West Africa meets the West in work of Chigozie Obioma

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Andrew Dansby 

A little more than a decade ago Chigozie Obioma arrived in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to study, and while he was there he found a story. Obioma flew to the Mediterranean island from his home in Nigeria, and met a young man who had been swindled, a not-uncommon occurrence there.

The young student was in love and hoping to improve his station in life, so he put his modest savings into the care of a swindler who offered education, room and board with no intention of providing any of the three.

The young man was ruined. Obioma tried to assist, but the story ultimately ended tragically. But it also stuck with Obioma, at the time an aspiring writer. His second novel, “An Orchestra of Minorities”, uses those themes of love, sacrifice and deception to tell a visceral widescreen epic story about a poultry farmer willing to give up his foothold in the world for love.

Obioma’s story follows the odyssey of Chinonso, a poultry farmer emotionally untied to the world. His mother is long gone, and his father has recently died. One night he comes across Ndali, a woman about to jump from a bridge.

He talks her down, and a connection is made, albeit one of the star-crossed variety, as her educated family treats him with disdain. So Chinonso gives up everything to travel to Northern Cyprus for an education that, he believes, will change his fortunes. Obioma instantly generates a red-eyed tension upon Chinonso’s arrival. His expectations are twisted immediately upon arrival.

“It has to be a shocking, vulnerable feeling,” he says. “That’s what this man told me. He was engaged, he wanted to make money quickly and go back to Nigeria and be with the woman he loved. But he was deceived. I wanted to get that feeling across. About giving up everything and finding nothing.”

 

A better tomorrow?

Obioma’s first novel, “The Fishermen”, was a widely acclaimed piece of fiction, and a finalist for the Booker Prize four years ago. “An Orchestra of Minorities” finds this remarkable talent working with a broader and grander canvas and proving up to the task.

At times the novel is reminiscent of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Paradise Lost” and some works of Shakespeare, and it finds a novel way to update the general arc of “The Odyssey”. Yet Obioma’s use of language and his incorporation of Nigerian cosmology make for a piece of fiction that emerges independent of its influences. His is a bracing and searing work that compresses an ordinary life into an epic journey.

The story is narrated by a chi, a spiritual guide that jumps from host to host across millennia. Chinonso’s chi serves as his attorney in a sense, making a case that his circumstances diverted a good man into a bad place.

“What’s a person’s tomorrow?” reads one line, and a telling one, as Obioma is fascinated with fictional texts that consider actions and fate.

“It’s a primal question that human beings grapple with for eternity,” he says. “What will be tomorrow? What will I be? Will I be rich? Successful? If I had to put myself in any sort of literary tradition, I’d probably call myself an ontologist. I’m interested in the metaphysics of being and fate.”

 

Inspired by Milton, Shakespeare

Obioma traces that interest back to Nigeria, where he went to his father’s bookshelves and fished out Shakespeare’s plays and Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

“I probably internalized some of the structures and archetypes,” he says. “You mentioned the star-crossed lovers. The journey of the man. My aesthetics and my sense of storytelling are all shaped by those things.”

He connects those centuries-old storytelling traditions to those he grew up with in Nigeria. And he writes with a studious eye for detail. When Ndali discusses meeting her family, Chinonso — already sitting in the lowest seat in his home — sinks further, a haunting touch of foreshadowing.

Throughout the book, his connection to birds — both the chickens he raises and the predatory birds of prey that are his adversary — is described in gorgeous detail. The book takes its title from the sounds generated by Chinonso’s birds.

“I love writing about animals,” he says. “Especially birds. I was fascinated as a child, though sadly I’ve lost some of the flair for it now. But the animals I’d see and hear on my walks, they were always interesting to me.”

Nearer the story’s end, as Chinonso’s concept of his old home becomes obscured, the birds fade to the periphery and a flying roach becomes the winged-creature of focus. The effect is devastating, as Obioma connects wisely into the breadth of the notion of “losing everything,” a concept that means different things to different people.

 

Almost moved to Houston

Obioma will read the book Saturday when he stops by Brazos Bookstore. His book tour brings him to a town he considered moving to years ago. Unlike the young man whose ruin he witnessed in Cyprus, Obioma was not preyed upon by opportunists, and left the island with a college education.

He furthered his study earning an MFA at the University of Michigan, where he spent his first proper winter.

“I was so disturbed, I almost didn’t make it,” he says. “I left my studies, almost. And considered living with my uncle, who lives in Houston. But now I’m used to it.”

He settled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he is now a creative writing professor. There he acknowledges that “it can feel remote”, but he appreciates the quiet environment to write.

There he worked on “The Fishermen”, which took a Cain and Abel-type story and rendered it new. And with “An Orchestra of Minorities” he has again worked with rudiments that feel familiar, yet presented them in a way that feels entirely new.

“Many people have written about a character on a journey,” he says. “But I wanted to do something different, to show the acts in how people can really change, change for the good and for the worse. How somebody can become almost the opposite of who he used to be.” – Houston Chronicle

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