Dr. Ngozi Obi, a United States-based Nigerian pharmacist-cum-author, in this interview with INNOCENT ANORUO, explains why she wrote on the Nigerian Civil War, the separatist agitations and the recipe for a better Nigeria.
Born after the Nigerian civil war, what inspired you to write Land of the Rising Sun: A fictional tribute to Biafra?
I have always wanted to write a book about Biafra, because I grew up hearing my parents, who were in the war, talk about what they went through. I was motivated to write the book in 2017 during its 50th anniversary, as I started to hear that there was a renewed agitation for Biafra and all the negative things that were being said about the Igbo. I wanted to remind the world of what happened to them during the war and still happens today that makes them feel marginalised enough to seek their own country. I also wanted to make sure the Igbo really knew what they were asking for, and if they were willing to sacrifice for it, by reminding them of what their predecessors went through during the war. This is more than carrying placards, walking around and shouting, ‘Give us Biafra’.
Do you think this book will serve as a warning to Nigerians against another civil war?
I hope that the book will serve as a warning to ensure Nigerians avoid fighting another civil war. I am not agitating for or against Biafra by writing this book; but simply trying to highlight the issues that plagued Nigeria and led to the civil war in the 1960s. Most of these issues have remained unresolved till date. If nothing is done, another war is imminent. The Igbo should not live as second-class citizens in their own nation. Ensure equity for them to feel like they belong in their own country. If things can’t be worked out and Biafra is to become a nation, then let them go peacefully.
Is your father also carrying emotional scars from the war like the characters in the book?
Absolutely! Everyone who was alive during the war bemoans it till today. These people went through hell and lived to tell about it. A lot of Igbo people left the country, because of the shame that resulted from the loss of the war. The Biafran war was to the Igbo, what the Vietnam War was to Americans. American soldiers went home to great ridicule after the Vietnam War. Now, imagine that same ridicule from the very people you fought to separate from. Yes, there are still emotional scars, and the wound is daily re-opened by the way things are in Nigeria.
You were born after the civil war. When was the first time you heard about it?
I don’t remember. But I can’t remember my parents not talking about their war time experience. It was always a topic of discussion in our home and peaked my curiosity, even at a young age, to read more about it. The children with kwashiorkor, who became the unlikely faces of the war affected me the most. Their pictures haunted me and I often wondered if that would have happened to me had I been born during the war. - How did you feel writing the book? - Writing Land of the Rising Sun brought out a lot of emotions for me, particularly as I lost my mother years before the book was written. The stories used to craft the fictional portion of the book are actual narrations of her Biafran war time experience as a young impressionable nurse. I just wrote a back-story to tie it all together. I wish she were here to read it. So, yeah, writing the book was quite emotional for me.
You live in the U.S. From what you heard from your father about the civil war and your experience writing the book, what would you tell Nigerians?
One thing I would tell Nigerians is to change their value system and become their brother’s keeper. Part of what plagues Nigerians, from the average man on the street to the one in Aso Rock, is the failure to see beyond themselves and their needs. It is also the basis for creating a culture of corruption in the country. If you can truly see beyond yourself and realise that your fellow man is also a human being who is entitled to live in our world freely, it will make you think twice before you do anything that will harm them physically, financially or otherwise. It takes re-evaluating individual value systems and making changes where needed to rid the country of the corruption that they are desperately trying to fight at the surface.
You are also planning to do a formal presentation of the book in Nigeria. Why not in the U.S.?
I have actually done quite a few presentations of my book in the U.S., but the subject of Biafra is a Nigerian issue. My hope is that doing a presentation of this book will start a healing process for the Igbo in Nigeria and go a long way in the restoration of their dignity, especially as the general elections loom.
In addition to Land of the Rising Sun, you have written three other novels, Love’s Destiny, When Dreams and Visions Collide, Love’s Legacy and The Women of Purpose Anthology (2018) co-authored with 30 other women. How has writing impacted your life?
I believe words have power and I have always been fascinated with books; from the Curious George series of books, as a tot, to Charlotte’s Web, the Laura Ingall’s Wilder series and required readings like Pride and Prejudice as I got older. The natural progression would be to become a writer, though it wasn’t my initial profession because, as a good daughter to African parents, becoming a doctor of some sort took precedence. Writing has allowed me to forge into territories that would otherwise be unknown to me. ‘Saving lives one word at a time’ is our brand motto, and that’s exactly what writing has allowed me to do.
Why does the theme of virginity run in your books, particularly the love series?
Sex is a beautiful part of love when done in the proper environment. God actually created it to be the glue in marriage. Unfortunately, our sex-crazed society has told us that it is okay to give your body to anyone who wants it. I wanted this theme to be a light in what has become the societal norm. It is right to wait and only give yourself to the person you marry. You don’t have to give in to societal pressures just because everyone else is doing it. Dare to be different and reap the physical and emotional benefits.
You are a pharmacist serving a local Virginia community, but you are popular as an author. What drew you towards writing? - My journey as a writer began in response to my search for a genre of books with an inspirational message; books that seamlessly tackle the complexity of life’s concepts with ease. I also found that delving into writing served as an escape and a way to deal with my late mother’s illness and subsequent passing by allowing me to tap into my vivid imagination and create tangible characters that most people can easily relate to. - In your spare time, when you are not writing books, what takes up your time? - I travel, experiment with different food recipes, frequent spa escapes, shop and read.
Which authors inspire you?
The likes of Chinua Achebe and Buchi Emechetta inspired me to want to learn more about the Igbo culture. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ series solidified my love for reading.
The Me-too Movement has taken feminism to a global dimension. Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
The simple definition of a feminist is one who is pro the progress and equal nature of women. In that regard, I am definitely a feminist. I fear that we have taken feminism to an extreme where being a feminist means we are against men. I don’t think this should be the case because we need men just as much as they need us. There is need for mutual respect between genders and equality, which will limit predatory behaviour of some men. This is what we should focus on as true feminists.
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