“An Ecstatic, Cerebral Jab”: Q&A with Chigozie Obioma

by Paul Hanson Clark

Filed under: Blog |

One of the new members of UNL's Creative Writing Faculty is having quite the month. In addition to getting settled into teaching classes in Lincoln, Chigozie Obioma was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his book The Fishermen. I emailed Obioma a few questions about his book, literary journals, and how he's adjusting to life in Nebraska. Enjoy!

Can you tell us about your book?

The Fisherman is a family drama that tells the story of four auspicious boys of a Middle class Nigerian family who, upon their strict father’s transfer to another city for work, go fishing at a forbidden river where they encounter a vagrant famed to possess prescient powers. Their lives and that of their family is changed and marked forever by this singular encounter in both tragic and redemptive ways. Told by the melding dual voice of Benjamin, youngest of the boys, who looks back from two decades later to when he was nine years old, it is also in part a bildungsroman.

Were parts of the novel published in literary journals as you were working on it?

I wrote the story of the novel one night, a few days after the germ of the idea was first planted in my mind. I had about twelve pages of foolscap paper filled in one sitting. I knew it was a novel from the start, but just wasn't sure how to tell it. But I wanted to do something unique; to contribute to the possibilities of what we can do with fiction as an art form. I was about sixty-thousand words deep into the novel when I began to worry about how about how it would be received. So I decided to test the waters. I stripped the novel down to the essentials of the plot and sent it out to small journals as a short story. I abandoned the novel while waiting for journals to accept the story, and in the interim, within which I got a few acceptances, I wrote another novel from beginning to end. After receiving a few acceptances, I sent it out to big journals: Paris Review, The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, etc. It was not until 2011, when Ted Genoways of VQR sent an acceptance that I picked up The Fisherman again, and completed it around August of that year.

So, then, what do you think of literary journals?

I think they are a great resource for starting writers and also seasoned ones to keep up with snapshots of what is being produced today. Perhaps, without the validation that VQR gave, I would not have published The Fishermen.

What's it like being shortlisted for such a major prize?

The news about the shortlist came to me as an ecstatic, cerebral jab on the mind. It is imponderably satisfying, and just delightful, but wholly encouraging. I had merely hoped, at the onset of the work, to get published. To be nominated for awards is, to say the least, completely unexpected. But humbling, nonetheless.

How do you like UNL so far?

It is fun, totally exciting to have the opportunity to impact a few minds interested in fiction writing and Literature. I’m taking every moment of it with delight. But also, of course, there is the difficulty that grading and working through hours of students’ papers present to the teacher. But isn’t that the thrill of it all?

For more information on Obioma, click here to visit his website. To buy The Fishermen, click here.