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In Conversation: Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

The Washington Post picked Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s, I Do Not Come To You By Chance, as one of its books for 2009. It was recently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa’s Best First Book. When I interviewed her in 2009, Nwaubani told me the idea for the book started with the determination to finally write a novel she had known, she would one day write. Nwaubani has been praised for lending sharp eyes into the notorious world of Nigerian email scams with her storytelling skills. ‘I Do Not Come to You by Chance’ is a though-provoking narrative that is laced with humour. I must add that is it is a fantastic read and an accomplished debut novel.  What I admire about her work is that she captures the mood  so well and it is set in the ‘now moment’ of Nigeria’s ever evolving story. In her own words, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani on why she was amazed at the ingenuity and drive of the real 419ers.

Adaobi Tricia NwaubaniBelinda: What’s the inspiration behind ‘I Do Not Come to You by Chance’?

Adaobi: It started with the determination to finally write the novel I’d known for some time that I would write.  I’ve always had a fascination with human personality—the science of why people do the things they do—and decided to spin something around that theme.

Belinda: Why write about a world that many may claim to know but have no knowledge of the individuals who lead these kinds of life, their stories and how they got there?

Adaobi: It started with a simple one-thing-led-to-another.  But then, the 419 world is one I happened to know quite a bit about because it was a world happening around me.

Belinda: Who are your literary influences?

Adaobi: P. G. Wodehouse and Frank McCourt have influenced my writing greatly.  But there were so many other humour writers I came across in my teenage years, who left me in awe of the ability to entertain with words,  Sam Levenson being a good example.

Belinda: What do you like about their writing style and why?

Adaobi: Apart from his supernatural sense of humour, I think Wodehouse is the closest to William Shakespeare that the literary world has seen.  Wodehouse’s stories reveal such a deep understanding of human nature and human relationships, like William Shakespeare’s.  Not only is he a ‘storyteller’ he also doles out nuggets of wisdom and insight with such panache!  Wodehouse is one writer I would have loved to sit and have a cup of tea with, never mind that I don’t drink tea. Frank McCourt taught me that you could write a poignant story that still rollicked with humour.

Belinda: How did you gain access into the world of 419ers in Nigeria which gave you insight for your novel?

Adaobi: I grew up in the Eastern part of Nigeria, which is where my parents still live.  Anybody who grew up in my town, Umuahia, must know at least fifteen 419ers by name and face.  Anybody in Owerri must know at least fifty.  Anybody in Ibuzo must know at least ninety-five.

Belinda: You write about a world that is corrupt and dirty. Were you at all angry at their actions during your research for the image they have created for the country and the innocent people who carry the brunt of their actions?

Adaobi: Should I be ashamed to confess that I wasn’t angry with them at all?  There were times, I even found myself amazed at their ingenuity and drive.  I marvel at the boldness that causes young ruffians, who’ve never set foot outside Nigerian soil, to approach absolute strangers from the West and swipe all their money, especially when you consider that the average African is in awe of Westerners.  If only that boldness could find other channels of expression.

Belinda: Was it hard to stay neutral and not get judgmental while conducting research into the theme of your book?

Adaobi: I’m not normally judgemental, so it wasn’t hard to stay neutral.  Besides, the fact is that many 419ers would have been solving the world’s problems today if they’d had different life opportunities.

Belinda: How challenging was it to write the relationship between your two main characters, Kingsley and Cash Daddy?

Adaobi: People who’ve read my book come up to me and say, “Do you know this person and that person?  Your character sounded exactly like him!”  In other words, the Cash Daddy’s and Kingsley are very easily recognisable characters in Nigeria today.

Belinda: Was their relationship based on people you met during your research?

Adaobi: Not necessarily.  Their relationship was a product of my plot.  Nevertheless, several similar relationships exist in the Nigerian society.

Book JacketBelinda: Was your aim to question the relationship between the powerful and powerless in society based on monetary wealth within the context of the Nigerian society as it exists between Kingsley and his uncle?

Adaobi: I wasn’t really questioning anything.  I was just telling a story as I had seen it happen around me.

Belinda: What do you want the readers to learn from your book when they discover that behind the facade of being conmen, the people who carry out these scams have dreams like Kingsley?

Adaobi: The reality of trying to survive in the Land of Topsy-Turvy.

Belinda: The language is very true to the setting of the book which is Nigeria. Were you concerned that you could potentially alienate readers who might not get the humour being that it was very true to a culture of language?

Adaobi: It was probably one of those very rare situations where ignorance is bliss.  I didn’t realise that my language was true to a particular place or anything like that.  It was not until people made comments about the language of my book being peculiar that those sorts of things occurred to me for the first time.

Belinda: Are you comfortable with the label of being called an African writer or do you have moments when you question it?

Adaobi: Growing up and living in Nigeria means that you constantly have other more pressing issues to be concerned about than whether someone calls you an African or a Nigerian, or whether your hair is straight or curled.   African writer or not, I simply dream of a writing career that is so different from the careers of other writers on the scene.  I want an unpredictable career path.

Belinda: This seems like the best time to be an African writer because it feels like we are in a bubble right now. Do you have any reflections on being one of the writers who have gained from it?

Adaobi: I can’t be satisfied until the African writers who actually live in Africa start crossing the borders and having their work read all over the world.  There are so many writers in Nigeria, who have been toiling away at their craft for years and getting no recognition for it, simply because they haven’t had the backing of any major publishers who can pull the publicity stunts required.  Imagine how they feel when they keep hearing about this so-called ‘resurgence’ in African writing, when they know how long they’ve been at it, how many books they’ve self-published over the years.  Mine is a typical case of ‘there goes I but for the grace of God’.  My book could easily have gone unnoticed and then years later, some Nigerian in the UK or the USA would have written a book on the same 419 topic, and received credit as the first writer to tackle the issue of 419 in a novel—the same credit people are currently ascribing to me.  Imagine how pitiful that would have been.   

Belinda: What are you currently working on and when should we expect the next book from you?

Adaobi: It’s a secret!  But then, bear in mind that I have so many other dreams that do not necessarily include pen and paper in my hand.  I plan to someday own a publishing house that will focus on making international stars out of writers based in places like Nigeria.  I dream of it almost every day.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a Nigerian author and ‘I Do Not Come to You by Chance’ is her first novel.

Image of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani by C Sunmi Smart-Cole

Please Do Not Use Without Permission.

I Do Not Come To You By Chance


8 Responses to “In Conversation: Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani”

  1. Femme Lounge says:

    interesting! i haven’t read the book but i read an article she wrote sometime ago and i just fell in love
    with her style. it good to finally read a comprehensive interview about her and her book, i really look forward to reading the book soon, all the reviews i have read so far has been full of praises. well done Adaobi!

  2. Belinda Otas says:

    It is a good read. I laughed out loud on the bus and you can imagine the looks I got. And Adaobi is lovely. I have never met her, just email and she seems pretty cool.

  3. Vera Ezimora says:

    Go Adaobi!! I’m off to add her book to my list of “books to buy”

    Thanks for the interview, Belinda.

  4. I loved reading this interview! I have her book on my Amazon wish-list, I just need to clear some space on my creaking bookshelf. Well done Adaobi, I hope your passions continue to take you places.

  5. Belinda Otas says:

    @ Vera, you are welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.
    @ Favoured Girl, do clear some space eh! 🙂

  6. I’ve ordered the book! Can’t wait for it to arrive 🙂

  7. Belinda Otas says:

    Enjoy reading

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