World View, Local Ground: Nigerian-Born Author Chigozie Obioma Wins BigNov 01, 2022 08:22AM ● By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Chigozie Obioma walked into a Thai restaurant in Lincoln appearing humble, but with purpose. He smiled and warmly greeted the counter workers, whom he appeared to know, then apologized for being tardy. Despite his busy schedule—teaching college classes, writing books, traveling the world, and spending a substantial amount of time reading—he graciously made time for our interview.
Obioma spent much of 2021 doing the latter, reading more than 150 novels as a judge for the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction. He traveled vicariously through literary characters from his reading chair in Lincoln to locations including Missoula, Montana, in the 1910s; rural Punjab, India, in 1929; and Pretoria, South Africa, in the 1980s—the setting of the winning novel, The Promise by Damon Galgut.
Obioma grew up with his 11 siblings in Akure, Nigeria. He left his strife-ridden homeland in 2009 for Cyprus, where he earned a B.A. and M.A. from Cyprus International University, and arrived in the United States in 2012 as the OMI Fellow at Ledig House in Ghent, New York. Obioma stayed in the United States to attend the MFA program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and remained because he fell in love with an American woman. The now-permanent U.S. resident was also enticed by the greater access to publishing in the States.
His local journey began when he was offered a position as an associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Omaha author Timothy Schaffert was on the search committee that selected Obioma and said he and fellow committee members knew Obioma was going to be an asset to the university when they interviewed him in January 2015.
“He already had a book deal with a major New York commercial press and contracts with foreign publishers, so that was a pretty good indication that his career was going to rapidly rise, even though the book had not yet come out,” Schaffert said. The Fishermen came out in April that year. “He was affable and easygoing, and he brought to the conversations intelligence and insight and energy.”
Schaffert continued, “He exposes students to different styles of literature. He taught conceptual literature where he was asking students to consider experimental styles of writing, pushing their own work in ways they may not have considered before. I think he’s an excellent critic…so he can give students excellent insight.”
“I find it is gratifying there are some people who take writing seriously at a very young age. That gives me a lot of joy, and that gives me satisfaction,” Obioma said. “There’s a lot of Nebraska children who grew up on farms, and because they grew up in this—almost wilderness—they have great imaginations…I see a lot of that, and in many ways, I do think that this place is a breeding ground for creativity.”
Obioma's own success is proof that the Heartland is fertile writing ground, having published two New York Times bestsellers from Nebraska. He's currently at work on his third novel with his agent, who lives in New York City.
Between reading, publishing, and teaching, Obioma has become a part of the local literary community, including being a speaker and holding a table at the 2019 Omaha Lit Fest.
“Omaha is a bigger city, and also, Omaha has a bigger Black population, historically,” Obioma said. “It was a pleasure and an honor for me to be included.”
That festival also helped increase his recognition locally, giving Omahans who did not know the author a chance to speak with him and purchase signed copies of his Booker Prize-shortlisted works of literature.
The Booker Prize is the highest literary award in the United Kingdom. It comes with about $60,000 as of late August (£50,000 final prize plus a £2,500 finalist prize), as well as international recognition that guarantees increased sales. Winning novels have spawned movies, such as The English Patient and The Remains of the Day, based on them, and popular novelists, such as Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie, have won Booker Prizes. Obioma has almost won, twice.
“My first novel (The Fishermen) came out in 2015, in Europe and the U.S.,” Obioma said. “I got great reviews; it was on the second page of the New York Times. But then, the book seemed to disappear, and so I began to think it had made a splash and gone away. Then around June, things began to change. All of a sudden the book was nominated for three or four prizes. Then in July, the big one: the longlist for the Booker Prize. Eventually, it was on the shortlist.”
The experience was flattering for the Nigerian-born Nebraskan. The awards and nominations garnered additional copies and translations. Even after being shortlisted for the Booker, The Fishermen continued to gain literary recognition, including one of four inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices awards (out of 872 entries).
“I was shocked when I saw the publication report from China,” Obioma said. “This is a place that is so far away from my experience as an African, who has written a book about Nigeria in the 1990s. But 55,000 copies of The Fishermen had been sold in a year…it’s a big country, but I was surprised that not only that many people would want to read it, but buy it.”
The book was translated into 30 languages, and the translations have, for the most part, pleased him.
“[The Fishermen] was up for a major prize in Germany. It won a prize in France,” he said. “It was chosen for the national book club of Germany…that’s how I know the translation is good or not.”
One translation, however, did not work out as well. Obioma learned through someone who had read his book that the Arabic translation, published in Qatar, was not great.
“He actually went and made comparisons between the English and Arab translations and had someone verify it,” Obioma said. “We ended up selling the Arabic rights for the next book to this guy, even though he is a smaller publisher. I think he did a good job with the translation of the second book.”
That book, An Orchestra of Minorities, garnered Obioma another Booker Prize nomination (and shortlist honor) in 2019.
“When it happened again for the second book, some of the historians said this is rare that [an author would be shortlisted] the second time,” Obioma said. “At first I didn’t want to do it, because I thought it was going to be too much work.”
“When his second book got nominated, that level of recognition seemed fairly inevitable,” Schaffert said. “We did recognize that his work was going to have an impact internationally.”
Obioma then asked himself if he would later regret the decision, and so he accepted the request to judge this contest in which only 12 authors per year, worldwide, can claim participation.
The contest is limited to the 180,000 to 200,000 estimated books published annually in the U.K. or Ireland, and publishing houses make the submissions.
“Even the biggest publishing houses have only two slots,” Obioma said. “Altogether there are like 150 to 160 books.”
Those books were read by the five members of the 2021 judging panel, which also included Californication actor Natascha McElhone and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Ph.D. They whittled the titles down to the 12 named to the longlist, using meetings via Zoom. Those 12 were reread to create the shortlist of six, and then those six were read again to determine the final winner.
“We decided earlier, as the pandemic was scaling down, that we would try and meet for the final discussion in London,” Obioma said. “Already, the process of eliminating all these books had been difficult…Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun…we had a serious debate about that book.”
In the end, Obioma traveled from Nebraska to London to meet with the panelists for a nearly eight-hour debate in Soho. The award itself was presented to Galut on November 3 in a limited-attendance ceremony televised on the BBC.
Although his job takes him around the world, Obioma remains committed to Nebraska.
“I want to be part of the literary community here, because right now, this is home for me,” Obioma said.