Soccer Was Out, So He Became a Novelist Instead

Chigozie Obioma has made a career of writing, and a very successful one: He has published two novels, both Booker Prize finalists, and has earned about a dozen other awards.

But writing was his second choice, he said. His first dream was to play soccer.

Obioma was born the fifth of 12 children to Igbo parents in the southwestern Nigerian city of Akure. After watching the Argentine star Diego Maradona in the 1990 World Cup and determined to follow his hero’s path, he began to practice near a mosquito-laden swamp.

That led to several bouts of malaria, he said, and long bedridden recovery periods, with his parents telling him stories — some from local folklore, others from books like “The Palm-Wine Drinkard” by Amos Tutuola.

“I began to develop a love for writing,” he said. “When the landscape of my imagination opened up, I realized the thing I wanted the most was to write.”

From that moment, Obioma never wavered in his quest to become a writer, even as his classmates aspired to more predictable careers in law, engineering and medicine.

“Not even one of those people became what they always said they wanted to be, but I somehow became that odd thing,” he said over goat pepper soup at Dept of Culture, a Nigerian restaurant in Brooklyn. “I am also very grateful, because I am living my dream, which felt insane at the time.”

His next book, “The Road to the Country,” about a young man who fights in the Nigerian civil war on the side of Biafra, a region in the southeast that seceded but was ultimately vanquished, will be published on June 4 by Hogarth Press.

Growing up in a large family was not always comfortable for Obioma, who was more reserved than his siblings. But once he moved to Northern Cyprus to attend a university, he realized how fortunate he was to have had a close family. His debut novel, “The Fishermen,” in 2015, developed from that realization; it’s a story about four brothers in Nigeria whose lives unravel after a prophecy from a madman.

“I fell in love with the ‘The Fishermen’ manuscript when I first read it on a tube train in London,” said Elena Lappin, an editor who worked with Obioma at One, an imprint of Pushkin Press, in London. “I missed several stops because I was instantly transported to the family home in the village in Nigeria. The bond between the boys, and the tension in their loving but complex relationships become immediately palpable.”

Obioma’s writing process always begins with character. The psychological evolution of his characters, their transformation, is enthralling, he said; plot is an afterthought and a function of character. After ruminating for months on different character situations, he starts typing the story.

Obioma’s second novel, “An Orchestra of Minorities,” published in 2019, was inspired by Homer’s “Odyssey.” It follows Chinonso, a farmer who leaves Nigeria to study at a university in Northern Cyprus to pursue a better life for the woman he loves. The story is dedicated to a friend, a fellow student from Nigeria whose background is similar to the character’s and who died in an accident in Cyprus. The narrative transports the reader through cultures and spiritual realms.

His latest novel, “The Road to the Country,” also delves into a mythical realm and is inspired by true events, in this case the conflict that erupted in July 1967 between the northern and western tribes of Nigeria and the Igbo ethnic group that wanted to secede and form the nation of Biafra.

The novel, edited by Ailah Ahmed and David Ebershoff, centers on a half Igbo, half Yoruba university student living in Lagos, Nigeria, who travels to Biafra in search of his brother. The student, Kunle, hitches a ride with the Red Cross but when he leaves the group, he is captured and recruited as a soldier for Biafra.

Obioma began writing the book when he moved to the United States for his master of fine arts at the University of Michigan, in 2012. He researched the war through books and documents provided by the International Red Cross, which transported food and medication into Biafra as it was under a blockade.

He wanted the novel to describe the realities faced by fighters on the battlefield and civilians whose lives were irrevocably changed, so he needed the voices of people who lived through the war. That would not prove easy, Obioma said; his questions were met with reluctance and silence from family and friends.

During a 2017 visit to Nigeria, Obioma’s father told his best friend, the family tailor, that his son was writing about the war. The man revealed that he had been a commander for the Biafran army, which he had never mentioned in 30 years of friendship. Obioma credits him for crucial details in the book, including much of Kunle’s characterization.

“I know it’s a cliché that people don’t talk about wars, especially those who fought in them, but Biafra is notorious because of the scale,” he said; an estimated one to three million people died during the war, “mostly due to very cruel starvation.”

When Obioma told his mother about the book, she said that the story of a war cannot be fully told just by the living; it must also be told by the dead. So the novel includes depictions of injuries and death as well as a scene in a purgatory-like land where the dead recount their stories, which was Obioma’s way of honoring them.

Blending immersive realism with elements of mysticism and folklore has become Obioma’s signature style, said Ebershoff, one of the new book’s editors; this is most fully realized in “The Road to the Country.”

“It’s magnetic storytelling,” Ebershoff said, “and makes Chigozie an original.”

Obioma, a father of two, has also taught creative writing for years. In the fall, he will move to the University of Georgia, where he will be the Helen S. Lanier Distinguished Professor of English. .

After the success of “The Fishermen,” Obioma was inundated with requests for advice from writers around the world. He found that the one-on-one sessions were taking up most of his time and affecting his own work. To continue assisting young writers, he co-founded the Oxbelly Writers Retreat, a free eight-day program in Greece during the summer. This year Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian-born novelist, will be one of the instructors.

“I’m just so proud of him for being who he is as a writer — original, unapologetic, honest,” Mbue said. “I was blown away by his debut novel, awed by his second one, and this one, well, it’s Chigozie Obioma taking things to another level.”

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