Health & Lifestyle

The best books on Boyhood and Growing Up

recommended by Chigozie Obioma

Interview by Emily Rhodes

The author chooses his top five books on boyhood and growing up, major themes of his Booker-nominated debut The Fishermen.

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Chigozie Obioma

Chigozie Obioma is a Nigerian writer. He is an Assistant Professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His first novel, The Fishermen, won the FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Award and the 2016 NAACP Image Award for outstanding literary debut, it was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award, and The Guardian First Book Award.

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You’ve picked the theme of boyhood and growing up; why did you decide to turn to this in your first novel, The Fishermen?

They say that there’s this tendency for writers to write what they know the first time they’re setting out on this long journey. I grew up in a very large and crowded family with eleven siblings, and I knew I wanted to write about it.

You are from Nigeria, but started writing the book in Cyprus. Was going away important to get that distance, to be able to return to that time of your life?

I believe so. For me, I find it difficult to write fiction about the place where I’m living. Cyprus was the place that gave me that sharp contrast to be able to look back on home, because it was so different from what I was used to, in terms of landscape especially—it’s like a desert, the Mediterranean coast. So, looking at that and just the mere contrast made the vision of home sharper in my imagination.

“I wanted to write about what it means to grow up, to have to rely on your older brothers for wisdom and outlook on life.”

I have this small theory, that if I were to write about this moment—when you and I are having this tête-à-tête—right now, then I tend to describe the obvious things, the things I can see. But if, as I prefer to do, I decide to suspend the writing and go back later in the evening when all of this is gone and just rely on hindsight, then what happens is that everything that I’ve already experienced becomes mouldable. Like tools in the hands of a potter, I can shape the memory the way I want. It’s going to be fiction anyway, it doesn’t have to be an exact replica of what you’ve experienced. Then, some things that are not very obvious, the very minute details of the lived experience come in, and I find these things vital for the creation of fiction.

Your novel is ostensibly about sibling rivalry and family tensions. To what extent would you say it’s also about Nigeria?

The thing with the novel that I found surprising was how complex it became when it was done. I set out to do just two or three things with the book, but it became very multi-layered. On the primary level, it’s a family drama. I wanted to write about what it means to grow up, to have to rely on your older brothers for wisdom and outlook on life. But then, once I began, I discovered that I was passionate about other things.

I was living in North Cyprus—the Turkish part—which is not a recognised nation, it is a pariah state. That country, even with all of its structural defects, was able to produce and supply constant electricity to all of its citizens. They had good roads, the same basic amenities that you have, social security, and all of these things. These are things that we Nigerians don’t have, despite the fact that Nigeria has been an actual country for about sixty years, and we have abundant resources and the sixth-largest population in the world. Nigeria supplies the same megawatts of electricity that Cyprus supplies to a million people, but Nigeria gives it to about 200 million people. So I started to think, “What is the reason we’ve failed so much?” This, of course, fed into the book.

I started thinking about the family in terms of any entity or organisation. Suppose you have a group that is united by one strand. It could be the idea of shared ancestry, or nationhood, or family. What is it that can come in and destroy that bond? What can come from the outside, but cause the disunity to begin from within? I was reading a book at the time that said a civilisation cannot be destroyed from the outside, it has to come from within: there has to be some internal collaboration for you to be able to destroy an institution. So I decided I was going to try to tell this story of the breakdown of this family by an outside encroachment. That formed the political layer of the story.

“In Africa, it is a cultural thing to regard anything that comes to disrupt the unity of an entity as a madman.”

I saw Nigeria as a collection of distinct tribes, who were living on their own. They had their own ways of doing things. The Igbo people, my tribe, for example, are about 40 million people—they are a nation in themselves—that’s like the size of all the Scandinavian nations put together, but it’s just a region in Nigeria. These guys had their own system of government, they had their own religion. It was different from the West, but they were doing well. Then the British came in and said, “You cannot be like this, this is the way to live, this is how your system of living is barbaric, this is how it should be.” It’s just like in my book, where a madman comes from the outside and dictates another way of living and brotherly love becomes antagonism and hate. That’s where I wanted to draw the parallel with what happened to Nigeria.

In Africa, it is a cultural thing to regard anything that comes to disrupt the unity of an entity as a madman. If you look at the book’s epigraph, for example, it’s by a South African author and called ‘Progress’, ironically. It’s criticising colonialism. The white madmen come and say that they are always universal truth. If somebody comes into this place while we’re having a meeting, and just bashes in through the door, the first instinctive response the West African would have is “Madman!”

Going on to the books you’ve chosen on the theme of boyhood and growing up, the first is Lord of the Flies. There is that brilliant moment when Simon says, “Maybe the beast is just us?” They’re all looking round the island obsessed with trying to find this beast, and there’s this moment of thinking, “Is it something within us?” It’s like what you were just saying about only being able to destroy something if there is collaboration from the inside.

William Golding imbues some of these children with wisdom that would read, in the hands of a lesser author, as implausibly knowing. In the context, in the way that the novel strips these boys of known civilisation to create their own, which is a facsimile of what they are used to, it is believable. That kind of thing that Simon says, for example, about the beast being in all of them, I think can be tied to what I am trying to say.

I think our sense of good and bad—the idea of a civilised person—tends to depend on community. So what happens when you are thrown into a desert on your own, when you become Robinson Crusoe, for example, what do you do? That is when your integrity is tested, when nobody is looking.

When the boys are on the island, they’re autonomous for the first time. It makes me think about the boys in The Fishermen: it only all goes wrong when the father goes away. He’s not the community, but he holds the power, he keeps the boys in check. He disappears, and then they take power. One of your other choices is Oliver Twist, who’s an orphan. I wondered if there is something about the absence of a father figure, or of some kind of power, that is integral to the coming of age moment. Is it only when you’re on your own that you grow up?

You are right. In the case of Oliver Twist, I love the book mostly because of how he discovers himself—the discovery of inner strength, let’s say. He’s an orphan, he becomes used to suffering, being passed from hand to hand. There is a pivotal moment, when he is fourteen or so, and he’s taken to his orphanage, and the meal is so meagre that he’s eternally hungry. All he thinks about is food, “How can I get more food?” And then one day he had this radical idea, “How about I ask for more?” He has the idea that, if you want something, you can actually make a demand on life. That was what turned Oliver around, that is what makes him the interesting character he becomes: that discovery that he can make an enquiry into something.

It’s as though he’s discovered his voice. I think Ben, the narrator in your book, has a similar journey: maybe it’s by putting his own frame of reference on the story—by using his own animal metaphors at the start of each chapter—that Ben also discovers himself. Why did you give Ben these metaphors, and why did you use them so emphatically?

I believe that for a work of fiction to really succeed, it has to be based on a philosophy, or a couple of them. There has to be something about the deeper, subterranean knowledge of human life that the novel will explore. So what I wanted to do with The Fishermen was explore the idea that we can understand human beings through other creatures. I can tell you a story of a family, through the prism of how animals relate to each other, or from the bodies of other creatures.

I also wanted to work on how I think children sometimes see the world—at least how I did when I was growing up—by associations. So Benjamin would see a bully at school as a lion. When I was a child, I’d tell my Mum, “This guy who beat me up was as ferocious as a tiger.” Or you see some teacher and you think, “This guy is a Super Man, this guy is a Robocop, or Batman.” That’s where the metaphors come from. I wanted Ben to be able to understand the world and rationalise things through the bodies of these creatures he’s fascinated about.

“For a work of fiction to really succeed, it has to be based on a philosophy, or a couple of them.”

Of course there are some deeper things that I do with it, like the metaphor of the father being the eagle. There’s actually a phenomenon with eagles: a mother eagle always gives birth to twins, and then she can only bring so much food back to the nest. So what happens is that there is a fight, a strife that happens in the nest, and 97% of the times, one eaglet kills the other, so that he alone can have the food. It’s called Cain and Abel syndrome. In my book, the father is the eagle who leaves to get food for the family, and the children kill each other by the time he’s back.

Let’s go on to the third book. Chike and the River by Chinua Achebe. Many of us know Things Fall Apart, but I don’t think as many of us know this, his first children’s story. What made you choose this book?

Chike and the River is about a boy who discovers his dreams. It’s like Oliver Twist. He is used to being pampered and being kept within the house, and then he goes and discovers the river on a trip to the city. That wakes up this taste, or quest, for a deeper understanding of life. I think the encounter with that element, water, actually opens the window to him developing a kind of internal philosophy of life. That is what the book is about. It’s a coming-of-age story.

The winner of the most recent Costa Book Award was a children’s writer, Frances Hardinge. There’s been a lot of press about what a children’s book is: is it only for children or should adults read children’s books too? Do you think children’s literature is for adults?

I think it depends. Books like Chike and the River are aimed primarily at children. The language is so plain and its probe into life is not adult-deep. It’s so on-the-surface that I think an adult might find it almost laughable. You will have already seen all of these things, but to a child it will be new knowledge, “Oh, so this is how a house is built—by many people. It’s a division of labour.” This is the first time a child understands that kind of thing, “There’s an architect who comes and draws the house, and then the builder who moulds the bricks.” That is the first time a child knows how it’s done. This would be my idea of a children’s book that is meant for kids.

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But I cannot call William Golding’s book a children’s book, although there are children characters, nor will I call Salinger’s a children’s book, nor even my own. These are different books, because of the depth of analysis of what it means to be human.

Your fourth book, The Catcher in the Rye, is a classic. Why have you chosen this one?

I’m drawn mostly to books about boys of that age, and I think The Catcher in the Rye is unsurpassed. What I love about it is just how carefree this boy is about life. He has reached the point that Oliver Twist reaches in his pivotal moment, the point that the boys in Lord of the Flies reach when Simon makes the declaration we talked about. Holden Caulfield reaches this point at the very end, but he refuses to acknowledge that he has done that.

You mean when he says: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything, if you do you’ll start missing everybody.” Suddenly he’s realised that in telling the story he’s become less carefree, that he cares.

Yes, but this only comes at the end. So in the book, he sees life as nothing, he’s fairly depressed about his failure. But he’s trying to tell us, “Look, this does not mean anything, the world is bigger than flunking an exam.” So he makes jokes out of everything. He sees everybody as phony because they take life too seriously. “Why do you care so much about your mortgage, or your wife, or school, even?” So, I find that very interesting, especially the way Salinger puts it together, how funny it is, and how almost satirical the piece is, coming from a child’s perspective.

Let’s move on to your final book, Refresh, Refresh  by Benjamin Percy. Tell us about this collection of short stories.

The title story is the most successful one. The fight scene in that short story was one of the things that helped me when I was writing my novel and thinking about the violence boys do to each other. It’s a collection featuring a recurrent main protagonist, whose father has gone to the Iraq war, and it is about trying to understand what it means to be without the father figure. There are maybe two stories that look at this boy’s life when he’s much older, but most of them are within that boundary of adolescence and growing up.

The Iraq war is the force in the background, here. Does the violence of that seep into the violence of boyhood, or do you think they’re separate things?

I think the violence of the Iraq war pushes the violence of boyhood to be more. When boys are growing up, there’s something that happens with the discovery of their identity. Boys always have an interest in the sense of masculinity which is tied to force, to violence, to domination. They bully each other, they fight; there’s often a tendency to exert some kind of force on the other. That’s their understanding of masculinity at the time. Some boys develop a machismo at that age, which they begin to let go of as they grow older and become more responsible human beings.

“Boys always have an interest in the sense of masculinity which is tied to force, to violence, to domination.”

The entire town in Oregon, where the book is set, is in a kind of US military zone, so most of the kids’ fathers are in the army. Again and again, they see people bringing letters that say so-and-so boy’s father is dead. So the fear, the anger, and the anxiety that maybe one day this military guy with a bag will come and give the message to their mum, helps the boys grow up quickly. The boys are always fighting with each other. They have this fighting competition where they buy Coca-Cola and then drink it and fight each other until they bleed. They want to build up this internal strength so that when eventually they hear that their fathers are dead, they will be able to withstand it.

Do you think the coming-of-age moments are different today than they were fifty years ago, or even during Oliver Twist’s time? What can we do to help boys through this process of growing up, today?

I think, in the West—I’ve been living in America for three and a half years—I think boyhood is changing here of course. Boys tend to develop an almost violent perception of the self while growing up, but the Millennials’ outlook on life is different. The society of today is much more aware of violence and the repercussions of these things, and is much more vocal about it. There is, like never before, awareness about feminism and women’s rights, for example, and what it means to be respectful of one another. Some of those concerns were not there a hundred years ago, and they aren’t even there today in most parts of Africa. So I think in that sense, in the moral sense, there’s a difference in boyhood today in the West.

My family was much like the boys in The Fishermen, we were regarded as middle class. But our neighbours and the rest of the people I knew at the time struggled. Their idea of boyhood was much more focussed on the future, rather than the now: “When I grow up, I want to be this.” Even middle class people, like my father, kept saying, “You boys have to be better than me when you grow up, you must be this…” There’s always more of an upward look to the future there than you would have in America—where it seems like you don’t have any problems, you are enjoying the now and the future will come at its own time.

In America there is much more satisfaction, most people have enough. When I was growing up there was a palpable anxiety, there was a rush. You wanted to leave that place, that state of development, and become a pilot, and have money, and to be able to buy as many things as you wanted. That anxiety—the wish to own a life of your own, a world of your own—is always resident in people from that part of the world. But I would suppose that a child in suburban America today would not be thinking like that because they mostly live in a more affluent society where most of their needs are more easily catered for. So the anxiety to leave boyhood is not there, in fact, they would want to stay in boyhood for as long as possible.

Interview by Emily Rhodes

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Chigozie Obioma

Chigozie Obioma is a Nigerian writer. He is an Assistant Professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His first novel, The Fishermen, won the FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Award and the 2016 NAACP Image Award for outstanding literary debut, it was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award, and The Guardian First Book Award.