Q I’m glad to see the story of our generation of Nigerians being told, and I was struck by the many parallels across our upbringing- I mean the African Rivers song took me straight back to my primary school days…the ending Orange, Limpopo, Zambezi delivered with a shout. Do you think that there is a truly Nigerian generation with shared experiences emerging?
A: People emphasise what they want to emphasise in their relationship to others. As Nigerians, regardless of our ethnic or religious leanings, we have as many similarities as we have differences. It is up to us to decide whether to emphasise these similarities or to emphasise our differences. But from my experience and from my reading of history, inclusion always works better than exclusion. It is sad when you see Nigerians carrying their petty differences beyond the shores of the country – some Nigerians in London or New York wouldn’t talk to other Nigerians just because they are from a different part of the country.
Q You highlight some of the issues that women in contemporary Nigeria face, from Auntie Marina whose husband infects her with gonorrhoea and whose position is then usurped when she fails to have children; to the rape and physical abuse that Zara suffers in university and then at the hands of her husband and the admonitions from friends and family that she should stay in the marriage because after all he buys you jewellery and a car. Was this something that you felt it was important to raise?
A: The situation of women in Nigeria has always been of interest to me. About half of the population is women, and at the moment I don’t think they share equal opportunities with men. We are a male-dominated society, and deliberately or accidentally, a lot of women suffer injustice in the hands of men. Unless these vast numbers of women are liberated, our development will be stunted. This is simple economic logic. My two women characters, Zara and Marina are examples of this situation. Marina, the older one, simply deserts her husband and moves into her brother’s house. Zara on the other hand not only moves out but decides to take her husband to court. She leaves the city and moves to the village to find serenity, this is after the breakdown of her abusive marriage, and she meets Mamo and they fall in love. She is one of my favourite characters in the book – she is complex, she is feisty, she is indomitable. She moves to South Africa on a whim – that is the kind of person she is. Some reviewers like her; some just don’t understand her because they expected her to fall in love with Mamo and to live happily ever after. But I don’t do happy endings, I am afraid. In conception the book was going to be mainly, say, 70 percent, love story, the story of the shy, sickly, intellectual Mamo and the bold, beautiful, but emotionally broken Zara, but somehow it ended up being only about 30 percent love story. I try to bring my stories as close to life as possible, and life doesn’t do happy endings either. In the end I settled for making her a memorable character, one that stays with you long after the reading, regardless of whether you find her likeable or not. It is funny because I do like love stories, and I am a sucker for happy endings just like any other person, but when I sit down to write a certain ruthlessness overcomes me and I let the story dictate its own direction, and it often takes the direction of grim realism.
Q I notice that the poet Christopher Okigbo makes an appearance in your book, as he does in thinly veiled disguise in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. What is it about him that so captured your imagination, forty years after he died in Biafra?
A: Okigbo will always be interesting to other writers. There’s always something romantic about a writer dying young. Where does all the talent go to, what would have become of all that passion, that zeal? And so we continue to exhume them in our works, to revisit their legacy. In a way we are reminding ourselves of how short life is, how ephemeral talent is, how accidental. In my novel I try to use the Okigbo story in the context of war – I am something of a pacifist, and I believe politicians make wars to benefit themselves, and that most of the wars in this world are not worth fighting, they can be resolved in more peaceful ways. But of course such philosophising is only possible when one is removed from the action itself, the question is different, and more difficult for the individual caught in such a situation. Okigbo chose to go to war, because perhaps he couldn’t avoid it, or because that was his temperament. My story doesn’t examine his motives, it simply conjectures a moment of epiphany where he sees the folly of war, this is during the battle itself, after a big explosion where everyone around him, save for an enemy soldier, was killed. He and the enemy soldier decide to walk away. In a way I am referencing the old Mazrui argument that war is no place for a poet – of course history, and literature are full of soldier poets, from Byron to Wilfred Owen to Okigbo himself. But like I said, I am something of a pacifist, and this comes from my being a writer, I sincerely believe that the duty of a writer is not to fight, but to write about fighters and wars if he wants.
Q And on the subject of Biafra, and the civil war you brought illumination from another perspective. I hadn’t for instance realized that young boys were conscripted to join the Nigerian Army, which of course echoes the forced conscription by the colonial government in World War II. Sefi Atta and Adichie have also explored the war- is this something that we feel we can talk about now, explore, forty years on? Because really, none of you were old enough to experience the war?
A: In my hometown, and the novel is set in a fictitious village modelled after my hometown, young people, some of them under-age, were encouraged, coerced, to join the war effort. Of course some of them saw it as a ticket out of the village and to a life of adventure. Many of them didn’t come back. There’s no deadline for discussing the civil war – almost sixty years after WW 2 people still discuss it, movies and novels are made based on it. The only thing I can say though is that we need to be careful as artist, how we approach that material. The best books on war in my opinion are the ones that are not really interested in who is right or who is wrong, that is for politicians and historians to argue over. A writer takes the human angle; he tries to show that the moment we take up arms to resolve our differences we all lose. It is appalling when a writer descends to painting one side as evil and the other as saintly – that is pamphleteerism. Tolstoy’s War and Peace has lasted because it is only concerned with how relationships suffer in times of war, how whole families are sundered, how youth and ambition and whole cities are laid waste. He doesn’t waste even one page trying to convince us that Napoleon, the enemy, was inherently evil, or that the Russian generals and peoples were inherently saintly. One of the best books on the Nigerian civil war, Soza Boy, has lasted because it realises that there’s no good side or bad side. Same with Festus Iyayi’s Heroes. In my book I try to say that walking away from war is the ultimate heroism, not staying to kill or to be killed. Imagine today if all soldiers were to put down their guns and refuse to fight; politicians would be forced to come to the negotiating table to resolve their differences.
Q And still on the theme, you speak quite graphically about how the war touched even small villages in Northern Nigeria, which is quite at variance with the received wisdom that most people outside the war theatre didn’t really know that there was a war going on.
A: People always suffer during wars, either from bullets or from fear and uncertainty. I was born in 1967, November that means my father, who was away at the front, didn’t get to see me till after the war in 1970. I guess my mother must have suffered while she waited for him to return. A lot of parents didn’t come back, some came back without limbs, or irremediably scarred, like Uncle Haruna in my novel who finally hangs himself over ten years after the war.
Q Another scene that captured my imagination not surprisingly is the doctor who misdiagnoses Mamo’s sickle cell anaemia as malaria with his imperious “Young man are you trying to teach me my job?” That brought back so many memories and had me reflecting on the power of the health worker and the power of those in authority in Nigerian contexts. Was this something you felt a need to highlight?
A: That is another sub-theme in my novel. Our blind respect for authority. As Africans we are brought up to respect age and experience so much so that it becomes detrimental to us. As soon as an elder speaks, even on a subject that we know more than him, we all keep quiet because it is not good to disagree with an elder. Perhaps a good example is the ongoing generational tension in our literature. Some older writers who have published say a dozen books, and it doesn’t matter if most of these books are pure trash, feel that you as a younger writer who has only two books to your credit mustn’t dare to open your mouth in a gathering of writers. This extends to the political sphere – we allow our leaders and our chiefs and town elders to tell us who to vote for, what road to take, even though some of them are illiterate and have no clue what direction the modern world is going. Our young men and women grow up so timid, so lacking in confidence because they are never given a chance to learn confidence and to trust their own judgement. We need to challenge authority, to question power, we mustn’t inherit the hatreds and petty quarrels of our elders, we must decide what we want our future to be like; after all it is our lives, our future. That is why Uncle Iliya in the novel says, when an elder tells you to do this or that because ‘that is our way’ you must question that: why is it our way? Is there any inherent wisdom and merit in it? And so the question is not whether it is our way or not, but whether it is a bad way or a good way. If it is not good, if it will lead to disharmony, if it will lead to dishonour, then you reject it. If an elder tells you that twins are evil and so we must kill them, or that we mustn’t talk to that person because he or she is an ogbanje, we must think about it. We must reject the bad and take the good. We must learn to think like iconoclasts. An iconoclast literally means a breaker of icons. It is one of my favourite words.
Q History and its writing loom large in the book, as does the question of telling our story properly, was this consciously an important consideration for you in the writing of this book?
A: I will answer that question with an illustration from Rwanda. A Rwanda scholar told me this. After the genocides the country realised that one of the reasons for the hatred between Tutsis and Hutus lies in the history books. The colonialist had written those history books which glorified one ethnic group and demonised the other. It makes one group believe that it is noble and must always rule over the other group. This was the history that was taught in schools before the genocide. After the genocide the government decided to stop teaching history in schools. At the moment in Rwanda history is not on the school curriculum. They have decided to write a totally new history for the country. For surely in their past there were times when the two groups lived happily, and co-operated, and helped each other? They have decided to emphasise these in their new history curriculum instead of the one drafted by the colonialists.
History is a construct. It is created out of legends and anecdotes and myths. It is useless to us if it only emphasises our shortcomings and enmities. We should use it to remind ourselves of how capable we are of reaching for the stars, it should emphasise those moments when we were kind to each other, and noble, not when we were evil. My main character Mamo realises that, and that is the task he sets himself, to write what he calls a ‘biographical history’ of his village. He wants to write the lives and daily heroisms of individuals, not of kings and generals. This is an empowering vision, a revolutionary one, for it is saying we are all capable of being figures in a history book, we are writing history with our lives and so we better make sure we lead noble lives.
Q There is also a sense in which it appears that you reject the idea of the colonizers as destroying the culture that existed beforehand. When the villagers re-enact the coming of the missionaries, towards the end of the book, there is a clear sense that they are taking back, indeed have always remained in charge of their history and their collective story irrespective of the interventions of people like Reverend Drinkwater…would you like to explore this a bit more?
A: Basically what I am saying is that you can’t destroy a culture because culture is not a thing fixed and perfect, you can only change it, and this happens when you introduce new elements into the community. Greek culture changed with the rise of the Roman empire, the Roman empire changed with the rise of Christianity and later with the rise of Islam. Some changes are voluntary, some are involuntary and violent. Christianity came with colonialism. Many people became Christians and many of them believe it is better than their traditional African religions. Others think it is not. Colonialism brought modernity, motor cars, medicine, and guns and corruption. Our traditions have changed, we are changed as well. Cars are good – they get you there faster than mules or walking, but they also bring pollution and death. That is what life is: change and growth and decay. We can’t help that – the only thing we can help is what we decide to do with our humanity.
Finally what does the future hold for Helon?
I see books. And more books.