Born: 31 January, 1988
The Abyssinian Boy by Onyeka Nwelue has been hailed by critics and readers alike. Everyone has something good to say about the book - the marriage of two cultures, India and Nigeria has been largely eulogised. But that's not where it ends. Just recently, Danish film-maker, Lasse Lau of KRAN Film Collectives indicated interest to make a movie out of the book, which means that readers will get to connect with most of Nwelue's multiple characters that people this book.
Did you ever think The Abyssinian Boy can attract the attention of any film-maker?
Why do you think Lasse Lau wants to make this movie? Does it have anything to do with the success of Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars, that people will pay attention to yet another Indian story?
Well, when Lasse was in Lagos in March, we had a little discussion on the movie thing. He liked the opening chapters of the book. He felt they are flowing, more like a travelogue for him and he's a great traveller. He didn't tell me why he wants to make the movie. I feel he wants to make it, because he loves the storytelling aspect of the book.
I do not think it has anything to do with Slumdog Millionaire. He feels he really wants to do this movie; same time he knows it's going to be hectic.
In a situation where you are asked to cast some 'real' actors to play the roles of Rajaswamy Rajagopalan and Eunice Onwubiko, who would you choose?
To be honest with you, while I wrote The Abyssinian Boy I had this filmic'image of Shah Rukh Khan for the character of Rajaswamy and Sophie Okonedo's 'mild' character popping out from Hotel Rwanda. So, both can do the trick, I think.
You said somewhere that you set out to write The Abyssinian Boy in episodic format. What's your interest in cinema?
My growing up in a house with a wooden TV box fired up my interest in cinema. I approach writing from different angles; like classical music, like cinema, like architecture. But I don't know the rules of these things I just mentioned. I don't even know anything about classical music. I don't know anything about architecture. But thank god, I got to the point where I realised that you don't have to know a thing to do it well. You just have to keep trying. Before I digress: the interest in cinema came out of the need to express what I didn't have the opportunity to see while I was a kid. I grew up seeing only a TV box that showed really nothing but black and white images of people. But then, I realised I could breathe colour in those characters and make them come alive.
A lot of people have compared your book to Helen Oyeyemi's The Icarus. Even a reviewer in NEXT newspaper cited similarities, both in titles and storylines. But no suggestion of 'plagiarism' as in the case of Kaavya Viswanathan and most writers!
That's not a question. (Laughs) Comparison is good. I can't deny the fact that I read The Icarus Girl before I wrote The Abyssinian Boy. I can't. But what I wanted to do, was to 'remix' what Helen did in a very different language, that is humourous. I also looked at the fact that she was 19 when she wrote it, and thought I could play around with politics, sexuality and religion to show that a kid in Africa can actually talk about these things, without fear of being buckled down. Now, the NEXT reviewer has done a fine job, by suggesting that the storylines are same, but no one has done a good job by pointing out these 'similarities', which is where the issue of plagiarism doesn't come in. I'm a very conscious writer, although I won't budge if someone comes out and says there are strikingly exact sentences from The God of Small Things! I'm asking you to dare! (Laughs)
Do you believe in God?
It doesn't have anything to do with The Abyssinian Boy movie, does it? (Laughs) Well, the idea of a God is a good one. But the truth is that it doesn't bother me again. So, I think we should let the sleeping God lie!
Which religion would you prefer in a situation where you are forced to choose?
Well, I was a seminarian for six good years and lived a very good and exasperating life. Praying hours long. Burning candles in the night so I would wake up and not miss the mourning devotion. Gently, I was out of the seminary and travelled around for a while, going to native doctors in Oguta, asking questions. Later, I moved to India, where I slept in a Sikh temple the first night I arrived in the north of India. After the Sikh temple, I was in Bangladesh where I had things to do with Moslems and I have a lot of Kashmiri Moslem friends. Now, I've been doing Yoga and I've been told in Hinduism that you can still be a Hindu while an atheist. So, I think I will prefer Hinduism!
But anyone reading The Abyssinian Boy wouldn't know what stand you are taking as when it comes to religion - you bash all of them and also embrace them!
I'm a fiction writer. I don't force my opinions on people. I can be very aggressive and defensive about my idealogies when I'm not writing fiction. But as long as I'm out to tell stories, I gently talk about the small things in big ways, without forcing things down people's throats.
Professor Kanchana Ugbabe, an Indian woman and Head of Department, English Language, University of Jos has predicted somewhere that there's a Booker Prize winner in you? Does it mean your next novel will fulfil her 'prophecies?'
Trust me, I respect Professor Kanchana a lot and she has said this like three times. Honestly, I've been under pressure. I wish no one raises this issue again! But still, if the telepathic instincts (as I always joke with my editor) prove it right, then so be it! No be people dey win Booker?
So, what's next?
I'm still writing. I'm still travelling and growing fat. And I'm still waiting for Godot!