“Characters, like the writer, are humans and experience things that shape them into different beings.”
By Anthony Chibueze Ukwuoma
Famous Chukwuemeka is a young Nigerian writer from Owerri, Imo State. Even as he studied Microbiology at the University of Benin, he has always loved creative writing. He was a finalist for the Quaramo Writer’s Award in 2020. He has also been longlisted for the Bold Call Writing Award with his short story, “A Culinary Unity”, in 2022. His stories have been published in Ibua Journal, The Shallow Tales Review, Writer’s Space Africa Journal and elsewhere. We Will Live Again, his debut novel, was published by Griots Lounge in January 2023.
We Will Live Again follows the story of Thaddeus who becomes the head of his local church after the departure of Reverend Griggs, a missionary who leaves for his country after Nigeria gained independence in 1960. The story, narrated from the point of view of one of Thaddeus’ two sons, Woha, shows how Thaddeus’ fundamentalist Christian views destroy his relationship with his family. Chukwuemeka, especially with his exploration of Thaddeus, calls readers to listen and to have a deeper understanding of how religious fanaticism influences their attitude.
In a society where crimes are oftentimes motivated by extremism, particularly with religious beliefs and affiliations, Chukwuemeka’s novel encourages the reader to reflect on their perception of others, to perhaps have second thoughts about their family and/or neighbours whom they consider as sinners or infidels.
In this interview, Chukwuemeka discusses religion, perception, grit, family, and mental health decline as themes of the novel, sharing his thoughts about the psychological significance of his characters’ experiences, especially Thaddeus who I noticed has some similarities with Eugene in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Okonkwo from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It is also interesting how reading the works of Achebe and Adichie influenced the young author to adopt simplicity as a style in writing a story which, as he hopes, would compel readers to think.
Congratulations, Famous, on the publication of your debut novel, We Will Live Again. How does it feel to be a published author?
Thank you, Ukwuoma. When I received fresh copies of the novel, I held them close and inhaled the fragrance of all the work I had done. I was so elated and I felt a sense of validation. But beyond all these was a sense of obligation, to make sure my next literary work is better than the first.
Of course, you’ll grow. The character, Rev. Griggs reminds me of a story my grandmother told me; about a white missionary who once resided in a neighbouring village before he relocated to England. After he left, the villagers discovered a belonging he had left. They were concerned so much about it that one of the local men embarked on a journey to England to return the possession, and upon his return was awarded a chieftaincy title. This anecdote reinforces the idea behind Rev Griggs’ character, one of immeasurable awe and reverence that one can only imagine the esteem in which the early Christians in Africa held white missionaries. Why did Thaddeus have to regard Rev Griggs so highly?
It is in the nature of Africans to be in awe of anything alien. Due to modernisation, one can opine that such reverence is lacking these days. But the truth remains that the typical African still holds the Westerner in high regard mainly due to their impact on the continent. We are almost guilty of beholding them as gods. I once saw a Nollywood movie set in precolonial times where some white men stormed a village in Eastern Nigeria. I remember now, how the children and even adults of the village trailed these white men with such profound wonder as they were taken to the Igwe’s palace. If in this dispensation of enlightenment, many still refer to them like that, it should give you an idea of how our ancestors regarded them. I blame it on the gross vulnerability of Africans which made our ancestors not realise that the white men were as human as they were.
Following Rev. Griggs’ departure, Thaddeus assumes the role of a religious leader in his church. His desire to be like the Reverend forces him into confusion. An instance is when a devout member of the church dies following a robbery, and Thaddeus blames himself for not praying sufficiently; because when Rev. Griggs was around, the church did not lose any member, but later Thaddeus tells his family that the man’s death was God’s will. I wonder whether Thaddeus’ attempt to imitate the white missionary is what causes his religious fanaticism. Can you trace Thaddeus’ religious excesses to the teachings of Rev. Griggs?
One of the reasons I created the character of Thaddeus was to accentuate an idea; a gullible man has the tendency to stretch things beyond their natural form. Thaddeus was created to show this. He wasn’t created to imitate Rev. Griggs, but rather, to take his teachings and stretch them beyond moderation. The idea was to show, through Thaddeus, how Africans have abused many of the concepts handed to us by the West.
It is ironic how Thaddeus’ household begins to fall apart as a consequence of his devotion to his vocation as a Christian leader; first, the complaints from his wife regarding his long absences, then, rumours about his relationship with Sister Muna. We also see the way he chooses to resolve the conflict between his sons after he returns home and finds them with bruises. Instead of listening to them, he orders them to go to their room and read Psalms there. What are your thoughts on Thaddeus’ approach to parenting?
Thaddeus’ approach to parenting was highly flawed and one-sided. Earlier in the story, we see how Rev. Griggs calls Woha to deliver to him a message from the Lord. He asks Woha to sit with him and even offers him a cup of mango juice which the latter rejects. We do not see Thaddeus take this amicable approach in chastising his sons. Rather, we see a toxic side to him. This is because of how deeply he steeped himself in the religion in a way that became unbearable for his family. And he never listens. What is good parenting without the core act of listening?
Thaddeus attempting to resolve his children’s conflict by instructing them to pray the Psalms reminds me of Pastor Ambrose in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. His strained relationship with his family also brings to mind Eugene from Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. You realise that both Eugene and Thaddeus are characters who justify their horrible behaviour with religious beliefs. How has Adichie’s work influenced you as a young writer?
I buried myself in the creativity of Adichie and Achebe. If there is anything I learned from Things Fall Apart, it is that depth doesn’t require a great volume. Powerful literature evokes inexhaustible thoughts. Purple Hibiscus, too, is packed with discourses that even with keen analysis, one may not fully exhaust all the points there are. Reading the works of both writers helped to shape mine.
It’s interesting how Thaddeus resembles both Okonkwo and his son Nwoye from Things Fall Apart. Like Okonkwo, Thaddeus sets out to break free from his father’s fate. While Okonkwo achieves success by his resolve to embrace hard work to escape abject poverty as a consequence of laziness of which he perceives his father to be an embodiment, Thaddeus confronts the forces responsible for the ancestral curse in his family. Thaddeus and Nwoye are similar in the sense that both characters abandon the religion of the traditional Igbo society of their time and embrace that of foreign missionaries. Did you think about Okonkwo and Nwoye while creating a character like Thaddeus?
No. Eugene only crossed my mind after I had written the first draft.
There’s a concept associated with the works of psychologist Carl Rogers; the idea of exposing one’s self to one’s fear as a means of conquering it—which is exactly what Thaddeus does when he walks into the forest to break his ancestral curse with prayer. I think what makes literature intriguing is how old ideas are renewed in new stories. The writer and author of Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country, Nnamdi Oguike, reiterates this in his conversation with the critic and literary conversationist, Darlington Anuonye, when he says, “Literature is about what life does in different places.” The idea of exposing one’s self to one’s fear in the quest for freedom is found in Carlo Callodi’s children’s 1883 book, The Adventures of Pinocchio, where Pinocchio ventures into the belly of a beast to rescue his father. I think these acts of courage are similar in terms of psychological significance. Do you often consider the psychological impacts of your character’s experiences?
When I was writing the story, I remember pausing to consider the psychological burdens of Thaddeus’ experiences. He lost his father and was taken in by a missionary who began to care for him and introduce him to Christianity. Perhaps, this succour that he got from the church was enough to shape him into what he became. He gave himself to the white man’s religion and he didn’t care if this decision hurt those around him. But as you pointed out, Thaddeus had some impressive courageous moments when he went into the forest to break the covenant of premature death in his lineage. This is also highlighted in his decision to travel to Kano prior to the war to look for his wife, not minding the killings there. Characters, like the writer, are humans and experience things that shape them into different beings.
While Thaddeus isn’t particularly an amiable character, the reader can’t help but condemn what the Biafran soldiers forced him to commit. Do you think Thaddeus would have ended up differently had the Civil War not occurred?
Thaddeus’ attitude after that incident only reflects his model of Christianity. This presented him as a man who hardly forgives, even himself. Recall how Rev. Griggs took in Nwanna after he was caught gambling and fornicating and then after some weeks, proclaimed that Nwanna was certified for Heaven. Thaddeus didn’t think it was possible. What Woha tells his father about God being a merciful being is what Thaddeus should have known. So, I do not think the absence of the war would have made him act differently. Something else would have done that if not the war.
Thank you, Famous for your time. Best wishes on your next work.
Anthony Chibueze Ukwuoma is a writer and series editor at Ngiga Review. In 2022, Ukwuoma edited Ngiga Review’s collection of testimonials in honour of its nonfiction editor, Darlington Chibueze Anuonye, a responsibility that enabled him to work with both established and emerging writers of diverse orientations and nationalities. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Imo State University, Owerri, Nigeria. His works appear in Praxis Magazine, African Writer Magazine and Lolwe.