The FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Awards were launched this year by the Financial Times and OppenheimerFunds to “identify and reward talent among multiple countries and regions in the developing world”. This year, the awards recognised artists from Latin America and the Caribbean, filmmakers from Asia-Pacific and writers from Africa and the Middle East. The winners were Obioma, Yuhang Ho of Malaysia for his film Trespassed, and artist Cristina Planas of Peru.
“I’m very honoured to be here and to be named the winner – are you serious? Are you sure it’s not a mistake?” Obioma joked in an interview with the Financial Times’ Michael Skapinker after the ceremony.
The Fishermen is the story of the close relationship of four young brothers, who defy their authoritarian father by fishing in the Omi-Ala, a once-sacred but now polluted river. The brothers encounter a madman who prophesies that one of them will be killed by a fisherman, and the condemned boy becomes convinced that one of his brothers will be responsible.
Obioma says the inspiration for the book was the loneliness he felt while he was studying in Cyprus, away from his family for the first time.
“Cyprus is very far from Nigeria,” he says. “I come from a family of 12 children, and I have seven brothers. When we were growing up, I didn’t have any friends, because we were so complete that there was no need to have a friend. So when I uprooted myself to another country I was missing them so much, and I wanted to write a tribute.”
Obioma adds that he believes the FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Awards reignited interest in the book.
“This award means a lot, and I hope that it will bring a lot of readers to the book,” he says. “It was published in the UK in February, and in the US in April, and reviews had run their course and no one was talking about it until you propped it up, so I hope this will give it new life.”
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.
In Chinelo Okparanta’s new novel Under the Udala Trees, a chance meeting between Ijeoma, a Christian Igbo, and Amina, a Muslim Hausa, begins a friendship that turns quickly to passion. “This was the beginning,” Okparanta writes. “Our bodies being touched by the fire that was each other’s flesh … Tingly and good and like everything perfect in the world.”
Ijeoma’s secure, stable childhood has already unravelled by then. The novel is set in 1968, one year into the Biafran conflict, and Ijeoma’s world is beset by “the ruckus of armored cars and shelling machines, bomber planes and their loud engines sending shock waves through our ears”. Things grow worse.
In a slow-burning portrait of an ordinary family embroiled in extraordinary times (Nigeria’s slide into the Abacha dictatorship underlies the story), Obioma weaves the linear chronology of a Bildungsroman and the everyday detail of the 19th-century novel together with the circuitous back-looping of oral forms and “told tales”: their tendency towards formulae, repetition, proverb, incantation.
At a Poetica event, Vus’umuzi Phakathi presented a one-man grand slam, bringing three of his characters to life: Romeo The Poet and Vus’umuzi go head-to-head in a poetry slam while Lil’Hussil plays referee. Annetjie had the unenviable task of live tweeting the performance:
It’s Fiction Friday! Dip into an excerpt from Foreign Gods, Inc., the latest novel by Okey Ndibe, who will be in Cape Town for the Open Book Festival next week.
The novel tells the story of Ike, a New York-based Nigerian cab driver, who sets out to steal the statue of an ancient war deity from his home village and sell it to a New York gallery.
Ndibe earned some heavyweight praise for the book, with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o saying it “reads like the narrative of a taxi-driving Faust in modern Nigeria and America … it teems with characters and situations that make you laugh in order not to cry”.
Wole Soyinka said it was “quite a while since I sensed creative promise on this level”.
Ndibe was born in Nigeria, in 1960, and moved to the United States in 1988 when Chinua Achebe invited him to become the founding editor of African Commentary. He has MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and lives in Connecticut.
Read an excerpt from the first chapter of Foreign Gods, Inc.:
Ikechukwu Uzondu, “Ike for short,” parked his Lincoln Continental cab at a garage that charged twelve dollars per hour. Before shutting off the engine, he looked at the car’s electronic clock. Nine forty-seven a.m.; it meant the gallery would have been open for a little less than an hour. Perfect, Ike thought, for he wished to be done transacting his business before the place started buzzing.
He walked a block and a half to 19 Vance Street. Had a small animal been wedged in his throat, his heart could not have pounded more violently.
The eave over the door bore a sign etched in black over a bluish background: foreign gods, incorporated. It was written in tiny, stylized lettering, as if intended to create a tactful anonymity. Few would stumble upon a store like this; it would be found, it seemed, only by habitués and devotees.
Across the street was a bar. Ike contemplated a quick drink or two to calm his nerves. How odd to flack for a war god while jittery. Yet, to go in smelling of alcohol might also be a costly mistake.
The gallery door clicked, and a tanned woman walked out. A squat carved statue was clutched close to her breast, held in a suckling posture. At the curb, a gleaming black BMW pulled up. She opened the rear door and leaned in, arched backside revealing the outline of her underwear. Her black high-heeled shoes were riveted with nodes of diamond. She strapped the deity in place with the seat belt and then straightened. The car’s front door was opened from inside. She lowered herself in, and the car sped off.
Ike pulled at the gallery door—surprisingly light. A wide, sprawling space unfurled itself: gray marble floors, turquoise walls, and glass-paneled showcases. A multitude of soft, recessed lights accentuated the gallery’s dim, spectral atmosphere. In the middle of the room, slightly to the left of the door, a spiral staircase with two grille-work banisters rose to an upper floor. Ike knew from the New York magazine piece that people went upstairs only by invitation. And that those invitations went only to a small circle of long-term collectors or their designated dealers.
There was an otherworldly chill in the air. There was also a smell about the place, unsettling and hard to name. Ike froze at the edge of the run of stairs that led down to the floor of the gallery. From the elevation, he commanded a view. The space was busy but not cluttered. Clusters of short, squat showcases were interspersed with long and deep ones. Here and there, some customers peered into the glass cases or pored over catalogs.
In a matter of two, three weeks, his people’s ancient deity, Ngene, would be here, too. And it would enjoy pride of place, not on this floor, with the all-comers and nondescripts, but upstairs, in the section called Heaven. Ngene was a majestic god with a rich legend and history. How many other gods could boast of dooming Walter Stanton, that famed English missionary whose name, in the syllable-stretching mouths of the people of Utonki, became Su-tan-tee-ny?
The thought gave him a gutsy boost. He trotted down the steps to the floor of the gallery. Walking unhurriedly, he cast deliberate glances about him, so that an observer might mistake him for a veteran player in the rare sport where gods and sacred curios were bought and sold. He paused near the spiral staircase. A sign warned please do not ascend unless escorted. He walked on to a chest-high showcase. A hefty wooden head stared at him from atop a rectangular stump. The face was pitched forward, like a tortoise’s head poking out of a shell. On closer inspection, Ike saw that the carved head was deformed by a chipped, flattened nose and large, bulgy eyes. Inside the case, four fluorescent puck lights washed the statue with crisscross patterns of luminescence and shadows. A fork-tongued serpent coiled itself round the statue’s neck.
There was an electronic key code for the showcase’s twin-winged door, and several perforations in the glass, small and circular, as if designed to let in and let out just enough air to keep the glum, rigid statue from suffocating. A strip tag glued to the glass cage identified the deity as C1760. Ike picked up a glossy catalog and thumbed to the C section. Each page was columned, with sections marked “inventory code,” “name,” “brief history,” and “price.” He ran his finger down the line until he saw the tag number. Then he drew his finger across to the price column: $29,655.
He flipped the pages to the catalog’s last section, marked “Heavenly Inventory.” The lowest price in the section was $171,455; the highest $1.13 million. He studied the image of one of the deities in that section. Carved from soot-black wood, it had two fused figures, one female, and the other male. The figures backed each other. The female was big breasted and boasted a swollen belly. The male figure held a hoe in one hand, a gun in the other, its grotesque phallus extending all the way to its feet. They shared the same androgynous head, turned neither left nor right but forward. A pair of deep-set eyes seemed to return Ike’s stare. It was listed for $325,630. Ike read the short italicized description: A god of the crossroads, originally from Papua New Guinea.
“Wait until they see Ngene,” he said under his breath, a flush of excitement washing over him. Surely, a legendary god of war would command a higher price than a two-faced crossroads idler.
The New York Public Library has shared the podcast of a witty and insightful conversation between Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith that happened late last year.
The two authors discuss a wide variety of topics, from writing, to Mills and Boone; race and blackness; the differences between America, the UK and Nigeria; as well as Beyoncé, fashion, sexuality and feminism.
Adichie begins with a reading from Americanah, but not before expressing her admiration for Smith, both as a writer and as a “hot babe”.
“I have admired and followed Zadie’s work from the very beginning, from White Teeth,” she says, “and I’ve also really admired that she’s this brilliant woman who’s also a hot babe. I think it’s really important that brilliant women step out there and be hot babes.”
Smith says when she first read Adichie she was struck by the “psychological acuity” of her work, and she says anyone who has ever written will know how “unbelievably difficult that is to achieve”.
“I think everyone who reads you is amazed by how real these people seem,” Smith says. “It goes quite beyond a lot of the fiction you read these days.”
Adichie mentions the aphorism that “prose should be as clear as a window pane”, but says the truth is more mysterious than that.
“What I love about fiction writing is that there’s that moment when something magic happens,” she says. “You have moments when nothing’s happening, it’s not going well. Then there’s the moment when you just become transported, and you really forget how much time has past. When I’m sitting writing, that’s what I’m hoping will happen.
“But when I’m editing, clarity is important to me. It’s easy to confuse something that’s badly written as somehow deep. The sentences I admire are the sentences that are lucid.”
Smith says she feels Adichie’s characters move with extraordinary freedom: “They feel utterly genuine to me, as if these people have risen out of the ground, they exist, and you are just following them around.”
Adichie says she likes to think of Americanah as her “fuck you book”, adding that the moniker is addressed, in part, to another, more deferential, version of herself.
“With Half of a Yellow Sun I was very dutiful. I think for so long I’ve been a dutiful daughter of literature,” Adichie says. “I followed the rules. With Americanah I thought, ‘I’m going to write the book I want to write’.”
Women in fiction
Smith asks Adichie about her female characters, which she feels are of a type quite unusual in American fiction: “The women in your fiction are somehow always themselves. They’re always confident.”
Adichie agrees, saying: “I hear from people, ‘Your female characters are so strong, how do you do that?’
“For me, I’m writing about women who are familiar. Not to say that all the women I know are strong and have their shit together, they’re not. But to say that the idea of a woman being strong and simply being strong not to prove anything, or not to be unusual, is normal to me.”
On Mills & Boon and owning your sexuality
Smith turns the conversation to relationships, saying that the relationships in Adichie’s books are “not a light matter”, comparing her treatment of romantic and sexual relationships to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Adichie asks Smith if she read Mills and Boon growing up, but Smith says her mother banned the books from the house.
“When I was growing up, every girl read Mills and Boon,” Adichie says, “and I think I read maybe 200.”
“But in those books girls wait, no? Your girls don’t wait,” Smith says, to the delight of Adichie, and the audience.
Adichie replies that her books are in the grand tradition of Mills and Boon but are also anti-Mills and Boon.
“It took me a little while to realise that I really don’t like the Mills and Boon format, where the man decides,” Adichie says. “The destiny of the relationship is in the hands of the man, and it’s okay if they meet, they don’t like each other, and he grabs her at some point and she melts. You know that idea that a woman can’t own her sexuality, can’t own her choices? So my work is the anti-Mills and Boon in many ways. The women in my world don’t have to wait because they’re women.”
Smith says: “Maybe it’s that difference that Alice Walker pointed out so many years ago between ‘feminine’ and ‘womanist’: the idea of not being something that’s just passive, waiting to be taken, but something that acts in the world.”
On fashion and women’s magazines
After a fascinating discussion of race, tempered by the fact that both Smith and Adichie are non-Americans living in America, the conversation turned to fashion and whether black women should be more represented in women’s magazines, or whether they are boxed in by those aesthetics.
“I have a probably unpopular opinion,” Smith says, “but I grew up with a mother with no interest in any of that — makeup, magazines, anything — and I was really happy. So my feeling is, to be honest, I don’t really want to be in those magazines. I don’t really like those magazines. And I know it’s a matter of representation and it’s meant to be equality, but do you want to be equal with something that makes so many people miserable?
“I quite like the fact that we had our own aesthetic and we had our own way of being and it had nothing to do with weighing five pounds … I don’t care about those magazines. I know it’s important to be represented, but personally, if you’re asking me honestly, I don’t like that stuff and I don’t want to be a part of it anyway.”
Adichie disagrees, saying she believes “it really does matter”, and that despite appearances the argument has nothing to do with men.
“It’s one think to have our own verified, wonderful little bubbles and to be happy in them,” she says, “but there’s a wider world out there. And so you’re raising a daughter; you’re not going to be able to keep her away from those things, it’s not going to happen. My mother was the exact opposite of yours, she was very interested in all of those things.
“It’s not even about the male gaze. Men don’t get female fashion. I don’t even think about men when I make my choices, because they’re irrelevant. I love men but they just don’t get it. It’s about me. And I don’t want to live in a world where I have to apologise for liking what I like.”
Smith says the black women that are featured in those kinds of magazines are not familiar anyway: “They don’t look like black women that I know. They’re under a different aesthetic.”
Adichie assents that the images are “unattainable”, but argues that they don’t have to be, adding: “Even for me that’s progress. It’s still better to have black faces that weigh five pounds than not to have any faces that are black.”
Unlike Mr. Zvomuya’s stand that The Fishermen may have been included in the Man Booker Prize list to satisfy literary geopolitics, I daresay, proudly, that The Fishermen is a book worthy of being in the Man Booker Prize list because of its among many others, narrative powers, historic relevance and poignancy.
The inspiration for Another Man’s War came from my love of one of Africa’s most maligned countries, Nigeria. When I lived in Lagos as a BBC Correspondent some 15 years ago, I learned about the so-called “Burma Boys”, the 100,000 Africans sent to the jungles of Burma by the British during the World War II to fight against the Japanese.
Their contribution is all but forgotten today, both in Britain and in the former colonies from which they were recruited. But it wasn’t until 2011, when I managed to track down a Nigerian veteran of the Burma campaign with a remarkable story, that I had the confidence to start writing. His name was Isaac Fadoyebo, a gentle and gracious man, by then in his 80s. In the front yard of his modest Lagos home, he told me how he’d been severely wounded in Burma in 1944, and of how the Japanese had left him for dead deep in the jungle. Too sick to sit or even crawl, Isaac had clung to life in the weeks that followed. He was saved by the kindness of strangers. Muslim villagers took pity on Isaac and, at enormous risk to themselves, fed and eventually hid him in a family hut. Nine long months later, Isaac was freed by British soldiers.
So I set off for Burma to try and find the people who had saved him, carrying Isaac’s letter of thanks and photographs. It was an adventure that took me to a remote region of a troubled country, and an eventual encounter that I shall never forget.
With Isaac’s story firmly at the heart of my book, I tried to tell the wider tale of the Burma Boys. Why did these African soldiers go to Burma? Were they forced to fight for the British? What did they make of the mighty Japanese army and the dense Burmese jungle? How did their experiences change them as individuals, and the soon-to-be independent countries to which they returned? And why have they been forgotten?
I also tracked down a handful of the surviving British officers who had led African soldiers in Burma. Some were blind, others deaf, their voices weak, yet they spoke with haunting passion about that distant, traumatic time. By the time I’d finished writing, some two years later, all but one of these officers had died.
I’ve tried to paint a very different picture of the World War II to that which we are accustomed. I want to make readers reexamine their assumptions about some of the most dramatic events of the 20th century. But above all, Isaac’s story is a universal one, of courage, suffering and our common humanity, which I hope resonates far beyond Africa, Burma and Britain.
The shortlistees for the Emerging Voices art category, which is open to people from Latin America and the Caribbean, are Fabiola Menchelli Tejeda, Pablo Mora Ortega and Cristina Planas. Shubhashish Bhutiani, Yuhang Ho, Mont Tesprateep and Han Ting are the finalists in the film category, open to the Asia-Pacific area.
The award aims to “recognise extraordinary artistic talent”. The Fiction Prize is open to fiction published in English by writers from Africa and the Middle East. Nine of the 10 authors featured in the fiction longlist were from Africa, including South Africans Mandla Langa and Ingrid Winterbach, and all of the shortlisted authors are from this continent.
The winner will be announced at a gala dinner at the New York Public Library on 5 October, along with the winners of the art and film prizes. The grand prize is worth $40 000.
In his story “Mafikeng Road”, Bosman explains, “it is not the story that counts. What matters is the way you tell it. The important thing is to know just at what moment you must knock out your pipe on your veldskoen… And another necessary thing is to know what part of the story to leave out.”
It’s as though Bosman was peering into the future, gazing intently at the ever expanding Creative Writing Industrial Complex.
The Fishermen is 300 pages long; a lot could have been left to make a leaner, better book. The story, with many turns and tangents, features four protagonists – brothers Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and the novel’s narrator, Benjamin – alongside Abulu, the local madman. It is set during the Nigeria of the 1990s, in Akure, in the country’s south west. Those were the years when Nigeria would trade democracy and hope (in presidential aspirant Chief Moshood Abiola) for darkness and dictatorship (General Sani Abacha).
The first line of the novel, “We were fishermen: my brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 …” points to a tragic story, a tale of youthful adventure and brotherly camaraderie. It is also the story of migrant labour – a phenomenon that people in southern Africa intimately know – tracing how one man’s exile from his family resulted in death, murder, madness and more. By the time the exiled man learns of his sons’ escapades by the local river, and of their exploits as a fishermen, it is too late. As he lashes his sons, he cries out, “I sweat and suffer to send you to school to receive a Western education, but you choose instead to be fishermen.”
Fate has already set apart his children for its own whims. For a “prophecy” has been delivered by Abulu, the madman-oracle, regarding Ikenna, the eldest brother. Abulu is a victim of an automobile accident, which leaves him with a delicate mind. Exuberantly described as “the oracle of the scribbler of the telegraph of fate”, he will have sex with anyone in sight, his mother and a dead woman included; he eats leftovers; he lives rough; he roams around town. But, crucially, his cracked brain allows him access to the world beyond. So Abulu walks around predicting that an accident will claim one family, which happens, and that one man will die from pleasure, and the man duly dies while having sex with a prostitute.
The biggest flaw of this book is that it is overwritten: Obioma doesn’t know what to leave out. Many a times metaphors creak, stretched beyond breaking point. Then there are digressions of extended digressions. There is no space, for the purposes of this review, to show the numerous instances in which you want to say to the writer, ease up, go slow. But this will suffice: writing about his mother’s insanity, the narrator says, “she was … tucked away as if she were a dangerous explosive material. There had been a cataclysmic explosion of her mind, and her perception of the known world had been blasted in to smithereens.” Please note that things being blown to smithereens, or the phrase’s variants, happens a few other times in the novel.
Obioma is a writer to look out for: there is, to be sure, a compelling story somewhere in these 300 pages, as the attention from the folks at the Man Booker Prize attests. But it feels The Fishermen’s inclusion in the longlist has something to do with literary geopolitics: they had to fish out an African.