Odili Ujubuonu followed up the success of his debut novel, Pregnancy of the Gods with Treasure in the Winds and Pride of the Spider Clan — the three books woven around a sacred flute lost and sought after in communities around the lower Niger. While Pregnancy of the Gods won the 2006, ANA/Jacaranda Prize for Prose, Treasure in the Winds won the 2008 ANA/ Chevron Prize on Environmental Issues, and was nominated for the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2008, while Pride of the Spider Clan was nominated for the 2010 Wole Soyinka Prize for Africa, and won the 2010 ANA Prose Prize. Ujubuoñu spoke with HENRY AKUBUIRO on the traditional bent of his novels.
One is fascinated by your gravitation to the Igbo past. At what point, did you realise this is a task you must embark on in your scribal adventures?
I never made a deliberate choice of who I am. So it is with what I write about. What I write about chose me. With no design of mine, I had a very early experience of the natural village life. With the eyes of a child I witnessed the religion, I heard the twilight tales, I watched the sparks escape logs of fire and the fire reflect in the storytellers’ eyes. I had stream baths, went after crickets and lived with nature. At a time, I could pick up a python with my bare hands and watch it curl around my lower arm without flinching. I loved and raised cats as a child. I watched them grow and graduate to terri- tories outside our domain. I knew very early that nature was man’s friend. I also knew that trees spoke, the earth and even the soil all breathed and worked with man in a perfect harmony. Man on his own decided to change that relationship. The more we got westernised the more we become hostile to our natural environment and hostile to the earlier set societal rules meant to keep the balance in man’s relationship with nature. The religion of our people, their traditions and rules of life were all rules of engagement between man and his environment. We threw them all away and embraced the new life. If we did so and moved on it probably would have been better. Instead, we deliberately demonised the old ways, broke old rules and recreated new ones with nature. There seemed to have emerged this anger against nature. We destroy our environment, destroy our past. Today, the term “village people” stands for everything negative, no thanks to Nollywood.
Our status in our relationship with our environment has been completely upend- ed. We’ve made ourselves owners rather than partners with nature. After all, our new religions gave us dominion over the earth. We’ve even begun to manipulate nature, forcing its floods of energy into new paths. When nature reacts, we cry. When we cry, our new religions can’t even help us; our new knowledge betrays us, and we all stand confused and hopeless like a child whose mother died in the marketplace.
I didn’t see this conflict as a child; I saw them many years later after my sojourn in the cities, acquiring western education and mastering its religion, and ways of life made it clear to me that we are on the wrong path. I be- gan to cry for justice within, searching for the balance in our relationship with nature. I think it’s that call that has kept me in the writing business. The search for solutions to our present problems in the experiences of our past is fundamental to why I write the kind of books that I do. My works are an unrelenting search for reconciliation between what was and what is. I believe that a better and sustainable future can only be found in this reconciliation. That’s my fascination.
The crows and the Yellow Stream played important roles in your latest novel, Crows of the Yellow Stream, did they exist in the time past or a product of imagination?
It is a product of my imagination. The yellow stream exists, no doubt; so do crows exist in almost every corner of the world. However, pied crows are the type of crows very often seen around us here in Nigeria and the rest of the subsahara. They are known to be very intelligent birds and have interacted with humans through civilisations. It is presumably easy for me to weave a tale around this bird and a people who found the word “peace” in their name yet can’t find it in their lives. Those have so much wealth in their land yet can’t seem to access it because of sectional battles. They can’t find happiness, because they can’t keep agreements. They shed their own blood and force their gods to keep silent. They even want Ani to keep silent, too; they only want the justice system that favours them. I am sure, if the crows could laugh, they would roll over and over laughing at these humans.
In this novel, we see leopards at war with humans. What environmental message did you have at the back of your mind?
What I can say is that leopards have their universe and the humans have theirs. These two worlds collide quite often here. At times, on friendly terms and, sometimes, in very regrettable circumstances in the book. When you push anything, any man and any object beyond its line of natural state, there will be resistance.
So many great men died in this book, from generation to generation. One would think you were too harsh on people like Dim the hunter and his leopard wife, Nneuwa, and her mother, Nnenne, among others, by letting them die when they did. Was there any justification for their deaths early in the narrative?
That we call our writing fiction doesn’t mean we shouldn’t obey the laws of nature. The book spans about 5 generations. How can I keep my characters alive for five generations? Everyone dies when he or she should die. The important thing is that the story outlives them all. If the story ends the moment a favourite character dies, then the character is bigger than the story. For me, if you notice in all my books, the story is bigger than the character. I am a storyteller and not a “character teller”, if there is anything like that.
The Achebean concept of duality in Igbo cosmology came to play this novel, how close do you lean to Achebe?
Heavily, I must say. He is the measuring standard. He innovated what we do. We can only via off a little from the path he’s laid. No matter how original we try to be, we can’t run from him. But I am happy about it. One must say here, however, that is almost impossible to tell the kind of stories that I tell, about the people that I talk about –their culture and exceptional use of language in daily conversations without sounding like Achebe. The Igbo haven’t changed overnight, and, if you write about them, you’ll be guided by the first who wrote about them. In the area of fiction, Achebe was the first and the best. That’s why I said he is the measuring standard not just for the Igbo but for the African writer.
War and resolutions are running mortifs in this fiction. What did you learn in the cause of writing this book how these play out in traditional environment?
The laws of dialectics are at a constant play in all societies. The transition from quantity to quality, negation of the negation and unity in the conflict of two opposites are natural social forces that transcend societies be they agrarian, feudal or modern ones. But the major divergence here is that the writer tries to interrogate the intruding variable of nature in these social conflicts.
This fiction reads like a melding of imagination and mysticism, how did you explore these variables in your novel?
Can fiction exist without imagination? I doubt it. I depend heavily on imagination to write about what I didn’t completely experience. And I believe that it is very unlikely that a writer would stretch his imagination beyond the ordinary without leaning on the scaffolds of mysticism to elevate his art. We must tear down the walls of ordinariness to help society. If we keep repeating the everyday ABCDs and 1234s in linear and familiar forms, then why are we novelists? What’s new in what we do? We are inventors or guides to inventions.