SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Chigozie Obioma's latest novel has an unusual narrator. Chinonso raises chickens and is profoundly alone in life till he sees a young woman who's about to hurl herself off a bridge. She is Ndali, who's despondent from a broken engagement - is drawn to his tenderness and protectiveness. He's drawn to her openness and vulnerability. They become involved. "An Orchestra Of Minorities" is a love story and a story of exile, Igbo folklore and a classical tragedy that is told not by any one character but Chinonso's chi. Let's ask the author about that. Chigozie Obioma, whose first novel, "The Fishermen," was a contender for the Man Booker Prize, joins us from member station WGVU in Grand Rapids, Mich. Thanks so much for being with us.
CHIGOZIE OBIOMA: Thank you very much, Scott. It's a pleasure.
SIMON: I don't want to get this wrong, so help us understand. What is a person's chi?
OBIOMA: So in Igbo cosmology, the Igbo tribe is situated in Nigeria in West Africa. So it's a person's guardian spirit. It is believed to be a spirit that - your intermediary but which also has the ability to help you negotiate your destiny. So we have a belief in predestination. And the chi is at the very center of that.
SIMON: The narrator, chi - if I might refer to the chi as the narrator chi - calls Chinonso my host. So does a person's chi stay with them?
OBIOMA: So there's been a very serious debate on where the chi is. And most Igbo, you know, religious scholars believe that the chi actually can inhabit a host. And some say that the chi leaves outside of the hosts like your shadow. It's always with you. But I do think that the chi can be seen as, you know, the equivalent of the Judeo-Christian concept of, say, the Holy Spirit or something like that.
SIMON: I was going to ask if you make that analogy. But I didn't - you know, I didn't want to try and twist cultures.
SIMON: You know, I tried to like Chinonso. And he suffers deeply from being hurt. But he pays back that hurt to innocent people, doesn't he?
OBIOMA: I think so. One of the things I wanted to explore in the book is whether or not revenge is justice. So he becomes, as the chi testifies, a man who is changed by, quote, "the spiritual politics to which he was not aware of" or something like that. And so, you know, the things that happen to him shape him and even deform him. And, you know, that transformation was very interesting to me as I set out to write the novel.
SIMON: You had a hospital stay as a youngster, which wound up changing your life.
OBIOMA: Yes. It wasn't a continuous - one continuous stay. It was, you know, frequent at some point in my childhood. And my dad would tell me stories. And then when I grew up a little bit and I was no longer as sickly as I used to be, I discovered one day that these stories that he was telling me was gotten from books. And, you know, that kind of turned on something in me. And I became this voracious reader. And the more I read, I think I came to write in true envy. I would always, you know, say to myself and my, you know, family, oh, I wish I could write like this guy. I wish I could write like this woman. And I was envious of these writers. And, you know, before you knew it, I started producing my own writing.
SIMON: You must have read deeply into classical mythology.
OBIOMA: Yes. And also, of course, Shakespeare and Greek myth. And, you know, unconsciously, I think my aesthetics were shaped by those early exposure to those books.
SIMON: The "Odyssey" figures into this novel a lot, doesn't it?
OBIOMA: Yes. I have seen that equivalents have been made between Chinonso's journey towards Ndali and the "Odyssey." But I wasn't setting out to rewrite, you know, a new version of the "Odyssey" as some critics, I think, have said. But, you know, if they see it that way, then that's probably a credit to the book.
SIMON: (Laughter) How do you write from the perspective of a chi? I mean, it's hard enough to write from the perspective of a character.
OBIOMA: I've always wanted to write something, you know, that will at least show the world that prior to the coming of the British to Nigeria we had some kind of complex systems. I feel like, you know, there hasn't been an African version of say, you know, Milton's "Paradise Lost," which actually explored the very foundational principle of Western civilization, which will be the free will or even Dante Alighieri's, you know, "The Inferno." And so I wanted to write something cosmological. And the chi has been very fascinating to me. It was very difficult. It entailed a lot of research, even, you know, down to actually going to shrines and interviewing, you know, the last adherents of Odinani, the Igbo religion, now that most Africans are converts of either Christianity or Islam.
SIMON: I mean, a novelist kind of has to believe in free will. Doesn't he or she?
SIMON: ...There's no plot - yeah.
OBIOMA: You know, the novel is very Western. So a character without agency is no character. But I wanted to explore, can one write a novel that is not within the Western tradition? Can one write a novel where the character is probably half the time able to have agency while half the time, you know, like, principalities and metaphysical forces are dwelling to negotiate the character's life? So in some way, it's probably an uncharted territory, I'll say.
SIMON: Chigozie Obioma - his new novel, "An Orchestra Of Minorities" - thanks so much for being with us.
OBIOMA: Thank you very much, Scott. I enjoyed it.