Thursday, 26 March 2009

P.A.G.E.S series 2

Presented at P.A.G.E.S
by Onyeka Nwelue

Onyeka Nwelue is the author of The Abyssinian Boy (DADA Books, 2009) and a recipient of a grant from the Institute for Research on African Women, Children and Culture (IRAWCC).

The Writer’s Work as a Geographer

Hi. This is not a lecture; it is just an explanation of what I’ve done in my novel. Most writers are good at giving lectures, talking intellectually in gatherings, but I’m very far from it. I try to distance myself from the whole intellectual talk where you have to cite references and bibliographies; I tend to say things I know, I tend to talk about things I have good knowledge about. And when I was asked to talk or should I say discuss the use of map in fiction, I grabbed it quickly with an open hand, because it is something I like talking about and something I enjoy doing. More like something I like encountering in books, where I have to see things that I know on the sheet of paper, staring at me, like, ‘Hey, guy, you don’t know me or something?’

Like a moron, I would nod, ‘Yes, I know you.’ And I would have to start to ask, ‘Yes, you are that street after that street, eh? You are that house after that house, huh? You are the tree after this tree, oh? You are the bank after that post office, right?’

You can find these things in the new Nigerian novel, maybe, because we’ve gotten tired with all the ramblings of not calling a spade a spade. We are tired with calling Nsukka, Nkassu, just to elicit some kinda what? I don’t know. You can’t read a book and feel a sense of belonging again. You feel that all you are reading about is a far away land; meanwhile, this could be some place you know very well.

I remember travelling to Nsukka for the first time with a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. I did that for one reason: I had been told by a reader that Ms Adichie’s description of the University campus was accurate. So, when I got admission into the University of Nigeria, and I had travelled to Nsukka for my registration, I thought that maybe, Kambili must have existed. The thing is that I began to visualize Ms Adichie as Kambili. I know she will hush me for saying this. But she should not, because this is the reader’s opinion, ok?

Few months after my matriculation, I got two young men, Eromo Egbejule and Osondu Awaraka who are writers, involved and we took motorcycles to Marguerite Cartwright Avenue to locate the house where Ms Adichie lived and we were faced with a heavy reality: a house that matches the description of Aunty Ifeoma’s house in Purple Hibiscus. I nudged and wondered what and how powerful creating a fictional setting from a real place could be.

That said, I have to tell you that I have problem with writers who want to sound smart, but are really not smart by even fictionalizing the names of streets, cities and countries, through renaming them, like someone called Nigeria, Naigara. Many writers have done this and the most irritating is the one Patrick Wilmort did in his last novel. We are all entitled to our style of writing, technique and how we figure out what stories we tell, but we must put the society we live in into consideration when we are writing about them, even when we have to do justice to real settings.

There’s a certain degree of joy and amusement I get when I encounter a place I know in fiction. It elevates me and the authenticity of the setting keeps me squirming. It happens that I suspend my belief for fictional events and focus on the fact that the setting is real. In Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address, there’s a beautiful description of Calcutta (Kolkata). I decided to travel to Kolkata after reading the book and learning that the places described existed. While on train from Delhi, thoughts raced through my head and I kept thinking as we past greenery hills, mountains, beautiful trees and monkeys parading on treetops. By the time I got to Kolkata, I realized that the houses, shops and bazaars described in the book exist, but not with the names in the book. And the characters are nowhere to be found. But I knew that if you looked into the houses, you’d find the characters. Maybe, not with the real names. But you’d find them. The roads are not as dusty as have been described in the book. Many things have changed. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Chaudhuri’s candid and poignant description of the bad structures forced those in authority to take on the reconstruction of the city, which leads me to where I’m going now.

Fictionalising real settings with the real names can help a city, a country, by luring more tourists into it, depending on how you’ve done it.

You can help your environment by preserving its present or past for the future. I know that some authors find it easier just to make up fictional town or setting, but that is less a redeeming quality.

The geography in my novel is real. I took so much liberty in describing New Delhi, Lagos, Owerri and my village, Ezeoke. Readers have emailed me, telling me how pleased they are. An Indian lady who was at my book launch/reading told me how good she felt when she read my book and recognized each remarkable place I have described in it. That’s more of the happy side.

Writing about a real setting in a fictionalized way is very good, I must tell you. It helps. But every writer should be able to follow his heartbeat. The old cliché, ‘write what you know’ is at the same time, right and wrong. If we were all to write about what we know, JK Rowling wouldn’t have written her fantasy tales of the wizard boy. I can aptly assume that Jude Dibia wouldn’t have written the story of Adrian Njoko in Walking with Shadows. Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wouldn’t have written Half of a Yellow Sun. She never fought during the war, she was never there.

Maps, real maps fictionalized, can help readers have a sense of belonging when they are lost in a work of literature. It is more like building the future in the present; you understand your setting better when you know it better. There’s more to being a reader when you find yourself enjoying the description of the place you know by heart, which brings me to the conclusion that a writer is more like a Creator, a Geographer, a Map Reader, because he has the rare power other artists don’t have, to evoke a selfish world that can enliven the reader’s enthusiasm.

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