WITH the release of When God Came (2013), iconic novelist, playwright and poet, Elechi Amadi has added a feather to his cap as a science fiction writer. The book, When God Came, contains two short stories, which the author intended to use to raise curiosity on science fiction, a genre of literature that has been neglected, as well as his literary bent over the years. He spoke to HENRY AKUBUIRO on this latest literary fascination in this interview held in his hometown, Aluu, Port Harcourt, Rivers State. This exclusive interview was first published in The Sun,A ugust, 2013.
You are coming back to your roots in the sciences, having studied Physics and Mathematics in the university, with a debut science fiction, When God Came, after many decades writing science fiction. Why science fiction now?
There are two reasons for that. One is that, surprisingly, that is one form of fiction that is not written in Nigeria and Africa as far as I know, even in Africa. I don’t know of any science fiction writer in Africa. So, I thought I was going to fill that little gap. The other reason is that science fiction is sheer entertainment: it gives so much pleasure, and it raises scientific consciousness and scientific inventions.
Why did it take you more than forty years to come to this realisation?
Science fiction is the poorer version of the mainstream. Nobody reviews science fiction in literary journals. It is not in the academia. You cannot get many readers who enjoy science fiction; you cannot get school children reading it, except in their private libraries at home. So, if you really want to write serious literature, you should begin with mainstream literature. That’s why I thought it wise to concentrate on mainstream literature and, then, as a side issue, go into science fiction.
You are an accomplished writer in Africa. Did you ever envisage it would turn out a happy ending?
No, I didn’t know I was going to go this far. When I wrote my first novel, The Concubine, I thought it was just a joke. I started writing it in 1962 or so. Before then, I used to write short stories, which I used read to my wife, and we would all laugh. But this particular story [The Concubine] kept growing and growing. Almost at 50 now, it has had a life of its own. After a quarter on the way, then, I said to myself, “This is going to grow into something big,” so I decided to sit down and plan it well, which resulted in The Concubine.
Science fiction presents peculiar intricacies. How do you handle characterisation in science fiction?
That’s one of the funny things about science fiction, because you don’t talk of characterization in the way you talk of it in mainstream fiction. In science fiction, you have bizarre characters, extraterrestrial characters, who are out of this world. You don’t know their characters and you don’t know how they behave. So, there is no question of formal study of characters, because they come in all shades and sizes. So, that is it, you don’t talk of characterisation like that, except in what I may call core science fiction, like 1984 by George O’well, which you can talk of studying the characters in the book, or in Gulliver’s Travels. In the later, you find that the author has almost gone into mainstream fiction (that one is soft-core science fiction). The one I am referring to is the hard-core science fiction. It cannot be prescribed to schools or whatever; it is just meant for sheer pleasure.
Which means you don’t have specific target audience?
I doubt. Maybe it is meant for an average person who wants to be amused or just anybody who has interest in sciences.
Does it mean it has no didacticism?
When you read it, you can pick up quite many things. But the main purpose is sheer entertainment and getting people to be more interested in the science world.
Is this in tandem with your proposition for art-for-art sake?
I have been accused of being one of the supporters of art-for-art sake. I have cautioned against too much commitment in literature, and people know me for that. I am not a committed writer dabbling into politics. I am just interested in entertaining people, making them to be relaxed, and, if it happens that it gives them room for thought, fine –that’s a bonus.
So, what determined the entertainment basis of your writings, since you are not sold to committed literature?
That’s the original idea of the novel, the imaginary story. The original idea of the novel is just to entertain people, because the readers know that what you are writing is just imaginary, and they don’t expect you to teach them anyway. I try to uphold that original idea in my writings. But, then, in any story, imaginary or otherwise, there is always something to learn, if you care to. For instance, if you tell me a story of something that happened to you or anywhere else, if I look at it, I can find there are one or two things I can learn from it. In other words, you learn from people’s experiences. You can always learn something from any story. Since you can always learn something from any story, if you care to, you don’t have to focus on teaching anybody anything or making people see your political views or propagate any ideology. You don’t have to. In my view, that’s prostitution of literature. You should just write, and you will find that all those things will be in your literature.
If you take my novel, Estrangement, for instance, it is sheer entertainment. But, again, those who read and want to learn something have so much to learn from it. In other words, I think the ideal thing is for the writer to tell you a story in an interesting a manner as far as possible –leave the teaching job; the story itself will do the teaching whatever you want to learn. Take for instance, if you are a proponent of communism or capitalism, and you infuse it in your writing, the reader may not be interested in communism or capitalism. So, why do you infuse your views on them? Just tell your story and let them draw their own opinions.
Coming on the heels of our humiliating colonial past, don’t you think it was imperative for writers of your generation to be committed in their writings, as many did?
Anybody can get committed if you are a writer with that bent. But I warn against the hazards of commitment. If you read my article, “The Hazards of Commitment in Literature”, then you will find all the answers to the questions on commitment. There is nothing wrong with commitment, if the writer is so inclined, because you can’t force him to write in any other way but what he is interested in. You can’t dictate to a writer – that makes literature more interesting, because you now have variations; literature becomes more colourful when you have all sorts of approaches.
I noticed that some of your old classics have just been reprinted. Are the previous ones out of stock?
Yes. What has happened is that the books are not available here, and each time I ask Heinemann or HEB, as it now calls itself, to send me my books, they will tell me they are out of stock and they can’t get me enough copies. I made a suggestion for them to get a printer here in Port Harcourt and I can supervise the printer and make sure he does a good job, and I will send them copies and will always have copies available. I took that chance to update my blurb. For instance, the previous editions carried the pictures of my youthful days. So, I updated it so that the pictures can reflect my current looks. Again, I looked for some quotations I think are appropriate and added them. Apart from that, there are no changes.
How many of your works were reprinted in the present arrangement?
I have reprinted Sunset in Biafra, The Concubine and The Great Pond. I am about to reprint Estrangement.
79, do you still have a writing regimen?
I don’t have any. I just write as the muse moves me. I can stay 5-6 years without writing and, suddenly, an idea will come to me.
So, how long did it take you to come up with When God Came?
The second story in the book, “Song of the Vanquished”, was written in 1972 or ’73 when the Sunday Tide newspaper took off; they told me to write a story we can serialise. So, from the first edition, they started serialising it. I wrote it for The Sunday Tide. It contains seven chapters, which was published over seven weeks. Since then, it has been there, and I don’t even think about it. Now that I am less busy with very serious fiction, I said, “Why Don’t I publish it?” Since one short story is not enough for a book, I wrote another story to make a slim volume since, in any case, Nigerians don’t have the appetite for science fiction; it would be better to start with a slim volume, which they can digest before going into anything voluminous (laughs).
How did you come about the stories in this science fiction?
It is difficult to say how ideas come to writers, but if you take “Song of the Vanquished”, for instance, even before the climate change problem reared itself, it had always worried me in the 1970s, with people exploiting the earth, unmindful that the resources are limited, and I often wonder: What will happen when we exhaust the resources of the earth? If we pollute the earth seriously, we will have no other place to run to, and we will be in serious trouble. That reflects in “Song of the Vanquished”. It is a scenario which will happen if the earth is seriously polluted.
The second story, “When God Came”, which is the title of the book itself, has to do with man’s contempt of God. There are many questions about God which we cannot answer. These are puzzles which will always be there. So, I now imagine God coming down and then giving us an opportunity for us to talk to Him and ask questions (laughs). But, then, it is a difficult thing to see the real God come in person. That word “God” is a little deceptive in the story itself. What we have there is an extraterrestrial creature, very powerful with a very advanced technology coming down to the earth and then posing as the creator of human beings on earth. Then he is put into several tests, which he passes in flying colours. They try to arrest him, but they can’t: there is in invisible shield round him, and he has fantastic powers. It makes the people of the earth realize He is really an extraterrestrial being, and now that He is here, we can still save life as much as possible. So, they constitute a team of the best thinkers in religion, science, philosophy and at the UN Auditorium, these people gather around him, posing questions to God and he is answering.
The first part of the story has to do with the state of confusion when God arrives for the first time. Eventually, people find that it would be a very good thing to accommodate Him and find out things from Him since he came from another star. The second part of the story deals with the dialogue, where the earth thinkers gathered round Him, asking questions, and at the end of the day, the answers are published in a book entitled Dialogue with God, which sold millions of copies. But the idea actually is to try and discuss issues that concern us over the years: who made us? Who are we? What’s the purpose of our existence? So, the story tries to answer some of the questions indirectly through God. It answers ultimate questions about our existence.
What do you notice as the changing trend in science fiction, from the Gulliver Travels to the present? What is the direction for you in this regard?
Science fiction is getting more complicated. If you start with Alice in Wonderland, there is no science fiction in it; it is pure fantasy. If you take even Gulliver’s Travels it is also pure fantasy. As you move on, you get to see authors like HG Well, a biologist, author of the First Men in the Moon, who imagined men going to the moon and meeting the inhabitants of the moon and engaging in a scuffle. He also wrote The Invisible Man in which a chemist stumbles on something, tries it on rat and it becomes invisible, then tries it on himself and becomes invisible, too. It is sheer entertainment. What I am trying to say is that science fiction has moved from fantasy into stories with a lot of sophisticated scientific ideas, latest state-of-the art scientific discoveries, such that, unless you have a bit of grounding in science, you may not really understand it.
Are you heading the call by the great critic, Professor Charles Nnolim, for our writers to exploit utopian literature as a new direction in African literature?
My latest science fiction cannot be utopian at all. So, if he made such a call, I certainly haven’t answered it (laughs).
For the first time, you had a bookstand at a major book festival, the just ended Port Harcourt Book Festival…
Yes, because my books are now printed here with a special arrangement with Heinemann, I now have copies available. So, if there is a book fair, I will take the chance to get people to sell my books for those who have been looking for them. It is a natural tendency.
What’s your take on the promotion of books in Nigeria?
Our publishers are not doing enough. If you go to the Heinemann stand at the Port Harcourt Book Festival, you won’t find Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or my The Concubine or Vincent Ike’s books; all they sell are textbooks. Unfortunately for us, fiction doesn’t sell quickly in such volumes as standard textbooks used in schools.
Your state capital, Port Harcourt, has been awarded the world book capital. As a writer from this city, how do you see this remarkable honour?
It is a wake-up call for Nigerians to develop their reading and writing culture, bookshops, and so on. It is very good thing, and I am proud am from Port Harcourt. What actually inspired the recognition is the series of book festivals we have been having here for the past five years.
After When God came, what next? Is Elechi Amadi now a science fiction writer?
If other ideas come to me, which I think I can share with the public, I may publish one or two more science fiction. But you cannot now call me a science fiction writer. Ninety-five of my works is mainstream fiction.