A Brief Chat with Chigozie Obioma

January 14, 2024
4 mins read

By Darlington Chibueze Anuonye

 

Friday, November 3, 2023.

Chigozie Obioma, a professor of creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a celebrated Nigerian writer and two-time Booker shortlisted author, for his novels The Fisher Men (2015) and An Orchestra of Minorities (2019). Obioma’s writings, especially his sophomore novel, are rooted in the traditional African imagination, even as they explore the political and social conflagrations of contemporary lives and living. His forthcoming novel The Road to the Country, a Biafra war fiction, engages with the brutal fighting that led to the destruction of lives and places and things during the thirty months of the Nigerian civil war. Aside from his writing, Obioma has been deeply involved in nurturing, promoting, and adjudicating the literary works of writers around the world. In this interview with the literary conversationist Darlington Chibueze Anuonye, Obioma talks about his nonliterary contributions to literature and writers, focusing on his role in founding the Oxbelly Writers Retreat and his experience of serving on the 2021 Booker Prize judging panel.

 

Darlington: Professor Obioma, congratulations on the inaugural outing of the Oxbelly Writers Retreat. I was impressed when you initiated the retreat as a humanitarian project for supporting “emerging fiction writers and poets committed to elevating their craft, strengthening their literary voice, and contributing to intercultural dialogues around storytelling,” by converging them in Greece “for a week of literary and creative exchange,” involving workshops, lectures, talks, writings and readings. With an eminent cohort of writing mentors and guest speakers like Rebecca Makkai, Scott Cairns, Bill Clegg, Mary-Alice Daniel, Yukiko Duke, Nadifa Mohamed, Dimosthenis Papamorkos, Fiammetta Rocco, and you, of course, as programme director, what kind of literary and creative exchange emerged from the retreat?

Chigozie: Thank you, Chibueze, for this wonderful initiative which I think is a great one. I can’t wait to see it expand and exceed your expectations!

Oxbelly has been for some years a kind of gathering of folks in the global film/motion-picture space. They meet annually to discuss their work and shared passion for the form. I happen to be one of the invited guests for the 2022 edition during which I had this idea that the space—a world-class resort in the Messinia region of Greece—would be a good space for a literary retreat. This was how the Oxbelly Writers retreat was born! I’m glad that our inaugural edition, which brought the esteemed writers and industry guests you list here together to meet and exchange ideas with our fellows (four of whom were from Nigeria) was wonderful. I can’t tell you enough what a thrill it was to host them all and to engage with them at the level at which we did. This is all together with the fact that the retreat took place simultaneously with the TV program. This meant that our writers and poets had the chance to exchange ideas and have cross cultural interactions with film producers, TV screenwriters from all over the world! This was what I dreamt about when I had that initial idea.

Darlington: It is remarkable that the writing fellows also participated in the artistic events for filmmakers. What are the prospects of such cross programmatic opportunity for the writers?

Chigozie: As I just alluded to in the previous line, this was the idea: that fellows who are “emerging writers” be in workshops, attend readings, lectures, and panels that appeal to them. Some of those panels were carefully curated to cut across media and forms—TV and literary. Also, since we are increasingly in an adaptation era in which literary works are constantly being turned into other forms, there were naturally sessions that were implicitly useful to both TV writers and our fellows. But also, we find that many of the fellows—even the poets—often are interested in motion picture and theatre, hence, they enjoyed even the sessions that were particularly about those.

Darlington: In 2021, you were one of the judges of the Booker Prize. That year, the impressive shortlist included Richard Powers’ Bewilderment, a novel of tremendous emotional significance that demands absolute quiet as readers experience a father’s innovative way of ensuring his son who is impassioned about saving the world realizes that dream without first destroying himself and others; Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, which combines the weightiness of history with the lightness of adventure to create an enduring image of two women relentless in their pursuit to redefine their roles and confront their limitations as women in a male-oriented world; Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North, a scathing account of Sri Lanka’s long civil war, which rages on in the heart of Krishan, who had escaped from the country, but whose entire life is tied inextricably to the tragedies that abound in the home he had fled; Damon Galut’s The Promise, which photographs the brutality of apartheid in South Africa, while also showing the possibility of a breakaway from that cruel reality by creating white characters who are ashamed of that legacy; Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking, a nearly humorous exploration of the consciousness and consequence of living online in this age of the internet and social media; and Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men, a sympathetic account of the insufficiency of innocence and the obstacles to truth in a deeply unjust society. Could you describe the experience of adjudicating this important prize? And what literary principles guided the decision of the jury both in the selection of the shortlist and in the ultimate award to Galgut?

Chigozie: Very good question. Well, the prize like any other prize is guided by utmost secrecy. But in principle, what we looked for was simply the best fiction published that year in the opinion of the judges. So, in a sense, it’s subjective—BUT, and this is a big ‘but’. You simply have to trust that the Booker prize foundation is thorough in their judges’ selection process and have selected judges they feel are good readers of fiction. In my year, the chair was Maya Jasanoff who is a Harvard historian, and included Rowan Williams, a distinguished poet and former Archbishop of Canterbury as well as actress and talented reader, Natascha McLehone and journalist Horratio Harrod.

Image: UNL Photography.

Darlington Chibueze Anuonye is a creative writer, essayist, editor and scholar. He has been published in a variety of publications, including thenewblackmagazine.com and brittlepaper.com. In 2021, Anuonye was awarded Amplify Fellowship by CovidHq and the MasterCard Foundation; longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award; and shortlisted in 2016, by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency. He is currently a PhD researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln..

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