Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani lives in Abjuja, Nigeria, and is the first contemporary African writer to launch a global writing career while still living in her home country. A freelance writer, she is a part-time correspondent for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, where she focuses on underreported humanitarian stories, as well as a columnist for the BBC’s “Letter from Africa.” While her debut novel, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, published in 2009, offers a humorous and lively take on the world of internet fraud, her new YA novel, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, inspired by the 2014 Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 Chibok girls, has a much more somber tone. We spoke with Nwaubani via email about why she chose fiction as the medium for a tale about these recent atrocities, about how her writing process for this book differed from that of her previous work, and about the role she sees for people of faith in the fight against terrorism.
As an author of fiction and a journalist, what made you decide to tell this story as a novel, rather than a work of nonfiction, and what was your research process like?
Fictionalizing the experiences of the thousands of women and girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group is sort of my way of hijacking the interest of people who normally don’t pay attention to the news. Over the past four years, I’ve written dozens of newspaper articles about the Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria, sometimes spending days in remote towns. Still, I frequently come across people, sometimes family and friends, who still know little or nothing about the crisis, and about the horrors that these women and girls continue to endure. That can be really dismaying. Many of these same people who’ve now read Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree call me to discuss what they’ve read and to marvel at some of the incidents I’ve described. To tackle their incredulity, I send them links to articles I’d written over the years, in which I quoted and photographed actual human beings with the experiences described in my book. Viviana [Mazza]’s afterword also does a great job of backing up my fiction with fact. While my novel merges many of the stories I’ve heard from dozens of girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram, Viviana’s afterword quotes actual girls, their families, and gives a thorough historical background to the insurgency.
How did your writing process for this book differ from that of your previous works, and what lay behind some of the literary choices you made, such as telling this story in short chapters, with recurring titles, and leaving the narrator unnamed?
Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is really a piece of journalism masquerading as fiction. I was careful to not include any information in the story that did not exist in the actual narratives I’d heard from victims. So, everything you read in the book, no matter how outlandish, actually represents reality. This commitment to telling things as they happened was a bit constraining. I couldn’t have my characters playing any of the Wonder Woman stunts that readers may have wished to see. I couldn’t have the kidnapped girls, for example, organizing an ambush during which they seized all the ammunition and forced the Boko Haram militants to flee. That may have made a thrilling read but, unfortunately, it never happened. At least, I was never told by any of the girls that any such incident occurred. With my first novel, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, I had more liberty. I could twist and turn the story in whatever direction I believed might please the reader. Sticking to the facts while still keeping the plot interesting was the most challenging aspect of writing Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree.
Telling the story in short chapters was by inspiration; I just felt it best to write it that way. Leaving the narrator unnamed was a decision; I wanted my protagonist to represent every single one of the thousands of girls who’ve been kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists. I wanted her to represent the more famous captives like the girls taken from their school dormitory in Chibok, northeast Nigeria, in April 2014, as well as the lesser known thousands of girls kidnapped several months before and after. No one girl is more valuable than the other. Each of the abducted girls had a life and a future that was brutally snatched from her by Boko Haram.
In addition to being a novelist and essayist, you are also known as a humorist. In what ways does humor support your creative process as a novelist, in general, and in this book in particular?
While growing up in Nigeria, I fell in love with books by long gone humorists like Sam Levenson and Erma Bombeck, usually purchased from secondhand book piles, and later discovered all time greatest of the great, P.G. Wodehouse. Humor became my preferred writing style. Alas, there's a limit to how much humor one can express when writing, say, a feature for the Thomson Reuters Foundation or an op-ed for the New York Times. I see Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree more as journalism than as a fiction, so I did my best to keep humor at bay.
The novel conveys the peaceful coexistence of Christian and Muslim families in the narrator’s village prior to the kidnapping. Following the kidnapping, one of the narrator’s Muslim friends emphatically declares, “This is not Islam.” What role do you see for people of faith in a world increasingly beset with terrorism?
It was essential for me to show in my novel that Boko Haram is not Islam. The Nigerian government organizes de-radicalization programs for captured Boko Haram commanders and their families, and a major component of the process is sessions handled by imams. These Muslim clerics use the Quran to teach the jihadists the errors of their ways. I’ve interviewed some former Boko Haram members who have undergone the de-radicalization process, and a number of them expressed regret to me about their actions committed in ignorance of what Allah truly would expect of His followers. It actually turns out that the majority of Boko Haram members in these programs had never read or understood the Quran by themselves, depending mostly on what their leaders told and taught them. I believe that more prominent Muslims and Islamic scholars need to publicly condemn acts of terrorism as being contrary to the true teachings of Islam. It’s something they must do over and over again, and as loudly as possible. Evil men and women will, of course, continue to exist and find ways of expressing their darkness, but we must not allow them to continue to hide under the cloak of religion. I am a Christian myself, and my pastor often says that the most wicked people in this world are religious people. They always find ways to use the teachings of Jesus Christ to perpetuate their cruelty.
Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. HarperCollins/Tegen, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-06-269672-4