The Exchange: Why Nation Is One of the Greatest Stories Ever Told

Novelists Chigozie Obioma and Taiye Selasi explore how a nation-state shapes a person’s identity — and influences a writer’s fiction.


To Chigozie Obioma, there is more to writing fiction than crafting engaging characters and plots. Writers, he says, have an opportunity to assess and critique the world in which they live. The 2015 Global Thinker’s debut novel, The Fishermen, is a domestic drama about sibling rivalry, but it’s also an allegory for Nigeria’s destructive colonial legacy. Taiye Selasi, though, finds value in literary stories that singularly explore interior landscapes, free of societal or political metaphor. To that end, her acclaimed 2013 novel, Ghana Must Go, delves into an immigrant family dealing with the death of its patriarch. Both authors are interested in the reasons intimate relationships can cease to function and in the complex forces that shape identity — well beyond the place where someone is born. Obioma and Selasi recently discussed the purpose they bring to writing, the responsibility readers have to novels, and whether the narrative of nationhood is the greatest story ever told.

Chigozie Obioma: I’ve been saying that my novel, The Fishermen, was born out of what I like to call consummate nostalgia. I moved from Nigeria to Cypress in 2007 to go to school, and I was very shocked to see that although the country was, and still is, very much less developed than the West, it had the basic amenities that can make a country function — constant electricity, water, health care. It had all of these things that we’re lacking in Nigeria, which for very long has been one of the world’s leading oil producers. I became very disturbed by the reality of this small desert island thriving better than my own country. That, coupled with the fact that I had left home and this big family of 12 children, just made everything come together one day: the nostalgia of missing home and the intense and desperate craving to make sense of what I deem a failure.

Taiye Selasi: Right. I’ve heard your novel described as an analogy of the dissolution, in a sense, of Nigeria as a consequence of its, let’s say, colonial encounter, as well as a meditation on the coming apart of the family — as a love letter to your brothers and to brotherhood. Does one of those things take precedence in your mind over the other? Did those ideas bloom simultaneously?

CO: I think they formed together. I’ve always had this idea that a novel cannot function as just one thing. I hope to write one that functions in at least two dimensions: on the personal side and on the conceptual level. You can add a third layer, which would be the philosophical level. On the personal level, The Fishermen is, in fact, a family drama. It’s essentially about this thriving family of four boys who have aspirations, just like most kids. Then, one day, they encounter this crazy guy who tells them: “This is how you will be.” But what drives me most is the fact that I don’t believe we should tell a story just for the fact of telling a story. If I don’t have anything that I feel is crucial or pressing to say, together with that story, I don’t even attempt to tell it.

TS: That makes sense. I wouldn’t say my novel, though, asks questions about immigrant families. It’s asking questions only about one immigrant family. For better or worse, I’ve staked a very different claim: to look very narrowly and very intimately at a specific set of human beings as individuals, and not as representations of a broader experience — say, the immigrant experience or the West African experience. Listening to you, though, I think: Is it that I actually believe that one can tell a story for a story’s sake, rather than needing to have, in order to claim any meaning, a philosophical comment? In a sense, I think the answer is yes. I’ve always been completely convinced by the storytelling itself, as well as the beauty of the language. Perhaps I’m discovering right now that what moves me is something entirely different than what moves a more philosophical novelist.

CO: I think that we both have the same point, actually. My ideas about what a novel should do come from what my expectations are as a reader first, before those as a writer. When I watch movies, I generally don’t look beyond what the actors are doing or saying. When I read books, I look beyond what is on the page. I always hope that whatever I write, even if it’s a short story about a woman who is fetching water at a well, we can look at it and apply it to something bigger so it can be a microcosm for the exploration of something deeper.

TS: You’re making the critical distinction between the ambition of the writer and the ambition of the reader. I confess that what moves me as a writer are not the only things that move me as a reader. 

CO: Exactly. Yes!

TS: I would say reading brings me much more unadulterated joy than writing ever can, because reading is easy and delightful, and writing is delightful and hard. I was about halfway through your book before I realized I was resisting the idea that it was an analogy. I felt the need to defend its wholeness as a story not about brothers, but a story about these brothers. Then I thought: This is absurd. As a reader, you are insisting that a text do one thing, and that’s not your place as a reader. Let the text do every damn thing that it can possibly do and luxuriate in the multiplicity of its effects and its aims, which is very different, of course, than what happens when we’re writing.

* * *

TS: When my family heard that I’d written a novel about a family in which the father is a Ghanaian novelist, the mother is Nigerian and Scottish, and there were twins and they’d gone to Yale, I think everyone got quite anxious. Obviously my father is a Ghanaian surgeon; my mother is a Nigerian with some Scottish sprinkled in; and my twin sister went to Harvard Medical School, and we both went to Yale. But it was actually wonderful what happened when they read the novel in its entirety and what they realized. I hadn’t wanted to do research, meaning I didn’t want to sit there and Google street names in California when I could just as well use street names in Massachusetts. I didn’t want to figure out what the names of the buildings are at Princeton when I know what the names of the buildings are at Yale, and so forth. I think it became clear to them, as it was always clear to me, that I’d used these exterior details so as to free myself up to investigate interior landscapes. As soon as they could see that the insides of these characters did not match the insides of themselves, I think they bought my claim that this is not a novel about my family, even though in a sort of flagrant display of laziness, I took all of the superficial details from our lives and used them so that I could focus on other research.

CO: My answer to that is, if you went to an MFA program in America, which I did, there’s this thing people say often when a writer is starting out — that, generally, we tend to write what we know. In the case of The Fishermen, you can see I wrote about Akure, where I grew up. The city is represented in the novel as I knew it. My brothers and sisters are in fact represented in the book, but it’s a fragment of each person’s attributes, married into all of these characters in a way that they can’t really recognize. I think what we do with fiction is taking up fragments of truth, of lived experience, and mashing them up into something that is unrecognizable to the person who actually has lived that experience.

TS: I love this phrase, “write what you know.” I once had the pleasure of speaking with a very great novelist who said, “I think it’s inane to tell young writers: ‘Write what you know,’ because you know nothing.” That actually feels a bit closer to the truth. What I’ve discovered through writing fiction, as distinct from writing nonfiction, is that the novelist writes because of what we don’t know. It’s what you said, Chigozie: I don’t know why a desert island is better off in terms of infrastructure than my oil-producing nation, chock full as it is of brilliant people. We don’t know. I don’t know why so many of the fathers had left the families that I knew growing up. If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t have been compelled to enter the mind of Kweku Sai [the patriarch in Ghana Must Go]. I would argue that even though, yes, of course, we are writing what we know in terms of the way the town works, the way the houses look, the way the food tastes, and the way the flowers smell, what’s actually compelling us to soldier on in our quest is an answer to the questions that we can’t answer, the knowledge that we don’t already have.

CO: That is true. I would add that I don’t think that knowledge can be absolute. The moment you think you’ve understood something to the letter, you’re finished. Life is, in itself, a constant quest to understand any kind of phenomenon at all. Sometimes a writer may have assumed, or stands in the illusion that they know something, and then they want to understand it more, or even pose the question, open-endedly, to their readers, so they write something about it.

* * *

TS: I think if you grow up physically alienated from your parents’ countries, and kind of at the same time culturally alienated from what is presumed to be yours, then you end up with a question. I’ve probably been asked, “Where are you from?” at least once a week for my entire life. There’s just no way that it wasn’t going to figure prominently in my thinking. So as an author also of nonfiction — because most of my thinking on this doesn’t come from the part of my brain that generates prose — I think nation is one of the greatest stories ever told: The mythology of the country and the fantasy of the unified state are wildly successful acts of narrative. What’s interesting to me is how the nation functions at the levels that you describe the novel functioning: the personal, the conceptual, the philosophical, and then there’s what I think is the most pressing and perhaps most tragic level, which is the physical. Because the nation kills, right? Many people die in the name of this story. I’ve always wondered: Is this giving us more harm than good, or does the good that it does somehow justify the harm?

CO: Having grown up in a small town in Nigeria, I relate more to having that sense of ownership towards a particular province, provenance. I’m Igbo, and I grew up in a Yoruba-speaking place; I started speaking the language of other people before that of my own. My dad had to put an embargo on speaking Yoruba so that we could learn Igbo. I do believe, especially in Africa, that the nation-state as a Western concept is a problem. We need tribe nations that can form organic nations on their own, and then if they want to merge into orders and form actual states, they can do that. I believe that one of the problems we have in Nigeria is the foundation itself. Take the Igbo people, for example, who make a big chunk of Nigeria — 40 million people. They had a sophisticated civilization that was uniquely African. And the Igbos were egalitarian. Then the British came and told us: “Your ways are barbaric. Your systems are rubbish. You guys are inferior. Adopt. This is how you should be.” I am an advocate for at least rethinking that Western idea, and then form something that is uniquely African and that we can sustain. Western culture is very foreign, and we’ve not found a way to form coherent nations out of that, so we need to reinvent something. I see myself as an Igbo man, as a West African. I don’t know whether I believe in Nigeria, but I have a Nigerian passport, so I have no choice but to see myself as a Nigerian also.

TS: I was drawn to what you just said about ownership. You grew up in a Nigerian town with Nigerian parents, a Nigerian passport, and therefore one might be tempted to say a Nigerian identity. We see that’s complicated by the fact that you are an Igbo in a Yoruba-speaking place. Still, you experienced an ownership. It is something the immigrant can come to know, but it is almost always an abstraction developed through what I call “ritual and relationship.” If I feel an ownership over a part of Ghana, it is the part of Accra where my mom has lived for 15 years, where I’ve gone for most of my life, mixed in with the abstraction of my father being a Ghanaian, of my carrying a Ghanaian passport. It is not an ownership that goes in both directions. Whatever part of Ghanaian-ness I feel I own is not something that any Ghanaian is obliged to honor. Any Ghanaian can tell me at any point in time, “You are not really a Ghanaian.” Do you feel the same about Nigeria? If you are in Nigeria amongst Nigerians, can you say, “I am Nigerian?”

CO: Yeah. My accent will give me up. I speak Yoruba, I speak Igbo, and I lived there when I was an adult.

TS: That’s my mom’s experience, also. You can tell that she’s got Scottish ancestors, and she studied outside of Nigeria for a long time, but nobody can tell her she is not a Nigerian and, more than that, that she is not a Yoruba. You also say African countries have not been able to make a success of the Western nation-state, and I would argue that absent slave labor in the New World and empire in the old, neither has the West. The nation-state is not exactly working out as well as it may appear. The question becomes: How can human beings organize themselves? It is our nature to cluster together in groups. How can we undertake that project in a way that is in some sense affirming to human life, rather than the opposite?

This conversation has been condensed for publication. Listen to the discussion here or by subscribing to FP’s Global Thinkers podcast on iTunesA version of this article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of  FP magazine under the title, “Does the world really need nation states?”.

Obioma: Photo courtesy of Scott Soderberg