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Few debut novels generated more excitement this year than Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen. Published to critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, the winner of the inaugural Emerging Voices prize for African and Middle Eastern fiction has also reached the later stages of four other literary awards, Britain’s Man Booker shortlist included, and even prompted the New York Times to hail its 28-year-old Nigerian author as the heir to Chinua Achebe.
When I meet him on the fringes of the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, the softly spoken Obioma plays down comparisons between The Fishermen and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). “The truth is this: I see myself first as an Igbo man,” he says, referring to the Nigerian ethnic group. “Achebe was the first who really attempted to tell our story to the world, and it is nearly impossible not to have been influenced by that.”
But the Nigerian novel that looms largest for Obioma is Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), a journey into the land of the dead that draws deeply on a well of folk-tale and legend.
“That mythic dimension is what I’m most interested in — the way he blends the supernatural world seamlessly with the human reality.”
The Fishermen is the story of four brothers who, taking advantage of their disciplinarian father’s absence, defy his warnings and fish in the Omi-Ala, a once-sacred river now shunned as a place of danger and pollution. They encounter a madman, Abulu, and learn of his prophecy that the eldest, Ikenna, will die at the hands of one of the others. The idea planted, trust breaks down and the boys are pulled inexorably apart.
Obioma explains how the novel was inspired by a telephone conversation with his father in 2009. Living abroad and nostalgic for home, he was told of the increasing closeness of his elder brothers, who had been bitter rivals for a period during adolescence. “I started thinking about what could have happened if they had continued on that path,” he says. “So I decided to tell a story about a family whose unity is destroyed by an external force.”
Nowhere is the mythic quality of The Fishermen felt more than in its signature device: the vivid images, often drawn from the natural world, through which its narrator recalls his childhood. “Father was an eagle,” runs one. “The mighty bird that planted his nest high above the rest of his peers, hovering and watching over his young eagles, the way a king guards his throne.”
Yet this is also a novel rooted in a specific time and place. The brothers play Mortal Kombat; they are swept up in the optimism of MKO Abiola’s 1993 presidential campaign; later, they marvel around crowded television screens at the progress of Nigeria’s footballers at the Atlanta Olympics. And in the margins of the narrative, details offered almost in passing — a body found by the river, a thief burnt in the market — create an impression of social breakdown that seems to invite a realist reading of the boys’ response to Abulu’s curse.
The author describes his book on the inside cover as a “wake-up call to a dwindling nation” and accepts it will be taken as a commentary on Nigerian history. “We’re one of the richest countries by earnings in the world, but in all the years we’ve been amassing all of this wealth from the oil, we’ve made nothing out of it.”
The problem for him lies in the very foundation of the country. “The idea did not belong to the people. It was an external force that came, just like the madman’s prophesy, and said: ‘Be this way.’”
Obioma will inevitably be considered alongside other talented Nigerian novelists to have emerged since the success of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus in 2003 — Helon Habila, A Igoni Barrett, Teju Cole and Chinelo Okparanta to name a few — but, as he emphasises, he is a writer who has pursued a singular course.
Born in 1986 in Akure, south-west Nigeria, he describes his middle-class childhood home as like the family compound in the fictionalised Akure, where the events of The Fishermen unfold. The boys’ father, he says, “is probably 60 per cent my dad”.
In 2007, after studying economics in Nigeria, Obioma enrolled on a course in literature at Cyprus International University on the Turkish side of Nicosia. “It was an interesting experience for me,” he says. “I learnt the language, I got a degree, I wrote The Fishermen there.”
Resident in the US since 2012, Obioma graduated with a masters in creative writing from the University of Michigan then took up a teaching role in Nebraska, which started in August. But if there is justice in the criticism that such programmes impose a slick uniformity on the variegated material of fiction, it is clear that Obioma’s own students will not be encouraged to suppress their individual voices in pursuit of some pared-back, minimalist ideal. “I love to read sentences and be wowed by them,” he says. “So why is everyone writing according to the dictum ‘less is more’?”
Not quite everyone, on the evidence of The Fishermen — and if the judges of this award are any guide, the case against less has been well made.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
“I was afraid we were going to explode — and we did,” says Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, remembering the Kenyan crisis in December 2007 when Mwai Kibaki, the then-president, declared himself the winner in presidential elections, ignoring allegations of electoral fraud. Ethnic violence erupted between tribes with different political allegiances. In just a few weeks, more than 1,000 people were killed and thousands more displaced.
Owuor’s first novel, Dust, was written in response. In the book, engineer turned gang leader Odidi is killed in a gunfight with police in Nairobi. His father, Nyipir, and sister, Ajany, take his body home to the northern Kenyan drylands for burial.
But then his mother, Akai, vanishes. A mysterious Englishman, the son of a British colonial officer, turns up seeking information about his missing father. Revelations of infidelity and violence emerge as their story unfolds against the backdrop of Kenya’s political history, from British colonial rule to 2007.
“The violence the family explores is very much personal and real,” says Owuor, 47, whose characters, she says, were formed in the 2007 turmoil. “It was the face of grief and bewilderment. It’s from that experience the characters’ voices, faces and eyes emerged. It would turn into an incredible journey.”
In 2003, Owuor won the Caine prize for African Writing for her short story Weight of Whispers, about a Rwandan aristocrat fleeing the 1994 genocide to Europe, who then becomes trapped in Kenya.
“I feel lucky my work has been profiled internationally and engaged with,” she says. “People are now looking in all sorts of places. The African literature scene is in an exciting state, and a place of growth and possibility.” Andre Rhoden-Paul
Our Lady of the Nile
Our Lady of the Nile, set in a Catholic girls boarding school in 1970s Rwanda, is a microcosm of the social and racial tension between Hutus and Tutsis that exploded in the country with genocide in 1994. It is the first novel by Scholastique Mukasonga, who lost 27 relatives in the killings.
Mukasonga says much fiction written about that period gives the impression that the violence and turmoil were unexpected. “Instead, it was the result of a long course of hate, persecution and humiliation [of Tutsis] by Hutu governments from 1959 to 1994,” she says.
Born in 1956, Mukasonga left for France before the violence erupted, but she sees her literary mission to “preserve the memory of the Tutsi genocide against the denial that still exists and the tendency to forget”.
Her previous books, including The Barefoot Woman, were autobiographical, drawing on her childhood memories of life in Rwanda. Mukasonga says her first fictional work has had a “cathartic function”, and made it possible to express ideas and themes that she could not tackle in an autobiography.
The author, who lives in Normandy, received the Prix Renaudot award for Our Lady of the Nile, which was written in 2012.
“In France, French-language African literature has a good readership. African authors definitely have a place in international literature.”
Our Lady of the Nile, written in French, has been translated into German, Italian, Danish, Arabic, Polish and English, and has sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide. “Genocide concerns all humanity. So I had an interest and duty to write in a language that was likely to be translated.
“One day my books will be released in Rwandan. The words of my mother tongue, which sprinkle my books.”