Chigozie Obioma Wants to Write a “Paradise Lost” for the Igbo People
“An Orchestra of Minorities” draws on the author’s experience of immigrating from Nigeria to Northern Cyprus
Chigozie Obioma’s latest novel draws from his own experiences of growing up in Nigeria and immigrating to Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as a university student. At once following the arc of Greek tragedy and drawing on Igbo cosmology, the story breaks away from any traditional Western narrative structure.
The title of the book, An Orchestra of Minorities, suggests a story of power, loss and justice. It is indeed about those things but mainly centers on the relationship between Chinonso, a poultry keeper, and Ndali, a woman from Nigeria’s elite class. The two fall in love after Chinonso sees Ndali about to jump off a bridge and flings down two of his beloved poultry, killing them, showing the unbearable magnitude of the act. It works and as things grow serious between them, Chinonso realizes he needs a college degree for Ndali’s family to ever accept him. He sells his poultry farm to attend college in Northern Cyprus, only to realize the friend from childhood who’d arranged for him to go there has deceived him and stolen his money. Stranded, Chinonso must find a way back to the country, birds and woman he loves.
With Chinonso’s “chi” or guardian spirit — who’s been around since the beginning of time itself — narrating, recounting the lives of his past hosts and the events they witnessed, Obioma ambitiously maps eras in Igbo history in his novel.
I talked to Obioma over the phone about fate, agency, the choice of language and the impacts of modernization, both within the story and in Nigeria.
Raksha Vasudevan: What was the genesis of the book?
Chigozie Obioma: The idea came when I was studying in Northern Cyprus and met another Nigerian named Jay. Like the main character in this book, Jay was cheated of his money by ‘agents’ who arranged for him to come there. Shortly after we met, Jay died. I wrote about all of this for The Guardian. It was a very brief encounter — I think we spent about six days together before we learned that he had died — but his situation never left me. I spoke with him a few times alone during that period. I remember — although it sometimes comes in flashes — I remember he’d just become engaged to a lady. And that’s one of the reasons he wanted to get back onto his feet as soon as possible. And in the aftermath of his death, I kept thinking what happened to that lady? What was it like to learn that this guy had basically given his life for her hand? We never, of course, had any way of knowing what became of her, how she processed this grief. But that idea of sacrificial love, I wanted to write about that.
RV: Your novel is grounded in Igbo ontology and incorporates sayings and stories from Igbo folklore. Why was it important for you to include those in the narrative?
CO: I see myself as an ontologist — someone who’s very concerned about the metaphysics of existence and being. So, I find themes like fate and destiny very compelling. I think they’re also at the core of the most primal questions we ask ourselves as human beings. I wanted to probe into the Igbo idea of life and how we negotiate the idea of fate and destiny.
And those questions are deeply connected to the idea of the “chi,” which stands at the very center of Igbo cosmological belief. And I’ve always been fascinated with John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I think he did a great job of probing those questions that form the bedrock of Western civilization: those of free will, pre-ordination and pre-knowledge — like, if God knew that there was sin in the world, why did he allow man to actually commit it? — so I wanted to write something like that for the Igbo people. You know, this civilization we once had and its knowledge has been almost destroyed by the encroachment of Western ways of living and culture. I wanted to have some kind of monument in fiction for that.
RV: Did you have to do some research on those ontological systems or did you know much of it already from growing up in Nigeria?
CO: While growing up, my mother’s father and even my mother and the adults around me would always say “this event was the result of this person’s chi’s transaction with say, death or sickness or whatever ill fortune has befallen this person.” So, there was always a recourse to the chi — I was always conscious of that, even when I said my name. Chigozie is a kind of prayer that my chi will bless me. Many Igbo names have an allusion to the chi like Chinua.
RV: Ah, interesting. I never thought about that.
CO: Yeah, so I would always ask questions like: what is the meaning of the chi? Why are you saying that my chi is responsible for that event? And I also wanted to use the novel to map the history of the Igbo people by having the chi as a reincarnating spirit who has seen different eras. So, yes, I had to do some research in that regard. I read a lot of books and in the acknowledgements section, I list some of these books. But I also did field research with my dad in Nigeria. I went with him to a shrine and we spoke with a priest (one of his quotes actually appears as an epigraph at the beginning of this book).
RV: On the subject of the chi, I wanted to ask how you see the chi as different from a person’s conscience?
CO: From all the research I did, I concluded that there is a tripartite idea within Igbo beliefs on the composition of man — almost like the Judeo-Christian idea of the Holy Trinity. You have the physical being, the chi and the reincarnating spirit. The Igbos believe that a couple can copulate but unless there’s an ancestor who decides that it’s time to re-enter the world, it’s impossible for conception to happen. The reincarnating elder embodies the conscience and is relatively unique to each individual whereas the chi does not die — it’s recycled again and again.
RV: So that explains why Chinonso’s chi often refers to his former “hosts” — other people he’s spiritually accompanied before Chinonso — who range dramatically in their circumstances (for example, a slave, a fighter in the Biafran civil war). How did you choose the other hosts that Chinonso’s chi had inhabited? And why was it important for the chi to narrate their stories as well?
CO: Well, I wanted to chart the evolution of the Igbo nation up until the present time. So, of course, one would look for landmark events such as the first time the Igbos encountered the Europeans, the time of slavery and the Biafran war. But also, there was a host who was Westernized and the chi, through inhabiting him, reflects on how Igbos have become African Westerners. So it was also a way to illustrate certain points.
RV: On the point of Westernization, the chi and other spiritual beings often lament the loss of certain Igbo traditions — e.g. women no longer wearing uli (body drawings), men no longer keeping their ikengas (statues of horned deities) — and they attribute these losses to “the White man [who] charmed their children with the products of his wizardry” like mirrors, guns, tobacco and eventually planes. Can the challenges that Chinonso faces in the story be attributed to this loss of tradition?
CO: You know, Achebe once said that Africans are at the crossroad of cultures. And I think it’s an unfortunate state that I don’t know we’ll ever escape. My idea of colonization is that there are grades of it. In India, for instance, I always wonder why they didn’t become majority Christian?
RV: Yeah, I’ve wondered about that myself.
CO: I think the English were a bit more respectful of some cultures than of the Africans. In Africa, it was really vicious — it was really a ‘civilizing’ project. They thought, “okay, these guys are brutes without any kind of religion or belief system.” But in India, they at least saw how complex the Hindu belief system was. If you look across Africa, almost none of the countries retained their religion, their language, none of it. Things were swept completely away. That uprooted the foundation of people and that makes it very hard to make the case that we should keep embracing everything that comes. I think that development should be organic, should come from the soil of that place. Even if it’s coming from the outside, it must come in slowly to give people time to embrace it and make it theirs. You know, just last week in Nigeria, Boko Haram attacked a military barrack and killed over 100 soldiers. And this is a ragtag army that’s not trained in any way.
CO: So why was it? Some of the military soldiers said that their equipment was ill-suited to fight even though the government keeps giving money but there are some people high-up who are so wicked that they’ll take like ninety percent of the money and give only ten percent to equip these soldiers who are risking their lives. So why are people like that? If you go back to precolonial times — my dad talks about this all the time — it was impossible to think you could do something like that. In the chaos of trying to merge all these tribes together, something was lost. Now, we don’t even have a central moral culture in Nigeria. But in the separate nations you had before colonization, the primary foundational ethic in the Igbo belief system is that someone who holds a person down also has to be on the ground. Achebe was always saying this. That’s a very radical statement against any kind of marginalization, against any belittling of another person or selfishness but that was lost and nothing came up to replace it. So, the book examines in part how the chi be reacting to these things.
RV: And even Chinonso, the main character, has some of the reactions. For example, when he returns to the ‘new’ Nigeria after several years in Cyprus, he notes “a new bleak humor that trivialized the horrifying” that accompanies rapid urban growth and advances in technology like mobile phones and solar panels. Do you think modernization allows us to ignore dark realities like poverty, climate change, etc.?
CO: Well, I do not hope to idealize anything. But in precolonial times, it was impossible in Igboland that someone wouldn’t have shelter or food to eat. But now, we all have these advancements but if you go to Nigeria, you go to Lagos, you see people sleeping under the bridge or on the side of a street. Modernization has brought good things to us but it also brought its ills. I just wanted the chi to comment on all these changes, whether good or bad. There are some of them that the chi acknowledges are good — for instance, planes and banking. When the Europeans first tried to sell this idea to Africans, people were laughing, saying “how stupid can these people be? How can you expect me to take my hard-earned money and hand it to another people to keep for me?” My people tell stories about this all the time. And they were shocked to discover that you can keep your money with someone else and you even get more interest for it. So, I wanted to show the clash of civilizations and how it manifested in every phase of history of my people — how it still manifests itself today.
RV: I felt like even when Chinonso is in Cyprus, we see that clash in other ways as he encounters the Cypriot culture.
CO: Yes, indeed.
RV: The characters often switch between the White Man’s language (English), Igbo and pidgin, which at times creates some tension: for example, Chinonso struggles to express himself in English yet that’s the language his lover, Ndali, prefers. The reader also has to do some work to decipher conversations in pidgin and sayings in Igbo. Why did you build these tensions into the story?
CO: There’s a dilemma in that I’m writing in the English language, which is the language of education in Nigeria, it is a formal language. But there’s a dilemma in that the chi itself is imbued with a kind of prelapsarian eloquence. If you look at the discourse between Chinonso’s chi and the guardian spirit of Ndali, the register is different than how a Nigerian person might speak. The chi’s register corresponds more to ancient Igbo. But all of these things are being translated to English, which has, in many ways, a flattening effect in that context. But on the other hand, in the human characters, you’re right in saying that Chinonso prefers Igbo. For Nigerians who aren’t very literate or haven’t had much formal school, they resort to Igbo or pidgin. And there’s also a class division that influences all of that: the bourgeois class, or the elite class, that Ndali belongs to, seriously privileges the English language because that makes them feel ‘higher’ than lower-class people. I think the disparity also gives authenticity to the characters.
RV: Do you feel the presence of a chi in your own life?
CO: You know, I still see myself as a Christian but with my inquiry into the ways of the Igbo people, I began to be more curious about religion and faith. There are still many people who never converted to Christianity, my grandfather, for example. So, yes, these days, I find myself looking at life from the lens of Igbo cosmological beliefs. And I do think of the chi sometimes.
RV: The title of the book refers to all the minorities or marginalized of the world who are powerless to control the events of their lives — all they can do is wail or ‘sing’ their complaints. All the characters at various points seem to be part of this orchestra, tossed about by the fates. Does this counter Western storytelling traditions where most characters, especially the protagonist or “hero,” have a relatively large amount of agency in their lives?
CO: The choice of title was informed by the phenomenon of the hawk attacking the poultry. It happens all the time, I saw it a number of times growing up. Once that happens, people would say “listen to how the hen and other chicks sound now in the aftermath of the chick having been stolen.” And it’s an orchestra of small things. So, the phenomenon is about fate. So, we could just be doing our own thing, and we may not aware of what society, other people, other nations are doing. My grandfather for example did not know he was Nigerian. Nigeria was created in 1914, a few years after the Berlin Conference after the Europeans divided Africa and declared Nigeria to be a British territory. My grandfather died not knowing about this, living in Nigeria. Nobody consulted the Nigerians. So, the hen is there and suddenly, something precious to it is gone. You can apply it to anything. Again, it goes back to the story of Jay. Why him? Why was he chosen to be the victim of this vicious ring of organized crime when the rest of us made it through? Who orchestrates what happens?
RV: There’s one scene after Chinonso arrives in northern Cyprus and we learn that he’s been cheated of his money where he and another Nigerian friend are on a bus and two Cypriot women want to feel their hair. I found that scene quite disturbing even though it was a minor one. Why was it important for you to include this scene?
CO: I wanted to record some of the ways in which immigration can be dehumanizing. And that incident actually happened to me. It was not only to reflect how Africans are treated, like exotic objects or something, but also to heighten the effect of what’s befallen Chinonso. His life has been basically destroyed by this guy who cheats him, yet everyday life, including everyday racism, continues.
RV: When did you decide that Chinonso would be a poultry keeper?
CO: I have always been fascinated with birds. I don’t know why but it was an object of fascination of child. I wanted to imbue Chinonso with this almost radical innocence to contrast the privileged background that Ndali comes from.
RV: That makes sense.
CO: And the Igbos believe in different kinds of reincarnation: there’s not just the reincarnation of the chi or the human being, but also reincarnation of events. So, something can happen now and echo again in the future. You lose something once, have it come back to you in a different form, and lose it again. I’ve always thought about radical narrative structure — of creating a kind of doppelgänger of events. So, I wanted to replicate Chinonso’s love for the gosling — something he loved as a child — and the loss he feels when it’s stolen from him and in trying to get it back, he ends up destroying it himself. There’s a parallel between that and the way Ndali comes into his life and what unfolds between them.
RV: What other books based on Igbo ontology / cosmology do you recommend? And what other books are you reading right now that you would recommend?
CO: I’m very grateful to Achebe. His trilogy — Arrow of God especially — has a lot of Igbo philosophical beliefs. The most interesting book I’ve read on Igbo ontology is After God is Dibia. That book was very helpful. And another called Odinani that’s downloadable on the internet. I’m good friends with Jennifer Clement, the President of PEN International, and I’m re-reading her books Gun Love and Prayers for the Stolen because I want to ask her some questions and publish an interview with her. I’m also about to start reading The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus because I’m working on an essay about differentiating between revenge and justice from both Igbo and Western philosophical perspectives.
RV: That’s interesting because Chinonso struggles with this differentiation when he returns to Nigeria after Cyprus. It’s difficult for the reader, as well, to see what actions would fall into which category.
CO: Yes, there is some overlap sometimes, I must confess, but most of the time, justice can be unfair to the oppressed. And that is very hard for people to swallow. In Nigeria, across Africa, even here, people conflate the two. For example, everybody in South Africa is embracing this guy named Julius Malema who speaks about how black South Africans must treat whites the way they themselves were once treated during apartheid. At the end of the day, what this guy is doing is completely against what Mandela was trying to do, to the extent that Mandela made the guy who jailed him his Vice President just to show how important it is to let go of resentments, of all aspects of revenge. And if white people are now oppressed, people will forget that they were once the oppressor. Sometimes, just letting go is how you get justice.