When Nigerian writer Nnamdi Ehirim was eight years old, his family left their home in Lagos on the Gulf of Guinea and moved to the city of Enugu, 350 miles to the east, where his father had been transferred for work. Now 27, Ehirim considers that period the most formative of his life.
"I traveled around Nigeria a lot within those years, and it gave me a chance to learn things about different parts of Nigeria and its people I wasn't previously privy to," he says. "I developed the capacity to look at the same thing with many different lenses of context."
That capacity gives insightful shape to the characters and time-shifting structure of Ehirim's debut novel, Prince of Monkeys. Set mostly in Lagos from the mid-1980s through dictator Sani Abacha's reign in the '90s, Ehirim's ambitious coming-of-age novel follows four friends from different social, economic, and cultural backgrounds as they navigate a tumultuous path to adulthood in a country marked by religious fanaticism, political corruption, and prostitution.
After a tragic incident during an anti-government riot, the narrator, Ihechi, is sent away by his mother to live with relatives in Enugu, where he gains unexpected prestige working for a corrupt army general. When he reunites with his friends years later, the opposing positions they've taken in a divided country prompt a harsh reckoning that affects how they look at their homeland and themselves. The plot includes two critical appearances from Nigerian icon Fela Kuti, the revered Afrobeat musician and human rights activist who was arrested hundreds of times for his outspoken criticism of political corruption. As the narrative unfolds, Ehirim paints an acute and complex portrait of Nigeria during a convulsive historical moment.
Also an entrepreneur, Ehirim in 2017 co-founded a start-up in Lagos designed to make clean energy more accessible to rural portions of the country. His company distributes liquefied petroleum gas, which can be used for domestic and industrial fuel instead of coal or diesel, and solar home systems. The following year, he moved to Madrid to complete a one-year MBA program at IE Business School, where he studied renewable energy entrepreneurship. Now back in Lagos, Ehirim is at work on a handful of screenplays, a new novel that's "very strongly influenced by Oscar Wilde plays and the Berlin techno scene," and a handful of essay series, including one about the criminalization of prostitution in Nigeria. "The only pattern to all of this is I really want to do things that I can feel good about," he says.
Ehirim spoke with Pacific Standard about his evolution as a writer, the historical and cultural context of Prince of Monkeys, the powerful multigenerational appeal of Fela Kuti, and the psychological toll of economic stagnancy on Nigerian youth.
Who or what inspired you to write fiction?
I did a lot of writing from early on. I wrote rap—I think nearly everyone growing up around the time I did attempted that at some point. I did a lot of essays in secondary school that were mostly academic, for myself and for clients who could afford me. And then, while faffing around the school library, I discovered Edgar Allan Poe, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and the rest, so I began exploring the short story form. It was with the short story form I became a steady, prolific writer.
Why did you decide to set Prince of Monkeys at the end of the 20th century as opposed to in the present day?
I wanted to write a story that explores my thoughts on politics, nationalism, and cultural diversity without being misconstrued as a direct critique of the current state of these things in Nigeria. Yes, it was influenced by the current state, and no, I'm not happy with the current state, but I intended it to be a work of art that could be digested beyond being political critique. To achieve that, it was best to set it in history, and that particular period was appealing because it's arguably the least written-about period in Nigerian history, as there was a lot of censorship.
Is there something in particular about telling this story that you could only achieve by telling it through the viewpoint of young people?
Definitely. The story explores how individuals—their beliefs, biases, relationships, and motivations—evolve. To best depict this evolution, we have to first look at these individuals in their state of innocence, their childhood, and then at the point where the evolution is most significant: their adolescence. I also don't see much fun in writing about old people altogether, but then I'm young, naïve about a lot of things, and haven't lived a full life.
The way you construct the narrative around Ihechi and his friends being torn in different directions, with different fixations—it's almost like they're aspects of the Nigerian soul at war with itself. Did you have that in mind when writing?
Oh yeah, it was very deliberate. The diversity of the characters was motivated by a desire to capture the diversity of the Nigerian experience. And more importantly the stubbornness, because everyone believes their path is the best, and they leave little room for compromise. At different points, the biases and motivations [the characters] had adopted while being away from each other for so long manifest in their interactions and take a toll on their relationships. That is a core part of every young Nigerian growing up in a very diverse environment. And with the way the world is set up, we could easily say it's a very human problem that is universally relatable.
Has much changed for the youth of Lagos in the 20 years since the turn of the millennium? What are young people's biggest concerns now?
The things you want to last forever—the music, film, and other aspects of pop culture—have changed an incredible lot. It's also safe to say that that era has had a heavy influence on what's being produced now. But then, the things you want to change—the regressive politics, the inequality, the cultural, religious, and ideological intolerance—have remained fixed through time. The first massive brain-drain we had was in the late '80s, after the economic recession of General [Muhammadu] Buhari's regime. Twenty years later, we're having another massive brain-drain after another economic recession [under] President Buhari's regime. So that's our biggest concern, if I were to speak for the Nigerian youth: the stagnancy that breeds hopelessness, and the consequences of the desperation that is born from the hopelessness.
Why bring Fela Kuti into the narrative? What does he represent for you and in the story of the novel? And did you meet him before his death in 1997?
Fela is an artistic, political, and, to some, spiritual icon, all themes critical to the story. And even the core theme of the novel: friendship. I never met him or watched him perform live, but my father forged friendships listening to him perform, decades later I've forged friendships listening to his son perform, and it's likely my children will forge friendships listening to his grandchildren perform. Now it wouldn't exactly be sensible for me to say I portrayed Fela because he represented an ideal, because he was a very imperfect man, even in his core competencies. I think it's more accurate to say he was a very balanced man who strongly represented these different themes I was exploring, and I wanted to pay homage to that.
Social justice is a prominent focus of your writing. Do you plan to keep addressing it in the future?
Definitely. The manuscript I'm working on now also explores themes of social justice, just more radical, probably more violent—partly because radical and violent revolution is a valid defense against radical and violent oppression, but also partly because radicalism and violence are always cool to represent in art. They provoke a reaction in almost every audience. But, of course, Prince of Monkeys is beyond a work of social justice, and my future work will go beyond social justice. It will explore other aspects of human relationships, other forms of pop culture.
How important is literature in telling the story of Nigeria?
It all depends on how wide or narrow our definition of literature is. Is it in the classical sense—the novel, the play, short stories, especially in print? These are important, but because these forms of output are not as accessible to Nigerian storytellers, they are not very holistic representations of the Nigerian narrative. While the demand is growing and a lot of writing is being done, we still have very few viable publishing houses. A lot of our newspapers and magazines are parodies of what they should be because of lack of funding, censorship, or basic competency issues.
Because of this, a lot of Nigerian storytellers are hacking other forms that have fewer barriers, fewer gatekeepers, and [are] more readily accessible platforms: blogs, online literary journals, SoundCloud, Twitter, Facebook. And if we expand our definition of literature to include these new-age forms of writing, storytelling, and lyricism, then yes, literature is extremely pivotal to telling the true Nigerian story. We have a lot of people putting out incredible and very relevant work on these platforms.
Is there a Nigerian or broader African literary tradition you feel part of? Which writers have you found inspiring or instructive?
I feel part of a new generation of African literature writers and community members who are breaking all borders that define African literature. Things Fall Apart [by Chinua Achebe] is seminal, but nobody is trying to write another Things Fall Apart any more. We want to explore new things and tell new stories. Nothing is too taboo or too conservative, too radical or too mundane. Everything is valid. Akwaeke Emezi is writing on the trans experience from the context of Igbo ontology, Oyinkan Braithwaite is writing crime fiction, Panashe Chigumadzi is merging contemporary conversations on hair politics and Zimbabwe's post-colonial history in the same body of work. Nnedi Okorafor is winning awards for African sci-fi, magical futurism, juju fantasy, and mystical realism.
As regards Nigerian writers I find instructive, I enjoy Wole Soyinka's style. He reminds me that any topic can be well written about. His 1971 prison memoirs, The Man Died, could easily be [delivered as] a Trevor Noah special, and his "intervention" essays are my favorite works of socio-political commentary. But for inspiration, I read my peers. I always have unread essays and short stories bookmarked. [My peers] push and challenge me.