Myles Ojabo, the slave experience, and the water goddess
Today I’m honoured to speak with Myles Ojabo, whose debut novel Black River was published earlier this year. I was very fortunate in being chosen to review Black River for Aurealis magazine, and very appreciative that Myles is able to be with me today to share some of his experiences in researching and writing his splendid novel. I used words like ‘energy and unending relevance’, as well as ‘complex, thoughtful, entertaining and pertinent’ in my review which can be found in Aurealis #123
Welcome, Myles, I’m very pleased to meet you. I thoroughly enjoyed your novel. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Myles: The novel Black River: An Account of Christmas Preacher, a Slave Freed is the creative component of my PhD study, completed at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. The novel comes out of my desire to fill both a symbolic and literary gap in my family history.
I came to New Zealand from Nigeria in 2011 to study. I completed a Masters of Creative Writing in 2013, which focused on the features and significance of the short story cycle, and the PhD came later on. I met an African American man in my first year in New Zealand and we became friends. Our friendship often got me thinking about the historical impacts of slavery in our contemporary societies. When my African American friend told me about life in America, I saw a different but really fascinating black culture that originated from the continent of Africa. My thoughts often wandered back to days of my childhood, when my mother and father told us stories of some of our forebears who were taken as slaves. I wondered if some of my distant relatives could be living in America, Brazil, Cuba, or the Caribbean. I became interested in American slavery and its impact on black people. And the PhD in Creative Writing explored my own lineage in this regard.
In the course of writing Black River, I carried out an ethnohistorical research on my own ethnicity, that is, of the Idoma people of Nigeria, and on American slave history. I also undertook a psychogeographical trip to America for the sole reason of visiting old slave plantations to confirm some information acquired from my ethnohistorical research. I tried to employ fantastical features when merging the history of my people with that of the African Americans. One legend vital to the novel is that of a forebear believed to have flown from slavery in America back to his village in Africa. Black River became a neo-slave narrative with supernatural elements that fills the literal gap in my family history. The novel has recently been nominated for the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for prose fiction.
Congratulations! That’s so fascinating. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
My protagonist, Christmas Preacher, sold into slavery as a boy, lives most of his life on American soil. A supernatural mermaid, Oda’nyaa, is bent on having him remain in America. She is irresistible and he often finds himself trapped by her seduction. On the other hand, Orinya, Christmas’s resurrected forebear, wants Christmas to return at a predestined time. Christmas is indecisive all through the novel.
For an African American writing about slavery, home in most cases is freedom. Some never get it. Some get it. The novels The Underground Railway by Colson Whitehead and Grace by Natasha Deon are good examples. Both works, written by African Americans and published in 2016, depict enslaved blacks in America’s South heading North in pursuit of freedom. Africa is the mother continent to most black people around the world. In Black River, freedom is not depicted as home. Africa is home in the novel.
My favourite scene in Black River is that moment when Christmas Preacher realises that he has powerful ability to levitate back to Africa. He leaps into the air and heads for the sky. However, he is captured by the mermaid and her followers in the course of the journey. Christmas is held captive until his Ancestor, the great Alekwuafia, comes to his rescue, allowing him to complete the journey to Africa.
I love that mermaid. She’s pretty much my favourite character. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
Black River has two endings, offering readers the liberty to pick one of them. A scene predicts his death in America. And another shows his return to Africa. In the novel, death is not able to end existence. Characters die, but their spirits often continue to communicate with each other, and with the living. In the life beyond death, Oda’nyaa, the mermaid, attempts to convince Christmas that his trip back to the mother continent was a lie, that it never occurred. He laughs and calls her a lying mermaid. Well, I think Christmas would laugh and of course accuse you of lying to his face.
I like the freedom this gives to the reader and I know which is my preferred ending (but no spoilers here!). Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
The list of writers that inspire me continues to increase over time. The list of my favourite books also changes with time. If we were to look back to the period in which I was writing Black River, I would list these books:
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, a memoir written by himself.
- Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, an autobiography written by himself.
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, an autobiography written by Harriet Ann Jacobs.
- The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, an autobiography written by himself.
Their works were the first to inform me in detail about the experiences of the brothers and sisters taken away from the mother continent many centuries ago and enslaved. It was exhilarating for me to see the painting of Frederick Douglass among the great African Americans honoured on the walls of the Freedom Centre when I visited America. He was born enslaved in Maryland and escaped to freedom as a young adult in 1831. He did this by pretending to be a black sailor. The Civil War galvanised Douglass and others who saw that slavery might finally end and they lobbied President Lincoln and other leaders for the recruitment of black soldiers.
Literary works such as Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Grace by Natasha Deon and Kindred by Octavia Butler provided me with an opportunity to elucidate why and how literary genres such as historical fiction, neo-slave narrative, and magical realism can mutate or come together. This equipped me to handle my research and also to tackle its question by being able to draw out themes around the African American slave experience.
Thank you; these are good additions to my wish list. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Be confident. Be proud. Be much more ambitious.
I say this because I have been a victim of spiteful words. You go through a PhD journey only for some people and institutions, I call them strongholds, to use their demoralising words to crush you. There are people who have never read a novel but enjoy telling you what to write about. I would tell my younger self to be ruthless in pursuing his desires amidst these sorts of negative energies.
I used to worry about some of the negative things said to me until my father asked me what I was worrying about. He went on to say, “You are still young. You can make a lot of mistakes. You can make a lot of decisions and you can attain a lot of success.” I would tell my younger self the same thing. I would tell him no one can tell the stories he intends to tell or write about.
What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I dug up some short stories I wrote during my Masters Degree in Creative Writing and have started polishing them. They are all about the experiences of exiles in a psychiatric hospital. The collection of short stories will appear early next year.
I am also working on a play about a Nigerian PhD student living in New Zealand and struggling to maintain relationships with his supervisor and his Kiwi girlfriend.
I like the sound of that play! What would the student’s name be, I wonder…And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I would like to be Christmas Preacher’s son, Ijeyi. Christmas, as indicated earlier on, is the protagonist of my novel, Black River.
Ijeyi, born in 1804 to Christmas Preacher on American soil, represents the American experience that I cannot relate to.
My African American friend and I recognise Africa as our mother continent, but we have different outlooks on life. I could relate to my friend’s experiences in life but not fully, since he is the one that has been through life in contemporary America. It is vice versa when it comes to him trying to relate to my experience growing up in contemporary Africa.
Christmas has two sons in Black River. An African American and an African son. I can relate with the African experience. I can relate with the impact of the colonial experience on the continent of Africa. I wish I could be Ijeyi who was born a slave, just because of the desire to fully understand the impact of slavery on the lives of African Americans in contemporary America. Due to this, Ijeyi’s story seems missing in Black River. He is sold off as a child, and not even Christmas ever sees his son attain adulthood.
That’s terribly sad! Maybe a future book about Ijeyi? Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Myles, and congratulations on a wonderful book.
Myles Ojabo Links