E C Osondu is an award winning author from Nigeria. In 2009, he won the Caine Prize for African Writing for his story, Waiting, while an earlier story, Jimmy Carter’s Eyes made the 2007 shortlist. Osondu is also the winner of the Allen and Nirelle Galso Prize for Fiction. His story, A Letter from Home, was judged one of the top ten stories on the internet in 2006. Osondu’s debut short story collection, Voice of America (by E.C. Osondu), was published by Harper Collins in 2010, while his most first novel, This House Is Not for Sale, was released earlier this year.
Osondu currently lives in the United States, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Providence College, Rhode Island. He recently agreed to an interview with Africa Book Club to talk about his writing.
Growing up as a child in Nigeria, were you into books? What sort of books were you into?
I was quite the reader growing up. I remember reading every book that was the staple of an African growing up in the post-colony and then some. I read not necessarily in any order-Achebe’s Chike and the River, Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, I read the chirpy Coral Island and the slightly darker Treasure Island. The first story I read but cannot remember what book it was from was about a magician’s apprentice who did not listen to his master’s instruction and then things went awry. I remember reading The Mayor of Casterbridge because it was lying around the house- I was fascinated by the story of this man who gets drunk and sells off his wife- I think books appealed to me because of how much freedom the kids in the books had and how they were also spaces for grown-ups misbehavior.
How did you get into writing?
I think it is a somewhat inevitable progression-when you read you’d probably try your hand at writing at some point. I started writing poetry and short stories and published a few in newspapers and in an anthology even before I got into college.
In 2009, you won the Caine Prize for African Writing. Would you say this was the big break that transformed your fortunes as a writer? In what ways did winning the prize change your life?
The Caine Prize is a great prize and quite transformative for the winners including me. Having said that, let me also add that before I won the Caine Prize I already had an agent and representation. I was already publishing my work in a few journals. I should also add that you win the prize on the strength of a single short story but to be a writer you need to write books.
This is not to say that the Caine Prize has not continued to help make and boost the fortunes of African writers.
In the past, you’ve written quite a bit on the immigrant experience, for instance in Voice of America. What is it that drew you specifically to this subject? Was this a reflection of your own experiences moving from Nigeria to the USA?
We write in response to or as a way of apprehending strangeness—a way of comprehending the ‘intrusion of the real’ to borrow a phrase from Lacan.
Your latest book, This House is Not For Sale (released February 2015) follows a different path. What is the new book about?
The new book is about a house referred to colloquially as the Family House and its somewhat outsized residents and the man who oversees the affairs of the house a man called Grandpa. It traces the rise of the house and how it eventually crumbles very much like the fall of the House of Usher in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story.
What was your inspiration for this new book?
I was inspired in part by an abandoned house overlooking the sea on the way from the mainland to Lagos Island in Nigeria’s former capital city.
Was the writing and publishing process much easier with your second book?
It never gets easier. Same blank page. Same three demons of fear, uncertainty and doubt, same elation/euphoria when it is finally done.
As an African writer writing for a global audience, do you feel constrained in any way in terms of the subjects and themes that you can write about? Why or why not?
Those are not the thoughts that exercise my mind when I set out to write. I want to tell the best story that I can tell and in the most compelling way that it can be told. Faulkner wrote about his own small patch of the American south and found a global audience, Alice Munroe continues to write about the politics of domestic life in small Canadian towns and most if not all of William Trevor’s stories are set in Ireland and yet they have found global resonance.
Don’t get me wrong I am not saying I am not an African writer—I am unashamedly an African writer—and I find it weird that some people who have been decorated and garlanded for the simple reason that they are African writers are the ones who want to distance themselves from that tag, for the most part.
I find that this is not new- I find that it is mostly marginalized people that try to avoid the tag—back in the day, certain African-American writers did not want to be labelled as Negro Writers. I have never met an American writer who baulked at being called an American writer neither have I met a Greek philosopher who said just call me philosopher even the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek is called a Slovenian philosopher. Provenance is important for us as humans whether in identifying our wines, cheese or writers.
Any personal influences? Which writers inspire you and why?
Certain books that have stayed with me tend to read like parables or fables. The Pearl by Steinbeck, The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, Blindness by Saramago and quite a few others.
How would you describe your writing style?
That is not for me to describe.