Interview with Obinna Udenwe on Satans and Shaitans

Obinna Udenwe

A. How did the idea for Satans and Shaitans come about?

O.U I began writing the novel in 2007 but it wasn’t Satans and Shaitans back then, it was a book titled The Clutch Pencil. I was an Engineering student, and one day this lecturer came to class with a clutch pencil. I wondered if it was possible that someone mischievous could unscrew the pencil, remove the pencil lead and insert a poisoned needle, and with that commit some murder – that was how the idea was born.

At that time, it was a romance/crime thriller sort of. There was a boy and a girl, he got her pregnant and killed her using the pencil. Then in 2009 or thereabout, the story changed. It became the Shadows of Satan, in fact at that time, I was considering between The Shadows of Satan and the Silhouette of Satan because I had brought in other angles to the story – there was still two teenage couple in love, but it was a forbidden affair, and their parents were in an occult and were controlling the country. Then in 2012 I brought in the terrorism angle. By that time, insurgency in Nigeria had gotten to such an alarming rate that it was psychologically disturbing. I wondered, back then, why no African writer was doing any story on terrorism. I wondered if it was fear or laziness to research on the topic. I knew that to make it a conspiracy novel that has to do with terrorism, I needed to research on jihad, its relationship with Islam and terrorism, and what could be the factors facilitating insurgency in Nigeria, so I got to work. It became like an amalgamation of several disjointed tales coming together. There is the issue of love and forbidden affair, there is that of crime and occult and then terrorism. I think my dad captured the story well, he said it is ‘a love story set in the time of insurgency’.

A. Why home grown terrorism as the backdrop for your plot, was it purely accidental, speculative or privilege access to information?

O.U Like I said, I think it was accidental. I didn’t set out to write a conspiracy crime story with terrorism as the background. But then, reading the book, you will notice for sure that there is a lot of information being passed across, hard, heavy and implicating information that shows that I had access to information. I may not say privilege access to information because these are information that was hard to obtain. Like I mentioned in my acknowledgement list I had some help from some folks working with the Nigerian intelligence department. And most importantly because no one was telling the story on terrorism and we couldn’t have waited much longer.

A. Do you agree with me in saying that the abrupt exit of most of the characters; in a bout of sadistic murders, compromised the natural progression of the novel? 

O.U Is there anything like a natural progression of a novel? The author is God, and like God, he is at liberty to mould, remould and remake the story, just as we are clay in the hands of God, the characters and their stories are clay in the hands of the author. So the novel takes the progression the author wants for it. And that is why I have argued several times with people that I didn’t just kill the characters off out of folly or because I wanted them to die. The story came that way, and I had to help it exist that way and I have no apologies for anyone who doesn’t like that. For hundreds of years, writers have been writing novels with some kind of ending where no one dies or just one or two characters – who said it must be that way? Is the world that way? In the real world, the world of politics, the world of insurgency, the world of occult and their thirst for blood and murder, people die for no reason or for very minuscule reasons. Therefore, I think that all the characters that died deserved to die for one reason or the other that are easily discernible in the book, if only the reader would read the book with understanding, either because their death would drive the plot or because they would bring more knowledge to the reader. You see, the story was written differently from a lot of other books. There are multiple things happening at same time, there are multiple characters, there are fights between lovers, between brothers in same Brotherhood, between jihadists and so on, so naturally, as in real life, people have to die.

A. Religion and corruption serve as recurrent themes in your stories (particularly short stories: Holy Sex), why?

O.U I have written close to ninety short stories, most of them published, not all my stories are about religion or about corruption, but for Holy Sex, I was commissioned to write that particular story and to bring to the readers’ attention those issues mentioned – to show how the religious leader could be a symbol of world destruction in terms of corruption and betrayals and so on. I live in a society that is strongly embedded in religion yet plagued by corruption, so as a writer, I do not think I could breathe well if I do not write about them. I have also noticed, as I mentioned earlier, that a lot of African writers are too scared to delve into these issues: eroticism, corruption, religion, terrorism etc. etc., but how do we grow the African literary tradition if we do not diversify its literature. How long do we continue to feed the readers with chic-lit, literary fiction and narrative literature? When do we start to experiment and to delve into conspiracy thrillers, and the whole speculative fiction thing?

A. Do you ever get the feeling that as a young Nigerian writer you would have to wrestle with the overshadowing legacy of Achebe or Soyinka. How do you position your voice in order to stand out and not to be measured against the foregoing patriarchs?

O.U Can Nigerian writers ever run away from that? I do not think we ever will. You see, African literature grew differently from those of other continents – at some point it was as if some other people were writing our stories, telling our stories, then these few came and opened up the space in a very big way and did remarkably well, leaving giant footsteps. And you know, when your father is a president of one giant country like Nigeria or Russia, no matter what you do, his person will always overshadow you and your strivings and achievements, so I think it is a ‘good curse’ that we cannot run away from. Ever. But like you said, my generation has to invent ways of escaping this and chart a giant course for ourselves. Like the generation before mine did, a few of them emerged out of a whole lot to become stars that are now equal or almost the equal of Soyinka and Achebe. But there is something the Habila/Adichie generation didn’t do that my generation, the generation of Onyeka Nwelue, Chibundu Onuzo, Obinna Udenwe etc. etc., need to do, it is to be bold, to experiment, to not be afraid to dive into the deepest oceans. And that is why I am not scared to delve into controversial issues. That was why I wrote Satans and Shaitans, why I wrote the series Holy Sex, which is still being criticised till today, why I am writing and collating some hardcore erotic stories titled Bedfellows.

A. If you were to be planning another novel what will it be about?

I have written and I am currently submitting to publishers this novel titled Viaticum, set in Sudan and Nigeria – it is a mixture of different themes as usual.

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