At 605, Chux Onyenyeonwu’s novel, Akachukwu, is an enticing whopper. It’s a novel that goes back in time to recollect life in Africa before the interaction with whites. It also chronicles the slave trade era and its aftermath. Recently, the author turned the big novel into a trilogy while still retaining the original version. HENRY AKUBUIRO wangled a chat with the trailblazing novelist, who has been enjoying rave reviews in America, at a chance meeting in Ikeja, Lagos. In this chat, Onyenyeonwu explains why he took a departure from Alex Haley’s Roots to pen a novel every African, especially those in diaspora, would be proud of.
Your new novel, Akachukwu, is trending at the moment. What’s the difference between it and The Sixth Finger, which was published earlier, for they seem to have similar preoccupations?
Like I tell people, if you know The Sixth Finger, Akachukwu does not need an introduction. The Sixth Finger was published in the US, but, in America, people go to court for anything. When I was writing The Sixth Finger, I was familiar with some set of people, and I believe somewhere along the line they were showing more interest in the book than expected.
What do you mean by that?
I meant I started avoiding something that would lead to litigation in future. Initially, I was trying to make The Sixth Finger look like a book related to Roots by Alex Haley; and don’t forget that Roots went into a lot of litigation so much that a lot of things were settled out of court after his death, including plagiarism charges. So when I kept identifying my book with Roots, a lot of people were telling me that somebody might come tomorrow and make some claims, so Akachukwu came in.
Is the name the only difference in the book title?
There are certain things that I changed in Akachukwu. I changed the cover, intro and other works I added to give it a new look.
Picture emerged recently on the internet of Reverend Jesse Jackson holding and endorsing Akachukwu, how did achieve that feat?
That’s one of those things I called vintage Akachukwu. Many people would be wondering how I got Akachukwu into the hand of such a colossal figure. You know he is larger than life. But it was a contact I made through Chinua Achebe’s son, Dr. Chidi —he has connections all over through his father —that we got to the Jesse Jackson Foundation. For him to take a picture with Akachukwu definitely tells you we went far and he liked the book.
For those who haven’t read Akachukwu, what makes it a compelling read?
It is the story of the Africans before the slave trade, during the slave trade and after the slave trade. Even with the name — I am trying to break it down — there are some connections we have brought in here, apart from Ohafia and Arochukwu. Onitsha is also becoming prominent here. Akachukwu now has it that all the mothers of these people ended up being these Onitsha women. They were sold at the same time when these brothers were sold. They were in the same boat heading for Calabar. From Calabar, they were shipped together up to Cuba —They were good at separating families, because they didn’t want them to plan together. In Cuba, before the boat left for America, the two sisters were separated, as well as the two brothers. So one of the sisters from Onitsha ended up with the other brother from Ohafia, and the other brother ended up in Cuba. So the family continued; they got married.
What’s the difference between Akachukwu in the Akachukwu novel and Kunta Kinte in Roots?
Kunta Kinte’s story is from The Gambia. What I am trying to do with Akachukwu is to reread the story of Roots, which was told by an African in the diaspora. So an African based in Africa telling the story can’t be the same as mine. I have broken down the book into a trilogy: Headstart on Voyage of No Return, Endless Battles in Chains, and Finally, Freedom at Last! The first tells the story of the real African lifestyle before and after the slave trade, that African had a civilisation, even before the whites came. In it, you learn that these Africans were not as crude as we thought they were before the whites came. You now see that they had advanced agriculture, medicine and even judiciary in their communities.
However, in Roots, it was a quick thing. Only a few pages were dedicated to Africa by Haley before the setting switched over to America. But, in my book, I took time in the African setting, spending over 200 hundred pages, telling the story about these Africans so that people would appreciate the story of these Africans taken away. The preparation for the life in slavery was actually done in that part, because somewhere in that story, those people resorted to experiences and clinical teachings from Africa to survive.
So the difference between Roots and Akachukwu or Kunta Kinte is that Akachukwu, the character, wasn’t sold into slavery but his children were. They sold two out of his three sons into slavery, but the surename continues. The guy who went to America maintained that name. He remembered his own name was Chukwuma, but he settled for Chuk after struggling to remember it in full. So he gave his sons Chuk 1, Chuk 2 and Chuk 3 just to keep that African connection.
Why did you deliberately republish Akachukwu as three-in-one?
When we started getting complaints that the book was bulky to read (over 600 pages), we had to do something about it. But I know the quality Akachukwu is made of: the moment you open the book, you can’t stop opening the pages. As Olakunle of Kasamu Book Club said, “The moment you start opening the pages, you can’t stop.” Coming up with a trilogy doesn’t cancel the original book. A reader may prefer the bigger one or choose to start with one of the trilogy and then get the second and subsequently the third part of the trilogy. But, in the long run, it’s cheaper to buy the bigger book than the smaller ones, comparatively.
Over six decades after Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was published, you are curiously going back in time to recollect an African past, what are you trying to achieve?
The challenge for me was seeing a clip of Roots. The exact scene was when Kunta Kinte was in America, and was about to be given a new name, and he refused the name, and was flogged mercilessly. I couldn’t forget that scene where he refused a new name.
So I told myself there was the need to tell the world that Africa was not as backward as people thought. Today, a lot of people are saying Africa is the cradle of civilisation and were the ones who taught the Romans how to read and write. So I have to tell this story so that Africans should be proud of Africa, especially those in diaspora. Chapter 1 of the novel will take you back to Africa of that time, before the interaction with the white man.
How much of this work is a product of research or imagination?
I did a lot of work, because I upped the bar. I needed to challenge myself, because I am a voracious reader. I have read differently. I wanted to say Akachukwu must be head and shoulders above other books. This is historical fiction. History is like looking at two mountain tops from far; you can see the hilltop, but you can’t see what’s between them. So history is like those points. The filler is what I call fiction. The fiction must be believable. You can’t write anything because it’s fiction. That’s why I like some of my reviews from America, which said it was a tough task that I took up, but, at the end of the day, they said it was believable. There were areas that readers thought, “Oh you can’t escape this time, but we squeezed through”. That’s why Akachukwu becomes meaningful (the hand of God), because the hand of God came in when I discovered tight corners.
Let’s go back to Akachukwu himself. In creating this mythical character, what was the thinking?
It started with his name (the hand of God) that Africans don’t just give names. Many things are considered in naming somebody. When this child was born, there was a lot of history surrounding him, because he had six fingers. That itself was history. I used dreams to plug in. Dreams are like a connection to the future. So I now started playing with dreams around. Before Akachukwu lost his sons, he had already had a dream that a big bird was going to carry his two sons away with his close friend who was kidnapped earlier before the boys. In that dream, he was told they would come back. That was why he was calm when everybody was running here and there. The name Akachukwu implies the hand of God, and I am trying to prove that the slave trade that changed the lives of so many Africans was not outside of God’s idea.
Today, look at what the blacks are doing in America; they have become musical and sporting stars. Look at how they embarrassed Hitler during the Olympics in Berlin. The whole idea is to let people know that what’s happening around us, there is a hand of God in it; you can’t take away the hand of God.