When Chigozie Obioma came up with the idea of writing a novel from the point of view of a person’s “chi” — the animating spirit that, in Igbo cosmology, every living thing contains — his heart sank. It seemed to the 33-year-old that as a writing exercise it was too weird and too hard, besides which, how would he even describe it? “Really I didn’t want to do it that way at all,” he says, in the restaurant of a New York hotel. “That’s the thing with me; any time I come up with an idea for a novel, I’m drawn to a very grand, almost cosmic structure that I try to push away. But as time goes on, and as the story builds, it’s almost as if without this frame it would not make sense. So I would just go ahead, even though I knew it would be very difficult to navigate.”
The result is An Orchestra of Minorities — Obioma’s second novel after his Man Booker-shortlisted debut The Fishermen — an Odyssey-like story in which a poultry farmer from Nigeria undertakes a journey to prove himself worthy of the woman he loves. Chinonso, a man whose chi dithers constantly over how much to interfere in his host’s fortunes, falls in love with a wealthy woman called Ndali, whom he saves from jumping off a bridge and in so doing aligns his destiny with hers.
The novel is a study in what happens when a man loses control of his life and is subject to forces — in this case, the corrupt middlemen who persuade Chinonso to hand over lots of money for a place at university in northern Cyprus, and the racism he confronts on arrival — greater than his own.
The idea for the novel, Obioma says, grew out of something he witnessed when he was himself a student in northern Cyprus. Some of the strongest parts of the book describe the hideous plight of Nigerian students, tricked into handing over large sums of money to gain access to Europe via Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, only to discover, on arrival, that from an immigration perspective the country is not even part of the EU.
Obioma wasn’t subject to this scam himself; his parents were wealthy enough to avoid going through middlemen and to pay the university direct. When he arrived, however, it was clear to him that “95 per cent of the Nigerians I met in Cyprus had been through these middlemen and had lost money.” And he says the universities are benefiting. “When I left Cyprus in 2012, there were about seven universities. Now there are about 15, because it’s so lucrative. Now I hear that Cameroonians are flocking there because of the war.”
The impetus to write the novel came out of what happened to Obioma’s friend, Jay, a Nigerian man he met in the first days of starting college. Jay had been duped by the middle men both into thinking the university in Cyprus would be a springboard into Europe, and that his degree would enable him to make lots of money. Instead, he confronted the reality that not only had most of the funds he’d handed over to fixers been embezzled, but that he was now stuck in northern Cyprus, where there were no jobs and where his status as a Nigerian immigrant made him widely despised. After a heavy bout of drinking, Jay was found dead at the bottom of a lift shaft, where he was assumed to have fallen accidentally.
“One thing that I was always thinking about in the aftermath of the tragic death,” Obioma says, “was that Jay had mentioned, during the few days when I met him, that he had come to Cyprus in the first place because of the woman he was betrothed to — he needed to make money quickly. And I found myself often thinking about her. We had no way to contact her. The university contacted his mother, and they took his corpse back to Nigeria. But we were nobodies. And I was always thinking: what happened to her?”
It is a fascinating premise for a story, along the lines of the movie An Affair to Remember, in which one half of a couple waits endlessly for the other, who will never turn up. These sorts of cliffhangers are not supposed to be possible in the age of the mobile phone, in which no one is kept in the dark about anything. But as Obioma’s novel makes clear, this assumption overlooks the vastness of these immigrant journeys, in which the silencing effect of shame, failure and poverty effectively renders technological advance almost irrelevent.
As a result, An Orchestra of Minorities has about it the air of a timeless story, premised on archetypes from a much earlier age. “I believe that some of the strongest stories we can have begin with very simple archetypes,” says Obioma. “The great mother, or the great father, for example. And you work your way from that, slowly, to more complexity. The idea of this guy who wants to be with the woman he loves — you can say the same of the movie Gladiator, for instance. If you strip everything down to the basics, it’s just about Maximus wanting to go back to his wife and every other thing stopping him. Even Homer’s Odyssey; he just wants to go back and the entire universe is conspiring against that ambition.”
Obioma’s own journey ended in a much happier place. He is the fifth of 12 children, the son of a banker who, as Obioma puts it, “pulled himself up by his bootstraps. His dad died when he was 10, and he funded his education by being a manservant to wealthy families.” Obioma’s father is a big reader and while his mother “had only a primary school education, she encouraged us”.
Obioma was an academic stand-out in the family: “I found reading to be an escape. I was a recluse. I would always be the one hiding, and reading”. His parents were adamant that he enter a profession and, as they put it, not “waste” his promise on something like writing. “They wanted the best for me. They didn’t want me to be poor.” Under their influence, he agreed to study engineering at a university in Nigeria, but was desperately unhappy and left before graduating. He then won a place at a university in Britain, but the Home Office withdrew the offer of a visa before he could take it up. Finally his parents found the university in northern Cyprus, where, against the odds, Obioma flourished, and wound up staying on to teach. Eventually, he applied and won a place to do a writing fellowship at the University of Michigan, and it was there that he completed his first novel, The Fishermen.
The success of that debut, which describes the lives of four brothers living in a small town in Nigeria and which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015, finally put paid to his parents’ anxieties. Obioma now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he teaches at the university and occasionally struggles to remember which language to operate in. He is quadrilingual, speaking Igbo, the language of his father, as well as Yoruba, which is widely spoken in the south west of Nigeria where Obioma grew up, plus English and, thanks to his sojourn in Cyprus, Turkish. There are some advantages, he says. “There are some rhetorical moves that I wouldn’t be able to make if I didn’t know these languages. In terms of writing figurative language, I probably pull a lot from Yoruba imagery. I was reading from the book at the launch and there is a phrase I thought about afterwards. It was that to Chinonso, Ndali was the thing ‘his soul had been longing for with tears in its eyes’. And I thought, how did I come up with the idea of somebody’s soul crying? And I imagine it was from the folklore that my mum would tell me — the word soul is used a lot in the Yoruba language, more than you would find in English.”
At other times, being quadrilingual becomes difficult. “After learning Turkish my English was affected, and for a while it was very difficult for me to speak in an articulate way extemporaneously. But then it got better. The languages eventually meshed and things realigned, but for a while it felt like something had gone wrong somewhere. Sometimes I wish I could divest myself of some of these languages.”
One of the joys of his new novel is the way that it interweaves western religion and philosophy with Nigerian thought systems, without any obvious hierarchy. It was his intention, he says, to trace the locus of Igbo cosmology as it is vested in the idea of the “chi”. So, he says, “the idea of the chi comes from the basic principle that where one thing stands, another thing stands beside it. We believe in the duality of everything; we believe that nothing has meaning if it cannot be compared to something else. Beauty has no meaning if there is no such thing as ugliness. If you exist in a corporeal form, there must be a double in the spiritual realm. The chi is your spirit double.”
In An Orchestra of Minorities, Obioma posits this theory in opposition to that of free will — the Christian idea, embedded in western political and judicial institutions, that a person is not governed by a spirit force, but is entirely responsible for their own moral choices. The resultant conflict informs the question underpinning Chinonso’s tragic arc: to what extent is he culpable in his own downfall? While there are flashes of humour, and Obioma himself is full of merriment, the novel comes to a gloomy conclusion.
“People always ask me, why do your stories end this way? And honestly,” he says, “I want to write a feelgood story. But I think that because I’m fascinated with the metaphysics of existence, I keep thinking why, of all the people who came to Cyprus, was it Jay who died? Or, I read not too long ago of a nine-year-old doing her homework and there’s a drive-by shooting and a bullet comes in through the roof and kills her. She didn’t do anything to deserve that fate. When you think about these things, and you want to write fiction around that, the path it takes you to can feel inevitable and tragic.”
The impulse to write in the first instance may come from a place of optimism — Obioma says that he was partly motivated by a desire to salvage Jay’s death from meaninglessness — but the bottom line remains that, whether one construes the larger forces to be spiritual or political, Jay, and so many other victims of seemingly random deaths, “didn’t do anything to deserve that fate”. Illuminating that fact honours the author’s friend as it powers his fiction.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd