The immediate cause was the rejection of my articles by The Guardian newspaper. Then I saw they were publishing fiction on Saturdays and I attempted fiction. It was then I discovered that I had the talent. I wrote like a mad man for the next four years. I learnt a lot on my own, since I had nobody to show my work to…until I went to the University of Michigan’s writing school. Sometimes, I think tragedy has a way of really getting the message home. Think of the play, Romeo and Juliet, for example. And remember, if you’re reading English at any university, before they give you that degree, they make sure you read a ton of Greek tragedy! We need to set down our own tragedies too. Many an African child lives in very tragic circumstances. Are there lessons to be learnt from these situations?
Your stories are set all over the continent… Why did you not limit your stories to Nigeria, your country?
I wanted to write about how some African children were faring in some of the conflicts of Africa. We Africans don’t know what is happening in the next country or tribe. What does the common Nigerian know about Rwanda and their genocide? And what does the common Rwandese know about the conflicts in Nigeria? Does a Nigerian understand the Pidgin English spoken in Kenya and vice versa? Many Africans are as shocked by my stories as westerners.
Why use children to tell the stories?
I wanted children to tell their stories as we only get to hear the perspectives of adults about a conflict. Many newspapers only use the portrait of a child to begin, say, a piece on child trafficking. By the third paragraph, the article recedes into hard facts and data and history and possible remedies. At the end, the writer throws in something that reminds us of the first paragraphs…that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted the reader to wake up with that child, play with that child, eat with that child and see the world the way that child sees the world. I wanted the reader to catch the six-year old processing the conflicts. Children have something to say to us.
What provoked your themes in ‘An Ex-Mas Feast’ and ‘My Parents’ Bedroom?
I wanted to say something about the intelligence and resilience of our children in a world destroyed by domestic and foreign corruption. I wrote about things that worried me.
How would you rate the day you won the Commonwealth Prize?
My best day on earth was the day I received First Holy Communion.
Why was that?
It’s an indescribable experience; you know the buildup to that day, the preparation, the First Confession and that sense of freedom, the anxiety over actually receiving…what’s it going to be like? Meanwhile, no adult is telling you what it feels like or what it tastes like. So you’re full of awe, waiting to eat God. But how do you eat God? The catechist had warned us not to chew but to just let the Communion melt on the tongue. I was ten/eleven in Primary Five.
What audience do you target with your stories?
Initially, I thought I was writing a Kenyan story for the Kenyans, a Nigerian story for Nigerians. But then I realised that a Nigerian may want to know more about the Kenyan situation, just the same way an American might. I have friends from different African countries and whenever I showed them my stories, they were always saying, “Could you describe this a bit more? You mean people do this?” Finally I got tired and decided to write my stories in such a way that whoever read them would have some basic understanding.
How long does it take you to write a story and how many have you written?
It depends on the write-up. For me, it’s a long process—writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Sometimes, it takes months for me to come up with the first draft. I normally write many stories at the same time, though…I can only talk about the ones that are in the book…five of them. It took me five years to write My Parents’ Bedroom, the Rwandese story, because my superiors would not grant me permission to visit the country.
How much research did you do and how significant was it to your works even as fictions?
For me research is very important, but it’s not the story. The story is how one character relates with another and the environment. You can know everything about your culture without being able to create believable character. I write the stories first and research later. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know where to begin the research. However, I admire writers who do their research before they write; I really like to get the cultural details right. I wouldn’t want someone to come to my town and not pay attention to details. Why invoke Rome in a story if you do not want to give a story the feel of Rome, and the story feels like Paris? Besides, I always feel that since I’m writing about painful stuff, I need to be sensitive to the context of the characters. My teachers impressed it upon me to retain the dignity of the poor and the children by paying attention to their environment.
What helped your in-depth description of countries?
I didn’t want to make mistakes about cultures. The stakes, I think, are higher when you come in as a foreigner to write about a certain country. I love to get my readers to see and sympathise with my characters. I work hard to get convincing details. I have some training in photography, so maybe that’s why my writing is very vivid. Maybe it’s because I’m from the rainforest, where everything lives and breathes and dies in another’s face; I strive to capture that intensity, even when I write about the desert. Besides, my exposure to Ignatian Contemplation (from the Spiritual Exercises of Jesuits) helps me imagine things in detail. Instead of just reading, say, a Bible passage about Jesus, you imagine it. You see yourself as an active participant as the story unfolds. You can see the setting, you can speak to Jesus, you can touch him, you can ask him questions or express your anger or beg him to heal your mother…now if you could do this with Jesus who lived 2000 years ago, why not Rwanda? My Rwandese friends outside Rwanda helped me with cultural details. I play a lot with children; they’re the same everywhere.
You have treated themes of war, religious crisis and their impact; what other themes will you be treating in subsequent works?
My Parents’ Bedroom is a war story. Luxurious Hearses and What Language is That? set in Nigeria and Ethiopia respectively, deal with religious conflicts and their aftermath. I don’t know what I want to write about next.
What are the most rewarding and most difficult parts of your vocation?
To help others live life more fully by administering the sacraments is both rewarding and challenging. Recently, I baptised 70 babies at CKC, Ilasamaja Parish. Oh, it was quite a glorious morning—all these families and their babies giggling and squawking and sleeping. In the evening, I visited a family that lost a teenage son; laughing with those who laugh and mourning with those who mourn, as Romans says, in the same breath is not easy.
You lived in Zimbabwe in 2007. That country is in a crisis now. How was it for you?
It was not easy. I taught at the Jesuit seminary there, with seminarians from all over Africa there for their first degree in philosophy. We lived in small communities and went to school in one place. I lived with 11 guys. The difficult part was the economic and political mess. There were months there was no bread in the whole of Zimbabwe. Who rules over such a country? Even today too many commoners are dying. The Zimbabweans have been brave, but the leadership has to go! Anyway, if you have presided over a country for 30 years, I think you should quit.
Why did you want a one-book contract with your publishers?
As they say, when you go to a new place, stand on one leg in case it’s a grave. I wanted to leave myself enough room to escape if things didn’t work out.
So how did you choose your publisher?
My Michigan teachers and The New Yorker folks helped me pick an agent. She ran an auction in New York City in June 2006 for all interested publishers.
Grammy-Award winner, Angelique Kidjo, has a song about your book…
I was really excited that such an accomplished musician decided to sing about my book!
How did that happen?
Well, a few months before my book came out; my publicist took the book to her, praying that since Angelique is UNICEF ambassador she might appreciate my work. When Angelique read it she came up with a song, Agbalagba. We met one day for 15 wonderful minutes in New York City. As soon as I met her, what I asked her was, “How do you compose all these beautiful songs?” She laughed and said, “And you, how do you write all these beautiful stories?” We were both laughing. She’s very pleasant and has a real passion for children.
Is there something you would rather not write about?
No, if I thought that way there would be nothing to write about. Once I’m touched by a situation and I can write about it, I do. There’s a man I met in a parish who always told stories. When he began if you told him you’d already heard the story, he would say, “Listen, son, because you’ve not heard my version yet!” My hope is always that I could tell it differently or rather from my own perspective.
What would you say are the challenges Nigerian writers face and how could they be overcome?
Life is just hard in Nigeria. How can we get constant electricity? You need this to write. Another thing is education is weak in Nigeria these days. The government is not supporting schools. Though our students are bright and the teachers are willing, what can a university English teacher really do with 500 or 1000 students in a class? Can he seriously correct their essays? Is real teaching going on in the public primary and secondary schools? Sad, our children don’t know how to read and write anymore. The reading culture is not really there. By the way, I was very amused that President Umaru Yar’adua needed a vacation to read books. Do you know any serious president who behaves this way? What a terrible example. Cheating in WAEC and JAMB is very rampant. Where is our government? As I say, our kids are gifted, but we are destroying them in this country. Also, there is no serious publishing in Nigeria. Though a few publishing houses are coming up, and I hope the trend continues. You need editors in these publishing houses who can groom young writers, who can say to a young writer, ‘Change this or that. Not editors who are waiting for a book to be published abroad for them to get the rights and print here. An editor edits. So these local editors should also be able to publish Nigerian writers whose works would not be edited by foreign editors before they’re published out there. Then, we need also special places, a space for young writers and artists to develop. There are many writing programs which offer scholarships or fellowships in the USA and Europe and even South Africa is moving there. Why can’t some of the money our politicians are stealing go into such? There’s a reason why most of our successful writers make it outside Nigeria! Just like other professionals, it’s not easy for the successful writer out there to relocate to Nigeria. Most writers need another job to make ends meet; where are they?