What I find is that there is incoherence in literary criticism in Africa, and there is even more disturbing, a certain level of myopia – in that certain “critics” believe there should be only one way for African Literature to be written.

Chigozie Obioma is an assistant professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is a Nigeria  Writer whose works have been published to critical acclaim. He has a story published in Trainsition. His first novel The Fishermen is being translated into twenty-seven languages. The Fisherman was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, and it won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum award for First Fiction, 2015 Nebraska book award for Fiction and FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Award.


The Muse: The Fishermen was named the best book of 2015 by UK Observer, The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. What motivated the novel?
Chigozie Obioma: I was living in Cyprus, the Turkish side in 2009 when I got a call from my father from Nigeria. I have been in Cyprus for two years at the time and was experiencing serious nostalgia. During the call, he told me about my two older brothers who, as kids, used to fight a lot but had now become so close as they approached thirty that he thought it was remarkable. After the call, I began to think of brotherhood, and what it means to love one’s siblings. So I ended up having this image of four brothers in a family and then I began to think about what could come in from the outside and disrupt this unity, this bond. And I came up with the idea of the prophesying madman.
The Muse: In relation to motivation, how well can a writer develop a literary work of art without the message overriding the art?
Chigozie Obioma: It is simple, in my opinion: write fiction not propaganda. I always tell those who come to me for advise as aspiring writers to not aim to “change the world” through their fiction. Don’t let what is in vogue decide what or how you write. Don’t write towards an agenda or to “change” the world: that is propaganda and political punditry, not the stuff of fiction. I say this because the posture of the writer should be a speculative one: I don’t know therefore, I write. By couching a message big enough to “override” the art, you are posturing in the self-satisfied way.
The Muse: Some literary critics in Africa are of the opinion that contemporary African Literature is weighed down by sociological problems, and in this way, the art contained in the text is destroyed. What is your opinion on these critics’ position?
Chigozie Obioma: I believe that writers should be free to write whatever they want. They should not be writing to fulfil a certain quota or to meet certain demands, but because they feel a need to create something new and something exciting for readers. But most of all, writers should write what is honest. Literary truth should be at the forefront of their endeavors. This would mean that if they feel that sociological problems plague the places they are writing about – which will most likely be the case when writing about Africa – then they should write about those realities. But if they simply want to invent certain untrue realities, or exaggerate for the sake of winning attention to their work by writing in faux sociological issues, then the critics should rightly excoriate the writers.
The Muse: How do you deal with critics?
Chigozie Obioma: In the African circles, some people want to peddle the false idea that I don’t take kindly to criticisms of my work. But this is untrue. The Fishermen has been published in some thirty countries with a combined review of four hundred or more, and not once have I responded to any. What I have responded to have been attacks on my person. When I advise the reader not to tag me on twitter with reviews, I was accused of being testy and “calling out reviewers.” That was what I railed against. I don’t care about reviews, frankly. I know The Fishermen isn’t a perfect book by any stretch, it is a first novel! I expected critical reviews. In fact, I am surprised that I haven’t gotten many actual critical reviews, and instead, it has won many awards, even in translation.
The Muse: Your literary works bear a language and style which is a step away from the norm in African literature. Do you suggest there is a sort of experimentation in your works?
Chigozie Obioma: I think there might be a truth to this observation, but I am not sur how much truth there is. What I find is that there is incoherence in literary criticism in Africa. And there is even more disturbing, a certain level of myopia – in that certain “critics” believe there should be only one way for African Literature to be written. Writers in Africa, a continent of 500 million people, should see this as an insult.
In my writing, the focus is to write prose at the level of the great prose stylist of fiction in English – Nabokov, Conrad, Henry James, Arundhati Roy amongst others. This is because the English Language that I have been given, that I have studied from childhood, is not an African Language. But even so, there is room to carry through certain African sensibilities when they are needed in context. In those times, direct literal translation might be apt. I do this too. It is the same thing Wole Soyinka does and any number of writers, even Chinua Achebe who continues to be peddled as creating his own style of English. But when I read Things Fall Apart, a novel whose characters speak Igbo 95% of the book which is nearly 100% rendered in English, I do not see much difference. 
The Muse: How do you view the idea of writers experimenting with language, style and form?
Chigozie Obioma: I have written about it in an essay online called “The Audacity of Prose.”
The Muse: Do literary prizes really determine the craft and level of a writer?
Chigozie Obioma: I’m not sure the answer is fully yes or fully no as there is a nuance. But, I believe that unless there is an activist agenda behind it, in which the judges are trying kowtow to certain groups or to serve the awards for certain cause or causes, generally, awards often help identify true genius. They can point to works that will stand the test of time.
The Muse: Most young writers today are weighed down by lack or recognition, either through prizes or reputable publication. What do you make of the situation and how is it remedied?
Chigozie Obioma: I don’t know. But I don’t think the way forward is to try to badmouth or tear down those who are recognized. I feel many young writers are trying to do this as the Zimbabwean writer, Nuvoyo Tshuma has been saying lately.
The Muse: There are students in various Nigerian universities who show sparkles of beautiful writing. These students’ sparkles tend to die after graduation. What do you think is the cause of this?
Chigozie Obioma: The cause is traceable, I think, to the climate in Nigeria: it stifles everything and creativity isn’t exempted.
The Muse: Some writers see self-publishing as the best way to get their works published, how do you view self-publishing?
Chigozie Obioma:It is a terrible idea, I advise the beginning writers to steer clear of that black river as far as possible.
The Muse: You are Igbo and grew up in a Yoruba environment. When you writ, how do you manage to control and combine the cultural images from the two cultures?
Chigozie Obioma: I believe the answer is yes, as evidenced in The Fishermen. But my novel coming out next year, An Orchestra of Minorities, is a different game. It is about odinala, the Igbo religion. It is a novel of reincarnation, of mysteries big and small and a kind of text on igbo cosmology.
The Muse: Some critics have read elements of fatalism and predestination in The Fishermen. What role do you think fate plays within the world of the text?
Chigozie Obioma: Fate is indeed central to my work because most of it is based on the Igbo thought system and cosmological foundations. In the Igbo world view, there I very little separation between the world of the living and that of the dead – they are intricately woven together. And central to this is the idea of predestination and fate but also, of some kind of freewill, which is why when an event occurs, we sometimes say of the causality: O bu otu ya na chi ya si kwuo. Which would mean: This is how he (the individual) and his chi (guardian spirit) has agreed. I tackle this large cosmic question minimally in The Fishermen, but broadly in An Orchestra of Minorities.
The Muse: What were the challenges you faced as a writer before your work gained recognition?
Chigozie Obioma: I faced a lot of challenges. I slaved away for many years. I sent work to publishers which were rejected. Even to get an agent was difficult. But I didn’t give up. I struggle even now, though, with mostly social haters in Africa who continue to badmouth me rather than criticize my work. So I’d say it is part of the job!
The Muse: The Fishermen was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize and won a whole lot of other awards. It has been translated into over twenty five languages within two years. We congratulate you on your success so far.
Chigozie Obioma: Thank you for the opportunity – It is a pleasure!