Nnamdi Oguike is a Nigerian writer. He won a Miles Morland Foundation Writing Scholarship in 2019. His debut collection of short stories set in over ten countries in Africa and beyond, and titled Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country, was published by Griots Lounge in 2019. It was on the lists of Brittle Paper’s The Most Notable African Books of 2019 and The Top 15 Debut Books of 2019. Oguike was selected as The Missing Slate’s Author of the Month for March 2016, and was a finalist in the Africa Book Club Short Story Competition of 2018. More of his writing can be found in The Dalhousie Review, African Writer, Brittle Paper, Praxis Magazine and The Wrong Patient and Other Stories. He loves to discover and explore life in different places. For him, fiction is not really about life in different places, but about what life does in different places. He loves traveling, too. To visit every country in Africa is one of his fondest wishes. He is working on a novel set in South Africa and Nigeria, exploring the bonds of love in a family tested by complicated multicultural family ties and xenophobia. His twitter handle is @NnamdiOguike.
In two words, who’s Nnamdi Oguike?
What does writing mean for you, Nnamdi?
Writing is a way of seeing the world; a way of making sense of the world, of life, of myself, of people around me. It is presenting a mirror to the world. Someone said something along those lines that photography is a camera running along the street. I say writing is like that, too. It is holding a mirror to the people to see themselves. It is speaking in images. It is art. There is a special way of rendering thought that I find in writing or literature. I find that fascinating.
And on a personal level, writing has been a way to keep my sanity. It has been a joy. But also a pain, because, as Edna O’Brien says, ‘happy people don’t write.’ So, it’s a fascinating paradox for me.
How did writing start for you? At what point did you decide to write?
I didn’t set out to become a writer. I actually believe that writing chose me, without meaning to sound clichéd. I was originally poised for the sciences. But a certain restlessness, if you like, bobbed me out of that path. I haven’t looked back ever since. I had been advised to stop writing, but I just didn’t know how to do that. I was like a lone train without brakes. So, it had been a lonely journey, and I do not need to drone along about the miseries of a Nigerian writer. But I made a pact with myself, that even if I never got published, I’d still continue writing.
I started writing poems, then plays, then stories. It was my discovery of Maupassant that made me the kind of short story writer that I am today. Of course, there were others, but Maupassant towers above them.
One look at the cover of Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country and the knowledgeable reader is drawn to the Biafran ideals: the yellow, red and green colours; and the rays of the sun. What inspired this work? Any relation to Biafra?
Oh, not at all. If anything, it is not about one country. It’s our shared humanity that is pivotal to the work. It is a collection of 12 short stories set in different countries of the world, mostly in Africa – South Africa, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, etc. It feels like a tour of Africa. I chose the title Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country, deliberately to draw my readers into the different countries that may or may not be their nationalities. It is a way of saying, ‘the book is about you nonetheless.’
The colours you have mentioned were mostly up to the book art cover designer’s imagination. But I think they capture the essence of the book. There’s a bright yellow sun that I always interpret to mean our common humanity, because there’s only one sun above us no matter where we are in the world. The rose flower behind the man is love. The beret is some solidarity with humanity.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection?
I usually do not say I have a favourite of my stories. My readers do. And I have seen them with great fascination when reviews do their favorite fives. But I have varying personal memories of all of them. It’s a lot like having children, being pregnant with them and birthing them. They never feel the same. There are stories that were difficult to write, that took too long, up to three years. Camp in Blikkiesdorp is like that. And I loved the feeling I had when I wrote its opening paragraphs before things blanked out. And there are stories that reminded me of the joys and innocence of childhood. A Nice Job in Antananarivo gave me that clean, innocent feeling. And there are other stories that almost made me cry because there’s so much trouble in the world. So, it’s just like that. A lot like pregnancies, I should say.
In your book, your stories are set in Africa, in various spaces across the continent — Sierra Leone, South Africa, Nigeria. Why the choice on Africa?
Why not Africa? Africa is home. Africa is huge. Africa is central in the world. Africa is full of stories. Full of its beauty and troubles and complications, and one cannot escape writing about it one way or another. And then the book has been seen as pan-African. And I say good, especially now that there’s a lot of Afrophobia going on in different African countries.
You were born in Owerri in Imo state. Had that influenced your artistry in any way?
I guess so. I grew up in a family that was always moving house and leaving towns as a result of my father’s job. I guess that itinerant childhood often makes writing about one place boring. So, I’ve constantly found myself gazing into other places, other cities, other countries, even other continents, trying to see what’s there.
What’s your take on the current trajectory of African Literature?
Well, there’s a lot one can say about that depending on one’s persuasion and interest. I think we have come a long way. Not that we have arrived, but we have come a long way. It is not possible in our time and age to ignore African writing. The Booker Prize longlists and shortlists bear testimony to that. Writers are somewhat freer to write about themselves, their persuasions, gender, sexuality, etc. There are more literary festivals and book clubs, which as you know, provide big platforms for writers and writing to thrive. But all is not well yet. Our writing isn’t as varied as it should be. There aren’t enough of the various genres of fiction, for instance. And the younger writers are still very much in the shadow of the big, older writers of the first generation. And publishing is still very much a frustrating business in Africa.
Speaking about shadows, do you feel the writers of today have been able to glean much from the ideas of the writers from the older generations? Or would you say there’s been an outright ideological cutting off from the then to the now? How can you describe the lapping between the ideas of the old and that of the new?
I think a lot of the older writers like Achebe and Ngugi were preoccupied with talking to the west, fighting colonialists and neo-colonialists. Feminist writing also took flight at that time with the likes of Flora Nwapa. It is not possible to break away completely from the old. The old begets the new. A lot of us writing today may not have become writers if not for people like Achebe, Ngugi, Emecheta, etc. Literature is never a totally new thing. It’s often like a house that calls for renovation. You don’t renovate a house by pulling it down. You may break up some parts, knock down others and patch things up. That, I think, is what a lot of the younger writers are doing. And with the enormous exchange of ideas and cultures that has characterised our day and age, writers cannot afford to not borrow a thing or two from alien cultures and literatures. There’s still political writing going on, and it can never stop, but the younger writers tend to look inwards a lot more than the older ones, talking about themselves and to their own people, rather than to the West.
There seems to be something close to a prodigality in the way new writers write, especially when it comes to sex and race and migration. What’s your take on this?
A lot of the perceived prodigality is as a result of colonial conditioning. In many African societies, we learn that people spoke more freely about sex before the Arabs and Europeans invaded the continent. I don’t think there’s anything prodigal about it especially when a writer writes honestly and truthfully about phenomena. The issue of race and migration is inescapable for a continent that has experienced slavery of the highest order and that continues to suffer marginalisation at the hands of its former colonial masters.
Your work tackles, amongst other areas, cultural alienation and Xenophobia, and in a 2019 interview by Daily Trust, you described Xenophobia as “perennial.” While it is great that you chose to address this issue, and that writers such as Helon Habila, Chika Unigwe and Chimamanda Adichie have tried to do this, too, do you feel the issue of cultural as well as ideological alienation is being given a fair treatment by modern African writers today?
My personal take on issues like these is that as long as these problems persist on the continent and in the world, there can be no amount of writing that is fair and satisfactory. Our world is currently more divided than we realised in spite of our interconnectedness and multicultural ties. The recent post-election crisis in the US further underscores this. The tensions in South Africa and in Ghana, between citizens and foreign nationals are quite instructive. There are things that are dividing and alienating us that shouldn’t. And writers can write about these things and never stop.
Are we really doing enough writing about this?
I don’t think we are. But I don’t intend to blame writers for not writing what I intend to write. Every writer has their place in the world. And those who aren’t writing what you are writing today may write about it tomorrow, and even do so better.
What would you say is the major thrust of your writing? What above all do you criticise?
I think it’s about highlighting our common humanity. A lot of stories have been told to us about the foreigner: that they are white or black or Christian or Muslim or traditionalist, or atheist, or good or evil, or for us, or against us. We have grown on these stories as a staple and we often did not interrogate them. We believed them, and that is why there’s a lot of conflict and meanness in the world. I have the conviction that if we were told stories that made the other person, or foreigner, or stranger, look a lot like ourselves, we would tend to treat them a lot like we treat ourselves. That’s what I want to always do with my writing. To show that we are all humans. In a world that is deficient in empathy, I’d like my writing to provide a lot more empathy. The world would be better with a lot more empathy. But empathy doesn’t mean that you glamourise evil or hate or corruption. I cannot be blind to the morsel of good I find in the people I’m writing about in the midst of all the evil.
You won the 2019 Miles Morland writing scholarship. What did that victory do for your art?
It took out a lot of the noise that comes with my job. It made writing easier for me to the extent that I didn’t have to worry about working to stay alive and searching for time to write. I just had plenty of time to write, from dawn till dusk. But it didn’t make writing my sentences any easier. I still battled through them.
Literary prizes, contests and awards are doing great in promoting and rewarding the writers they put forward. They also encourage competition amongst writers? Do you feel the writer should thrive in competition? Is art to be appreciated exclusive of the ratings, and usually subjective validation it gets?
Of course, literary competitions and contests pit writers against one another. There’s no question about that. One need not get into the hearts and minds of writers on the same longlist or shortlist to know this. Literary prizes are not the best way of assessing merit of literary works. They’re often subjective. The tastes of one set of judges may differ from those of another. But there are no machines to assess literary talent. The good thing about literary prizes is that the winners get some support, be it in the form of money or attention, or both. And some prizes boost sales of writers’ books. Prizes shouldn’t be the basis for buying a book, but for a lot of readers, it is. That’s the reality. But I hear that prizes are deceptive. They don’t make your next book better.
Speaking of books, I’m aware you’ve been working hard to write up a new book under the eyes of the Miles Morland writing scholarship. How has this experience been for you?
Yes, I have. The Miles Morland Foundation scholarship made me a fulltime writer for one year. My wish is to be a fulltime writer for life, but the past year gave me a taste of that.
Would you mind giving us a sneak peek into the artistic offerings of this new project?
As a ritual, I don’t talk about a work in progress. Perhaps I fear that my muse might take offence or something, but shall we just say that the book is set in both South Africa and Nigeria, and is a tender and humorous story that tackles family ties and xenophobia. But, of course, a book is always much more than its themes.
What’s your advice to the writer gunning to be published today?
Work hard, write hard, read hard, and put forward your best writing. Make friends with other writers, attend literary festivals, write literary agents, because help may come from them.
What one book are you reading and enjoying at the moment?
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.