Out of Africa, Chigozie Obioma's characters seek belonging and happiness

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Both of Chigozie Obioma's translated novels, 'The Fishermen' and 'An Orchestra of Minorities,' have been shortlisted for Britain's Man Booker Prize.

Fiction allows us to enter cultures, times and places that we would otherwise not have access to, and in doing so, imbues us with understanding and compassion. We are fortunate to exist in a time when we can read fiction from authors across the globe and learn their perspectives. Often, what we learn is that we are not so different from each other at all. We all seek the same things in life--love, belonging and happiness.

"An Orchestra of Minorities" by Nigerian American author Chigozie Obioma is a classic tale of love. It is about a simple man, a poultry farmer named Chinonso, who would give up everything for the woman he loves and ultimately does. Most interestingly, the narrator is Chinonso's chi, his guardian spirit who has lived many lifetimes. Chinonso's chi is testifying before the ancestors and Chukwu, creator of all, to defend his host for reasons that are revealed in the novel.

We learn through the narrator not only about Chinoso's life, but also the life of the spirit world that surrounds him. Obioma writes, "For in the earth, a spirit without a host is nothing. One must inhabit a physical body to have any effect on the things of the world. And so these spirits are in constant search for vessels to occupy, and insatiable in their pursuit of corporeality. They must be avoided at all costs."

The tale begins in the outskirts of Umuahia, Nigeria. One night when Chinonso is returning home from a trip to the market where he bought new chickens, he comes across a woman, Ndali, who has climbed onto the ledge of a highway bridge and is about to jump to her death into the river. When she does not respond to his protesting cries, he impulsively takes more drastic action and throws two of his chickens into the water below to demonstrate what would happen to her if she jumps.

Later, Chinonso sadly discovers that one of the chickens he erroneously sacrificed was the white rooster that caused him to cry when he bought it at the market. "When the seller handed him the fowl, tears clouded his eyes. For a moment, the seller and even the bird in his hands appeared as a shimmering illusion. The seller watched him in what seemed to be astonishment, perhaps wondering why my host had been so moved by the sight of the chicken. The man did not know that my host was a man of instinct and passion. And that he had bought this one bird for the price of two because the bird bore an uncanny resemblance to the gosling he had owned as a child, which he loved many years ago, a bird that changed his life," Obioma writes.

Memories of this special bird appear throughout the novel in moments when Chinonso is most reflective as an anecdote with a lesson for Chinonso. The bird shows Chinonso's trusting and innocent nature, as well as his ability to love deeply whether it be a person or a mere fowl.

The woman on the bridge, Ndali, soon finds Chinonso to thank him for saving her life. "This woman came as a strange, sudden light that caused shadows to spring from everything else. He fell in love with her. In time, it seemed that with one slingshot, she had silenced his grief -- that violent dog that had barked relentlessly in this early night of his life. So strong was their bond that he was mended. Even my relationship with him improved, because a man is truly able to commune with his chi when he is at peace."

But all is not well in their relationship. Even though they are truly in love, Ndali's family, a wealthy family educated abroad, does not approve of her dating what they consider to be a lowly uneducated farmer. They go as far as to humiliate Chinonso and threaten his life. He asks Ndali to marry him, but he is at a loss for what to do about her family's inability to accept him.

When he meets up with an old friend from elementary school, Jamike, who offers to help him go to college in Cyprus, he believes that he has found his answer. He sells his farm and his beloved chickens and sets out on a big jet plane to a world he knows nothing about. Unfortunately, he soon discovers that Jamike is not what he says he is.

On his perilous journey, Chinonso is met with many devastating struggles and all the while longs to return to Ndali and explain what happened to him. The narrative parallels Homer's ancient epic poem "Odyssey," yet it is written in the mythic style of the Igbo literature tradition. This tragic heartbreaking tale might take place in a land completely unfamiliar to the reader, but it speaks to the heart of all humans, all of us yearning for love, belonging and happiness.

Obioma other novel is "The Fishermen." Both have been translated into more than 30 languages and adapted for stage; both were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is currently an assistant professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Obioma will be reading from this epic tale of love on Valentine's Day, Friday (Feb. 14) at 7 p.m. at the Harwood Museum. Tickets are $20 general.

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