Interview with Lawrence Amaeshi, Author of Sweet Crude Odyssey by Obinna Udenwe

 ‘In Creative Fiction, We See What Others Don’t’ – Lawrence Amaeshi

Lawrence Amaeshi is presently a student of Novel Writing in Stanford University, USA and in this conversation we try to explore in-depth the ideas behind the story, the structure and his style of writing.

In this book that could be described as many things but best regarded as a crime thriller, Bruce Telema, a young man who has recently lost his job and now works selling technical filter replacement kits to oil companies based in the Niger Delta, is approached by Steve, a representative of a high calibre network of oil criminals, skilled in the siphoning of oil from government pipelines using armed militants and selling the stolen oil to ‘the highest bidder’ in the international market. Bruce is offered the opportunity of representing the interests of this organization based in London – he is to be their point man, with the responsibility of travelling to the Niger Delta creeks to negotiate for oil from militants, villagers who have scooped oil from burst pipes, various local illegal refineries, and helping the network deliver these products to their clients. Bruce Telema is promised ‘wealth beyond his wildest imagination’ and yes, he gets into this business and soon begins to make lots of money, living an exotic ‘fast life’. However, soon rival militant groups, security operatives and even his own network place a price tag on his head.

Obinna Udenwe: Lawrence, in the bio of Sweet Crude Odyssey, you mentioned that the book was first published under a pseudonym – the book highlights very intricate and serious issues, and exposes the decay in the Nigeria’s Niger Delta region vis-à-vis the militancy, could this be why you first decided to publish under a pseudonym? Were you afraid that there was going to be a threat to you as the book went in-depth in analysing albeit through fiction the happenings and secrets around the oil theft?

Lawrence Amaeshi: My intention was to give a voice to the youth; innocent victims of serial exploitation and neglect in the Niger Delta region. The expression of this through the activities of vandalism was just a vehicle. I decided to use a pseudonym to allow the message run on its strength rather than elevate the messenger to a platform that perhaps there are others better suited to occupy. Yes there was that thought at odd moments about the ‘threats’ but I believe what I set out to do is to show how ordinary people can be forced to engage in certain undesirable activities – not by choice or love for wrong doing- but because circumstances can be so unkind as to necessitate desperate survival. I’ve tried to give expression to the root cause of this issue so we can progress as a nation.

OU: As is common in other books that have in the past attempted to bring to attention the happenings in the Niger Delta, you find while reading those books that the issues form the central theme of the story, like Helon Habila’s Oil on Water, but in Sweet Crude Odyssey, it’s more of the characters life than the issue or would I say the life of Bruce Telema becomes oil and the activities in the creeks and vice versa, that is, through his life, the criminal activities are brought to the fore – why is this so? Was it a deliberate decision while plotting the story or was it something that happened while you worked on the book along the line? Have you read Oil on Water? If you have, how much influence was it to you?

LA: Unfortunately I haven’t read Oil on Water. I set out to tell the story of real human beings; people who historically were known for warmth, accommodating and friendly behaviour, who have evolved into what we see today- militants. So of a truth, I was more interested in speaking about that youth from this blessed region- The Niger Delta- who is the product of all the exploitative forces that play in his homeland. I chose to see things from this Point of View in the first person to expose emotions, thoughts, travails…that might otherwise be lost in the familiar violent narratives about the region. In so many ways, the tension that exists here has equally violent expressions in other parts of Nigeria.

OU: Recently, there has been a strong call for African writers to forego italicising local words and expressions. In Sweet Crude Odyssey, you italicised local words and broken/pidgin English – what compelled you to do this? Did you feel that your readers would find this form of English that is very common in Nigeria, especially widely spoken around the Niger Delta region very confusing?

LA: Yes I agree that we shouldn’t italicise our local words, but it all comes down to your target readers. If you want to pass a message beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone, I think you should be free to choose the best form of expression and emphasis you are familiar with.

OU: In Chapter Three, when you introduced General One-Hand Jojo – the feared, infamous militant who controlled a vast area of the creeks in the Delta region – who was to be Bruce’s lead contact in the creek, it was a surprise both to Bruce and the reader. I was expecting Bruce to be taken to the creek or somewhere ominous to meet with the General – was this an international twist in the story plot or did it come from knowing how evasive the militants could be and the secrecy surrounding their locations and movements while they try to avoid government agents?

LA: There is a lot of myth and stereotype built by the mainstream media. These people are as human as you and I and desire the same things we do. I think many people who live off the TV and gossip magazines will be surprised to find out who some of their neighbours are. History bears me witness that some of the most sought after ‘people’ in the world were found in the most ‘normal’ places we never thought they would be in.

OU: As Bruce made his way through the creek to meet with the General for the first transaction, you give an extensive detail: the hippopotamus decaying in water, the massive crickets that scared the hell out of Bruce, the human size mosquitoes, and the kind of ‘alert’ and war – ready life the militants lived, constantly on guard, brandishing all kinds of weapons. One particular scene that is nostalgic is when the security helicopter appeared overhead, you detailed how at hearing the sound of the craft, they hurriedly disguised their niche and turned off the lamps, taking up positions with their guns at the ready, I would love to know if during your research you had to travel to the creek? Do you have friends who were militants and how much help did you get from researching the story? Is it that you have lived in the Niger Delta region before? If not, how much wide did you have to spread your imagination and what do you think is the role of the mind-eye to the writer while working on a book set at a place he hadn’t lived or gone to?

LA: You cannot express the plight of the Niger Delta properly if you are not immersed in it. Simple! How do you explain the devastating effect of spilled crude oil on vast swathes of farmland and aquatic wetlands? The destructive effect on people and the ecosystem. How do you describe the ‘permanent daylight’ effect of living close to a roaring gas flare station? The pungent smell of ‘black gold’ escorting you right into your bedroom every day. My involvement with the region began long before these issues boiled over. So I spared no effort in research and discovery to make sure I add value with my contribution. Taking on the literary aspect, in creative fiction, we make and kill people without harming anyone (I quote Wilbur Smith).We learn to see what others don’t, strive to inhabit persons or circumstance we write about; express them in our best possible way. The test of how effective– the feedback from the readers. If we were vivid then we succeeded in passing the message.

OU: When Bruce visits London to finalize the deal with Vargas and Sargei, he meets two Arabs who he recalls were in the news for selling arms to the Tuareg forces. At this point you describe how the Arab observed the Maghrib solat and this connects with your observation on the nature of the Arabs – did you not think that linking Islam to the story peripherally wasn’t a strong sub-plot especially as the Arabs weren’t mentioned again – for me I think it slowed down the plot. What’s the relevance of bringing them into the story when they aren’t mentioned again in the book?

LA: In that excerpt you referred to, I was characterizing the antagonist’s dabbling’s with arms. The violent upheavals we experience all over the world have motive, lifeblood, expression and consequence. The Arabs gave backstory to the type of man their host was. Beyond that, they had no ‘part’ in the Niger Delta issue.

OU: Like the Arabs and in many other places in the book, you employ digression and back-story and attempt to use the technique to drive the story forward but for me in most places they slowed down the high-paced style of the novel, so how much importance do you place on digression and back-story as plot-driven tools?

LA: The art of telling a story has so many rules. The one I love the most is- tell your own story. I did just that. However, the backstory was important to give flesh to the motive of my protagonist. I told the story the way I could.

OU: Sweet Crude Odyssey is one of the most researched African books I have read in recent time, you showed lots of knowledge on oil dealings, types, refining, distillation, pipeline and vessels etc., etc. I was amazed at the level of knowledge and research that went into the book – and this takes me to the characters, almost all seemed well researched too, with character attributes developed strongly as the novel progressed, but I also noticed that the women, seemed to play effeminate roles, say just to drive the plot along, like Daisy, even Kathy – they had no roles in the real action, aside the girl who cooked for the militants in the creek, but even her character wasn’t fleshed out – why is this so? Don’t you think we have outgrown that era in African literature where like in Things Fall Apart, women are just plot-driven tools?

LA: I think the first question a writer must ask himself is- whose story is this? The next is what happens if I don’t tell this story? Then, how do I tell the story? This was Bruce Telema’s story. It was his eyes we saw through. His mind we thought through. His actions that drove the story. I believe in strong female characters…. That is good if the plot unfolds that way. But after answering the three questions above, it still was Bruce’s story and all other characters- male or female were Planets revolving around his Sun. However, I have plans of doing a narrative with a female protagonist. There will be plenty subject matter there too.

OU: I was surprised to learn that Kabo was still alive and now worked for the secret security service, his survival wasn’t very convincing – how he intentionally had to wear bullet proof vest and a part of the vest laden with fake blood that spilled when he was shot and how he crawled on his back on quick sand for five days to get out of the creek – the entire part wasn’t convincing, it felt as if the author was trying to use a character to show survival and that a character can change after all, can you clarify this?

LA: Kabo is characterized in the plot as a security operative. At times it is inconceivable how far these men and women go – risk their lives- just to keep the sanctity of our nation. In real life situations some have gone through worse. Coming back to fiction, this is the beauty of having other people read what you’ve cooked in your mind and packaged into a novel. Some agree… some don’t. Whichever route chosen by the reader, my greatest joy is the fact that – he/she read it.

OU: The ending of the book seemed all prepared to end well until Bruce got that final text message that Rohit had disappeared with all his investments. But even at that, it would seem to the reader that there is an effort on the part of the author to make the story end well. Do you believe in happy-endings? Could the story have ended differently?

LA: There is a moral message coded into the narrative. And I wound down the plot in the way I felt best. The verdict is left for all who read to pass. And yes; there are many other ways it could have ended.

OU: Finally, I would love to know what you set out to achieve by writing Sweet Crude Odyssey?

LA: Nice question. You have asked questions that cut through flesh and touched the bone. Sweet Crude Odyssey was written to give expression to the circumstances that made otherwise docile and friendly people take up arms against the state and metamorphose into what we know them as today. It is also a moral message to the youth that crime doesn’t pay- there are consequences. The book is my advise to those in constituted authority that governance is about real life people with the same human desires that must be met. More than all these, I wrote this book as an attempt to do something positive, rather than whine and complain endlessly, about an issue that has great impact in the world today.

Obinna Udenwe –  the award winning Nigerian author of Satans & Shaitans and Holy Sex interacts with Lawrence Amaeshi, the author of a new and exciting debut, Sweet Crude Odyssey published in 2016 by Prestige Books, an imprint of Kachifo Limited. Lawrence Amaeshi holds a Masters in Business Administration and has spent over twenty-five years working in the Nigerian Public Service.


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