2009 Caine Prize winner E.C. Osondu is set to take the literary world by storm with this week's release of his debut collection of eighteen short stories in 'Voice of America," a Harper Collins imprint.
The stories, which include 'Jimmy Carter's Eyes,' 'Waiting,' and 'Nigerians in America,' candidly weave together the everyday realities faced by many Nigerians on the continent and in the diaspora. Set in Nigeria and America, Osondu's characters include a blind girl with a special gift, two young men with the hopes of one day leaving the refugee camp they exist in, a young married couple navigating obstacles, and a plethora of other characters with their own doubts and dreams.
Osondu, who holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University and presently teaches at Providence College in Rhode Island, recently spoke to BlackVoices.com. Excerpts of the conversation are below.
BlackVoices.com: Take us into the mind of a writer.
One of the things that was really strong then too was this whole idea of pride in our own culture. And it did impact the blacks in the diaspora. Right now there is Afro-pessimism. Africa needs to get its swagger back.
BV: You received your MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University. Did this cause a schism within the family since you were pursing something related to the arts?
ECO: I actually left a well-paying job one day and said that I was going to do creative writing. Some members of my family were bewildered. They thought this was a very Western thing -- this whole idea of leaving it all behind to pursue art. The idea of just being an artist for your own individual happiness as opposed to making everyone in the community happy, which is an African concept.
BV: What was it like winning the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing for the short story "Waiting"?
ECO: The Caine Prize is a wonderful prize. It's really unique. Some of the things that writers face are fear, uncertainty and doubt. What the prize offered was some validation. And I needed it, because I had tons of rejections. And when you're having all these rejections, you ask yourself whether you made the right decision in your career pursuit. I can't stop speaking highly of the prize.
BV: If I had to sum up the eighteen stories in Voice of America in one word, 'expectation' comes to mind. It is a recurring theme throughout the numerous stories in the thoughts and actions of the characters. What do you hope people take away from this collection?
ECO: The reader should go with the stories wherever they take them. I wanted to explore how Nigerians on the continent see the United States. It's not called the 'American dream' for nothing. In "Waiting" one of the characters says that everyone in America has a swimming pool. There is this ideal of excess and opulence. But, I wanted people to know there is also an underside that is not as glamorous. The vision that America holds up to the world is that it is a place of possibility. The moment that the ideal of America, as a place where people can come with their dreams and actualize those dreams, is fractured, then it's equivalent to the fall of the Roman Empire.
BV: Recent events have taken jabs at that ideal. For instance, the economic catastrophe.
ECO: One of the things that has been unsettling to me is to see elements of fear. Any society that is captured by fear is on its way down. There is a fear of the unknown. There is a fear of those who look different or speak differently. There is a fear of some kind of alien menace. Something like a fear of a black planet.
ECO: The country needs infrastructure and the right leadership. There is hope. Some of the things that have come out of Nigerian democracy have surprised me in a good way.
ECO: On the origin of kidnapping, I think about Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was a writer and activist and he believed in dialog to deal with injustice taking place in the Niger Delta. And what happened was the enemy killed him. They didn't listen to the guy who wanted to talk. After him is the chaos. That is what Nigeria is reaping now. It's like okay you don't want to dialog. We don't want to dialog then. We're coming with our AK-47s and you're going to listen to us. Africa endures though. That's the one thing I know.
BV: Last thoughts?
ECO: No one has written the Nigerian American book. It is important that someone write about the experience of Nigerian Americans. I want people to see them, of course not as perfect individuals, but as people who are a part of the American dream, pursuing their dreams and hopes here. And I want my book to offer that voice.