In the last few weeks, I have been reading a great book written by my friend, Obinna Ozoigbo, titled The Dust Must Settle. What attracted me to the book was that it was the first novel that I have ever seen mention my ancestral homeland, Arochukwu. When I got a chance to read it, it offered so much more than I would have ever imagined. This novel is like 3 books in one, and follows a West African family through multiple generations, starting at the advent of the colonial era. In essence, it picks up where Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart leaves off, and also fills in the gap before and after Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. You could almost say that it is like a modern day version of Alex Haley’s Roots. One of the things that engaged me the most was the historical context in which the novel is set. You have to see what happened to some people of African descent in the UK, USA and Nigeria at the same time in the early to mid 1900s. My favorite scene, in particular, was set when two of the descendants of Uzo Ogbonna attempt to return to Arochukwu. The conversation amongst the elders and their subsequent action is a classic! Rather than writing a normal review, I decided to interview Obinna. Check out the interview below.
Who are some of your literary influences?
My literary influences make up a rather long chain. They are great writers I look up to, even when they do not know me. I have known them through the power of the pen, and through their “brainchildren”. You see, when I was growing up, I read a lot of Denise Robins. Granted, her novels fall in the romance genre, and are therefore mainly meant for women. But I was not necessarily moved by her romantic stories. I was moved by her style, especially her syntax. Denise Robins is one person, I must confess, who “taught” me creative writing during my formative years. My friends called me sissy, because I was always with her novels. But I didn’t care, because she was teaching me a lot of things about writing by mere reading some of her more-than-a-hundred novels. She was a superstar, in my own estimation.
Then, still as a teenager, I came across a novel titled The Other Side of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon. Oh, my! Ever since, it was Sidney Sheldon, Sidney Sheldon, Sidney Sheldon–all the way! I have read almost all his novels. Through Nothing Lasts Forever, my life was never the same again. From the age of thirteen to that of twenty-seven, I hoped to meet him personally. Then in 2007, when I was thirty-five, I almost shed tears upon hearing the sad news of his death! And then, as soon as his autobiography The Other Side of Megot to Nigeria, I quickly ran to grab my own copy! Indeed, without mincing words, Sheldon affected my life so much, I was obsessed by him and his works.
Cyprian Ekwensi, of blessed memory, was Nigerian, of Igbo descent. I was about nine when I read some of his books for young people, such as Drummer Boy, Samankwe and the Highway Robbers, andThe Passport of Mallam Illa. Then before age 13, I read his People of the City, which was even published long before Chinua Achebe’sThings Fall Apart . . . No, it was not originally published by Heinemann under the African Writers Series (AWS). I also read Jagua Nana’s Daughter as a teenager. But I was so anxious to read its“predecessor”, Jagua Nana . . . Ha! Ha! Ha! You know what . . . My mother told me then, as soon as she saw me with Jagua Nana’s Daughter, that Jagua Nana was published in the sixties, and is a “corrupt” novel. Out of curiosity, therefore, I began to look for Jagua Nana. I never saw it until I got to the age of thirty-two in 2004 and stumbled into it in a place called Ojuelegba in Lagos, Nigeria, where old novels are sold. After reading it, I understood why my mother had said that. But, as a budding writer in the English language, I learned a lot of English lexicon from that book. It also gave me an insight into the depths of Ekwensi’s literary talent! Even though he is dead now, he still holds a special place in my heart. As a teenager, I also read his Survive the Peace, a novel that hinges on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-1970. I also read For a Role of Parchment and Divided We Stand. Sincerely, I hail Ekwensi much more than people hail Achebe. But I am yet to find the reason why the whole world rates the latter higher.
In fact, there are so many of them. Like I said early on, it is a rather long chain. The few that deserve mention are Jeffrey-Archer, Barbara Taylor-Bradford (who is presently my Facebook friend), Flora Nwapa, Doris Lessing (who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature), Dillibe Onyeamah (the famous author of the famous novel, Nigger at Eton, which I presume is out of print now), and . . . Oh, my God . . . I will not forget Buchi Emecheta whose Destination Biafra, in my opinion, is a classic, and Chukwuemeka Ike, whose Chicken Chasersis one of the novels I regret ever losing through my book borrowers.
I just started reading North and South, one interesting literary work among the trilogies of John Jakes, and have begun to bask in the realization that he is going to be one of my biggest influences, because from just reading the opening chapter alone (of North and South), I fell in love with his style immediately.
Prior to North and South, however, I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth which has its tv mini-series adaptation by BBC. I never knew that a writer like Vera Brittain, born a few years close to the turn of the 19th century, ever existed among the great 20th-century writers until I stumbled into Testament of Youth, something I would like to refer to as a collection of her First-World-War experiences in which she narrated in great detail all her highs and lows, ups and downs, pain and misery, hopes and disappointments. The book is one of her most popular works. She is terrific!
What got you into writing?
Writing is inborn. You don’t force it upon yourself. Once you notice it, you cannot help letting it show, otherwise Barbara Cartland would never have written more than some two hundred romantic novels, books of cookery, etc. And Danielle Steel would not have said in one of her interviews, which I stumbled across on the internet, that once she begins to write, she pounds away on the keyboard. Once I heard her say that, I told myself “Whoa! That’s me!” It comes naturally. I have read so many books as a teenager, especially novels, that I told myself one day in the 80s’ : “Ol’boy, you can do better than some of them!” Hence, at 17, I finished a 208-page novel titled Lovebirds which I sent to Longmann, Lagos. But the big shot I met there looked down on me. And all I read from his expression was “What can a seventeen-year-old offer”. And you know what, I felt offended when he asked me: “Young man, what do you know about love?” I left and never came back. Up to this day, the manuscript of Lovebirds is still in the safety of my cupboard! I felt bad, because Ben Okri wrote Flowers and Shadows when he was 19! What difference does it make, anyway, for someone even younger than that to submit a 208-page manuscript talking about love?
Then I grew up amid so many books. My father had a library in our living room. But the books were safely locked behind the facade of a glass shelf. I kept seeing them as I was growing up. But I never read even one of them! They were mostly novels. But whenever I had access to his bedroom, I would tiptoe to find the key to the shelf. I would unlock it and begin to flip through, wondering how the writers came up with books of such volumes, hoping that someday I would do the same. However, I would read some of them randomly. That is, I would read, say, a paragraph on page 10, then flip to (say) another on page 100. I mostly did this when my father had gone out, and my mother, who happened to be a lot more liberal and less cynical, was at home. Unlike my father, she did not bother whenever I came into their bedroom to take anything, especially the key to the glass shelf. Sometimes, I could not make out what some of the books were talking about, because they were much more adult. All the same, I continued reading, believing somehow that, someday, I would write my own. At 13, I joined the literary society in my secondary school. It was there that it dawned on me that I have the gift of writing. Prior to then, I was always scoring highest in my English Language compositions. Also, it was then that I realized that I could express myself better when I write than when I speak. As a result, I was not in the debating/oratory arm of the society. I just wanted to write, write, and write–and until I am known all over the world, just like all the writers I have early on mentioned.
Are any of the stories in the book based on situations you or someone else has experienced?
The Dust Must Settle is a product of my imagination. I must be quick, however, to say that the Welsh missionary, Mary-Ann Spencer, was a character I developed based on the real life story of Mary Slessor, the Scottish missionary that was sent to Calabar, Nigeria in the late-19th century and lived among the Efiks up to the nineteen-thirties, where she died and was buried.
How long have you been writing?
As a matter of fact, I have been writing from as far as when I was 13. I wrote for my secondary school in Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria. And that was in 1985. And then I sent a lot of short stories to magazines in Lagos by post. But up till now, I can’t quite decipher their reason(s) for not wanting to get me published. Perhaps they felt I was too young then to write such adult stories. Then I already told you about my Longmann experience. Now, however, I kind of cringe whenever I go back to read the manuscript of Lovebirds. I began to work in the bank at 19! Due to the “jealousy” of the tasking job, I never had time to write. By “jealousy” I mean, my job not allowing me to give time to other things to do to better myself. Besides, Lagos is such a big West African city that it took me five hours sometimes to get back home from work! After all the bumper-to-bumper traffic jams, after all the inhaling of exhaust fumes of rickety cars and buses, I would slump into my bed, completely tired and exhausted. For some fifteen years this was the case. It was after I left banking in 2004/5 that I began to write The Dust Must Settle, greatly inspired by the life story of Mary Slessor, greatly challenged after reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Barbara Taylor-Bradford’s A Woman of Substance and Voice of the Heart. Presently, I am working on another novel, a project in which I want to involve the United Nations Population Fund, the Ministry of Women Affairs of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and the Nigerian Women Trust Fund. Now that I have finally left the Nigerian sub-banking sector as a result of inconsistencies and damaging reforms in the country’s financial terrain, where I found myself from 1991 (at 19) through 2005 (at 33), I feel as free as a bird let out of its cage to write, write, and write. Ha! Ha! Ha! I met a well-known publisher in Lagos in 2005. He told me I was a banker, and not a writer. How wrong he was! And how contradictory he sounded, because Cyprian Ekwensi was a pharmacist! Anezi Okoro, who wrote quite a number of novels, was a dermatologist! One Dr. Chukwuezi, an ENT physician, has written novels in the Igbo language at that! And then Sefi Attah, whose Everything Good Will Come was published by this same man, is a chartered accountant!
How do you feel about the state of African literature?
At some point along the line, I felt really bad that the new generation of African writers were sleeping, or so it seemed, until Adichie sprang up with her Purple Hibiscus at the age of 26 or so. Some people hail her for achieving such a literary feat at that age. But I ask them: Don’t you know that Cyprian Ekwensi was a teenager when he wrote For a Role of Parchment, Ben Okri (the winner of the 1991 Booker) was also a teenager when he wrote Flowers and Shadows, Buchi Emecheta was 20 or so when she wrote In the Ditch, and Chinua Achebe was also 26 or so when he wrote Things Fall Apart? What do I mean by that, you might say. They began to write in the prime of youth! The truth is that today’s youths, the African youths, are not doing much as far as writing is concerned. And another truth is that no one encourages them! No, I am not making up excuses for them, neither am I exaggerating! You see, those that make up the old generation of African writers were greatly encouraged by their European teachers and mentors who happened to have been key players in the British colonial administration in Africa. They read so many quality works of literature by Shakespeare, Dickens, Austin, Twain, Elliot, Chaucer, etc! Besides, they left for England by sea through the coasts of Africa to study one course or another. Even those who attended the then University College, Ibadan were thoroughly taught by the British! Unfortunately, now that they are in the twilight of both their lives and writing careers, we still suffer a terrible literary dearth in the upcoming ones that make up the new generation. Many are disenchanted and disillusioned, and even confused, perhaps because they were badly taught in the universities, especially now that the Nigerian educational system has been messed up by our leaders. They need another generation to hold the dream, to take up the “scepter” from them. It is our inheritance! I mean, the “scepter”. Just as it is the inheritance of a prince or princess. They must continue from where the old generation stopped–with the African story! Otherwise we will have no more story or stories to tell our young ones and the ones that are not yet born. No European will tell us our story, about our origin, about our bloodline, about our forefathers, about our cultures, about our heritage. No American will. No Indian will. No Jamaican will. Not even the African-Americans will! If we lose this knowledge, we have lost everything. There is no man or woman on earth who does not know his or her origin, where he or she comes from. If there is, then he or she has not been told anything! And that is what we are trying to prevent, bless my colleagues-in-African-literature, the new generations, in the persons of Helon Habila, C. N. Adichie, Jude Dibia, Sefi Attah, Uwem Akpan, Adaobi T. Nwaubani, and all the rest of them–and bless such NGOs as the Commonwealth Foundation and the Hurston/Wright Foudation who are working hard to ensure that the old generation of African writers will never be disappointed. In a nut shell, I would therefore say that there are great prospects for the state of African literature today. Kudos to Aminatta Forna, a wonderful lady from Sierra Leone, whose The Memory of Love won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa), in the Best-Book Category! And it was recently brought to my knowledge by my publisher that The Dust Must Settle has great film potential in Hollywood, California! That is to say, Americans, blacks and whites alike, are getting more and more interested in African literature!
Which character in the book are you most like?
Mmmmh . . . The Dust Must Settle is like a trilogy bound together. Yes, it is quite a large volume, and has Book One, Book Two and Book Three! I fell in love with the major character in Book One. He is Uzo Ogbonna. This is a man that gets fed up with all the heathen practices of his people in Arochukwu. His father hates him for being an Anglophile, for being “lazy”, because he prefers doing the work of the white man to doing the farm work of his people, the Aro people. And his father is the owner of the largest farmland in all the 19 villages of Arochukwu! . . . I am an Anglophile. And I hate to go to the farm to work the land. I prefer to go to England to live and study–perhaps until I become a professor.
What inspired you to write this story?
In 2005, I casually went to the internet to study the life of Mary Slessor. Just out of curiosity, because I have heard so much about this Scottish missionary who served so selflessly in South-East Nigeria and spearheaded the stopping of the killing of twins. I didn’t want to continue hearing from people: older people and younger people alike. And my mates, too. I had to look her out myself.Then as I read along, I got to where it was written that she sailed back to Scotland with some African children to receive medical attention. As I scrolled, I gasped when I saw a picture she took with those African children.When I began to wonder what could have happened to those children (I mean, what later became of them) in Scotland, my imagination was fired, and the idea ad concept of The Dust Must Settle was conceived.
Describe the research process for this story?
Actually, I have not yet left the shores of Nigeria. You see, I have a book, Colour In Britain (published in the 60s), which was based on a series of radio interviews compiled by BBC on the sociological position in Britain of coloured people and their children from all the Commonwealth countries. This book helped so much when I was writing about the growing-up days of two of Uzo Ogonna’s triplets–Ruth, Esther and Timothy–in Belfast and Nottingham. Then I depended so much on Wikipedia, the internet encyclopaedia, which opened my eyes to a lot about the conurbations or cities of London, Brooklyn in New York, Nottingham, Belfast and so on. I have a friend who comes from Kano, Nigeria. He did a lot to give me an insight into the socio-economic lifestyle of Northern Nigeria. Then I asked a lot of questions to my friends who live in Britain and in the United States and Canada. Then I have friends who are doctors and lawyers whom I asked a lot of questions which enabled me to work around Ruth’s nursing career, Esther’s rail accident with Bolu, et cetera. I applied the legal advice to all the plots that had to do with testament. Edward Spencer, Mary-ann’s late father, wills his house in Soho, London to her, and she in turn wills the same house, jointly and severally, to Ruth, Esther and Timothy. There are plots revolving around testament administration in the saga.
One common theme that is very strong in this novel is bloodline and children (male ones in particular). Why did you decide to focus on this?
Bloodline is of paramount significance in the Igbo genealogy. Africans do not joke with it, neither do the Jews. That is why the subject of adoption has not developed a strong foothold in Africa, even in this twenty-first century. In the Western world, water may be as thick as blood. But in Africa, blood has always been thicker. And there is no compromise! In concrete terms, the African extended family system, especially among the Igbo in South-East Nigeria, does not readily accommodate or favor the female children. For example, no female child among the offspring of the Igbo landed gentry is allowed to inherit any property in her (late) father’s real estate tabled for sharing. Doing otherwise is against the Igbo tradition, and would raise a lot of flak. Yes, a lot of the people, who hold tenaciously to such traditions as this, especially the elders and the council of chiefs, would definitely kick against it. In a nutshell, it is not (and can never be) done. Then you have the question of posterity. No Igbo man is happy when he does not have male offspring to carry on the family name. But the only exception here is if, and only if, the man is a Christian through and through, and therefore has jettisoned tradition and broken stereotypes, to the bewilderment of the people. The Dust Must Settle tells about Obiageli Okoli (in Book Two) who devises every possible means to bring in a male presence among her all-girl offspring. She foresees her husband’s kith and kin claiming all his (her husband’s) inheritance, and every single asset that make up his real estate. If Mezue Okoli (her husband) dropped dead “today”, her exceptionally brilliant daughters (six of them) would lose everything. Yes, practically everything! And she has to do everything within her power to forestall this. That is why she goes to the United States (Texas) to be delivered of her baby girl. But she comes back to Nigeria with a baby boy after carrying out a successful swap through the connivance of two American midwives—Crawford and Nash. But Obiageli does not know that the mother of this boy is her cousin’s daughter, Nwadi Mbonu, a student in Canada, who has also gone to the same hospital, stealthily, to give birth to her son—and then give him away to an adoption agency in Texas. This baby boy of Nwadi’s, whom Obiageli has claimed as hers, ends up playing a role in linking the now old triplets together after seventy-nine years of their separation. In fact, if I had not brought in bloodline and the preference for male children among the Igbo, the saga would never have been complete. And mind you that we are talking about the pedigree, the common ancestry, of an African family that spans over four generations. Without bloodline, without the male child, it may be difficult for one to trace one’s roots. Have you ever wondered why the formidable Kizzy Waller, daughter of Kunta Kinte and Belle (called Kizzy Reynolds in the TV series), refuses to marry, even though she falls in love with a charming young man? The answer is simple: to propagate the name, Kinta Kunte. If she had married that man, the name will have gone into extinction. To hold her father’s dream, Kizzy makes the hardest decision of her life: obstinately putting herself in the position of a man in the family.
What made you decide to have three books in one?
Mmmmh . . . actually, I am now contemplating having them separated, so that they would become a trilogy. And to be frank with you, it was never my intention to have it like that. That I divided the saga into Books 1, 2, and 3 does not mean (to me) that I have three books in one. It was my readers around the world who have been suggesting to me that I separate the book in order to have a trilogy. To answer your question, however, I would like to start by referring you to such
family sagas as John Jake’s North and South, Alex Haley’s Roots, Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, and Barbara Taylor-Bradford’s AWoman of Substance, which were all made into TV miniseries. These novels are as voluminous as the 600-page The Dust Must Settle. Both The Thorn Birds and North & South, for example, are well over 600 pages, yet each of them is just one novel. A Woman of Substance is about 800 pages, yet it is one novel. I think the confusion lies in my calling the three parts of The Dust Must Settle “Book One”, “Book Two”, and then “Book Three” — which is not strange, because I have read a lot of novels which are divided into Books, not Parts. Whether Books or Parts, they mean the same to writers. Just choose whichever you want. It is only the layman who does not understand it like that, hence all the “complaints” or “points of observation” that flood in, asking me why I put three books in one. And like I said early on, I never conceived the idea of separating the book into three separate books until I began to receive a torrent of mails and calls to that effect.
What’s your lineage?
First of all, I am of Igbo extraction, in South-East Nigeria, the first son—but the second after my elder sister—in a family of eight. I come from Ihiala in Anambra State. My (late) father, Mr. Benjamin Jude Enyika Ozoigbo, had a dual profession: he was a nurse/medical illustrator and, at the same time, a fine-arts lecturer. Well, he studied nursing, and after he got disenchanted with it, he proceeded to the university to study Fine Arts after meeting my mother who happens to be a nurse, too. He was the fourth son from his mother’s womb (his mother had five sons only in a polygamous family of three wives and twelve children). My grandfather, John Anisobi Ozoigbo, was among the well-known titled men in Ihiala. He had a lot of lands, and had a lot of dealings with the colonial administrators, hence my father’s and my uncles’ impressive educational backgrounds. I cannot go beyond my grandfather, because we do not have a family tree. In any case, I believe a little research can do that for me.
Are you currently working on any other novels?
Oh, yes. I am working on another one that hinges on gender. Just like The Dust Must Settle, it involves intensive research. It is a very important project in which I want to involve Virgin Unite (an NGO in Britain owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group), the United Nations Populations Fund, the ministry of Women Affairs of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Nigerian Women Trust Fund, and all women around the world who have dedicated, or are still dedicating, their creative energies to human rights activism, pacifism, and feminism. It is a project I want to finish in record time, so that the better part of its launching proceeds will go to the funding required for the treatment of VVF (Vesico-Vaginal Fistula) which is prevalent in Northern Nigeria. I came across an article in the Nigerian Health Journal of January 21, 2011. According to this article, it is estimated that 2 million women, globally, suffer from obstetric fistula, with approximately 400,000-800,000 of such cases in Nigeria alone, the northern part having over 85 percent of these cases. Obviously, these women are mostly very young, uneducated and inexperienced. Many of them die as a result of VVF. They do not have a voice. I want to lend them a voice, and financial help also for the corrective surgical procedures, through this project I am working on. The next project is exclusively a historical novel, and has to do with a descendant of slaves, who becomes the richest man in Nottingham, one ofthe conurbations of England. I won’t go into details. Let’s leave it at that for now.
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring writers?
This question that is the most common in all the interviews I have had with both the print and broadcast media. In any case, I have to tell the budding writers to read extensively. Many of them have plunged into writing because they want to win awards. Writing is not for you to win awards. Writing is for you to pass a message, a satire, to society. It is akin to the work of a journalist. The only difference is satire which must be evident in every novel. Journalists tell the plain truth. And that is why some of them are assassinated. Do you want to write to simply tell a story to the people in your community in the whole world? Or do you want to just trade the story for money? The choice is yours. But note that you cannot go far if you make the latter choice. A lot of aspiring writers want to just write and get published. They don’t care about the impact of their writing on society. That is what I call writing without purpose. Still a lot want to write when they don’t read. Reading and writing go together. You can’t be a great writer when you do not read. I am presently involved in a world competition in which five or so participants who eventually win will have their works published on both sides of the Atlantic by the world-leading publishers of J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, and Dan Brown. We have begun to review the opening chapters of one another, which will take the whole of this June. I shake my head in wonder, and also in disgust, when I read for my own review what some of these young aspiring writers have submitted for the competition. And what is worse, some of them are not willing to take any criticism, no matter how constructive! So, every aspiring writer must be willing to learn, otherwise there are no prospects—and there will never be.