Photo by Cassandra Bauer
BY ANNA JENSEN
“I generally don’t give context when reading, because I want you to buy the book,” said acclaimed author Chigozie Obioma to a room full of scholars and Drake University students on Feb. 22.
His first novel, “The Fisherman,” has been won many awards these past few years and was recently a finalist for the highly coveted Man Booker Prize of fiction.
Despite his efforts, Obioma did give context to the novel, sharing that it centered around a family of four brothers whose relationship descends into violence and destruction, and then discovery and redemption.
On a larger scale, the book is also a political commentary of 1990s Nigeria, Obioma’s native country.
“One of the thrills of reading ‘The Fisherman’ is that it introduced me to a singular, bold and ambitious new voice in contemporary fiction,” said Assistant Professor of English, Yasmina Madden in her introduction of Obioma.
Obioma read two excerpts from his novel, one that introduced the four boys and the family in detail, and the other after the boys have descended into the violence that controls the second half of the novel.
“He wanted us to know that we begin with a family that is a unit, where the brothers are loyal and loving towards one another, and then of course the second passage shows us the disintegration of the brotherly bond and the loyalty,” Madden said. “So, in a thirty minute time span we get the peace and the calmness and healthiness, and then we are given the antithesis of that.”
He shared that he does see this piece of fiction as tragic, but that it ends happily, in a sense.
After he finished reading his passages, he opened the room up to questions, where many eager hands flew up by students who were hoping to someday write their own novel.
“I especially liked the one question a student asked, ‘how did you know when your novel was done?’” Madden said. “These are important questions for young writers, and for them to meet a professional and someone who has accomplished this (feat) is a great starting opportunity.”
Another question was posed, asking how Obioma drew the line between political commentary and fiction writing.
“This novel is a metaphor for my country,” Obioma said. “Nigeria is an impossible country. It was not until I moved to Cyprus that I realized how unique and different it was … It was different, but it was not inferior.”
That is the essence of Nigeria that Obioma strove to capture in his novel, but planned to do so in a clever manner by not being too overt in describing his personal experiences within his country.
“I am not using my book to make a political statement,” Obioma said, “but rather to tell the story of these people in a metaphorical way.”
Although the story is fiction, Obioma did draw from his experiences growing up, as well as his family to mold the plot of the novel.
“I lived through a dictatorship growing up that was very brutal,” Obioma said. “That appears in the novel and I used it because (the 1990s) was a time period I knew. I was told to write what I know.”
While there are some experiences that have resembled his own in the novel, they have either been exaggerated or distorted, Obioma pointed out. That is what makes it fiction.
“Fiction is a malleable art form,” Obioma said. “You can mold someone so much in a sense that they become unrecognizable to the person that has actually lived the experience. That is the case with ‘The Fisherman.’
Some of my siblings heard that the novel was deticated to them — although some have not read it yet, because they are lazy — but they ask, ‘Where am I in this book?’ Obioma said. “But the traits I took are scattered in different characters. Each of them is a montage of everybody.”
The political commentary and the way he weaved it into the book was very compelling, Madden said.
“It’s the kind of book I want to go back to,” Madden said. “It is doing so much interesting work with the political situation in Nigeria in the 1990s … It uses all of this myth and folklore. He uses the character of a madman as a way into some of this commentary about the madness of Nigeria, being told this is who you are and what you are by the British colonizers.”
Obioma has strong language and tone that captured Madden in a way that distinguished him from other writers.
“The language is gorgeous and lyrical,” Madden said. “I’ve read a lot of Nigerian writers. He often gets called ‘The heir of Chinua Achebe’ but to me, he has a voice all his own. I found that when I read his novel, I wasn’t making comparisons to other novels and novelists, and that was interesting to me.”