Q&A: Julie Iromuanya interviews Jowhor Ile on his debut novel And After Many Days

This is the last in a series of three posts in which debut authors Leye Adenle, Julie Iromuanya, and Jowhor Ile interview each other on their first books. Here Julie Iromuanya and Jowhor Ile discuss Jowhor’s first novel And After Many Days, a thoughtful and moving story about a family torn apart by the disappearance of a child, and of a community irrevocably changed by greed and corruption.

and-after-coverJulie: Jowhor, And After Many Days is a pleasure in so many ways. The story has both charm and charge, the characters are memorable, and your language has beauty and symmetry. Your first few paragraphs immediately hooked me to the story—that is, right away, we’re told that Paul Utu “left the house, and did not return.” The language is so precise about laying the groundwork for the story, which we understand will feature two brothers coming of age in the 1995 of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. As a writer, I often come to stories through a single haunting character, a sentence, or a gesture. I wonder if you could start by telling me how you came to this story.

Jowhor: Thank you so much, Julie. It is a bit difficult to be exact about the origin of this story, and I’m sometimes reluctant to think about it too seriously. The character Ajie had been knocking about in my head for a long time. The tone of his voice and his sense of observation were there from the beginning. I knew he had a brother, and that he wanted to reveal things about his family. I had a mental picture of a family traveling for a holiday in a blue salon car from Port Harcourt to their home village. I nursed this image for a while.

Julie: On the first page, you also introduce readers to some uncertainty about the veracity of this rendition of the tale: “At least that is one way to begin to tell this story.” In this way, it’s suggested that how the story is being told to readers and who is telling the story is as important as the story itself. As we navigate the patchwork of memories within the larger narrative frame, we learn much about Ajie, Paul’s younger brother; their family; their ancestral village, Ogibah; and 1990s Nigeria. Could you talk a little bit about how you thought about time and space? I noticed your use of flash forwards, flashbacks, and tense shifts.

Jowhor: That is a really loaded question. Absolutely, I think who tells a story and how the story is told are as important as the story; well, at least, that was what I felt while writing this one. There is also a sense in which that quote reads to me now like the product of a writer working out his anxieties on the page, trying to make his way into the narrative; but no, that line was central to the novel. It was a moment of discovery for me.  The story was coming from one person’s consciousness; it is perspective, and I like to think we all agree that every story is perspective and that should lay to rest anxieties about ‘truth’. I wanted to indicate this position from the start of it. So, it wasn’t so much about ‘veracity of the rendition of the tale,’ but rather declaring the position from which the narrator was speaking. I believe we can still arrive at some truth about life. For me truth is balance and we can attempt to reach that from wherever we stand.

Ideas around time and space were defined by the story. Ajie’s voice had an intimate sense of someone recounting a tale to another. He is relying on memory. Memory is a reconstruction, it is not always chronological, and it makes its own associations with events and place, and this complicates time and space. I was really interested in this notion of history not just as events in the past but also as something still alive. One of the ways in which people talk about this is to say Causes and Effects. I tend to think about it as echoes, a sustained presence. To take a random example—you may be familiar with some of the stories numerous Nigerian parents tell their children about what they had to go through to get an education.  Or how they couldn’t afford fees for a certain course and had to study another that was more affordable, or how they couldn’t pay tuition at all and therefore had to learn a trade. These events defined them, and the lore remains in the family and can have far reaching effects. Perhaps unconsciously, these parents are signalling what they have come to value; they are also passing down moods and attitudes. I know of a man who couldn’t afford to study medicine in his day. When he had children he took it as betrayal and ingratitude on the part of his children when none of them showed interest in becoming doctors. This unfortunate experience he had thirty-five years’ prior was ripping the family apart in the present and the children will carry on elements of it as well. There is a sense in which it’s not ‘past’ at all. I think of it as a kind of generational haunting. In this story I wanted to capture the emotional history of the Utu family. An event which took place in say 1913 to a grandparent might have resonance and might be directly linked to something happening to a grandchild in 1993. I think there are chapters in the book that speak to each other in that way.

Julie: Although your novel is ambitious in scope, it is also a classic bildungsroman about a close-knit family and its young narrator, Ajie, a precocious, spirited boy who comes of age by the end of the novel. Ajie handily executes much of the storytelling, and because of his youth, he often has the least amount of information; yet, there’s also a sensitivity, depth, inquisitiveness, and wit in the way he notices the world around him. A moment that gave me pause was when the Utu children visit family friends while their parents are away in America. There, Ajie has a tender moment of intimacy with the house girl, Barisua. This moment is finely juxtaposed with an earlier scene of playfulness between Barisua and Paul, which has more sexual undertones due to their ages. While the moment between Ajie and Barisua isn’t necessarily sexual, you carefully straddle the line between innocence and illicitness. For me, the moment felt like a kind of poetry with the final line echoing into other scenes: “So, this is what it means to touch another human being.” What did you find difficult about writing from Ajie’s point of view? And because so much of the story is about how stories are told, what kinds of moments did you think Ajie was best suited to narrate?

and-after-many-daysJowhor: That is a generous comment on Ajie, and I agree with what you say about him. I enjoyed writing from his point of view. Children’s perspectives are interesting to me because they are natural outsiders to society.  We all come into the world relatively unformed, and then we get molded, our impulses are checked. Attempts are made to define us and to define the world for us. It’s fascinating when you watch children, once they start expressing their will, how frequently they say ‘no’. They question assumptions; they are not in yet on the play. I think one of the ways to understand the world is to say no. Ajie didn’t have direct access to some of the events but he was a young person in a family setting and the world sort of arrives in their living room—people bring news, parents might explain events or things in the news. He is also an excellent eavesdropper. I don’t think I can remember what I found most difficult about writing from his point of view. My main challenge was to stay faithful to his voice and perhaps showing how he heard of an event, locating him in the room. Much of the story comes to the reader through his observations, but he was also quite active—he would interrupt or maybe say something out of turn. I think this kind of tension was good for the story. He quarreled with things happening around him but he also doubted himself a lot and I think his introspection was good for the story.

The scene with Barisua was fleeting but I circled around it for a long time before putting it down. Discovering your body in a sexual dimension is a significant part of growing up. There is (or perhaps there has always been) a lot of anxiety surrounding sexuality—there is always somebody trying to define for us the nature and limits of it. I wanted to scale back and reach for something creatural. For Ajie, it turned out to be a revelation, a joyous awakening.

Julie: One of the things that I absolutely love is the way you capture family and all of the nuances of affection, wisdom, play, sibling rivalry, and even punishment. As the second of five children, so many elements resonated for me and brought me back to the innocence of my childhood and those startling moments of recognition as the world grew in sharper focus. The hardest thing for many children with siblings is to recognize that you will all grow up and one day go your separate ways. For the Utu children, it happens much sooner than they anticipate, and because of the nature of Paul’s disappearance, they do not even have the benefit of time to prepare. Instead, we’re left with a collection of their memories.

One of my favourite moments with the Utu children is the detailed description of how they play Oga, Madam, and houseboy. In this moment of child’s play we can see the ways that they’ve internalized the adult world around them, including the ways that social roles are performed. I think this moment perfectly creates an echo with an earlier scene where Paul insults Barisua for being a house girl. Perhaps this is a silly question, but what kinds of games did you play as a child? In what ways do you believe childhood invention prepared you to be a writer?

Jowhor: I don’t know if I played as much as I should have. I was the youngest and I don’t remember loads of children being around. I don’t even know what some of those games were called. There were the usual hide and seek, playing house, police, and thief. Oh, and there was ten-ten. I don’t know if you are familiar with the game. I was awful at it but when my sister had no one else to play it with she forced me to take part. It was seen mostly as a game for girls because really they championed it, but boys played it too. There are men in Port Harcourt today who might be ashamed to tell about their stellar ten-ten performances when they were about eight or nine years of age. I was talking to a friend recently about a skipping game that was popular when we were growing up. They sing a song for a you as you jump the rope: “when will you marry, this year or next year, single forever…”Then all the months in a year are called out. It sounds awful now but it was so much fun, and the song gets better: “who will you marry: rich, poor, beggar or thief.” If you are really good and carry on jumping successfully, the song starts counting how many children you will have.  So, yes, you are right about just how much children internalize, and looking at those games might be the only sociological survey we need to reveal what a society chooses to value. From the game I just described it has to be: Marry quick, marry into money, have loads of children. I’ll just leave that there.

I’m not sure I can tell how childhood invention prepared me to be a writer. I’m tempted to make a guess but I bet one of my friends will call me up and say we played that particular game together and will leave it to me to explain why he is now a drilling engineer or a quantity surveyor.

Julie: Setting is as much a character as the people in your novel. In 1995 we’re in the midst of the Abacha Regime, university strikes, invading multi-national oil corporations, and the tragic execution of the Ogoni Nine—among them, the famed Ogoni writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. You make references to many of these larger events without naming the top players, very much in line with Ajie’s youthful perspective. Very little tragedy is seen or experienced first-hand by him, but they are filtered to him through the teenage Paul.

One of the greatest tragedies of the novel is the decimation visited upon the family’s ancestral village, Ogibah, as “Company” grapples for preeminence over the village’s oil supply. Conflict ensues on all sides, and we are left with a turning-of-the-tide in line with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as Okonkwo begins to realize that one day he will not recognize the world around him. I suppose we could call it the perils of moving from a traditional lifestyle to a modern one, but I think your novel is asking us to see this shift in a more complex way. One of the subtle signals is in the very different ways that the parents handle the tragedy. While the father, “Bendict,” a measured and intelligent lawyer, fights by legal means, the mother, “Ma,” has a sort of intelligent patience. Throughout the novel she begins carefully cataloguing the native flowers and fauna of the region, and she shares the mysteries and power of the natural environment with her children. I love this subtle and thoughtful way of complicating what would otherwise be seen as a simplistic duality.

We need complex and rich stories like yours that go beyond the “single story,” and since you will surely have a wide readership, I expect that some of your readers won’t be as familiar with some of the places and figureheads of Nigeria and the literary and linguistic traditions from which you draw upon as a writer. Please share some of your favourite authors, traditions, and works—and tell us about what they teach you as an artist.

Jowhor: I really enjoy stories where the place is as much a character as the people. In my late teens I had a huge obsession with Stephen King’s stories; his characters were as real to me as the Maine his stories were set in. I read a lot of Faulkner and Steinbeck about the same time as well, and they were able to create a world so rich with detail that when you finished the book you missed the place as much as the people. Cyprian Ekwensi also does this in his books. Lagos is very much a character in his Jaguar Nana novels for instance.

I read a lot of Pacesetter’s series while growing up. I don’t know if you are familiar with them. They were popular fiction mostly in the thriller and romance genre, published by Heinemann. I believe they were targeted at young people but a lot of adults enjoyed reading them. They had dramatic titles, the characters were people we could recognize and the settings were familiar.  For instance, Mark of the Cobra was set partly in Port Harcourt, the detective in the story had a red sport car and lodged in Hotel Presidential, which wasn’t far from where I grew up. They were a lot of fun to read.

You mentioned Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I came to Achebe’s novels relatively late, when I was about twenty. His trilogy was required reading for my older siblings and the books were about the house. I had also watched the miniseries ‘Things Fall Apart’; still, it was a real jolt to read him. There is something tender and radical about the moral stance in his stories. And his seriousness does not preclude humour. People in life, like Ma and Bendic in the novel, respond to the tragedy of not recognizing the world they now live in in different ways. I was thinking of how people I know have responded to our recent history. There are ways in which I feel Things Fall Apart is still happening but in a different way. It sort of ties in with what I said earlier about the past—there is in fact a war still going on. There is a great quote from Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things where she writes about this battle that invades the mind, “a war that captures dreams and re-dreams them. A war that made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.”  Back to what you said about how people respond, I guess they do in different ways. There is the issue of survival, or the question of if you want to survive. I’m thinking about ideas relating to the ‘heroic,’ an un-bendability which as in Okonkwo’s case resulted in suicide. Organizing a march could be useful, provoking a debate may lead to progress. We know that some people take up arms. In Ma’s case in the book, keeping that record was a kind of resistance. For her this was beyond politics, it was a spiritual commitment.

Finally, I would like to mention the wonderful Irish writer Anne Enright. Everything she writes gives pleases me—her language, the poetry of her thought; her sentences surprise, and she won’t lie to you.

Julie: Thank you for sharing your novel with me and taking the time to answer my questions, Jowhor.

Jowhor: Thank you Julie for your reading, and for your thoughtful questions. I’ve really enjoyed doing this.

 

Jowhor Ile’s writing has been published in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Litro Magazine. His first novel And After Many Days was published in Nigeria by Farafina Books and in the United States by Tim Duggan Books. He will read from and discuss his book at the 2016 Ake Arts & Book Festival on November 17. Follow him on Twitter @JowhorIle.

Julie Iromuanya is an assistant professor in fiction at the University of Arizona.  She was the inaugural Herbert W. Martin Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Dayton, a Jane Tinkham Broughton Fellow in Fiction at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her first novel Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (published by Coffee House Press) was a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award and the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and longlisted for the 2015 National Book Critics’ Circle John Leonard Prize for Debut Fiction.

 

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