A Conversation with Obinna Udenwe, Nigerian award-winning writer.

OBINNA UDENWE is a Nigerian short story writer and novelist. The winner of The Chinua Achebe Prize for Literature 2021, Obinna Udenwe’s novel Colours of Hatred was a finalist for the 2021 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature. His collection of short stories “The Widow Who Died With Flowers in Her Mouth” will be released by Masobe Books before the end of 2022.

Libretto: Hello, Obinna. We are beyond pleased to have you join us.

Obinna: Thank you.

Libretto: Has there been any radical changes between how you wrote your first book and how you write now?

Obinna: Yes, I wouldn’t say ‘radical changes’ but I started writing professionally in 2005. Between then and now I have read many more books, written a whole lot, including loads of short stories, so you would expect that the way I write have improved and changed. First off, I used to write with pen and paper then type it up afterwards but for years now, I just sit on my desk, turn on my computer and type straight away. I realised that the ideas flow better this way.

Libretto: How important is research to you when writing, and in what specific instances has it been a defining factor?

Obinna: Most of my novels require lots of research. Take for instance Satans & Shaitans which is set against the backdrop of terrorist tension in Nigeria, if you have read it you’d know that a lot of research went into writing it. Colours of Hatred has elements of historic fiction, especially the part set in Sudan and those parts that talked about the coup and military dictatorship in Nigeria. So before those two books were written and in between writing, I researched extensively. Research is very important because it makes the work believable. It gives the story credibility. Many people still think I am a Muslim after reading Satans & Shaitans. When I go for readings and book discussions, I find readers who ask if I have been to Sudan. So research is quite important.

Libretto: What do you think makes a good writer succeed, and what are some of the literary trends and artistic troupes you believe has impacted the thematic essence of the modern novel the most?

Obinna: A writer succeeds if he is a good reader. Then constant practice. Writing is like mathematics – the more you work on mathematical formulae and calculations, the better you become. So is writing.

The modern novel, in fact, modern writing has been impacted so very much by technology and social media. Now you can read a novel on your phones, tablets, Kindle devices etc. Social media is also an important impacting factor and for thematic essence, the world is full of events and activities – take for instance the pandemic, in a few years we are going to have lots of novels written and centered on the global Covid19 pandemic. We will also see works with the Russian-Ukrain war as key thematic issues, and many, many more.

Libretto: Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your writing? What personal experiences have influenced your writing the most?

Obinna: Every writer does that, perforce once in a while. I don’t think I have done so in any of my novels, but I have done that in several of my short stories.

Libretto: Libretto: Your recent book, Colours of Hatred, has been described by critics as a complex web of events detailing how one woman moved from childhood through the fire and anvil of love, loss, longing, lust, and duty. Do you consider this a fair assessment of what the novel was intending to achieve?

Obinna: Yes, but that is one perspective to assessing the novel or describing the complexity that is the story, Colours of Hatred.

Libretto: If you were to give yourself one advice before you wrote “Colour of Hatred”, what would that advice be and do you imagine it would have influenced the story in any way?

Obinna: This is hard to think about. (Laughs). Colours of Hatred did not start out as what it is now. In fact, when I was at the Ebedi International Writers Residency, I deleted over forty thousand words of the story and rewrote it completely.

Libretto: In “Colours of Hatred” some critics found the dialogue to be rather tedious while others bemoaned the nonlinear nature of the narration. How does this make you feel and do you think there should be more nuance in the approach to modern literary criticism?

Obinna: All my novels are written in a nonlinear style. Some of my short stories too. It is intentional. Naturally, stories are not told in a linear manner – the storyteller jumps here and there and connects you with the entire story by tying the stories or narration together. You find a good storyteller occasionally digressing. They may start from the ending part of the story and take you to the beginning and then the middle. If a critic is not happy that Colours of Hatred isn’t straightforward in its narration, then it’s a pity – he should try reading only children literature then. As for the dialogue, I have read a few reviews where the reviewers loved the dialogue. I think people approach criticism differently and what appeals to Mr A may not to Mr B. I also think that what we get these days are not really criticism but commentary on the work. When you want to read criticism in Nigeria read Paul Liam or Michael Chiedoziem Chuwkudera – these are young critics but they are good. 

Libretto: If you were to describe Leona, the main character in “Colours of Hatred”, with one word. What word would it be and why?

Obinna: Beauty – Leona was extraordinarily beautiful.

Libretto: Still on the subject of your published book “Colours of Hatred”. How did you feel when you found out it was longlisted and shortlisted for Nigeria Prize for Literature? And also, won The Chinua Achebe Prize for Literature 2021?

Obinna: I was elated and surprised when it was nominated for the Nigeria Prize for Literature – surprised in the sense that because of the pandemic I had forgotten that the story was entered for the prize. When it was shortlisted I wasn’t really surprised because I suspected it would. In fact, I had guessed correctly the three books that would make the shortlist. I’d ordered all the nominated books and read them all. So I knew the three best on the list. When it failed to win the Nigeria Prize for Literature, I was surprised, again. I don’t know what the judged looked for, but I was surprised, just as many others in the hall that night. When it won The Chinua Achebe Prize for Literature, I felt great.

Libretto: You are an accomplished short story writer, and a novelist. What is the biggest difference you have noticed between the two forms and how do you navigate it?

Obinna: Writing short stories are far more difficult. I write long form mostly so I have more room to play around but long form or short form, the short story is a difficult form of writing because you need to captivate the reader from the very beginning and sustain this interest till the end. For novels, you can choose to play around. So many people have said I am a better short story writer so when I approach novels, I do so as if I am writing a long short story, so that is why when you read Colours of Hatred or Satans & Shaitans, you keep turning the pages because they are written as fast paced thrillers.

Libretto: Almost every author now writes with the screen in mind. Do you think this hinders the writing process and is there any chance we might be seeing “Colours of Hatred” at a cinema or streaming service within the next few years?

Obinna: Really? I didn’t know many authors write with the screen in mind. This is the first time I am learning this. I have had my story produced into film and how the deal was sealed is still a surprise to me. So if Colours of Hatred will make it to the screens we shall see. It is left to God.

Libretto: So, what are you working on next? What should we look forward to? Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?

Obinna: I have a collection of short stories coming out this year. It is titled “The Widow Who Died with Flowers in Her Mouth”.

Libretto: Finally, if the world’s last remaining library was burning, and you could only save three books, what books would there be?

Obinna: Maria Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan

Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

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