Onyeka Nwelue is a current Academic Visitor at the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford and the author of over 11 books, of which The Strangers of Braamfontein (Abibiman Publishing, 2021) is his latest and UK debut. His latest collection of essays, The Real Owners of Britain, was published in March 2022.
He is a filmmaker, publisher, talk-show host, bookseller and author whose book Hip-Hop is Only for Children won the Creative Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the 2015 Nigerian Writers’ Awards. He adapted his novella Island of Happiness into an Igbo-language film, Agwaetiti Obiụtọ, which won Best Feature Film by a Director at the 2018 Newark International Film Festival and went on to be nominated for Best First Feature Film by a Director and the Ousmane Sembene Award for Best Film in an African Language at the 2018 Africa Movie Academy Awards.
Nwelue is the founder of La Cave Musik, a record label based in Paris and France. He co-founded the London-based publishing house Abibiman Publishing. Nwelue studied Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and earned a scholarship to study Directing at the Prague Film School in the Czech Republic. He is currently a visiting assistant professor and Visiting Fellow of African Literature and studies in the English Language Department of the Faculty of Humanities, Manipur University in Imphal, India. He was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for International Studies, Ohio University, where he spent time in Athens, Ohio.
He was recently a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg. His second novel, The Beginning of Everything Colourful, was shortlisted for the ANA Prose Fiction Prize in 2018, and his collection of poetry, The Lagos Cuban Jazz Club, was shortlisted for ANA Poetry Prize in the same year.
He is the Founder/Director of The James Currey Prize for African Literature, administered by the Oxford-based James Currey Society.
Isaiah Adepoyea: It’s a great year for literature from India. And I say this because the Jaipur Literature Festival has just been held, and Tomb of Sand by the 64-year-old Indian writer Geetanjali Shree has become the first book translated from Hindi to be nominated for the International Booker prize. How do you see literature from, especially, India in contribution to World literature? Do you see many Hindi-written works of literature being lifted onto the English language in the next decade or so?
Onyeka Nwelue: Thank you, Gbenga. Indian literature has immensely contributed to the growth of World Literature. In fact, if you are a fan of Indian literature, you’d know this by now. From Tagore to Ruskin down to Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. The term Indian literature could be a misnomer. As we all know, there are hundreds of languages in which you can get literature from India. Telugu, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam. The best writings from India, are created from the regional languages. Writers like Perumal Murugan will outshine many English writers, with the subliminal narratives that they churn out. I genuinely think Indian literature is World Literature.
Isaiah Adepoju: Indian literature, I believe, has an edge in its multiplicity of things— culture, language, religion, etc. Tales on Krishna have always dazzled me, and I like how Bollywood has presented India’s plural religions in an original, non-primitive way. Also, of course, there’s Bollywood and its sidelining of dark-coloured Indians and hero-development on stereotypes— attractiveness, glassy eyes, etc.
This becomes a problem of Racism (if it exists in India) and how Race in India mix with Africans, and Europeans, for example.
Were things such as these mapped out when writing The Abyssinian Boy? What is Racism in India in relation to Racism in Europe or the Americas, for example?
Onyeka Nwelue: You must understand that India is a land of complexities: diversity in education, race, weather, and cultures. In fact, it might interest you that what we call Bollywood films are only films shot in Mumbai. Or in edgy Hindi. As we have Bollywood, we have Pollywood, which is the Punjabi Cinema industry in India and Pakistan which produces films in the Punjabi language.
We have Lollywood, Chhollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, Mollywood, Sandalwood, Jollywood, Ollywood and many other Woods. Mollywood is the film industry in Kerala, India, where you have the best films come out. The most natural. They even made a film with Nigerians, called Sudani from Nigeria, set in Kerala and Lagos.
However, Bollywood films are heavily promoted because of the actors like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, whose faces have been shown to us as kids. This has nothing to do with racism: the people with browner skin are the Dravidians from the South. They have fine films in Telugu as well. And Tollywood films come from Bengali film industry in West Bengal, India/Telugu film industry in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
Racism in India is embedded in its culture. Indians are racist toward each other. It is more cultural than conscious. Ever heard of the Siddis of India? They are the Africans who went to work in Goa over 600 years ago and stayed back. Other Indians do not believe they are even Indians. They are subtly sidelined in places like Gujarat and Goa. When I wrote The Abyssinian Boy, I was just 18 years. You were not expecting me to write about these things.
Isaiah Adepoju: I’ve not heard about the Siddis. And, thank you for clarifying things on the Wood words. (laughs). I’ve grown accustomed to Bollywood so much that I didn’t think of it as a fraction of many. I also thought Prof. Wole Soyinka, in his book ‘Beyond Aesthetics,’ unnecessarily pressed on the ‘N-Word,’ why the name Nollywood has to be so and not otherwise.
Sometimes, I think we’re in a paradisaical maze where nothing is as it seems, where most importantly, we are forced to identify or be non-aligned— acting in a specific, mechanical way nonetheless.
I’m thinking of Indians now, who celebrated Holi— the Hindu festival of colours— today (18/22), and how it can be a psychological boost to covid-recovering Indians. Also about Racism in the UK, the unrest in Uganda, the Russia/Ukraine exchanges, Omicron, breakdown of World economics… It’s like the world is bent on self-effacement, an auto-destruct sequence.
People as young as I am go on CNN and become depressed. We become reclusive. Because the world seems to have its hands occupied.
How do you keep yourself busy in times like this? Do you just “commot-face” or do you try to swing with World’s great momentum?
Onyeka Nwelue: Life is not a straight stick. I am now indifferent to racism. I see the world from a different direction. Let me share a funny story with you: the driver in Delhi, who was asked to pick me up from the airport to my hotel, looked at me differently. When I gave him my card, which shows my position at the University of Oxford, his countenance changed completely. He stopped by the road where I went to buy something and I heard him excitedly telling the folks in Hindi, that I was from Oxford. When I gave him my 7 clothes to take to the laundry, he sent me a bill of eight thousand rupees via WhatsApp. That is about N50,000. I screamed at him and he never picked up my call after I paid him that money, because he insisted I must pay.
One, you can’t call it racism. He is just trying to survive through what the working class calls hustle. I am no longer interested in people’s problems. This is why I don’t care about what happens in people’s lives. In Uganda. In Ukraine, I don’t care. I have my problems. If you know CNN depresses you, then, stop watching it.
I am extremely busy. I run the James Currey Society activities. I write. I publish books by other authors. I am very busy. I do not need to find a way to keep myself busy when I am always busy and I do not “try to swing with World’s great momentum.”
Isaiah Adepoju: Hahaha. The driver is so typical. On the other hand, it’s what I’d always done when visitors especially come in cars. I expect something from them. Though I know now why I did such things. Then, it was a happy thing to do, to receive, to do our small hustle. (Grinning) I somewhat feel ashamed now after I’d read Ferdinand Mount’s ‘Mind The Gap…’ Though it’s a book about Classism in Britain, it’s relatable. I think it’s a book everyone should read.
Onto your book, The Real Owners of Britain, which will be released on March 26th. Fingers crossed. The title is indicative of its subject matter. Why do you feel it’s an urgent book to be released in this instance?
Onyeka Nwelue: The story of the driver is to show that, people want to know the size of your pocket. That way, they can decide if they should be nice to you or not.
The Real Owners of Britain is just my take on the gatekeepers of Britain and at the same time, point out the repulsive things Britain has done to many nations. I think the subject will always be urgent.
Isaiah Adepoju: I was lucky to read through your different manuscript, There Are No White People, a non-fictitious epistle written to a dearest sibling in Diaspora. Were these books inspired by the same topic of the gate-keepers of Britain and the repulsive things they had done to other many nations?
Onyeka Nwelue: For There Are No White People, was inspired by my trip to the Western Hemisphere, the Caribbean, where our siblings live and they reminded me, each time I had a conversation with them, that we sold them into slavery. I used those letters to apologize and also teach on so many issues. I will continue to churn out those debates.
Isaiah Adepoju: The manuscript was so pragmatic and pithy and simple… I feel it should be what every Nigerian youth— even teenagers— knows by heart. Reading about Pink people was now balancing the equation on World progressiveness.
First, it’s the radical insistence that “Pink people would continue to manipulate and wound us. [That] Pink people are evil.”Then it’s the explication of Nigeria’s pre and post-colonial history.
Since being in Nigeria, you’ve been an all-out iconoclast: on Africa’s aboriginal religion, on the Osu Caste system, on Classism, on your commentary on Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’…
Now, you know so many things are wrong. You’ve continued to say this. But people are still actively holding on to their beliefs, whether detrimental or otherwise. You put words on faces anyway. You’ve been imprisoned before, for what you believe to be right. You’ve been kidnapped. You’ve also made enemies.
Are there times, perhaps before publishing a new book, organizing a book signing, or even making a speech before an audience; do you feel maybe you’ve done so much and enough? Can one ever do enough on Classism, psychological Colonialism, and poverty in Nigeria, or Africa?
Onyeka Nwelue: No, I never feel I have done enough. I feel I have so many things undone and I am running out of time. We can do enough about poverty if poor people can stop having children.
Isaiah Adepoju: Uche Peter Umezurike, a PhD graduate of the University of Alberta said of Strangers of Braamfontein: “How might we read Nwelue’s social vision? There is little doubt that he offers us a pessimistic vision of Africa, to begin with—an Africa, where there is no redemption but damnation. Perhaps this is the stuff of Afro-pessimism. Black suffering.”
Has Uche Peter Umezurike done justice to your social vision?
Onyeka Nwelue: The fiction called The Strangers of Braamfontein is the reality of Africa: there is no hope. So, he understands what I was trying to do with the characters. I lost a film company in London, who told me they will no longer work on the series of the book because there is no hope. I asked them to create the Hope. They stopped reaching out.
Isaiah Adepoju: This sounds funny though it isn’t. I and my friends at Hilltop Creative Arts Foundation would like to read about three books that caused a drastic change in you. Fiction. Non-Fiction. Drama. Anything. We’re mostly teenagers, some freshers in the Universities, some Jambites. We can always learn how to embrace reality and know our place in Africa or outside of it.
- Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe
- Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel
- Festus Iyayi’s Violence
I could add Femi Ademiluyi’s A New Man.
Then, there are Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
Isaiah Adepoju: Thanks so much for granting me this interview. I am adding these books to our books-to-read.
Onyeka Nwelue: Good luck!
Isaiah Adepoju, 19, studies Literature in English at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and writes from Osun State. He is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief at The Nigeria Review, a reader for Adroit Poetry Journal UK, a fellow of Ebedi International Writers Residency, and an alumnus of Olongo Africa Poetry Workshop. He’s interested in psychology books. He is the Chairman, Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation, Osun State, Branch.