Interviews & Profiles

Onyeka Nwelue: The Abyssinian Boy Comes Of Age

At an age when most of his peers are still running around the block sowing their wild teenage oaths, 18 year-old Onyeka Nwelue born to the family of Honourable Sam Nwelue and Mrs Katherine Nwelue of Ezeoke in Imo state is busy positioning himself to face the literary challenges of tomorrow. He has his sights set on conquering the literary world as one of the bright and future hopes of Nigerian literature, alongside other young writers of this generation such as Chimamanda Adichie, Helen Opeyemi etc. In 2004, the Nigerian Guardian Newspaper described Onyeka as a teenager with steaming pen’ in recognition of his literary gift. He won the THOMSON Short Story Prize in 2000 at the age of eleven, and was recently selected to participate in the International Writers Festival and Youth Literary Seminar in India and Bangladesh. He has authored a collection of prose poems – I Will Die When I Want, which would soon be released in Lagos. His work has been published on Eclectica Online, The Guardian, The Sun, New Age, Daily Times, Nigeria Village Square, Litbits Magazine, Afro Toronto, Kwenu and in several other newspapers and literary journals. In this e-interview, he talks about his inspirations and his forthcoming novel – The Abyssinian Boy.

Tell us about your family

Well, my father is a politician and my mother is a schoolteacher. Both of them are deeply involved in the arts, which makes my job easier and sweet. I have four brothers and a wonderful sister. Infact, my family background is such that interests people, because I happen to be maternally related to Nigeria’s first female novelist, Professor (Mrs) Flora Nwapa. Although I was very young when she died, my mom tells me about her so much, because she actually lived with her, even when she was writing some of her works. One of my maternal aunts was recently appointed a minister in Nigeria, and my uncle is the Chief Press Secretary to the Imo State Government, but I believe that everything depends on what we (my father, mother and siblings) have achieved for ourselves. Also, we are a Christian family, my mom happens to be so religious and fanatical about it. You can’t mess around with Christianity where she is. It is just the sexism in the Christian church that has deprived her of what she wants to be. – a church Priestess. You can imagine!

How was growing up?

There was really nothing tough about my growing up, because I had a wonderful grandmother who stood there for me, even when my father was beating the hell out of me. For example if I didn’t go to school, he would bring me and hold my head up into the air and beat the nonsense out of me. He was harsh though, but not like Eugene in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. I grew up in a remote village where art is valued so much. They believe in me (my villagers). It was fun growing up in a village such as Ezeoke Nsu in Imo state.

Tell us about your educational background

I attended Community Primary School, Umunuhu Nsu, then gained admission into Mount Olives Seminary Umuezeala Nsu, where I wanted to become a priest, but later found out that it would definitely distract me from what I want to be, and then after some hassles with my school, I left and went to Holy Family Secondary School instead, where I took my senior school leaving certificate. These are all in Imo State. The bushiest parts, you know. But still, I didn’t worry; it didn’t stop me either from meeting Wole Soyinka in 2004 from the village (Laughs). I have been offered a place at the University of Manchester, England to study English Literature, so by fall (September) I would start my undergraduate studies.

What’s your connection with India?

I am really doing many things out here.I finished writing some sections of my novel in Lagos, which has its settings there and I needed to get the real perspectives of India, I just didn’t want to Google about Mumbai and write about it, I wanted to see and experience the place myself, so I decided that I must come and do the job here, and also see the tomb of Jesus in Srinagar, which I am not yet permitted to see, but I promised myself to see it before I leave. At the moment, I have been working with my editor, Sangeeta. And then, I have been trying to get my collection of prose poems published, before moving to Manchester. There are many things that I am engaged with here at moment.

How did you get into writing?

I started writing at the age of eleven, because that was when I wrote a short story that my Principal at the time asked the students to be reading in school, it was published as a pamphlet. But previously, I re-wrote Ghazab, a Bollywood movie I watched when I was about ten. That was before my grandmother died, and I showed it to her. Of course, the script is still in my house now with that childish handwriting I used.

What influenced you to start writing?

I can’t really say what influenced me exactly, but that one of my friends actually got me started on the idea. We were reading in the classroom in 1999 and he suggested that we write some stories, from there Ithink I became unstoppable. Automatically, I really didn’t know what else to do apart from writing, drawing and then acting (my plays). There is nothing else I know that I could do now, other than to be the ‘booksexual’ that my siblings call me.

Which African authors have influenced you the most?

I would say Soyinka first, and then Flora Nwapa second, and a little bit of Chinua Achebe, Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun, and most recently Jude Dibia and Chimamanda Adichie. Many of them, so many of them actually.

Who has been sponsoring your trips, and which countries have you visited in the course of your writing?

I have been to Bangladesh, Maldives and then India. There is no one else to sponsor me, apart from my father. He has been there for me. He said that he is ready to pay any amount to see me through, and I pray that he lives, so that I could get to that point. I just pray so and I’m ever grateful to him and my family, and of course to God for all the blessings and gift of talent.

Tell us about your soon -to -published novel and the challenges of breaking into publishing

The title of the novel is The Abyssinian Boy. It chronicles the tale of a family torn apart by religion. Imagine a family where you have a member of the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, which I know are great foes of the Ancient and Mystical Order of Rosicrucian (AMORC), then a devilish member of the Knighthood of St. Mulumba, coupled with

the grandmother of the narrator as a witch, battling over the soul of the narrator who is 17, and unbelievably an ogbanje, a spirit child, who on his spiritual visit to India, discovers the Shroud…the image of Jesus Christ in Srinagar, Kashmir. I am sure that I have written the book slightly with innocence without being biased. When I was writing it, I was only thinking of bringing all the religions together. When I mean all, I mean ALL. Some of my characters are Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Christians, Jains, Atheists, and Jews—every religion has its place in my novel. Let people question their conscience how they see who God is.

The only thing I believe I haven’t done in my story is to depict any religion wrongly. I had to pray to God to make me LOVE all of them, as well, I don’t believe in any religion now, and that would make it good for me, because as all religions are fabrications, I try to question the world by asking who God is? God is God. No one is the Son

of God. God is God. He is no woman, no man. That is what I have discovered and to deal with this issue, I took my time out to research thoughtfully. Learn people’s characters. Trying to make the world understand that if we could throw all religions away, the world would be a better place for all of us. There would be no sectarian riot any more. Moslems and Christians will never destroy each other again. No terrorist would be called an Islamic-terrorist. Every evil one does, must be attributed to him as a person, not religion.

It is a story that I believe that has never been told, though I can’t pride myself about it, because I am not all that too much in love with English language, but the way I speak is the way my language is written and that I believe is the most beautiful thing that would ever happen. The Abyssinian Boy will bring us all together. Let me use a chapter in my novel as an example, here you have about eleven people traveling on a bus and they happen to belong to different religions. A problem develops. When they see that they are all going to die without each other’s help, they have to offer help to one another to survive. I think that stands out that religion has divided the entire universe. But we can still overcome it, by rejecting it totally. God is God. But religion is not religion. You can imagine all the sexism, internal racism, hatred, and the murders that took place in the Christian churches…Religions are just flops. It doesn’t mean anything to me.

This book is a pure work of fiction although I share similar experiences with Udoka (who later adopted the name Jorge while in India) the central character. We share things in common. I can safely say though that it may come across as part autobiography, but like I said, it is greatly a work of fiction because none of my siblings or my parents are in the story.

Well, I am affiliating with HarperCollins in New Delhi to push it over to Europe soon. It may likely be out next year. Well, I guess that it wasn’t difficult for me, because I ventured into a different theme altogether. I just couldn’t have gotten a publisher, if I have not written about my real life experience. I think it depends on the synopsis and query letters which you send out to agents and publishers. I believe the person must be able to highlight those things that would make the recipient of these papers shudder and ponder over what you are writing about.

How do you unwind?

Obviously, I don’t have relaxation in my dictionary. I am thin, slim and bad looking, because I don’t rest. You can imagine that I don’t sleep at night, But then when I think I’m relaxing is when I am using the internet, or maybe when I am reading with my MP3 tucked in my ears.

Do you have a girlfriend?

Of course I have both boys and girlfriends. But most importantly, Marjan is outstanding. She is a poet. A great one indeed. She is even better than any so-called great poet in the world. Well, we met as we should meet.

What is your advice for the youth of today?

Let them dream high, maybe be devilishly ambitious like Macbeth, because we are in the 21st century and everyone must be desperate enough to catch that bus going to the Himalayan mountains or the Ganges. Dream and dream. Do not allow anyone to come and tell you what you would be. Get up and pursue it all alone. If possible, die trying.

What would you want to see the government do for the youth to encourage and support their talents?

Government? Well, I couldn’t say now. But to give a little tip, the government should at least recognize those youths who have achieved a lot. Like Helen Opeyemi, Uzodinma Iweala, Chimamanda Adichie, Tolu Ogunlesi and many of them, so that the others would say, ‘Well, I must try and do something to get their attention myself’. The youth must be supported by the government in many ways, financially or otherwise. It all depends on what the person is trying to do.

Which of the candidates for the 2007 presidential elections has impressed you the most?

Professor Pat Utomi has. I have not met him in person, but know him through his works. You have asked me to mention one, but I would have also loved to mention Chief Achike Udenwa and Orji Uzor Kalu. They have done incredibly well. They have really tried, especially Udenwa, cleaning up Imo State entirely and making life better for the people. He would make an awesome president for Nigeria, but Utomi is unbeatable, that is if we believe.

What are your plans for the future?

My plans for the future lie in God’s hands. I just want to finish my work, get it published, after graduating from the University, I would love to go into politics. This is something writers shy away from, but I believe that I will break that bridge and barricade. We should not continue criticizing our leaders all the time. I am not their apologist. But we should also think about what people would say of us if we had been in their position,. I just want to go into politics, at least almost all Indian writers are engaged in politics and activism like Arundhati Roy, the President of India is a wonderful writer. So we should not say anything against them. They are also like us. Imperfect.

Do you network with other writers of your generation?

Hmm—recently, I was talking to Uzodinma Iweala about his book. Some said the book is ‘a strong breed of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness‘, and after speaking with this young man and reading some of the interviews he gave in the past, I found out that he has no intention to ‘sell Africa’. Well, I don’t know if Sefi Atta is in my generation.(Laughs) I have been in touch with her. Well, many of them, that I can’t remember, but not with Chimamanda.

How do you manage to keep your feet on the ground having tasted fame at such a young age?

I haven’t tasted any fame at all. Nothing like that. I am still like our agberos in Lagos, hassling to leap into that Molue bus going to Orile from Oshodi. I haven’t. You can only say that when you come to my village. O yeah! They value me so much. There are no two ways about it. They say I am their Wole Soyinka. You can imagine! (Laughs). But when you say I have tasted fame, it’s like you are ridiculing me. Then, what would you say to Uzodinma and others? You said success? I don’t know what you mean by that. But I have never perceived anything like success all my life. It has been tragic for me, when it comes to being a writer. I am just glad for people like Jahman Anikulapo, who actually brought me out, washed me and mashed tomato on my head so that people like Osofisan now engage in conversations with me. But who knows? The success might just come today. I pray so. Don’t you? (Laughs)

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