With Or Without You

As the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize kicks off in New Delhi, two winners told me why the award both bores and tempts them.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, 34, was the fashion editor at Nigeria’s NEXT newspaper before moving to the copy desk there. Her debut novel, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, is themed on the infamous Nigerian ‘419’ email scams and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2010 for Best First Book (Africa). In an email interview, Nwaubani discusses her writing, African literature, the problem with African youth and the significance of the prize. Excerpts:

In the novel, Uncle Boniface entices the narrator to join his 419 schemes by emphasising money over education. Do you see young Nigerians being enticed?

During research, rather than being upset I was almost enthralled by the 419ers’ ingenuity. The talented underprivileged can’t be blamed for taking advantage of opportunities to express what they have bottled up inside them. 419 and other crimes are simply by-products of booming economies where there are few opportunities for the underprivileged.

The book enjoys humour like laughing at Igbo and Edo accents. Why is this still rare in African literature?

Our writers’ serious tone is probably a habit from our predecessors. We seem to think the West won’t take us seriously if we don’t write that way — we’ve made ourselves slaves to the slavemasters who’ve left. My Nigerian publisher once said that of all the manuscripts she receives, half tend to write like Chinua Achebe, while half tend to write like Wole Soyinka. I probably would’ve been the same had I not read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, which showed me you can write a dismal story that’s still humorous. I decided to damn the consequences and relax into my own peculiar style.

You’ve said young Africans should be “systematically deprogrammed” — what’s wrong with their thinking?

The white man left Nigeria 50 years ago yet he’s blamed for everything. Just as people who attend support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, we need to own up and take responsibility for problems.

You’ve criticised colonialism but stressed that Africans should act rather than blame others. What about a prize organised around former colonies?

I understand the ‘colonial masters’ did many things they shouldn’t have, but life has to go on. Let’s be honest: today, most African nations are poised to gain more from being part of the Commonwealth than by not. Until we overcome the ‘gimme’ mentality to relate with the West, nobody should complain about being part of the Commonwealth. I don’t know a single African writer who’s succeeded in the global literary scene without a western body’s assistance. Not one. Until we’re willing to support our own people into the limelight, no one has the right to bite the hand that feeds them.

A book gets very little respect in Nigeria if the West hasn’t anointed it. Comments like “It won the Commonwealth Prize” or “It got a great Washington Post review” are enough to make people proclaim you the new literary czar — whether they’ve read you or not. That’s worked for people like me, but it’s retrogressive. I don’t know about India, but how many Africans do you know who’ve instituted major literary prizes in their countries? The few literary prizes we have in Nigeria are riddled with controversy.

Mohammed Hanif, 44, is a special correspondent for the BBC in Karachi. His debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, won last year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (all regions). In a frank conversation, Hanif ridicules the idea of the Commonwealth and the prize. Excerpts:

What did winning the Commonwealth prize mean for you personally?

We grew up in Pakistan hearing about the Commonwealth but never knew what it does. Nobody knows. The Commonwealth as an institution is irrelevant — nobody loves or hates it. I’m sure athletes and hockey players care about it, but I don’t think writers go around thinking about this prize. It was a very nice event, though [in New Zealand]. I bought an [electricity] generator and TV with my prize money.

Did it help your book’s visibility?

I’m lousy at tracking these things. Surely it did — there were mentions on the paperback. But I don’t think it influences people to go read the book. When you write a first book, you’re just grateful for a publisher and readers. When you’re nominated for a prize, you secretly start thinking — maybe I can win. If you don’t win people say wasn’t it great to be nominated — no, not really. The Commonwealth prize is just one of many prizes [out there]. It’s a bit obscure, quaint and old-fashioned. When you tell people, they ask — ‘Commonwealth what?’ We joke it looks after the British royal family and their holiday calendar. But we don’t really have any reason to hate it.

How do you feel about the prize being organised around Britain’s former colonies?

The Commonwealth doesn’t publish books, it doesn’t do anything. It’s just some kind of f****d up mammary that people have kept alive for themselves. It isn’t giving people anything. I’ve been reading of the excitement in India about the upcoming Commonwealth Games there — lots of new roads and sports facilities and lots of poor labourers being exploited, which is probably consistent with contractors in the Commonwealth.

Does criticising such prizes imply biting the hand that feeds you, such as Amitav Ghosh’s withdrawal from this prize some years ago protesting that it includes only English language entries and that the Commonwealth is a “memorialisation of empire”?

I didn’t know till I won that my book had been entered [for the prize]. The concept of Commonwealth is irrelevant to my life. It’s a bit of a joke. Next time, I’ll probably do what Ghosh did — I think he did the right thing. He’s a veteran writer and has been around a lot. Next time I’d ask him about it.

Why were you detained by Auckland airport customs when you arrived for the prize ceremony last year?

It wasn’t as much about me as another writer from Nigeria [Uwem Akpan]. Mine was a regular airport inspection and interrogation, but he was held for several hours without even being allowed a bathroom break. Everyone was horrified in Auckland — they’re very sweet people. I mentioned it in my acceptance speech. I said someone should tell immigration officers that brown and black people also write books, and sometimes they also win awards, and there’s nothing frightening about it.

Published here