08 Jan / Five More to Go: Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities [in The Booklist Reader]
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
With the 2015 debut of The Fisherman, The New York Times rejoiced: “Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe.” Almost four years later, his sophomore title – hitting shelves today – doesn’t disappoint. The story seems familiarly simple: a man and a woman fall in love, but their happily-ever-after is fraught with obstacles. Yet nothing is quite that straightforward in Obioma’s latest.
The narrator, for example, happens to be a 700-year-old chi (guardian spirit) who inhabits Chinonso, a young Nigerian poultry farmer more bonded to his fowl than any human companions. That changes when Chinonso meets Ndali after preventing her from attempting suicide. But when Ndali’s wealthy family rejects Chinonso for his humble circumstances, Chinonso determines to prove himself worthy. He sells everything he owns to pursue a university education in Cyprus – only to make the bleak discovery that he’s entrusted his future to a primary-school friend who has utterly betrayed him. Throughout, Chinonso’s resolve to return to Ndali is all that keeps him alive.
By having Chinonso’s chi serve as storyteller, Obioma transforms this contemporary love story into a mythic quest. Enhanced by Igbo cosmology, centuries of history revealed through glimpses of the chi’s past hosts, and autobiographical elements (Obioma also studied in Cyprus, and met a fellow Nigerian whose dire experiences initially sparked the novel), this magnificently multi-layered title is an Odyssean achievement.
Below are five more memorable peripatetic titles by Nigerian authors. Obioma – and these five writers (plus numerous others) – ensure a vastly diverse representation of their homeland and beyond.
And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile
On a Monday afternoon during Nigeria’s 1995 rainy season, 17-year-old Paul tells his younger brother, Ajie, that he is going to meet a friend and then vanishes without a trace. For the rest of his life, Ajie is known as the last person to have seen his brother, the family’s exemplary, exceptional firstborn. Here, Ajie chronicles the before and after of his splintered family’s story. Ile intertwines personal details with Nigeria’s turbulent past to create a debut novel of combustive intensity and universal heartbreak.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
In this complex debut, Emezi weaves a traditional Igbo myth that turns the well-worn narrative of mental illness on its head. Ada, the protagonist, is a young Nigerian who never stood a chance. From birth, it “was clear that she … was going to go mad.” Within her are “hatchlings, godlings, ogbanje.” Sometimes, they peacefully coexist; other times, they are satiated only through savage takeover. Though Ada’s parents attempt to tame the outbursts with Catholicism, when Ada leaves home for a Virginia college, her fractured selves assert greater control. The strongest of all is Asughara, whose insatiable demands for sex and violence push Ada further from sanity than ever before. Winner of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa, Emezi explained in a recent interview, “I wanted to … look at a life through the lens of a different reality – something that was centered more in Igbo spirituality than in Western concepts of mental health.” The result is both shattering and mesmerizing.
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
The only child of a Nigerian mother and an English father, 8-year-old Jessamy is intellectually gifted; she loves haiku and reads (and understands) Shakespeare. She also suffers from uncontrollable tantrums and inexplicable illnesses, prefers isolation, and lacks friends. During a family trip to Nigeria – “Because it all STARTED in Nigeria” – Jess meets TillyTilly, a girl her age who seems to know more about Jess and her family than Jess herself. Upon her family’s return to London, Jess is initially relieved to find TillyTilly has unexpectedly moved into their neighborhood … or has she? Who is TillyTilly really? How can she do some of the things she does … and can Jess be like her? You can almost hear the eerie soundtrack playing as this fraught relationship develops. Nigerian-born, London-raised, award-winning Oyeyemi wrote this book, her debut, at age 18 – and she did it in a mere seven weeks, while studying for her A-level exams! An instant success, The Icarus Girl earned Oyeyemi a lucrative two-book publishing deal. Oyeyemi went on to attend the prestigious Cambridge University.
On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe
Four women living together in a house in Antwerp, Belgium, are “thrown together by a conspiracy of fate and a loud man called Dele.” They’ve escaped their lives in various African countries … but only at the cost of their freedom. Dele, who orchestrated their immigration, now controls their bodies, which each woman must sell in order to repay their enormous debts. By page 30, one of the four women is dead and her murderer is bluntly revealed. The death serves as an impetus for the remaining three women; Efe, who hopes to make a better life for the young son she left behind; Ama, who must overcome an abusive childhood; and Joyce, who’s haunted by nightmarish memories of death, must come together to survive. Nigerian-born Unigwe’s debut novel, De Feniks, holds the distinction of being the first fiction title written by a Flemish writer of African origin; Black Sisters (originally published in Dutch as Fata Morgana) was Unigwe’s Stateside debut.
Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
Against a backdrop of political, military, and economic turmoil comes a portrait of marriage in modern Nigeria. For Yejide and Akin, love should have been enough, but after four years without children, “even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break.” Unable to fend off his mother’s demands for a grandchild, Akin warily agrees to take a second wife. And when modern medicine can’t help her conceive, desperate Yejide climbs the “Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles” and comes back down convinced (falsely) she’s pregnant. The need to procreate both unites and destroys Yejide and Akin. The couple’s secrets and betrayals eventually lead to parenthood, but also to devastating regrets and searing tragedy.
Published: “Five More to Go: Chigozie Obioma’s AN ORCHESTRA OF MINORITIES,” The Booklist Reader, January 8, 2019