Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a novelist, journalist, and essayist. Her debut novel, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Africa) and the 2010 Betty Trask First Book award. It was named by The Washington Post as one of the Best Books of the Year. Her debut young adult novel, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, based on dozens of interviews with women and girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram, was published by Harper Collins in September 2018. Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree won the 2018 Raven Award for Excellence in Arts and Entertainment, was named as one of the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, and is a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People 2019 selection. Nwaubani’s reports and essays have appeared in several publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Guardian.
Iheoma Uzomba: Do you agree that the writer owes certain responsibility to his place of growth, domiciliation, or nationality, so that writing about the Nigerian society, for instance, becomes a thing Nigerian writers should be concerned about, being themselves Nigerian?
ATN: I don’t believe that a writer owes anybody anything. Even when a writer chooses to take on certain responsibilities, it is their prerogative, not a debt they owe anyone. This is a point that the African public needs to understand. I notice a certain sense of entitlement when it comes to what people expect from African writers, and it is a defective attitude.
Iheoma Uzomba: What can you say about the public reception of your works? Does the wide readership they command depend largely on their aesthetic, or simply because of their instrumentality to social dynamics?
ATN: My fiction and non-fiction tend to appeal to different audiences. But readers generally seem to appreciate my humour (which is relatively rare in African literature) and my frankness. I am outspoken about issues that others are afraid to touch, and I highlight significant aspects of life in my part of the world that even people who live here are oblivious to. Readers often value the honesty and insight my writing provides.
Iheoma Uzomba: It is very common to hear writers talk about their works mirroring life. However, Oscar Wilde has presented a counter opinion – what he terms ‘Anti-Mimesis’– in which he suggests that life itself takes its model from art. What is your take on this?
ATN: I often wish that my creativity were less straightforward than it is, but I am one of those writers whose stories develop from actual people and situations I’ve observed.
Iheoma Uzomba: What is your experience like as a Nigerian journalist? And would you say that journaling over time has helped in the realization of your art?
ATN: Journalism has given me the opportunity to tell dozens more important stories than I could as a novelist. And, with journalism, there isn’t the lengthy waiting time that comes with publishing a book. The stories can be delivered quickly, for maximum impact. Also, there are multitudes that will read an article but will never read a novel, and vice versa. Journalism has expanded my audiences around the world. Some people who are fans of my reportage sometimes don’t even realise that I have also published novels. Additionally, there are many stories I come across as a journalist that could easily become novels sometime in future, should I decide to take them in that direction. Being a journalist in Nigeria has given me access to a storehouse of incredible and unique stories, and taken me to some of the remotest places in the country.
Iheoma Uzomba: Your books I Do Not Come to You by Chance and Buried beneath the Baobab Tree both confront two socially sensitive issues, the former being e-fraud (what Nigerians term 419 or in recent times, Yahoo Yahoo) and the latter, terrorism as it relates to abduction. Would it then be that you are committed to presenting social issues, interrogating them, and laying them bare in your works?
ATN: I often admit that, in the case of I Do Not Come to You by Chance, the novel came before the story. I decided to write a novel before I knew what I would write about. So, there was no grand motivation there. With Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, my in-depth and consistent reporting on the Boko Haram kidnappings led a publisher to approach me to write a book about it. With my journalism, however, I am indeed committed to highlighting social issues. I know that many African writers are worried about the stereotypes of our societies that are perpetrated in the Western media. I, on the other hand, am more concerned about the actual situations that lead to those stereotypes. We need to shine a light into the darkness in our societies and focus on dealing with those issues. No amount of whitewashing, or pretending that they don’t exist, will make them disappear — and knowing the problems is the first step to effecting change.
Iheoma Uzomba: Indeed, one must remark on the careful and detailed portrayal of your characters, from Kingsley in your I Do Not Come to You by Chance whose moral dilemma keeps him haunted to the lavish Uncle Boniface or Cash Daddy whose Igbo accent is as audible as it is obvious, I suppose it would not be wrong to say you write like one who has lived the life of every single character in your work. Can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go about your character definition and formation?
ATN: I usually describe my second novel, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, as journalism masquerading as fiction. Looking back, I see that I Do Not Come to You by Chance is somewhat like that as well. Most of the characters and situations I portrayed were from what I had observed in real life. Even some of the most outlandish scenes, like Cash Daddy hosting a live meeting while on a toilet seat, were taken from real life. But don’t ask me when and where!
Iheoma Uzomba: Notably, you’ve also made substantial input in non-fiction writing, being as well a journalist. Which would you consider your niche or comfort zone?
ATN: Non-fiction is definitely my forte. I won my first writing competition as the age of 13, and it was for a Children’s Day (May 27) essay. Essays, op-eds, features…are still my thing. The advantage fiction has, though, is that it gives you a canopy under which to hide. Nothing you write can be categorically described as yours or anyone else’s personal view; therefore, the personal attacks and criticism you might receive are less.
Iheoma Uzomba: In another interview, you remarked that ‘the lust for a pristine foreign image should not prevent us from telling the truth about our society’. In the light of truth-telling, what vision do you have for African literature as a whole, in the long run?
ATN: I wish to see African literature set free. I wish Africans could tell whatever stories they want to tell without worrying what white people might think – whether they might like our stories and consider them good enough, whether we’ve painted a good or bad image of our societies. I wish we could simply tell the stories that need to be told, in the best way that we can. A few years ago, I wrote a popular article published in the New York Times, titled ‘African Books for Western Eyes’. In it, I highlighted this ongoing situation where publishers in the West determine which African writers to anoint and which of our stories are worthy of seeing the light of day. I find that incredibly problematic. Until the publishing industry in different African countries develops enough muscle to wrest that absolute power from the West, it would be difficult to attain that freedom of which I dream.
Iheoma Uzomba: What authors or writers would you say were considerable influences on your own writing, considering that writers themselves are readers? Who do you read and in what way have their works somewhat influenced yours?
ATN: I developed a love for humorous writing when I was a teenager. Humour remains my preferred genre of literature. It was after reading Angela’s Ashes — by the late Irish-American writer, Frank McCourt – I realised I could write a humorous story that still dealt with serious issues. I did not have to write a typical African story that was sorrowful and didactic. Thus, I Do Not Come to You by Chance was born.
Iheoma Uzomba: What advice do you have for young minds out there seeking to explore literature and writing?
ATN: Young writers should exert less effort in sending their work to established writers. The opinion of an established writer, no matter how acclaimed, does not necessarily guarantee the success of your work. Literature is subjective. There are many award-winning stories that would never have seen the light of day had I been the one to make the decision; yet, a vast audience loved the same story. Instead of sending your work to established writers, send them to literary agents, publishers, etc. – to people who actually can play a part in determining whether your work moves forward and gets noticed. Also, bear in mind that Google is your good friend. Instead of emailing an established writer to ask for advice (nothing is wrong with that!), ask Google. The Internet contains all the information you will ever need on how to write and publish your work. I found my literary agent via Google, and that was how I Do Not Come to You by Chance began its astonishing journey around the world.
Iheoma Uzomba: Thank you so much for your time ma.
ATN: Thank you for having me.
Iheoma J. Uzomba is the Editor of The Muse Journal No. 50. She is a winner of the Lagos-London Poetry Prize and a longlistee of the Poetically-Written Prose Contest. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming on Rattle Magazine, Palette Poetry, Chestnut Review, The Shore Poetry, The Rising Phoenix Review, Isele Magazine, Arts Lounge and elsewhere.