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, ...1
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