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

Sunday Trust - - ARTS & IDEAS -

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’

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