Chigozie Obioma has been called the heir to International Man Booker Prize–winner Chinua Achebe, whose first novel Things Fall Apart is one of the most important books in African literature. Achebe is Nigerian like Obioma and, like Obioma, is also from the Igbo tribe. In An Orchestra of Minorities (Obioma’s second novel after The Fishermen), the narrator is a guardian spirit, a chi, that watches over the protagonist, a man named Chinonso. Orchestra opens with the chi testifying before the god of creation.
Obioma tells me that with Orchestra, he wanted to write a novel about West African belief systems, the way Milton’s Paradise Lost is written in the Judeo-Christian tradition. A chart of Igbo cosmology precedes the narrative. The reader enters a magical world.
The inspiration for Orchestra began with the fortunes of one of Obioma’s fellow Nigerians, Jay, whom he met in Cyprus at university. Northern Cyprus is a complicated place, a partially recognized state under the control of Turkey, but it’s generous with its student visas. “Many Nigerians sell everything to get there, thinking they are going to Europe,” Obioma says. “There is a system of corruption with agents, middlemen, known in Nigeria as ‘who you sabi [who you know].’ They promise everything but often do not deliver.” Jay had been living in Germany but was deported and sacrificed all he had left to get to Cyprus, hoping to “pick up his life again.” But he was soon in despair and, not long after, fell from a roof and died.
Obioma wrote about Jay in an article for the Guardian. He says, “His story never went away from me. It got me thinking about the concept of destiny and fate. I began to reflect about his situation in a profound way.”
Obioma wondered, why was this man’s life so unfortunate? And he wanted to look at it from the perspective of Igbo philosophy, which is why he made a chi the narrator.
“The difference between Western thought and African thought is striking,” Obioma notes. His own aesthetics were shaped by the books on his father’s shelves: the Greek classics and Shakespeare, books that he says he “devoured.” And in some ways, he adds, Chinonso’s quest mirrors that of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey.
“Africans don’t believe in free will, in consent,” Obioma says. “Instead there is the chi and preordained events that will dictate your life. Man plays out his role.”
Nigeria is Christian and Muslim, but, according to Obioma, they are hybridized (Nigerian Christians, for example, believe in reincarnation), as is the culture, despite the Western influence brought on by colonization. “People never completely abandon their traditions,” he notes.
Obioma says his goal in writing the book was to “look at the African belief system in a world of fiction.” The chi in Orchestra tells the story of his host, Chinonso, a poultry farmer who, when he sees a woman named Ndali who is about to jump from a bridge, throws his prize chickens off the bridge to emphasize what a terrible thing she is considering. She doesn’t jump and the two fall in love, but there are many obstacles that Chinonso must overcome to win Ndali. He has the desperation of Jay and is willing to do anything to succeed. And, like Jay, he makes his way to Cyprus.
Obioma’s first novel, The Fishermen, is an epic story of family that he says is a tribute to his siblings (he has 11) as well as a picture of Nigeria. First published in Germany, it was acquired in the U.K. by Elena Lappin as one of 10 titles for her One imprint at Pushkin Press. Obioma’s agent, Jessica Craig, remembers “grabbing Elena outside an elevator and her coming back really soon with an offer.”
Lappin sent the manuscript to Little, Brown editor Judy Clain, who read it on her phone on her way to the 2014 London Book Fair. Clain remembers saying to herself, “I think I’m going to buy this book.” She preempted it, buying North American rights on the first day of the fair. The Fishermen was published in the U.S. in 2015, shortlisted that year for the Man Booker, won several awards, and was translated into 26 languages.
Clain also bought North American rights to Orchestra and says of that novel, “It’s extraordinary in its originality. The title is about giving small voices a play on the big stage.” She believes there’s an appetite for this kind of book—that it’s the perfect moment for it. “American readers are more open to African writers, to ambitious books written by people from foreign places, and Obioma’s books are so entertaining.”
Clain, who grew up in Zimbabwe, says she did a lot of work on Orchestra because she wanted to make the idea of the chi clear. “It’s a difficult concept for Americans: a guardian spirit that protects but does not control. And there’s darkness in this book, but Chigozie was adamant about the ending. It’s not happy, but this is the story that he’s telling. This is a bigger book than Fishermen and should command a wider audience.”
Clain expects great reviews and believes Obioma has the potential to be a major writer. “He has a huge international reputation and is a very good on-the-road promoter,” she says. “He’s a charming, personable man.”
Orchestra was Jessica Craig’s first sale at Craig Literary, the agency she started in Barcelona in summer 2016. “I read an early draft in December 2016,” she says. “As an American, I was feeling depressed about the U.S. election and couldn’t focus until this came in and I had to read it.”
Craig was working in the foreign rights department at United Agents in London in 2012 when she decided she wanted to represent authors. “Chigozie was my very first client,” she says. “The Fishermen was sent to me, and I made the British deal for U.K. and foreign rights. I will never forget reading the opening paragraph; it was electric. Elena Lappin agreed. It proved to me that the most important thing is to match an author with the right editor and also one who has the power to purchase it.”
Craig says that Orchestra hit her even deeper than The Fishermen. “I was sold on the chi as narrator and impressed with the chi’s humor,” she says. The U.S. deal was for six figures, and confirmed foreign sales to date are Globo in Brazil; Locus in China (complex Chinese); Hena Com in Croatia; Klim in Denmark; Buchet Chastel in France; Piper Verlag in Germany; Bompiani in Italy; Font Forlag in Norway; and Ordfront in Sweden. Little, Brown, in a separate deal, is publishing Orchestra in the U.K.; the U.S. pub date is January 2019.
With my roots in the Mezzogiorno, I’m a strong believer in fate and destiny, and now that I know about the chi, I’m convinced mine is doing her job.