A multiple award-winning novelist, Odili Ujubuoñu has spent thirty years in the advertising industry. He is the founder of Brande Aristotle Limited, a marketing communications and brand consultancy firm. He co-founded the Awka Literary Society and its world acclaimed Return to Idoto: A Celebration of Christopher Okigbo’s Poetry. His first novel, Pregnancy of the Gods (2006) won the 2006 ANA/Jacaranda Prize for Prose and was on the Daily Sun’s Bestseller list for the same year. His second book, Treasure in the Winds (2008), was a nominee for the 2008 Nigerian Prize for Literature and won the 2008 ANA/Chevron Prize on Environmental Prize, while Pride of the Spider Clan was nominated for the 2012 Wole Soyinka Prize for Africa and the Winner of 2012 ANA Prose. Crows of the Yellow Stream, his forthcoming novel, is due to be released in 2021. Henry Akubuiro chatted with him on his flourishing writing career.
It’s been a while since you presented a new work after your first three novels scooped awards and accolades, what’s new?
As I have always told you, I am a conscript of the muse. I am probably a stubborn artist. Sometimes I quarrel and fight with my muse. Sometimes it chains my feet and my legs, and makes it difficult for me to do whatever else I want to do, and pulls me back to what it wants me to do. So being a word artist, I have been involved in my advertising, creating advertising lines. I wrote the Anambra Anthem in 2014 and the APGA Nkea bu nke anyi line in 2017. I also wrote everything used for the Obiano governorship campaign for radio and TV.
However, I knew that I was owing myself. When I make money, I don’t make it for myself; I make it for others. What I was owing myself was literature. In the middle of this, the muse came again and arrested me, pulled me out and forced me to go back and write. It is a very interesting story.
The new book is a work of fiction?
Yes, it is a novel. As at September 18 2018, I had only written 16 pages. But the muse arrested me just four kilometres from where we celebrated the Okigbo festival. I left where I was in the middle of a burial, near Ojoto, and went back to the house. I cleared my desk in Awka. Between then and February, 2020, I was able to conclude 437 pages of my first draft. So between then and now, I have been working with editors to get the book ready. As I speak with you, the book is at the press.
Congrats in advance. Your debut fiction, Pregnancy of the Gods, got a rousing reception. Is it a continuation?
Pregnancy of the Gods, Treasures in the Wind, and Pride of the Spider’s Clan formed a trilogy. This one is an entirely different story.
Is it a departure from the familiar bucolic setting?
The local elements are what have chained me now, and I had to do so.
What’s your fascination with culture?
First and foremost, as I have always said, I was born in a traditional environment but grew up outside that environment, then went back to that environment. When I went back to that environment with the eyes of an outsider, I began to see there was so much buried in the culture that people were missing, chasing things that were outside the culture. For literature, there is so much in terms of excitement, the dynamics of the existential nature of man. All these things are so complete in the Igbo cosmology, and, the more you travel within, you see links, and those links between man and his environment, and the environment and man are things that actually charm me.
Do you see yourself as a disciple of Achebe?
As far as I am concerned, Achebe was an inventor and I am a consumer of his invention. He invented a style and a diction, and we consumed it. Sometimes we consumed it well; sometimes we consumed it badly; and sometimes we tried to consume it as much as we would have wanted it consumed. We are just consumers. We are not at par with him. We continue from where he stopped.
Nowadays, when the literary world talks about contemporary Nigerian literature, it’s all about Nigerian writers abroad. But we have writers like you based in Nigeria doing fantastic works. Why are works of writers not being reckoned with outside the shores of this country?
It’s because I am not writing for them. We are not writing for them. I am writing for us. If your son reads my work and is able to connect with it, it is so fulfilling that I have a younger generation who loves my work, because this is part of history that they never knew, not the older generation. Literature is just like a movie that takes them into having and experiencing what they never had before. So I don’t think about the whiteman; I don’t remember the West when I write. So, if you are not within my target audience, why would I expect them to find my work interesting? I think it’s for those you are writing for. I am an advertising man. My target audience is very key for every brand you are creating. My target audience is my people, and, if my people are fine with my work, I think I have greater success than anything else.
So you don’t believe a work should travel?
My prayer for every work is that it should grow wings and touch the four ends of the earth, but you can’t force your work on people. First of all, you must look for your target audience and write for them.
So, who should African writers write for?
It’s very uncharitable for me to determine for a writer whom to write for. There are people who want to write because they want to appear on CNN. I am not one of them. If I want to do that, I have to touch on certain issues CNN or New York Times will be interested in. But, if I am writing for my people (Nigerians and Africans), I have to write on issues that concern them. So I won’t criticise a writer’s style because of what he wants to achieve. Maybe some people look at ambition in terms of global reach. It doesn’t work that way for me. Sometimes some successes can be transcendental in terms of space and time. Some could be linear —you write here, it runs to the end of the world. But, if it’s transcendental, this generation or the next might go and the next will come back to your work. That’s how it works. If it’s for economic reasons, of course, it will shape the way I write; it’s going to force me to do things that will pay. But my greatest satisfaction as a writer is that, when my reader reads it, he is going to connect to what I am saying.
So, do contemporary writers have a better opportunity now?
Yes, we do. In Achebe’s time, Heinemann had a huge investment and infrastructure, and was able to take their books abroad. Now, the writer has to the power in his hand; he has to use the technology to make his own work get to wherever he wants it to go. But I am not obsessed with travelling the whole world. If I am writing about the whole world, I can do a story set in Amazon Forest and travel probably to Papua New Guinea and back to maybe Ukpor, my village, and then create characters around those places. Of course, a publisher wil think there will be a commercial audience here and there. But I am writing about a tiny community somewhere in Africa that is not very well known, so why do I expect the book will travel the whole world? You have to be realistic.
Can we get a tip of the iceberg?
The novel is called Crows of the Yellow Stream. I am trying to explore what life could have been in an African community before humans took that very community and live there. In living in that community, how did they relate with the animals they found there? What were the impacts of those animals on humans? And when you put in parallel with current talk about the environment, you realise our people have always been friends with the environment.