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The Two Worlds of a Nigerian Christian Novelist

How Chigozie Obioma’s writing draws on Western and African expressions of faith.
The Two Worlds of a Nigerian Christian Novelist
Image: Zach Mueller / Courtesy of Hachette Book Group

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.

Take the boys’ mother in the novel, who is a staunch Christian and who takes her children to church. She refuses to let her son be buried because he had committed suicide. In traditional Igbo practice and religion, if you commit suicide, you cannot be buried. They can do anything else with the body: burn it, throw it into the sea; often, they would throw the body into the forest, where it would be eaten up by animals. Because suicide is an abomination to Ani, the Igbo god of the earth, you cannot inter the body.

These traditional beliefs are still widely held in Nigeria, even by the strongest Christian pastors (with the exception of a few). Even though they are Christians, they still revert to these traditional convictions, which to me as a writer, who is trying to understand and explain the culture of his people, is astonishing. How can someone who believes in the Bible, who believes that God has saved us from all of these things, still cling to this kind of belief system? It is one of the paradoxes of contemporary African life, which is reflected in the novel.

Having been in the United States since 2012, what differences do you see between your experience of Christianity in Nigeria and in the United States?

I recently visited the Reformed Baptist church in Michigan that I was a part of when I first came to America, and I was talking with the oldest member of the church, who is 83 years old. She was telling me about some of the changes to that church over the years. One of the very interesting things that we talked about was the ways in which the faith of the American church is very different from what you will find in Nigeria. As I mentioned earlier, the Africans have mixed Western civilization with their culture, even down to the language. The Christianity that you have in most parts of Nigeria has one leg in the traditional African religion and one leg in the real Christian faith.

I’ll give you an example. If you look at the Roman Catholics, one of the interesting dynamics of their faith is that once Christianity came to them, they were so used to drawing images and portraits of their old, pagan gods that they imported much of that Roman culture into their Christian faith and started to fashion images and sculptures of the Madonna, of Christ, and of heaven—even though they saw that the Bible says you shouldn’t do that. They were so used to this image-making that they imported it into their Christian faith.

Africans have done similar things. If you go to Nigeria, you will see a man who is 80 years old bow before a 20 year old preacher, and kneel to greet him, just because he was seen as a priest of God. What they used to do in the traditional Igbo religion, for example, was to bow to the priest, who was seen as a representative of the gods, and you would stay on your knees until he had passed. Christ, though, said that we shouldn’t do that, and in fact, he said that the leaders should be servants. The pastor should be a servant of the people, not a king! Many Africans have ignored that part of Scripture because it doesn’t make sense to them. This practice is a good explanation of the faith in Nigeria. I almost don’t like to go to church any more when I am in Nigeria because there are so many things like this that go against what the Bible says we should do.

Although the novel is deeply rooted in Nigerian culture, how would you recommend it to American readers, who are perhaps not so familiar with this cultural backdrop?

I hope that on the most basic level, the novel is not really an exploration of Nigerian culture or African culture. Rather, it is a family drama. It is in that sense primal and archetypal at the same time. It is about the universal experience of sibling rivalry.

Just recently, I saw a program on television about sibling rivalry in the animal world, particularly among eagles. I grew up in a very big family of 12 children—11 siblings and myself. I had three older brothers and some younger brothers too, and I was exposed to all the complexities of that kind of relationship: the bullying, the masculinity, and the exercise of fraternity, brotherly love. I came to realize that even among animals, among eagles for instance, there is sibling rivalry. The mother eagle usually gives birth to two eaglets at the same time and, after having given birth, is not as strong as she normally would be. When she goes to hunt, she is not going to get enough meat for both eaglets to survive. What ends up happening is this struggle for the meat that the mother is providing, and one sibling ends up killing the other. So, even among animals, you have sibling relationships that can devolve into the sort of violence that you have in the novel. I hope that this aspect of the story is universal, and that people will be able to see themselves in the book.

Fiction should be more than 3-dimensional—maybe more like a 20-dimensional reflection on life. My novel can be read on many levels. It can be read as a commentary on the state of Nigeria, which it is. It can be read as a commentary on the clash of civilizations which it is. But on the primary level, it is a story of a family, the story of how the love between brothers is part of discipleship, mimicking in many ways the life of Jesus. All of these things have informed my writing.

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The Two Worlds of a Nigerian Christian Novelist