Lunch with Chigozie Obioma

LiteratureXchange festival in Århus – part 1

Xinxin Ren Gudbjörnsson with Chigozie Obioma. Photo: Camilla Rohde Søndergaard

I was a child when I was first published. My father, my editor and my mentor was one and the same. He advised me to always seek out great writings and great writers.

Being in the presence of great writers, he said, I would be able to soak up their skill, spirit, wisdom and enthusiasm. So I have been trying to be in the presence of great writers as often as I could all my life.

I have attended countless Chinese and Danish literary festivals, but LiteratureXchange was the very first international festival I have been invited to as a writer.

Not knowing what to expect, I read as many of the writers as I could. Of course, I read the books of the main man, the headliner for the festival: Chigozie Obioma.

His books are not just great writing, but great company. Such sadness and optimism are rarely so magnificently combined in one body of work, let alone in the same book. I especially wanted to talk to him about his book The fishermen (Vi var fiskere) that brought me much contemplation about time and family.

The first morning of the festival, I was sitting at the breakfast table with a large group of writers, when he said hello to us in passing. Here I debated with the others whether to invite him over to our table.

In Chinese literary festivals the writers are extremely social, except from breakfast. Breakfast is the only time of solitude, and it is considered a faux pass to attempt conversation.

In Danish literary festivals, however, breakfast buffet is just about the only time everyone is being social. Maybe it’s the buffet that brings out the social in Danes, as no one on the planet loves a buffet as much as the Danes.

Not knowing whether Obioma was a breakfast socializer or not, I argued that we should invite him, and he could refuse us if he preferred solitude. But the others convinced me that being a megastar he has such a tight schedule this week that breakfast must be his only time of silence and reflection, so he mustn’t feel bullied into togetherness. I reluctantly agreed.

His Danish publisher was generous enough to set up this lunch for us, as they know how much I enjoy casual conversation with exceptional writers.

As soon as Obioma entered the café, the energy of the room transformed. The first reason is obvious: He’s Obioma. The second reason: He’s wearing cobalt blue. A color, so vibrant and bold and so very undanish that it makes your heart beat faster.

I asked him about his relationship with solitude and told him about our breakfast discussion. He said that he does spend a lot of time in solitude as he is a writer – but whenever he’s attending festivals he tries to be social when he can.

So next time, do ask me, he said. I kicked myself mentally as he was leaving that night right after the big dinner for all writers, and we shall have no more breakfast with Obioma.

He asked me what I’m writing on. I told him that I just finished a short story collection in English but every person I meet in the book business tells me that short stories are no longer in fashion and advise me to write novels instead.

He was silent a while. As I have lived too long in Denmark, I quickly told him that it’s not something for him to worry about, tell me what you are working on, I said.

If we were in China, I would have been perfectly comfortable with silence, as silence is considered companionable and not awkward. He told me that he’s fascinated with all human relationships, so he will write more about that in his next work.

Then he said that he might make his next work a short story collection. Yes! I exclaimed. Please bring back the splendid format of short stories, I said. He said he will try and then he said that the more successful you become as a writer, the more freedom you get to publish the form, genre and subject you want to write.

This gave me an idea. At the dinner for writers later that evening, I tried to convince many to write a short story collection. As they were all successful writers that could get any format published, they could start a new wave and perhaps bring short stories back in fashion.

Obioma has inspired me. If you don’t like the game, change the game. And be patient. Chigozie Obioma is a game changer.