Three and a half market days of Chigozie Obioma- Osareme Edeoghon

I had just returned from a private hospital in Sheffield when I found a message from the producer of the BBC Front Row programme inviting me to the show in London. The episode would feature a Booker Prize special on Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities.

I was perplexed to be singled out. I am no author, no book blogger and certainly didn’t have any legitimate affiliation to writing except tweets about my favourite songs, films and books (one of which is Obioma’s The Fishermen). But when this thought passed, I became perturbed that I hadn’t bought the book, as it was one of those I reserved for the Christmas holiday. 

These reservations notwithstanding, I knew, already, that I would honour the invitation.

***

My fascination with Obioma had begun at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a year before. I saw Paul McNamara’s stage production of The Fishermen and days later immersed myself in the source novel. Some of its characters seemed like ones I knew growing up and I wasn’t put off, like many Nigerian literary enthusiasts were, by the book’s translations of Nigerian terms.

I responded to the invitation while admitting to myself that I couldn’t finish the book’s 512 pages in four days while working twelve hours shifts for the rest of the week. I jettisoned my purist leanings, downloaded Audible, bought the book and was transported into the phantasmal world of Igbo Cosmology by the lyrical voice of Chukwudi Iwuji (who stars in Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us).

His narration and navigation through characters of the book was a revelation for a reader like me, one who scoffs at books not printed on paper. The way he glided across the entire book with attentive aplomb was reminiscent of how well Valentine Olukoga and Michael Ajao (especially) segued in and out of the seven characters they played while simultaneously narrating the The Fishermen on stage.

***

The day finally arrived and the 26-hour long Orchestra of Minorities ended as my London-bound train from Sheffield reached Paddington Station. By this time, I had noticed the central character Nonso’s similarities with Philip Roth’s protagonist Coleman Silk from A Human Stain. They both, under orgiastic spells, exposed  what Andy Lugo in The Rebellion Novel: A Study in Conformity, Repression and Resistance in Philip Roth and Selected Other Novelists calls ‘the singular version of themselves’.  

There was also the book’s similarity with Things Fall Apart in how it addresses the erosion of traditional Igbo ways for the white man’s. It was also similar to The Fishermen in its expression of language through animals and the marvellous sentences that were spread across the book like fertiliser on an already productive piece of land. I had been tasked with providing questions for the author by the BBC and was looking to ask him questions along the lines of what I had noticed, but as it turned out I would only be allowed to engage him briefly.

***

The BBC building is a majestic one and as I entered it through its shining revolving doors, I thought about a fragment from the book: ‘…as if the eggs of his healings have hatched in secret places’. 

I was introduced to Becs an Instagram book reviewer, Alex a PhD student at London’s Kings College University whose thesis was on Shakespeare and Nazi Germany and John Wilson, the moderator. After Becs, who seemed obsessed with Nonso’s chi had asked her question, I asked Chigozie why animals featured a lot in both of his books before asking him if a sentence like the one earlier in my head were the result of bursts of inspiration or were crafted word-for-word over a period of time.

Obioma, who was speaking to us from Nebraska, said he liked to see himself as a sort of naturalist who loved to describe human behaviour through the body of animals. To the second, he responded that some of the sentences had been written over 20 times. 

‘It takes a lot of hard work,’ he said.  

Leaving the BBC afterwards, following felicitations from the producer of the show, I was accompanied into the luminous Friday night of central London by Alex who had asked Obioma if his work legitimizes toxic masculinity. Alex was from Luxembourg and married to an Ibibio man. We shared further ideas about the book and pondered the possibility of it becoming a film. If that happened, I said, then the film should begin from Nonso discovering goslings for the first time during a hunting session with his father in the Ogbuti Forest. It should end like Training Day was to end before Denzel Washington convinced Antoine Fuqua to alter it: 

Nonso drives away and dissolves into Umuahia’s night. 

END

***

Six days later, the Southbank Centre in London hosts the 2019 Booker Prize Readings. From where I sit in the uppermost gallery at the Royal Festival Hall, Obioma appears on stage next to the moderator, Natalie Haynes. Fellow nominee Salman Rushdie is to his left and Elif Shafak to Mr Rushdie’s left. 

Among the other nominees, Obioma looks like a precocious senior prefect on a high table with PTA executives. He’s wearing an Egyptian-blue kaftan and has one thing in common with Bernadine Evaristo who is separated from the venerable Margaret Atwood by Lucy Ellman: a Nigerian ancestry. His reading is perhaps the most turbulent, but he atones for this with humour during the Q & A.

Bernadine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood would emerge joint Booker prize winners the next day.

The evening comes to an end with a wondrous applause after 90 minutes. At the book signing a few minutes later is a flexuous queue that’ll make rock stars envious. Obioma and Bernadine, rather than wait for readers to get to their seats, meander through the queue to sign their books. When Obioma gets to me, he opens his arms.

‘My brother,’ he says, ‘thanks for coming’. 

In the moment, I wish literary abilities were contracted via brotherly hugs.

He signs the two copies of his book in my hands—and for the next thirty seconds I tell him about my fascination with his books, the stage production of The Fishermen and the similarities between my childhood and parts of his stories: I grew up as an ethnic minority in Yoruba land, communicated with my siblings and Esan mother in Yoruba, was a beneficiary of a political idol. And at some point during a fight with my brothers, I destroyed his calendar, which was on the wall of our shared bedroom—and just as Ikenna’s brothers had expelled, ‘calendar MKO’ when Ikenna angrily tore it from the wall of their bedroom, my brothers too had in unison shouted, ‘Ah! Calendar Willi Akinlude’. 

***

The next day, my friend and classmate from University, a trainee psychiatrist in Bolton, sent me a munched photo from the BBC displaying Margaret Atwood and Bernadine Evaristo as joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize. 

I felt deflated, but not as much as Alex who, with her husband and some other guests , had spent the entire day with Chigozie in his hotel suite and at the event later that night. She had been so full of blind optimism regarding his chances. 

As I lay on my bed, I thought about the events of the past 14 days, which in the Igbo calendar would be three and a half market days, and concluded that having the stories alone would not make one a Booker Prize nominee. One needs lots of hard work—the type that involves writing and rewriting your sentences over 20 times so they glisten.

That, among other things, is what has worked for Obioma.

(Osareme Edeoghon is a Nigerian-trained doctor in a lifelong affair with literary fiction. He writes from Somerset, England.)

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