Chigozie Obioma’s extraordinary debut novel, The Fishermen, has won a slew of awards since its release in 2015, including being short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Drawing upon the rich history of Nigerian storytelling, this remarkable work combinesstark, mythic narrative that recalls the biblical story of Cain and Abel with lavishly descriptive writing. Obioma writes from a deep Christian faith, and has a keen, critical eye for understanding the ways in which Christianity gets embodied in culture. C. Christopher Smith, editor of The Englewood Review of Books and author of Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (InterVarsity Press), spoke with Obioma about his faith, his cultural experiences, and the making of his breakout novel.
For people who haven’t read your novel, can you tell us about the time and place in which it was set?
The novel is set in Nigeria, in the town of Akure, in the 1990s, which is a seminal period in the history of Nigeria. The story covers almost a decade, from 1993 to 1999. In 1993, Nigeria attempted to have a democratic regime, which was aborted, and democracy wasn’t established there until 1999. Akure is very West African. In many ways, it is modern, but not exactly in the American way of modernity. It has many Western structures: schools, roads, traffic coordination, etc., but it clings to many parts of traditional African culture.
Akure was where you grew up, and you were a youth there during the era that the novel covers. Is your depiction of the town fairly similar to the real place?
Yes, absolutely. I have said that there are two things in the book that are almost completely true to life: Akure, as I knew it at the time, and to a certain extent (maybe 40 to 50 percent), the father in the novel bears similarity to my own father.
The town in the novel is as I knew it. The river crisscrossed the place, and most of the political events—the larger historical events—actually did happen, including the famous, Trump-like campaign of M. K. O. Abiola, which even children like myself were familiar with at the time. Fiction is, indeed, almost never completely fiction; it consists of fragments of fact molded into something recognizable by someone who knows the facts.
How has your experience of the Christian faith growing up in Akure helped to influence the novel?
I was born into a Christian family. I would say, though, that my dad did stray from the faith for some time. The more he read and became educated, the more he questioned his faith. So, for a long time, he meandered; he was a bit of everything. He became a Zoroastrian, and there was a time when he was a Hindu and also dabbled in many other faiths. At the end of this meandering, he got baptized and became a very strong Christian.
When we were children, he was still a Christian, and we went to a church that was much like the one in the book, an Assembly of God church. It was a traditional Bible church, with Sunday School for the children, and my siblings and I continued in this church until well into adulthood. When our family left Akure, we all went to different churches. In addition to growing up in this church, I loved to read, and I consumed a lot of Christian books, especially the works of Watchman Nee. I also read a lot about African religion and metaphysics.
When I write, these worlds (Western Christianity and African religion) tend to come together in a sort of fusion, or a clash. This clash of cultures, and particularly the clash of religions as represented in The Fishermen in the lives of the Agwu family, is actually a very realistic depiction. As West Africans, we woke up one day, and suddenly the British had forced their civilization on us. Before you knew it, people had this new religion, this new culture, this new education, this new way of life. What West Africans have done is to pick from this new civilization what they think is needed, or what they think can satisfy their needs. They have discarded some things, and what we have is—although we are a kind of Westernized people—a hybrid form of Western civilization in Africa.