'Judging the Booker was an intense process': Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma

He feels that Nigerian literature has yet to catch up with Indian


Both of Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma's novels―The Fishermen (2015) and An Orchestra of Minorities (2019)―were instant hits and were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. They have won several prizes, including the FT/ Oppenheimer Award for Fiction and the LA Times Book prize. He was also one of the Booker Prize judges in 2021. His next novel, The Road to the Country, about the Nigerian-Biafran War, will be out next year and can be summed up by an African proverb: “The story of a war can only be fully and truly told by both the living and the dead.”

In both his novels, Obioma blurs the line between the living and the dead. In The Fishermen, for example, written when the writer was just in his 20s, there are soothsayers, spirits, prophets and madmen. The story elaborates on the relationship between the nine-year-old protagonist and his three brothers, and the way in which their family slowly unravels under the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. His second book, An Orchestra of Minorities, narrated by a 'chi' or the spirit of a young poultry farmer, delves even more into the supernatural.

Obioma is a skilled writer whose stories throb with pathos and profundity. In his world, redemption is a distant possibility and survival, the greatest feat. There is no happily-ever-after, but there is always the lingering hope of one.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q/ Not only have your books been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, you have also judged the prestigious competition. What do you look for in a Booker-worthy book?

A/ We simply looked for what we thought was the best of the year in the English language. We selected from more than 170 submissions, but also called in books. It was an intense, consuming process which, after the judging ended, filled me with renewed awe for the Booker. I had been twice a finalist and experienced the prize as a writer, but as a judge, I realised just how lucky I had been those two times.

Q/ Can you describe your love for writing and reading, and how it began?

A/ When I was about eight or nine, I was always down with malaria or something, and frequently spent several days in the hospital. During those days, my dad would sit by my bedside and tell me stories. Then one day, healthy and at home, I asked him to tell me a story, and he said, “Go and read it yourself.” He gave me a book and I went and read it and discovered that one of the most fascinating stories he had ever told me was in the book! That book was Amos Tutuola’s mythic odyssey, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, which also happens to be the first black African novel in English. That was a pivotal moment. Prior to that I had always seen my dad as this great man who had this vast reserve of stories, but then I saw I could actually get this thing from books, and I started reading voraciously. And then I began to replicate the stories in written form, so that was the point where I moved from a storyteller to a writer.

Q/ Was there a lot of pressure on you after The Fishermen became such a success? How did you manage to pull off an encore with An Orchestra of Minorities?

A/ I don’t know how these things happen. What I know is that when I sit down to write, I say to myself, 'I only want to write what endures'. What is the purpose of writing a book that does not stay, that does not linger in the mind of the reader? I want people to be thinking of my books, days, weeks, months, years, and even decades after they have been read. For me, that is the mark of success.

Q/ You were recently in India to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. Are there any similarities between Indian and Nigerian writing?

A/ India is one of the greatest literary nations without question. Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things is an excellent novel. And so is Salman Rushdie's Midnight’s Children. There are wonderful poets and fiction writers today like Namita Gokhale, Anuradha Roy and Amit Chaudhari, among others. We have excellent writers coming out of Nigeria, too, but I don’t think we can compete presently with India. And I know for certain that the litany of festivals, amongst them the Jaipur Lit Fest, is one of the reasons for this blossoming of creative talent.