistic? Why should we not aim to paint the ordinary in a way that the reader will pay to encase that image it in a glass frame, and pin it to their mind’s wall?
I do speak four languages—English, Igbo, Yoruba, and Turkish, but it should be five: German leaked out of my mind slowly, mysteriously, until the vase in which I’d once stored it became parched. That said, I noticed that I became a jack-of-all-trades, a complete master of none. For, in none of these languages do I feel sufficiently proficient, and every occasion to use them often casts shivers over me! So, I learn daily to improve them, especially English, the language of my trade and work, and Igbo, in which I force myself to think in. I most probably dream in both of them.
Apart from your visit to Avid Reader what else are you looking forward to during your time in Australia?
I have the honor of being a guest at the Byron Bay Writers Festival! I look forward to meeting many fellow writers, amongst who is Eben Venter whose book I like a lot, and Jennifer Byrne, who, thankfully, chairs one of the sessions of my festival appearance. I hope to see my friend and great writer, Amanda Curtin (The Sinkings and Elemental), but they say Perth is too far from Brisbane and Byron Bay! But I’m willing to give it a shot anyway. Finally, I look forward to seeing a kangaroo. I grew up on Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo (my friend ever true), and it will only be fair if I get to see one up close, even if not Skippy itself.
What books are you packing for the flight?
I travelled with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch last year to Nigeria, and read half of it on the long journey. I waited one year again to pick it up again on another journey to Nigeria. I’m also reading a comedic book by the Irish comedian Maeve Higgins called We Have A Good Time, Don’t We? As you guessed right, it’s very funny. I am also reading an older book, The Jewish War by the early century historian, Flavius Josephus. Intriguing, apt, illuminating, and audacious.