Someone whose opinion was supposed to matter asked why I thought readers in Nigeria or anywhere would want to read about rural life or why couldn’t I set the book in Lagos
In a subtle way, religion does play a major role in this novel. With Benedict’s fleeting relationship with God and Ma’s constant faith which magnified when she turned to religion to help find her son and the repentant officer at the end. Was there some kind of commentary you wanted to make about Nigerians and their relationship with religion?
I don’t even know if it’s a commentary, or maybe it is. For a book with Nigerian characters, if you want to work in a realist tradition, religion becomes a part of it. We are an overwhelmingly religious country, for better or for worse. I am interested in religion, in the many ways in which people believe and what that might mean. You will find two people who go to the same place of worship, may have the same level of ostensible adherence to their faith and still act radically different in situations.
There’s obviously something really deep in us that turns us towards religion, faith, spirituality, whatever we choose to call it. It is one of the ways in which we find meaning in life. I wouldn’t call it commentary, but there are definitely questions asked there. If you claim the core of your life is rooted in religious belief yet your actions betray dubious and unpalatable morality, shouldn’t questions be asked? And it might be useful to clarify here that by morality I mean right or wrong actions, not whether a woman’s skirt is above the knee or whether somebody has tattoos and body piercings. I had a run in with the police once in Port Harcourt.
They acted in a really abominable way, tried to shake me down for a bribe, they were willing and ready to offer me their special brand of violence, and they also became interested in what congregation I worshipped with. It was a Saturday night and they were all going to be in church the next morning. Of course, the Nigeria Police are an easy target, but really the people who fill our places of worship also occupy different positions in their work lives during the week, from managers, secretaries to gatekeepers, and it’s interesting to see how willingly we use our positions to violate each other. Why?
Good question indeed. But then speaking about the police, the officer at the end of your novel was emboldened to come clean because he had found religion. Did you see any parallels between this incident and the relationship of our politicians with religion?
That’s a troublesome question. My superficial concern was to describe a situation. I’ve seen these things happen. In that specific case the officer coming to confess was rooted in a specific doctrine, and his boldness too, which you mention, is also a result of his action being rooted in religious doctrine; there is a righteous feeling there for him too, I think. It’s not always simple. On one hand we can talk about the ways in which we can act when we can support it by religious doctrine, the ways in which some religious teachings can dull compassion, but also how a lot of compassionate and just behavior can still issue out of religious understanding. I have no interest in decrying what people believe but rather that we be alert about what we consider moral action.
Our politicians and religion is another matter. Our politicians and established religious organizations. Our politicians who have a trail of irresponsible behavior throughout their political lives, swaggering into churches during election season to be prophesied over and blessed by well regarded and well loved religious leaders. We have a long history of this and it is the ugliest thing to witness: how they each roll over, legs in the air, like dogs being tickled. It is quite possible for religious organizations and leaders to be a strong voice for fairness. The civil rights movement in the United States gained a lot its power from the tradition of the black church. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was after all a southern Baptist pastor.
The character of Ajie is the one who ask questions of religion the most. Was there an idea behind empowering him with this curiosity and boldness?
I think most of us have asked questions of religion at some point in our lives. We are not always allowed the boldness, or we are punished for it, terrorized into submission, mainly by our parents. Questions are good. I really believe it, that one of the important ways to understand the world is to first say ‘no’, to query a situation. Of course your parents might slap you; someone might take it upon themselves to kill you, a leader of a place of worship might ostracize you, a politician might hire killers to do away with you. People are really threatened by questions.
So you see, I wanted to have a character who asked questions and whose parents weren’t threatened by them, even if they had their own formed views. I also wanted to test the limits of their liberal attitude. The power relationship between parent and child is the trickiest and most powerful one. At what point do you snap your finger at the child and say shut up
For the sake of an intelligible answer, I will say my writing comes from all the writers I’ve read and loved, all the stories I listened to as child and the stories I listen to now. My writing comes from the shape of my own brain. I read all kinds of people and have had intense periods of loving particular writers. I love writing that pays attention to language, I love restraint and I enjoy baroque writing, it has to be good, or in fact, I have to like it. Faulkner was really important to me, never mind I haven’t read him now in years. Coetzee, Jamaica Kincaid, Donald Barthelme, Ian McEwan. Femi Osofisan’s poetry was my life blood for years.
His collection, Minted Coin, which was published under the pseudonym Okinba Launko…that slim book went everywhere with me. I may have even read it while on an Okada. The King James Bible, The New King James Bible, The New International version has its charm and magic but it’s ultimately of a lower order. Chimamanda Adichie is masterful. In some of her short stories you really witness the beauty of her language, the power and subtlety of her thought, her psychological acuity. She makes serious attempts to capture something that is true.
There has been a lot of buzz about contemporary fiction produced by your generation of writers. What do you think is responsible for this convergence of exciting works and writers?
I don’t know, but we welcome it. There are so many stories to be told. We need them all.
Finally, is there another book in the works or is there a long wait for your readers?
I would like to end this on a light note and answer in typically Nigerian fashion: (sigh) we are praying to God.
Ile: ‘It’s unfair that my friends expect me not to be broke because of this prize’