Vitabubooks Interview | Chioma Okereke
You can't beat this for an intro:
Chioma Okereke was born under a Soprano Sky in Nigeria almost a quarter century ago and has spent most of this time travelling. She is married to London but is engaged in an illicit affair with New York which has had a profound effect on her work - primarily because she found a space with people even crazier herself. She likes lots of feedback on her poetry but as a black belt voodoo priestess [kidding, she's kidding] choose your words carefully!
TimBookTu rocks as does Chioma Okereke's new book Bitter Leaf which has garnered raving reviews across the blogosphere. I thought it was fab, so, recently, I checked out the events page on Chioma's website and saw she had been doing quite a bit of traveling as you might have guessed. In her email response to my questions, she shared stories from her Lagos-Abuja stops, some of her special guests and lots more! Except for just how many languages she speaks.
Chioma Okereke: We launched Bitter Leaf in Lagos this May, which was an extraordinary experience for me. I was always a little apprehensive about how the book would be received back home but I was made so welcome and was nervous for no reason, it would seem! Fidelity Bank and MTN were great sponsors, and Emeritus Professor JB Clark, Professor Ebun Clark and Deacon Gamaliel Onosode were some of the special guests, but if I’m honest – everybody who came out to launch the book on the week-day heralded by torrential rain made that occasion special for me. On a personal note, it was important for me to be able to celebrate the book’s publication with my father who hadn’t been able to make its London debut, and the launch’s success was largely down to him.
In terms of the Lagos, Abuja stories – I found their reactions to the book to be very similar to UK audiences, and to me that demonstrated a real thirst for more diverse storytelling, for new voices. As seemingly more African authors, myself included, are appearing on the scene, there is interest in the variety of our work and I believe people are finding more reflections of themselves, which is a very good thing in terms of the evolution of the industry.
I was curious to discover what Nigerian readers thought of the village setting in the book, and really enjoyed hearing how they’d succeeded in losing themselves in the book without being fixated on placing it geographically. That was always one of my intentions when writing Bitter Leaf. Inevitably, there will always be people who don’t get its fictional setting, (a few people that expected my book to take place in Africa, in Nigeria, in Igbo-land even, given my name) but I was excited and encouraged by the amount of people that really embraced the nature of the book. It was interesting to hear their comments about how it allowed their own imaginations to come into play and to hear their wider thoughts on literature in general.
Vitabubooks: You were born in Nigeria; started your writing career as a poet and performed throughout Europe and America before turning your hand to fiction. I think your intro on TimBookTu's page said it best:
"Chioma Okereke was born under a Soprano Sky in Nigeria almost a quarter century ago and has spent most of this time travelling. She is married to London but is engaged in an illicit affair with New York which has had a profound effect on her work."
You're a child of the world, with experience of many cultures on three (or more) different continents. How many languages do you speak?
Chioma: Three and a half… that I’d possibly take a bullet* (*rubber) for. I don’t think I could bluff my way through any more languages.
Vitabubooks: Reading Bitter Leaf, I sometimes imagined strands of different textures drawn from parts of Africa, Europe and America, sometimes in contrast with each other. Mannobe struck me as a global village where lots of cultures intersected.
Chioma: That’s it exactly. I refer to it as a global village myself. For me, the challenge I set myself was to create a fictional setting that was steeped in what I hope is an authentic and beautiful history, but one that everybody could identify with. I also wanted to dispel preconceptions or expectations of ‘an African book’ or ‘African characters’. To me, they’re characters… They aren’t defined or constrained by their ethnicity…
My first stab at the book had no real geographical lean at all. The reader could have set it absolutely anywhere (well, within reason, it was hardly Finland) but I consider Bitter Leaf’s themes to be very universal regardless of its setting, and I didn’t want to only attract readers interested in Africa or alienate inquisitive readers that weren’t. Books are always interpreted differently by each new reader due to the individual imagination, but I wanted to take that further in terms of Mannobe’s unspecified location and the hybrid language of its inhabitants, offering the reader an opportunity for their imagination to really soar. Having said that, the African lean allowed me to incorporate some of my own personal history, and with that came more flesh, more meat to Babylon, Jericho, M’elle… even if I didn’t feel it necessary to be able to point to where they are on a globe to connect with their stories.
Vitabubooks: You've said Babylon was born in a poem you started in New York, do you recall where Allegory, Jericho, Driver, and Guitar made their entrance. How many places did you write Bitter Leaf in over the 5-year period?
Chioma: I wrote Bitter Leaf in many different settings… London, parts of Europe, the US, and I’d also visited East and South Africa during that time in addition to going back home. All the places left an impression on me so I wanted to include them in some way, partly explaining my reluctance to confine my characters to a fixed location. Jericho appeared almost as soon as Babylon announced himself, with Guitar in tow. Some of the subsidiary characters were created but I believe most of them were there all along. The most surprising one I still remember was Venus Oracene appearing while I was watching a Wimbledon match.
Vitabubooks: In a recent interview, you said Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Sonia Sanchez, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and André Brink probably influenced your desire to write rather than the work itself. You also said you're equally influenced by music, film, and art. Tell us about some of the names/genres that influence you the most.
Chioma: There is no most for me, or particular genres for that matter (although I wouldn’t consider myself an aficionado of crime and science-fiction). The last thing I read/watch is usually the most prominent thing I can remember for a while, regardless of whether I enjoyed it or not. It’s being immersed in another person’s world that I’m enthralled by, even when I don’t particularly like it! Perhaps it’s having endured the process of writing a book and realizing the amount of work, imagination, commitment it takes to create a world… Film wise, I think in terms of directors, so Pollack, Minghella, Lurhmann, Lee, are captivating storytellers for me, along with many others. Music and art influences are equally too lengthy and diverse to name-check.
Follow Chioma on Twitter @chiomatic