Dr. Ngozi M. Obi, American-based Nigerian pharmacist cum author, in this interview, spoke on why she wrote on the Nigerian Civil War, the separatist agitations and the need for a better Nigeria. She spoke to EJIKEME OMENAZU.
Who is Ngozi M. Obi?
I am Dr. Ngozi M. Obi, an American author of Nigerian Igbo descent, whose love for writing has evolved into four published works of fiction (Love’s Destiny, 2009. When Dreams and Visions Collide, 2010; Love’s Legacy, 2016; Land of the Rising Sun: A fictional Tribute to Biafra, 2017) and (The Women of Purpose Anthology, 2018, co-authored with 30 other women) to date.
I also currently serve my local Virginia community through pharmacy practice. In my spare time, when I’m not busy writing books, I enjoy travelling, experimenting with different food recipes, frequent spa escapes, shopping and reading.
You are an American of Nigerian Igbo descent born after the war, and you authored Land of the Rising Sun: A fictional tribute to Biafra. What inspired you to write the book?
I’ve always wanted to write a book about Biafra because I grew up hearing both of my parents, who were in the war, talk about what they went through. I was motivated to write the book in 2017 at the 50th anniversary of the war as I started to hear that there was a renewed agitation for Biafra and all the negative things that were being said about Igbos. I wanted to remind the world of what happened to the Igbos 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 Igbos 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’
The issue of a separatist state for the people of Southeastern Nigeria has been on the front burner, and your book replays the sting and stigma of a wartime experiences. Do you think this will add to the agitation or serve as a warning to ensure Nigerians avoid another civil war?
I would hope that my book will serve as a warning to ensure Nigerians avoid fighting another civil war. I’m not agitating for or against Biafra by writing this book. I’m simply trying to highlight the issues that plagued Nigeria and led to the civil war in the 60s. Most of these issues have remained unresolved till this day. If something isn’t done, then it may lead to another war. Igbos shouldn’t have to live as second-class citizens in their own nation. I believe it was Wole Soyinka who said that if Barak Obama was an Igbo man in Nigeria, he could never aspire to be the president of his nation. What a sad statement and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Ensure things are equal enough 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, who fought in the civil war and gave you the historical facts that formed part of the book, 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 Igbos left the country because of the shame that resulted as a loss of the war. The Biafran war was to Igbos what the Vietnam War was to Americans. American soldiers came 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 a still a lot of emotional scars and the wound is daily reopened because of the way things are in Nigeria.
What do you think the government should do for the Igbos to heal the wounds of the past and put to rest the agitations for Biafra?
The government should first acknowledge that the Biafran war actually occurred, instead of merely sweeping it under the rug. I can’t tell you how many Nigerians, particularly those born after the war, that have no idea of how brutal it was. They don’t teach it as history in schools. Just as slavery is a difficult subject in American history, so the Biafran war is in Nigerian history. You can’t heal what you don’t acknowledge. The next step is to engage the Igbos in dialogue and really hear what their issues are and device a plan to fix them instead of dismissing them as mere thugs.
You were born after the civil war. When was the first time you heard about Biafra?
I don’t remember an exact date. But, I can’t remember my parents not talking about their wartime 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. What affected me the most is the Kwashiorkor children who became the unlikely faces of the war. Their pictures haunted me and I often wondered if that would have happened to me had I been born during the Biafran war.
How did you feel writing the book?
Writing Land of the Rising Sun brought out a lot of emotions for me, particularly with having lost my mom years before the book was written. The stories used to craft the fictional portion of the book are actual narrations of her Biafran wartime experience as a young impressionable nurse. I just wrote a back story to tie it all together. I wish she was here to read it so yeah, writing the book was quite emotional for me.
Many believe Igbos are not unified, what’s your take on this?
I agree and unfortunately this is the downfall of the Igbos. They would truly be a force to be reckoned with if they could put aside all the variances associated with different Igbo culture factions and realise they are one people and act like it. This is truly my biggest fear in having Biafra as a nation.
You live in the United States, from what you heard from your father about the civil war, and your experience writing the book, if you could tell Nigerians anything, what would it be?
One thing I would tell Nigerians is to change their value system and become their brother’s keeper. Part of what plagues the Nigerian from the average man on the street to Aso Rock is the failure to see beyond themselves and their needs. It’s 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. This will rid the country of the corruption that they’re desperately trying to fight at the surface.
Was the war avoidable?
Probably, if all the groups had stuck to their agreement on having stronger regional governments. But everything happens for a reason and because of it I think the Igbo man is wiser though there are negative stigmas associated with losing the war.
You are also planning to do a formal presentation of the book in Nigeria. Why not the United States?
I’ve actually done quite a few presentations of my book in the United States, but the subject of Biafra is a Nigerian issue, not a United States one. My hopes is that doing a presentation of this book will start a healing process for the Igbos in Nigeria and go a long way to restoring dignity to them. Especially as the upcoming elections loom.
What’s the circulation like in Nigeria?
I’m not sure who all have heard about the book in Nigeria. I’ve heard things here and there but hopefully, this will increase reader circulation. I know this is an important subject that requires all of our attention to create a permanent solution.
In addition to Land of the Rising Sun, you have written three other novels of your own, Love’s Destiny, When Dreams and Visions Collide, Love’s Legacy and a Women of Purpose Anthology co-authored by you and 30 other women. How has writing affected your life?
I believe words have power and I’ve 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 of books and required reading like Pride and Prejudice as I got older. The natural progression would be to become a writer even 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 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’s alright to wait and only give yourself to the person you marry. You don’t have to give into societal pressures just because everyone else is doing it. Dare to be different and reap the physical and emotional benefits.
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 “Little House” series of books 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’m definitely a feminist. I fear that we’ve 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 needs to be mutual respect between genders and equality, which will limit predatory behaviour of SOME MEN. This is what we should focus on as true feminists.
You are a pharmacist, but you are more renowned as an author. What was the experience that made you decide to become a writer?
My journey as a writer began in response to my search for a genre of books with an inspirational message 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.