interviewed by Eromo Egbejule
He's 21. Barely three months after his first novel, The Abyssinian Boy, (a book that took three months to be completed and four years to publish), was released into the market, a Danish film-maker, Lasse Lau of KRAN Film Collective, Belgium, indicated interest to make a movie out of it. Rumour also has it that he received over N2.5 million from his publisher, DADA Books. Efforts have been made to clarify this, but no response has come from the author or publisher, either to deny or accept it.
Just few weeks ago, the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) chose him as one of the two authors for the Nsukka Book Trek, an event that preceded the 11th Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF).
Now, the Future Awards nominees' list is out and he is in the Creative Artist of the Year Awards category, with fellow DADA Books author, Jumoke Verissimo, whose poetry book, I am Memory has been critically acclaimed and described as 'one of the finest collections of poetry' in Nigerian literature. And a quick check reveals that he's the youngest on the list.
Presently a student of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Onyeka Nwelue is the son of a politician-father and a school-teacher mother. "While I grew up, I didn't know what my father did", he said, when asked if his father's political status influenced him. "He was driving in and out of the house, having meeting with people. In the nights, big men came to our house in big cars, and chatting away secretly with him. I just knew that he knew people, but his knowing people has nothing to do with my writing at all." Apparently, this shows why his novel is filled with characters that we all can relate to, but created in a surrealist manner. At the same time, Nwelue's writing is such that haunts and amuses. His style is unique, critics have said, and Toyin Akinosho has gone on to compare his narrative technique to that of Salman Rushdie in the Booker of Bookers, Midnight's Children; a comparison that has shook the high priests of the Nigerian literary circle, when the age of the author comes to foci of discourse.
"When a critic like Toyin Akinosho, who can't hold his mouth, compares your work to those of the greatest storytellers in the world, I think you should carry your head high up", Nwelue responds. "He doesn't give a damn who you are. You could be his boy, but then, he tells you what he wants to tell you." Does he care about the negative criticism on his book? "Seriously, I'm yet to read any review that says, 'This book is crap! This book should not have been published'. I'm surprised. Of course, this is a country I'm so afraid of its hypocrisy, but the truth is that the Indians will write me and say, 'I like the Nigerian part so much', and the Nigerian reader gets hold of me on the street and says, 'Ah, I like the Indian part so much. The culture...' and quickly, I will say, 'Don't go there'." He bursts into boisterous laughter.
Six months spent in India birthed the idea for this much-publicized book. Three months were used to complete the first draft and he started sending out the manuscript to agents and publishers. All of them rejected him. For him, depression took over. Life was horrible and he felt he didn't know what else to do. "Persistence was my key", he says.
One day, while in his friend's hostel room on the campus at Nsukka, he received a call from Cape Town and that was the publisher of DADA Books, Ayodele Arigbabu (Incredibly, he's also nominated in the Business Owner of the Year category), asking for the West African rights to the book. "People thought this book that has been lying in my drawer for four years already had a publisher", he says.
However, Nwelue feels persistence is just the key. "Family members were so intent on me going to the university; some said, 'Get admission, get admission and stay where others are. You will do your writing there'. But where are those relatives now? They can't even send me a dollar bill to support me in school". Quickly, he becomes solemn. "Truth is someone wants to say something to you, even when what he is saying is useless. People were telling me bullshit about how I could write better in university. Why I should get a degree first and then write, so I would be taken serious. Nonsense! Come on, nothing happens when you are in a Nigerian university. You are buckled up with textbooks to cram from. And I'm so glad I was persistent enough to get out of the country to write a book and then come back to face the demented educational system." Doesn't he think his family was supportive enough? "Of course, they were supportive", he adds. "But they made life miserable for me. Everyone wanted you to be someone else. They made you lie terribly. You had to cook up a lie, for them to do what they didn't want to do for you."
Selected as a delegate to attend the 2nd International Writers' Festival in India in 2006, Nwelue saw that as a great opportunity to do something different. At the conference, attended by over 39 foreign authors and local ones, he realised that writers all over the world don't have the same problem. "The Nigerian writer is far backward", he says. "He is always waiting for a certain government to come and do this bullshit for him. I mean, what stops you from forming a collective, starting up a residency and funding it yourselves? Who actually is the government? Will the government also come and start up writers' agencies? Will the government edit for the writer too? I mean, lame excuses and when they move abroad, they realise that the writers there are very independent and supported by individuals."
For him, Jude Dibia, author of Walking with Shadows and Unbridled is one writer every writer in Nigeria, both old and young, should look up to. "He started up an online writing workshop for students in my university who have never met him and all of a sudden, he was paying them to write stories he will never publish and make money from. These kids became encouraged. He takes up the work of a writer and does editing for free, even amidst his busy schedule. We need more of him to stop complaining".
One surprising thing again about him is his method when it comes to writing. He doesn't write directly to a computer, even though he has used all kinds of laptops; presently basking in the euphoria of an Apple MacBook, which he carries around with him. "I write on sheets of paper", he says, almost laughing. "Very 18th century, right? But that's when it flows for me. The handwritten manuscript of my novel is still in my house. I prefer the pen and paper. They are beautiful. When I'm done, I take my time to type." This he says even gives him much time to experiment with language on the paper, constructing sentences that are weird ("It was Naif who said that tomorrow was pronounced as Two-Moron") and also inventing words ("neverthemore"). His interest lies more in language and characterisation, than themes. For him, he approaches writing like cinema; the episodic style with which he wrote The Abyssinian Boy probably makes it read like a Mexican soap opera, and apparently, got the attention of a film maker, because it reads smoothly.
"I'm the one writing the film script of the book", he says, when asked about the progress made. "Lasse was in Nigeria in September and our discussion was on how the story would start. He said he wants me to write the script. I've not done any. I went out to search for books to help me. I got some and then, stumbled on this piece by Salman Rushdie on film adaptation, and pam, pam, I realised I can do it. Rushdie is the one scripting Midnight's Children, so I'm following his tips. That chap is brilliant!" And this obviously shows that he is obsessed with the British-Indian writer. "Yes, I think I'm obsessed. Who will not be when you enjoy what he does with language and history?" he asks, absent-mindedly. "Think of the joy you get listening to comedians tell jokes. Even though my publisher doesn't see anything special in my fascination with Rushdie, I'm convinced he will fall in love with him soon, after he tries finishing Midnight's Children."
With many believing he will clinch the Creative Artist of the Year Awards, what does he have to say? "Getting nominated is a good thing. Winning will be another good thing. Truth is that I'm fine with the nomination." What if a win comes? "Then we celebrate it", he responds, laughing. "Good thing is I have been nominated. Crazy people like me don't get awards. Funny thing is that my friends on Facebook are doing this campaign thing that makes me appear like a full-blown politician, but really, I have no manifesto." But that is part of his humility, as he has inspired a lot of young people in Nigeria. What advice does he have for them? "This thing you journalists always demand us to say as if we don't wear our pants putting in one leg after another like other people, really annoys me. I mean, if a young Nigerian wants to remain unknown till he's 40, that's his business. Truth be told, I've always wanted to be famous. Famous before turning 25."
And that's the Abyssinian spirit.
Go to www.thefuturenigeria.com and vote Onyeka Nwelue as Creative Artist of the Year or SMS 33120.