BY THE BOOK: Kelechi Njoku


What you need to know:

  • It doesn't it seem to me like we are winning that many prizes but having said that, maybe we are the only ones who send in entries
  • I come from that continent that was divided like a pie among European men but beyond this sense, I’m indifferent to this part of our history.
  • I usually just say I’m a Nigerian writer because that feels more accurate.

Kelechi Njoku is a former radio journalist but now works as an editor. His short story ‘By Way of a Life Plot’ was shortlisted for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

He has also won a Writivism Short Story Prize (2014), was shortlisted in Africa Book Club’s Short Reads Contest (2014) and Naija Stories’ Best Short Contest (2013). He spoke to Nation about his literary favourites and fantasies.’

Which two books do you hold so dear that you wouldn't possibly lend out?

I’m a reluctant lender anyway; books are expensive, and what an inconvenience replacing a lost one. That said, I wouldn’t lend out my copy of Past Poisons, an anthology of historical-crime short stories. I also don’t see myself giving you my copy of Franz Kafka: The Complete Works. These are books I dip in and out of from time to time when I need to air my brain and loosen up any inhibitions in my writing.

Why do you think Nigerians win most literary prizes on the continent?
It doesn't it seem to me like we are winning that many prizes but having said that, maybe we are the only ones who send in entries. Judges will only work with who they see.

Do you think literary prizes are important? Prizes are nice: They bring your work to the attention of people who otherwise might not have encountered it. Not all writers care to be read, of course—and this is a very valid creative decision—but for those who do, opportunities such as the ones prizes provide can be useful publicity, and encouragement.

Of course, the literary prize institution isn’t perfect neither is it the arbiter of what good writing is or isn’t. While the institution signposts readers towards what they might like to read next in a raging sea of creative work out there, it is not completely its fault that readers often limit their focus to works that have been anointed by the establishment.

Look around you across several writers and you’ll see that all of us have read nearly the same books, because we’re all looking in the same direction for what counts as good work. If every book on your shelf, every story you’ve read, is something on an award shortlist, or winner, you may want to pause and ask yourself why you read. The joy of discovering a great book no one around you has heard about is, it feels personal—like the writer wrote it just for you.

Do you consider yourself an African writer?

In the geographical sense, yes. I come from that continent that was divided like a pie among European men but beyond this sense, I’m indifferent to this part of our history. I usually just say I’m a Nigerian writer because that feels more accurate. There are other labels and experiences I am defined by, and which shape—not “genre-fy”—the sensibility of my work but “African” just isn’t one of them.

Do you think e-books are replacing paper books?

I doubt that the paper version is going away any time soon. We used to log around rolls of parchment; we didn’t always know how to bind books. When paperbacks came in the 1930s, booksellers were sceptical. We wondered if books this small and cheaply produced would sell. But they did.

And paperbacks came to be because someone thought that if good books were cheaper, more people would read them. The form of the book isn’t as important as access to it but I fear that African publishing models may be too rigid in this regard. I’m yet to see any model that produces literature with the poor and English-illiterate in mind.

Which African books would you term as classics and why?

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Both books were written, I think, from a place of love, and a quiet obsession the authors had for their respective subject matters. They are not hot-headed novels. Makumbi and Adichie may have been overwhelmed by the weight of what they had to say, but they were patient in the way they allowed the books to unravel to find their own character. I don’t think we will ever stop talking about these books.

What are you currently reading? Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door.

Your childhood favourite books?An African Night’s Entertainment by Cyprian Ekwensi. It has just the right amount of drama and the sort of non-aggressive adventure I like. The Drum by Chinua Achebe has that funny illustration of the rat diving into a pot of egusi soup.

The Basket of Flowers by Christoph von Schmid, a book my father gave me: it is about a girl Mary, and her father Jacob, both poor, and how she is falsely accused of stealing a princess’s ring, and then imprisoned. Do you know Nollywood did a film that was uncannily similar? It was called Evil Forest.

Another favourite was More Tales from Shakespeare. I read this one at age 11 when I was preparing to leave for boarding school. There’s a 500-word essay I should write about how King Lear hugely influenced my writing. The final book is The Concubine. I was no longer a child when I read this; 14 maybe, but I have carried the plot of the novel everywhere in my heart since then.

If you were to dine with three writers, dead or alive, who would they be and why?

Yewande Omotoso. She’s alive, and lives somewhere in South Africa. I heard her read once when she came to Nigeria. It was the longest passage I’d ever listened to a writer read from their work. She went on for hours on end but I did not want her to stop. Then there is this short story of hers that I love; There Was Once a Man, published in the Farafina anthology, It Wasn’t Exactly Love.

Kazuo Ishiguro. He’s alive. I loved The Remains of the Day, but it was the novel which followed that one, The Unconsoled, that shifted how I approached fiction writing and also what I define as a “story”.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi for the very ebullient Kintu. I was in the class she taught at the Writivism workshop in 2014. She is a wonderful teacher, encourages easily. She is a champion of fiction situated in very strong oral traditions, which I’m all about, too. And she’s alive!

If you were sent off to Robben Island for a year, which three books would you take with you and why?

I’m going to cheat and take four. Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, for starters. If I’m going to be in jail, I might as well have with me these rich, mid-length novels that force you to reflect on torture, what it means to be on the run, even if in your mind—as happened with Aschenbach in Mann’s novel.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is book two. There is a kind of busy, extravagant prose I like that doesn’t come off as wasteful and stalling. I admire it in other writers who can pull it off—John Irving, Zadie Smith (particularly White Teeth). Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women. All the people in the book seem to be fighting their circumstances even in scenes where they are being cautious. And I like the character Homer a lot.