A tragic incident in 2009 was all it took for Chigozie Obioma, assistant professor of English and creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to pen his book, “An Orchestra of Minorities.” The novel was published Jan. 8, 2019, and it is currently shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize award, which is given to the best English novel of the year.
The Booker Prize is awarded to the best novel written in English and published in the U.K or Ireland.
Nominations for the award come in two waves — a longlist and shortlist. After judges pare down the books, the shortlist is published, and the recipient is announced in October. Obioma’s first novel “The Fisherman” was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2015. In 2019, his second novel is shortlisted for this year’s award..
While living in Cyprus in 2009, Obioma met a young man who had been deceived by his people in Nigeria. The man was tricked into thinking he was going to be working in a developed country like the United States or Western Europe, but he was deceived because he was sent to Cyprus which was not as developed as those countries. During the young man’s tenure in Cyprus, he died tragically. Before his death, he told Obioma the real reason why he left his home in Nigeria — to raise enough money to marry the woman he loved.
“‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ is actually me trying to retrace the tragedy of his journey. I just kept asking myself, ‘What would have been the bond between him and this woman?’” Obioma said.
Ten years later, Obioma’s Booker Prize-nominated book stems from that very incident. While the book doesn’t end as tragically as the event that inspired it, the soulful strains of a man’s work for the love of his life still thread their way through the novel.
Obioma had had the idea for “An Orchestra of Minorities” in his head since 2009 but didn’t begin penning the novel until approximately late 2014 to early 2015.
One of the biggest challenges of writing the book, Obioma said, was the way the story is told. Rather than being told from the main character’s point of view (who in this case is the man in love with the Nigerian woman), it is told from what Obioma describes as a “creature.”
The creature is called “Chi,” which is a personal spirit-guide for all those living on Earth. After death, the spirit gives an account of the person’s life to the high god and other deities. Because of this unconventional narration style, which varies from the traditional first or third person narrative, Obioma had to do copious amounts of research.
“While telling this story of this guy who falls in love, it’s also telling this story about this civilization, this country, these people and their traditions,” Obioma said, “To be able to do that, I had to read a lot, even though I am from that part of the world.”
Obioma stressed the importance of portraying the details of Nigerian life correctly and giving justice to the cultural nuances of the Nigerian people and their heritage.
“It was not easy to compress all this research into a novel while not losing track of the actual story that I was telling. So it was like writing these two things together in one book,” Obioma said.
Writing, he said, was a difficult enterprise. He explained how writers have a vision and want to showcase a world they created in their heads to others. According to Obioma, writers dream of someday presenting their ideas to people they have never met before to persuade those who pick up the author’s writings to keep reading.
“I have to convince you to believe that these things are real, to become invested in this character who is invented by me,” Obioma said.
To effectively draw the readers in, Obioma said many different factors must align within the reader. The reader must be convinced the story is worth exploring and invested in the plot and main character as if the character is real.
The culmination of the decade-long work Obioma poured in “An Orchestra of Minorities” was a nomination for the 2019 Booker Prize. Originally, Obioma said he had no thought of his book being nominated — even for the longlist. However, his agents and publishers had higher hopes than him.
When his publisher in the U.K. asked him to give her a call one day in late July, he didn’t think the call was too important, so he told her he was unavailable. After the publisher left a voicemail, however, Obioma said he was thrilled to learn he had been longlisted for the award.
“The shortlist was a long shot,” Obioma said. “I had no idea my book would make it because the competition was very tight.”
However, a few days before the shortlist was announced, Obioma’s publisher called him again.
“She dropped this voicemail and said, ‘Pick your call up!’ So I called her and the publishers were screaming in their office in London, so I knew [“An Orchestras of Minorities”] had made the shortlist,” he said.
He said he had anxiety prior to releasing “An Orchestra of Minorities” because while his first book was moderately successful, he wondered if anybody cared enough about this novel’s subject to read it. Despite these feelings, Obioma said he was content to publish the book and let the wind take his words where it pleased.
Acting chair of the Department of English and professor Roland Vegso is a colleague of Obioma’s and said he was very pleased to hear about Obioma’s second Booker Prize nomination.
“This kind of international visibility is clearly beneficial for both the English Department and the university in general. As far as the department is concerned, it further solidifies the high ranking of our creative writing program,” Vegso said. “We were already considered to be one of the stronger programs in the country. These recognitions go a long way in ensuring our high standing among our peers.”
Obioma explained what he had learned from being an author and highlighted how young authors can build their careers. He said new writers should follow authors they admire and read their works to gain a better idea for writing styles and literary syntax. According to Obioma, a driving force for literary success requires young authors to believe in themselves.
“Believe in what you are doing, no matter how crazy it seems,” Obioma said. “If your heart is in it, you have to have faith and do the best you can. Hope for the best, even if it’s just one person who reads it.”
Obioma is also the first author in Booker Prize history to be nominated for their first and second book.
For those interested in delving into the riveting tale of a man who risks it all for the woman he loves, “An Orchestra of Minorities” is available at the UNL Bookstore. The Booker Prize winner will be announced Oct. 14.
This article was modified at 11:15 a.m. on Sept 18. for clarity