Fiction as revelation: A conversation with MFA mentor and award-winning novelist Chigozie Obioma

Chigozie Obioma is a first-year fiction mentor in Seattle Pacific’s MFA in Creative Writing program and the author of two award-winning novels, The Fisherman and An Orchestra of Minorities, both of which were shortlisted for the Booker prize. We recently had the chance to catch up with Obioma and hear about his most recent novel and what motivates him to write.

Exhibit: What was the central inspiration behind An Orchestra of Minorities?

Obioma: I conceived of the book as a cosmological novel that would investigate fate, destiny, free will, immigration, class, race, and the complexities of love. I was inspired by a man I knew in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus who was deceived by fixers and died within a week of getting there. I began to ponder philosophical questions about life and metaphysics, but also something this man had mentioned to me: that he had made the journey to Cyprus because he was in love with this woman he wanted to marry. So, the novel came about as a quest to try to retrace his steps, the trajectory of his journey to Cyprus, and his relationship with the woman he loved.

I see fiction as a revelation. I am trying to show the reader how the world truly is.

Exhibit: What motivates you to write?

Obioma: I tell my friends as a joke to imagine us all walking down a path. We — amongst whom is a doctor, two lawyers, and four engineers — are observing things on the path, saying, “That tree there is bowed; this plant is taller than the rest.”  I am the one guy who walks slowest to more keenly observe: “What does it mean that this tree is bowed? Is there a psychological reason for this plant to be head and shoulder above the rest?” I tell them that because they are too busy doing actual jobs, I am the one seeing what they are missing and revealing it to them. Therefore, for me, I see fiction as a revelation. I am trying to show the reader how the world truly is.

Exhibit: What advice would you give to students pursuing creative writing, either at the undergraduate or graduate level?

Obioma: I would tell them first of all, congrats, you are brave enough to choose something that is rarely chosen as a career path.  Now, you must read like your life depends on it. Find writers whose work you admire and anchor yourself firmly in their universe. Read them well, tirelessly, and closely. For me, this is the best way to perfect your own craft.

Exhibit: Tell us about your experience as a mentor in SPU’s MFA program.

Obioma: I came into the program earlier this year and have thoroughly enjoyed it. What first inspired me to teach in the program was that it was faith-based. I feel that faith-inclined writers are underappreciated in America today, and there is a need to help shore them up. SPU’s MFA program does this well. And, most of all, the work the students produce is unique. When I first encountered it, I was intrigued by the philosophical depth of the writing and the subjects they are tackling.

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