E. C. Osondu
In 2006, after the publication of his first two stories, E. C. Osondu came to Boston to read for AGNI, the magazine I edit with Sven Birkerts. He didn’t have a driver’s license then and wasn’t ready so early in his time in the United States to jump on a bus and make the trip solo. But his friend, the novelist Daniel Torday—they were both graduate students at the time—offered to play chauffeur, and thus it was that we all met at a dinner before the reading. In the years since, E. C. and I have road-tripped, bar-hopped, camped overnight on a friend’s floor, visited each other’s digs, and talked endlessly, as friends do. Also since then, E. C. has won the Caine Prize for African Writing and published two books that I deeply admire, the story collection Voice of America and the novel This House Is Not for Sale. Our conversations led us, in 2009, to dream up and co-edit the AGNI Portfolio of African Fiction. And this year, hoping to put all our gabbing to use again, we wondered what would happen if we placed a recorder between us. This exchange took place in my apartment in Brookline, Massachusetts, punctuated by the pouring of red wine.
E. C. Osondu: I think I’ll start by telling the story of AGNI and how we met. I left advertising in Nigeria for the MFA program at Syracuse. The internet was just starting then, so I knew a little bit about literary magazines, but I was very naive when I was sending out stuff. I didn’t know how it worked. I’d sent a story to AGNI that was rejected, but it had a note from Sven, saying, “Send us another piece.” In my advertising thinking, my hustler thinking, I thought if it said send us another piece that meant by return mail, send another piece immediately. So that’s what I did! When he wrote that note, I said, Oh, that means he’s saying send it before I forget, before the ink dries on this note. So I sent “A Letter from Home,” which you guys liked and it was taken.
WP: And that was your first published story.
ECO: First published story. And it was huge. Here I was, in the program, I think it was my second year. Here I was here in the United States, and I’d sent out a piece and it had been accepted. So that was really huge. Some of those things seem like a dream when I think back on them…
That story went on to be listed as one of the top ten stories on the internet that year and was read by so many people because it was published online, so people in Nigeria could read it. It resonated with quite a few people back home. Later someone wrote to me asking permission to write the letter from the son’s point of view, the son who’s here in the States.
WP: Replying to the mother in Nigeria.
ECO: Yes. He wanted to respond to my story.
WP: Did you end up reading it?
ECO: I did. He published it in a literary magazine called Sentinel. “A Letter from Home” is probably one of my most widely read stories.
WP: Your second story was also in AGNI, “Jimmy Carter’s Eyes,” which was shortlisted for the Caine Prize.
ECO: I really wish I could write a story like that again, but I’m not able to. It came to me whole. I knew the shape of the story. Usually with my work I’ll write and then leave it and go back to it.
WP: And discover along the way.
ECO: Yes. But with “Jimmy Carter’s Eyes,” it wasn’t like that. It’s about a girl who’s blind, but has the power of vision. She can see things in her rural community that other people can’t see. She can talk about the future, she can predict things that will happen. And then modernity comes, reality is intruded upon by way of a well-meaning American who has a foundation, Jimmy Carter. They are going to help people suffering from blindness—river blindness, all kinds—starting with glasses, and so they intrude upon the life of this village, and by the end the girl has lost her power of vision.
That story, I don’t know—I really wish I could go back to writing that way.
WP: I was thinking about your story “Voice of America,” where a similar thing happens. A young man, Onwordi, writes back and forth with an American pen pal, but suddenly she’s no longer interested. That hit-and-run contact with someone from a deeply mythologized culture damages him.
ECO: He’s pining away, basically. Prior to that intrusion he would go to the store, which was like a communal center, with his friends, and they’d drink and talk and fantasize. But the moment he leaves the relationship with his friends and starts this one-on-one relationship with the American woman, by letter, it ruins that pristine thing for him. When she loses interest, he is not able to go back to be with his friends anymore.
WP: It’s not just that well-meaning Americans come in and do things that are finally destructive, but certain myths and false hopes keep the characters from living their true lives, by which I mean focusing on the real things that surround them—many of which could be romanticized and engender myth themselves. We’d all love to have a place where we could hang out and all our friends would gather every night.
ECO: Isn’t life like that? They don’t appreciate whatever they have. What they see, the myth world, is the one that comes from the outside. This girl who lives in America who ends a letter by saying “Yours” and he reads into that. There is such admiration for something that’s coming from the outside, whether it’s the white lady seen in Onitsha market or whether it’s the Voice of America coming in through that radio. They don’t think that that which surrounds them is worthy of myth. It’s like something V. S. Naipaul said years ago, that when he lived in the Caribbean he didn’t think the material around him was worthy of literature. That’s something that I find very interesting. You think, Oh, this is not literature, this is just life. It’s too basic. But is that true? No, it’s not true. In fact, that’s the stuff of literature—that lived life.
WP: One thing I’ve noticed in your work again and again—thinking about the William Gibson line, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed”—your characters almost always occupy several different eras at once. They live in a time of cell phones but also a time of shamanism; people still sit around listening to the radio together, but globalization has brought ransom schemes against multinationals; they hold beliefs that have stayed unchanged in their villages for many, many generations. And because of this, some of the stories you tell are Nigerian folktales. I wonder, do you concern yourself with the question of whether the same stories have appeared in other contemporary fiction?
ECO: No, I don’t—because I belong to two traditions, the written and the oral. A folktale is a folktale. Take the story about the girl who was very choosy about finding a husband, and then she gets engaged and decides to follow this guy.
WP: The most handsome man.
ECO: Yes. He had borrowed body parts from different people, and he gives them back along the way. The story is there, almost everywhere in Nigeria, everybody has this story. Yet the story gets told by different people, and it’s those different people who make it interesting. Some might sing some part of the story, some might mimic the voice of the ghost. It’s in the telling that you see this person is a better storyteller than this person. But it’s always been retold, so the material is there.
I have one leg in and one leg out. I went to college, I studied English, I worked in advertising as a copywriter—a global advertising agency. I worked on all these brands, major international brands, Unilever and the rest of them. And then I turned my back on that and came to Syracuse. But still there is the part of me who lived in the village, who spent time in the community, who knows all these folktales, who fractured my wrist in boarding school and instead of letting anyone know, I just lay under the blanket sweating buckets. Someone had to come drive me down to my grandmother, and my grandmother instead of taking me to the hospital took me to an old man—a bonesetter. That was his job, that was what he did. I remember he had a portly belly, he had very thick glasses, and he didn’t have a shirt on. He was sitting outside, when my grandmother led me to him, and he was looking at me and he said, Oh, what happened to you? And my grandmother said I fractured my wrist. How did you fracture your wrist? I was in boarding school and there were lots of bullies and I wanted to be a karate master, so I watched karate films and joined a kung fu club. That day I leaped up high and fell and I broke my fall with my wrist.
WP: Why didn’t you tell anybody?
ECO: What we were doing was illegal. The club was not registered with the school. And if I broke my wrist, that meant I was a weakling. So I couldn’t show it.
The bonesetter said, Bring your hand, and he was caressing it, caressing it, caressing it, and then he just—did that. [Gesturing.] And it fell back in place. Just like that. There was a popping sound and it just fell back in place.
Here I was in a Catholic boarding school, which is of the West—the former principal had been an Irish priest, Father McDonald. And then I emerged from Shaolin Temple—that’s what we called the club, Shaolin Temple, from watching movies. That’s the Western world intruding. And then I fracture my wrist, and instead of going to the infirmary or hospital, my grandmother grabs me and takes me to a bonesetter. After he’s done, I go back. I wear my white shorts and my white shirt, and I head back to boarding school, and when I get there, I tell the story, and no one believes me. I’m always in and out of this world. My life is one leg in and one leg out.
WP: Sometimes I catch myself not finding my own way of telling a story as much as enacting a certain kind of storytelling, something that has been passed down to me almost without my awareness. I would think that for you that might even be tougher. The longer you’re away from Nigeria especially, the more you could find yourself writing not from your true, direct knowledge, but from a remove. You’ve talked about wanting to be back in Nigeria more. Do your visits play a big role for you in preserving that kind of immediacy?
ECO: I think writing is usually a reenactment. You’re trying to recall something, or something that happened is a jumping-off point. It’s not a chronicle. You’re not writing it exactly the way it happened. Otherwise it wouldn’t be interesting. But my thinking about going back to Nigeria more often is more spiritual than practical. Digging myself into that life has a way of rejuvenating me—I feel more alive there in a way. The stories that you hear are so casual. There’s no ceremony. It doesn’t take anything for you to hear fifty or sixty stories all at once.
I went to a writer’s festival in Nigeria, in Abeokuta, Wole Soyinka’s birthplace, and went out for lunch, and a writer in the group told a story. He said he’d once come to the same hall where we were having the festival, that his friend who he went to college with, who used to drink and smoke like a very bad boy, once had a wedding here. What happened was this: his friend met a girl, and the girl was a born-again Christian and said she wouldn’t let him sleep with her unless he became born-again also. And this friend told the writer he was now born-again, though on the day his friend was telling him this he was actually reeking of beer. So the friend not only became born-again—and got married to the girl, in that place—but he decided it was not enough to be born-again, he was going to become a pastor. And he became a pastor. And the girl left him! She said, I like you as a Christian, I like to have you to myself, but you’ve taken it up one notch. I don’t like you to be a pastor.
To me, there’s so much in that. That would be the stuff of a novel by William Somerset Maugham. And this was just a story he told over lunch.
I see Nigeria as the house of stories. It’s the river I would like to dip myself into from time to time to get back on track. Even inside a bus there is a story unfolding. Inside a cab there is a story unfolding. And people are not afraid to laugh at themselves, to make a joke of everything, because sometimes life can be tough.
So there was that oral storytelling around me. But there was something I saw in books while I was growing up that I also admired. One book that comes to mind now, that really jumps out when I think of my early reading, is My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, who was a naturalist—the story of Durrell and his mother and sister and brothers [one of whom was Lawrence Durrell], who went to live on an island in Greece, and their life with the animals there. On the very first page, the narrator is trying to convince his mother to take them to holiday, and it’s raining and it’s cold, and he tells his mother, Look at how your nose is running like that of an Irish washerwoman. I loved that! I could never speak to my mom like that—she would slap me. I couldn’t even ask my mom, “What do you mean?” This was a different world, and I loved that world. It was also different from the world of oral storytelling, where there are always direct consequences. In a folktale, if a child spoke to his mom like that he’d be punished immediately; the heavens would fall and swallow up the child.
WP: Did you start to develop a mythology yourself, then, about what was possible outside of Nigeria?
ECO: I began to think that I would like to live in the world of those books, where you could actually tell your mom that she looked like an Irish washerwoman.
WP: Instead, the consequence has been that you now have Americanized children who can tell you you look like an Irish washerwoman.
ECO: Their world is very different from mine. There’s a picture I thought was very funny, a meme that circulated on the Nigerian internet. If your parents don’t want to buy you a school uniform for the next three years, they make an oversized uniform for you. And this was a little boy wearing a uniform much too large for him. I showed it to my daughter because I thought it was so funny, and she said it wasn’t. I said, Why isn’t it funny? And she said, Why is the kid not smiling? I said, Well, it’s not because the kid is unhappy. She said, But the kid has no shoes. I said, That’s not indicative of anything.
My children are growing up here, and I grew up in a different culture. I remember wearing those oversized uniforms, and I thought they were good because the pockets were large and you could keep peanuts in one pocket and candy in the other while you were going to school.
WP: How often are you conscious of writing for an audience that’s on one side of that divide in your life or the other? In your early work especially, you seem to gloss for American readers. I’m thinking of an example from the story “Voice of America,” when the girl asks Onwordi if he lives close to lions and giraffes. A Nigerian reader would get it right away—she’s exoticizing. She’s yet another American eager to think Africa is all bush nomads and baobab trees. But your story makes a point of explaining that no one in the village has seen a lion for more than a decade.
ECO: Most of those stories were written in workshop. That’s probably the one and only time I felt like I was writing for a particular audience. I wanted the people in workshop to get it right away, partly because I felt there were so many questions I wouldn’t be able to deal with. We shouldn’t spend the whole three hours talking about what a danfo bus is, an okada taxi, what akara is, or ogogoro.
I don’t think in those terms anymore. I don’t think in terms of who am I writing this for. I think I have more freedom now to write the way I want to write, to tell my story the way I want to tell it. Years ago you told my class about an “AGNI story,” that it should be something you read and feel only one person could have written. That is the kind of freedom I want to enjoy in my writing. I’m not thinking in terms of audience anymore. And it probably shows. Whereas the early work I did, I was quite concerned that people know what I am talking about.
WP: There’s a richness to that kind of mystery in This House Is Not for Sale, where there’s very little explaining but we understand all the details by the end.
I noticed that the family house appears very briefly in your story collection also. Then in your first novel, it becomes the protagonist. We watch it grow up, mature, we see it in its heyday, and then it ages, falls into desuetude, and dies. Without the family house, you’d have a series of linked stories, but instead you’ve written a novel that dispenses with the usual Western ideas of how a novel is supposed to be structured. Did you know from the start that the book would shape itself around the life cycle of that building?
ECO: You know, that’s very interesting for me. Some readers have said it wasn’t a novel and they were disappointed. The readers who have gladdened my heart are the readers who have said we get what you’re doing here. I have to say, one of the things in African literature that I’ve always quarreled with: in other arenas we have fought against the colonial yoke and tried to throw it off, but we’ve been very much interested in writing the received standard version of the novel. There is not much experimental fiction coming out of Africa, unless you talk about Dambudzo Marachera, the Zimbabwean writer. But in terms of style, in terms of taking risks in the shape or the form of the novel, not much of that has come out of Africa. What you’ve had are really well-written conventional novels.
As a writer—here’s my secret, let me put it out there. As a writer, my secret is—and I tell this to my students all the time, and learned it from George Saunders: Lean on your strengths. If you have one strength, then lean on it. It’s very important. If your strength is dialogue, write a novel that is dialogue-led. That way you’re working with your best tool. The writers who are most productive and most useful are writers who know what they are good at and that’s what they lean on. So I think with that book I was also leaning on my strength. As soon as I found the shape, I could pour anything I wanted into it. So the house is there, Grandpa is there. Don’t forget that I’d read books that were set in houses. A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul I loved, I read it years ago. The Yacoubian Building [by Alaa-Al-Aswany] I loved, I read it years ago. There’s also a book called Children of Gebelawi by [Naguib] Mahfouz. And so it just occurred to me, Why wouldn’t the novel be like a jazz tune? Why wouldn’t improvisation work? You do your thing and then you come back—to sing “God Bless Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” and everyone says, Oh, that’s the song! And then the drummer goes off on his own—you know, on his frolic, and has fun as much as he wants to. And then he comes back, to [Dave Brubeck’s] “Take Five.” Writers should have the freedom to do that.
I often wonder whether I’m going to write the kind of novel that you read and say, This is really shaped like a novel, this is the shape a novel should take. I don’t know whether I’m really much interested in that. Maybe. Never say never. But when I was writing this one, I wanted that freedom to be able to wander off and then come back to the tune, wander, go on a frolic, go back to that same tune. And the house gave me that shape. If you focus on the house, then you know that the house has a beginning, middle, and an end. And in between, you have the lives of the people who lived in the house. If you’re looking for shape, there is a structure there.
WP: You were in Lagos, the capital, working for an ad agency. But you were raised in a village. Could you describe it? How far was the village from Lagos?
ECO: Probably five hundred miles away. But I always had one leg in, one leg out. I was in Lagos for boarding school. And my parents lived there. My grandparents were in the village. People are surprised when I go back to Nigeria how familiar I still am with the city. That seems to be the story of my life, having one leg in the cosmopole and then the pull of the village and the traditional. I’m glad you noticed that I mentioned the family house in Voice of America. Very few people notice that—that the seed, the kernel was already in the story collection, this man who became rich and built a house and everyone just showed up. I knew that I was going to expand this into the book that it became.
WP: In the world you’ve drawn, village life exists within Lagos—the storytelling, the spirit-beliefs. And in the village, there’s Lagos—the presence of the government, people’s awareness of how life can suddenly change because of what happens in the city. You’re constantly—even in the title “Voice of America”—working between Nigeria and people who have left Nigeria for Italy, England, the United States. You’re not just looking back across divides—we’re not simply in Lagos looking to the village, or in the United States looking to Lagos. The categories seep into one another more fundamentally than that. Even if someone in Lagos has never lived in the village, they’ve got much more of the village in them than they realize. If they’ve never come to America, their lives are still shaped by the surge of people moving back and forth between the West and Nigeria.
ECO: It’s true. It’s very strong. I think that people don’t realize this. I didn’t realize how Nigerian I was until I left Nigeria. If you look at my iPod—let’s go to my music, and I’ll show you just one musician. So you see that?
WP: Fela, sure.
ECO: You see how many albums?
ECO: So that’s insane. In fact it’s twenty-nine because there’s another one here.
WP: He’s mentioned in Voice of America.
ECO: Very often. Yes. Fela Kuti’s Shrine, which was what he called his nightclub, was less than half a mile from where I grew up in Lagos, and the house where he lived was just a mile down the road. He played in his nightclub, and the gate fee was very cheap because he wanted every kind of—he played for poor people, anybody could come to the club. I remember I went to the club twice, even though I could have gone so many other times. I would make noise at the back of the club. I would yell something at him when he was singing, doing any of his numbers. I took it for granted. It was all around me. Okay, Fela, he’s the troublemaker, he fights the government, he sings good songs.
WP: And sometimes his nightclub was shut down.
ECO: Oh, Fela is in prison again. Oh well, he will come out. He’s always making trouble. That didn’t mean much to me, the fact that he was a legend, one of the greatest African musicians, greatest politicians out of Africa, one of the greatest pan-Africanists, one of the most courageous and fearless men that ever lived in Africa, who took on the soldiers; the soldiers were untouchable then. He sang a song that said the soldier’s uniform is a piece of cloth and is made by a tailor—which basically demystified these guys who were holding Nigeria, who had guns and were bullying everyone. He stood up to them. But it didn’t mean anything to me—it meant something, but it was just there.
And then I came to the United States and started to listen to Fela’s music, to the lyrics—and I began to collect his songs, to listen to them even more deeply, and it began to mean more. I didn’t even realize my Nigerianness until I left. I have to say this. I was thinking I was in advertising, working on these brands, wearing a tie and a jacket, and talking about brands, the rise and fall of brands, and the big selling points of any product, all of that—how to write a TV commercial, how to direct one.
WP: You prided yourself in being global.
ECO: Yes! We loved the word metrosexual. Somebody used it in the agency, and we said, Yeah, that’s what we are. We’re global citizens. One of the phrases bandied around in the agency was Act Local, Think Global—all these empty phrases that some people come up with. Then when I left Nigeria, I began to realize—well, my Nigerianness was strong always, but I hadn’t theorized it, hadn’t unpacked it, hadn’t analyzed it. You need to take that step away, to look back, and then it begins to mean something.
To bring this back to literature: for other writers, that looking-back-on-the-country that I’m doing, for them that country is their childhood. I think for many writers that’s what happens. Their childhood becomes the old country, and they keep going back to it and trying to reexamine it.
WP: We reach a stage, which I’ve started to reach in the past four or five years, when a lot of what we expected would last forever is gone. People are dying or dead, the fields we played in are packed with buildings. Nothing that we grew up with is the way it was.
ECO: I’m not interested in that kind of conversation. I feel more alive. In fact, the future— I’ve not even lived. The whole idea that all the great things are gone—
WP: I’m talking more about familiar landscapes that are gone. Rotary telephones that you dial with your finger. Life before computers. Not better so much as different and now gone.
ECO: My daughter said something that I like very much. I said that she had never watched black-and-white TV. And she said she doesn’t need to watch black-and-white TV in order to watch color TV. There’s no training.
There was no internet before this time, now there’s internet—isn’t that great? I embrace it, I love it. The past always seems greater. Every generation—my father who listened to music said the musicians of the past were just so great. People expect that I listen to the kind of music my son listens to, and I say to them, no, the great rappers were Run-D.M.C, Eazy-E. These are the rappers that I loved. Even Curtis Blow. These are the great rappers. They were speaking wisdom, they were speaking knowledge. But actually I don’t believe they were any greater than the great ones making music today.
Chinua Achebe has a proverb that I like very much. He says the firewood that every nation has is good enough to cook the kind of foods that they eat. Nostalgia is not something that I engage in. I love the present. I like the speed of the present even though I’m not quite up to speed. I like everything that’s happening in the present—I like the music, I like the books. I like Snapchat for instance. I understand it. I go back to all the pictures I took growing up. It was very rare for my parents to allow me to have what we called a personal, which is a picture where you just sit in the studio, only you. Basically we’d all go to the studio at the end of the summer holidays, and myself and my brothers would sit down, and we’d take a picture together, or we’d sit with my parents and we’d take a picture. That’s the way it worked. That’s as opposed to what’s called a selfie now, which is a short form of selfishness: me, me me me, that’s what has happened. I was thinking about that—what’s the difference between my generation and this generation. My generation felt that taking a picture was a big thing, a communal thing, and we were all together there, and it was a serious business. Whereas for this generation it’s the self, and I don’t see many good things in that. I think that doesn’t have much to offer.
WP: I’m not nostalgic for the present, either. I don’t think the present is better than the past. There are things from the past that it’s a shame we’ve lost. And there are things I say great good riddance to. I do think we’ve lost a lot from having the internet in our lives from moment to moment. We’ve also gained a lot. If we didn’t know the internet was possible, we wouldn’t miss it. There were some wonderful things about life then that are gone now.
ECO: Yeah, not having the internet was not practice for having it.
ECO: The conceit behind “Voice of America,” the title story—the story was gifted to me by the absence of the internet. The gift of that story couldn’t have happened if we had the internet. The idea of pen pals, I don’t know how that happens now.
The whole idea of the book wouldn’t have been possible if there was the internet. In a way, you could say that’s a gift from the past.
WP: Are there people you turn to with questions, or do you tend to explore stories you’ve heard, things you’ve witnessed, you’ve soaked them in, and now you’re retelling with a good memory for the details?
ECO: I’ve never believed in research. I don’t want to get it exactly right.
WP: It doesn’t feel that way. Your fiction feels very precise.
ECO: I try to be authentic. But I don’t want to know exactly what the dollar is exchanging for the naira today. I give myself a lot of latitude. I’m drawn by the story. And it has to come. I use this phrase each time, and some people are mystified. Some think it means I write prose without thinking.
As a kid I used to watch a cartoon of The Thing. The boy says, “Thing Ring Do Your Thing,” and he puts his hands together, and he’s transformed into a giant strongman. I think my writing is like that in some way. All I need to do is put my hands together and the pieces start coming. There’s a lot of that in This House Is Not for Sale. Build the house and they will come.
WP: It’s fascinating. So often in novels the story is at the center and structures the whole. But yours doesn’t work that way. Stories, plural, fill the vessel of the novel. You don’t start out with the story that needs to be told. You start out with a structure that allows you to tell the many, many stories to come to you along the way.
ECO: That’s one of the things that I quarreled with in my fiction workshops when I was a graduate student. People in my workshop, even the professors, would say, You have to tell one story. And I said, What is that? What is this “one story”? And they’d say, This one is a story about the pope, it’s a story about some boy in love, it’s the story of a campus thug, it’s a story about the military. Why don’t you tell just one story? And I said, Now you’ve lost me. I don’t know how to tell one story, because it has never happened to me.
WP: The more typical way in American lit is to have a dominant story—maybe this shows a scary aspect of how the Western tradition is constructed! A dominant story, and then along the way you can tell a few other things, as long as they’re thematically related. Many stories can be told, but they are subservient to the grand narrative.
ECO: Master narrative.
WP: You write a set of stories that function as equals. New stories don’t come in to serve the rest. The only way they link together, most of the time, is through the spirit of storytelling itself.
ECO: I was talking with a friend about one of my favorite local musicians in Lagos, and he said he never really became rich or made much money. I said, Yes, because his patrons, those he celebrated, were the common people. He would sing a song for his dealer, the guy who sold him marijuana. He would call his name and sing about him. He had another friend who was a cab driver, and he sang about him too. Those who made money from music were the ones who were singing about the important, rich people in society. This guy released over thirty albums. But he wouldn’t be rich. The cab driver is a good man—worth celebrating—but he can’t pay anybody for singing about him.
The master narrative is an older relation of the selfie. And my narrative is an older relation of the group photo.
WP: Do you have a big audience in Nigeria?
ECO: I have more readers in the U.S., but my books are more closely read in Nigeria. That’s where people catch me on things and say, No, this is not where it happened; when this story is set, Fela’s Shrine was not here in Ikeja, it was in another part of Lagos. That’s the kind of close reading I get from my Nigerian audience.
WP: Your fiction engages the Nigerian situation so directly that at some level it’s political.
ECO: I want it to be more so. The moment I say I am going to become a writer in Nigeria—of any kind, whether of fiction or as a journalist—it’s assumed that at some point I will go to jail. At least under the military powers, it was a sure thing. Wole Soyinka went to prison. Chinua Achebe fled into exile. Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged! By the Nigerian government, for being a writer. He was hanged! Not only hanged, they desecrated his corpse. They poured acid on him after he had been killed and buried him in a grave that only the military knew. That’s how afraid of his pen they were. If you say you are becoming a writer in Nigeria, it’s a political decision. There’s nobody who says I want to become a writer because I just want to tell stories that won’t affect anything. The same thing that Fela Kuti says about his music. You’re not playing this music to keep saying I love you, I love you, I love you. I don’t think our society is the type that allows for that. If you know that your calling is to be a pamphleteer, that’s a different thing. If you want to write the Communist Manifesto, then please write it and don’t write a novel. But yet, not just in our writing but in our practice, where we speak up and whether we engage with our society, we don’t have the luxury of not being political as writers.
WP: Describe your political urge at the start. What were the things burning in you that made you feel it was time to leave the ad agency and embark on a writing life?
ECO: Well, look, Nigeria is a very interesting, lovely society, it’s a great place, Nigerians are wonderful people. They’re one of the greatest peoples on Earth. But Nigerian society is so filled with inequality. I’ll tell you something that made me weep when I went to Lagos recently. On the Atlantic Ocean, there is a place called the Bar Beach. It used to be called Victoria Beach. It shows up a lot in my work. That was part of my childhood, that was part of Lagos. Families would go to picnic at the beach every Easter, every Muslim holiday. It was a great place to go. You didn’t need money, you didn’t pay to go to Bar Beach. That was everybody’s common wealth. There are stories about Bar Beach that I was told by my grandmother. There was a time many years ago when a strange animal washed up on the shore there. People cut it up and took it home as food, and some parts tasted like fish, some parts tasted like meat.
WP: And in the end the carcass disappeared. I remember from one of your stories.
ECO: Looking back now, I realize that was a beached whale.
Bar Beach was where the military executed people who were convicted of armed robbery—as a way of further terrorizing the society. Public executions, as in that story, “Bar Beach Show,” said to the population, This is what we do, we own your life, we can tie you to a drum and we can shoot you. So everybody was scared of the soldiers. But it was also a beautiful place. You could ride horses that had been retired from the polo grounds. They were given to boys who had no jobs, who used them at the beach to make money; children could ride them, and the horses, at least, had a good life, instead of being shot, which is what was happening to them before.
Three years ago a governor of Lagos State decided, “Oh no, this is prime real estate. We’re going to sand-fill this beach, drive it back to wherever it came from, and we’re going to build houses there and sell them to the rich.” And that’s what has happened. So you take this thing that belongs to my father, my grandfather, to every Lagosian, to every person who grew up in that society, and fill it with sand and parcel it off and sell it to the rich. Why does he think he has the right to do this kind of thing? It’s that impunity that really makes me mad. This is our common heritage. This is something that should never have happened. It’s unconscionable, it’s evil. That happens at different levels in Nigeria. You have oil being drilled—and then the people whose backyard it’s being drilled from, they don’t even have electricity. Just across the road is a beautiful estate that has private electricity, private water, and a clinic, where the people who run the oil companies live. And the people in whose backyard the oil is being drilled, who suffer the consequences—nothing. They can’t fish anymore; there are no fish. And a man was telling me that when he was younger he would set four traps. Now you can set 100 traps and you won’t catch even one antelope. The ecology is dead. Yet this oil belongs to the state.
I think that if I have a platform, then I should use it to talk about these things. I was writing commercials for cigarettes and tea. I could have continued with that kind of commercial writing. But if I’m going to do the kind of writing I’m doing now, I need to lend my voice.
Tell me, where has the politics gone in American fiction?
WP: It’s gone the same place that it’s gone in American life, right? There’s very little of it in most people’s daily lives—despite the exceptional times when we finally take notice. And thinking about Chad Harbach’s essay “NYC vs. MFA,” which described two axes of the literary mainstream in the U.S.: there doesn’t seem to be any place for the political on either side of that divide. Writers have to make their own room. But on one side you’ve got New York City, the big commercial publishers: they’re thinking about audience and shareholders. They’re not looking for fiction that’s political. And on the other side, at the universities, “literary” tends to mean nonpolitical these days.
ECO: New York City is no different from MFA. The divide he was trying to raise is nonexistent. New York City is MFA, MFA is New York City. Manhattan is publishing, it’s elite, it’s white. MFA is white, it’s elite, it’s publishing, it’s writing. They’re not very different.
WP: I think if you look at the metrics used to determine worth in those two sets of institutions, they’re quite different. But when you ask if they’re culturally different—no, they’re not culturally different, it’s true.
ECO: Well, you know, I’m an outsider. I see both as the same, as very white institutions.
Because of the platform that I have, the voice that I have—more and more I’m thinking that I’m going to write books strictly for the Nigerian market. If it happens that someone decides to publish them here, that’s fine. But I’m going to write these books, and I’m going to publish and promote and sell them in Nigeria.
The system is very commercial. If you watch U.S. publishing trends, you know that African writing is also a trend. Nobody’s looking for new writers from India right now. I think publishing is like that. Africa is the thing now, and we’ve had a good run. We’ve produced so far a dozen writers from Africa who’ve been reviewed in major newspapers. There’s a certain advantage to being an African writer right now, which is why I laugh when some people say they don’t call themselves African writers. I keep telling them, you think you’re saying something new, but you’re not. Marginalized people have always tried to move away from that kind of—always think that’s an insult. There was a time in the U.S. when people didn’t want to be known as Negro writers. There was a time when people didn’t want to be called Jewish writers. I’ve never heard a German writer say don’t call me a German writer. People say that’s the wrong premise, if we’re African writers then the equivalent would be to call them European writers.
WP: Many of the African writers who are saying they don’t want to be called African writers prefer to be called Nigerian writers or Ghanaian writers or South African writers. “African” can feel like yet another easy generalization from the West.
ECO: I would quarrel with anyone who has no nuance, who doesn’t understand that saying that someone is an African writer does not mean that that writer must be doing a certain kind of writing. There are many different kinds of African writing. African writing includes sci-fi, erotica, horror, literary fiction. It can be from the south of Africa, by a white person. It can be from Benin, by a black person—and French.
WP: There are so many Africas, though, that it almost becomes meaningless—the Maghreb, Sub-Saharan Africa. Are an Algerian writer and a Tanzanian writer shaped by enough common influences to warrant grouping them together?
ECO: They’re African. My quarrel with it is this: the people who are running away from being called African writers, it’s not because they think the term Africa is too complex. It’s rather because they think it’s an insult, that to be an African writer is to be a certain kind of writer. The truth is that African writing is complex and varied and different—a multitude of voices. I recognize that. The closest analogy I have is something we used to say in boarding school. The girl says, You are not my boyfriend. And the guy says, But you’re a girl and you’re my friend, so you’re my girlfriend. You are from Africa and you’re a writer, you’re an African writer. The truth is—most won’t admit this, but there are certain advantages that come to you, accolades that come to you as an African writer that wouldn’t come to you if you were a white male American writer. African writing is being lionized right now and is being celebrated, and African writers are being decorated everywhere. Such decorations you probably wouldn’t get with one book as an American writer, unless you are very, very lucky.
WP: There are some who feel that this championing of African work has happened at the expense of African American work, or maybe it’s fairer to say that for some publishers and universities and reading series it seems to bring in diversity, but in an exclusionary way. Obviously African and African American are different. Publishing black Africans is not the same as publishing black Americans.
ECO: But we’re also the same, in a way.
WP: Sure. There are cultural similarities, and there are cultural gulfs.
ECO: That’s true. That’s what struck me about Alex Haley’s book Roots when I first read it, as a sophomore in college. One of the things that I found controversial, reading it in Africa: when he arrived in the village of Juffure and he sat with the old man under the baobab tree and then he looked around and realized how American he was and he called and booked the next flight out. That stunned me. I thought, you’ve come back to your fatherland. This is where you sprung from. The next thing for you to do is to wear the flowing gown, sit under the tree, chat with this man, and find a wife. Sit under the moon and talk stories and drink. That struck me as odd back then. But now I understand it.
WP: In your story “Pilgrimage,” the woman at the center is an African American who has never been to Africa before.
ECO: That’s a strange story.
WP: It’s a very strange story. But suddenly it seems relevant. The man who picks her up at the airport expects she’ll want to roll up the windows, that she’ll want air-conditioning, she’ll want to avoid hearing the hawkers and beggars at each intersection. But she wants the opposite. She’s relaxed, she doesn’t feel she’s going to be robbed.
I think about every one of your characters as some part of you, and yet earlier you described to me going back to Lagos and letting your hosts turn on the air conditioner so you can sleep. When you’re in a situation like hers, do you want the windows rolled up, or do you like to soak in the smells and noises of Lagos?
ECO: There’s something else that happens when I go to Lagos, everywhere I go when I visit relatives. Almost everyone now has cable. It was one of my perks as senior management when I was in advertising. I had cable television installed in my house and the company paid—that was a huge, huge perk. It’s not a big deal anymore. But the moment I sit down, somebody takes the remote and turns the TV on to CNN.
WP: Because they think you expect it.
ECO: My brother was shocked when I told him to put it back on African Magic. He was shocked when I told him I don’t think there’s a huge number of Americans who watch CNN. I only see it at the airport. I’ve not gone into anyone’s home and they’re watching CNN. It’s assumed that coming from here I’d be interested in it.
But have I become the kind of person who would say wind up and not look outside? The writer who does that is not a writer, they’re dead, they’ve become basically petit bourgeois, they should do some other thing. Really what I’m looking out for is the Lagos that I know. Is it still here? Has it changed?
WP: If—to go back to American writing—we have NYC vs. MFA and there’s no damn difference, what possibility do you see for literature that’s politically engaged and pushes for things beyond the dominant narrative?
ECO: American literature should go back to its poetic roots—to poetry. American poetry has always been more outspoken about these things than American fiction. I’m thinking of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsburg, I’m thinking of the Nuyorican poets and African American poets from Langston Hughes to the Cave Canem poets. For some reason American poetry has always been more reflective of American diversity—whether cultural or sexual or political or economic—and American anger. I think American literature needs to embrace more of that spirit.
E. C. Osondu is the author of the story collection Voice of America and the novel This House is Not For Sale, both from HarperCollins. He is a winner of the Caine Prize, also known as the African Booker, and a Pushcart Prize. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, AGNI, n+1, Guernica, The Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s, New Statesman, and many other places.
William Pierce is senior editor of AGNI. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Ecotone, and elsewhere, and his long essay on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, first published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, will come out as a monograph from Arrowsmith Press this December.