It really depends. While working on “An Orchestra of Minorities,” I read a few books on Igbo cosmology simply to augment my knowledge of the cosmology and better recreate it in my fiction. But I sometimes find myself rereading works by great writers whose prose I envy. A slim census would include Vladimir Nabokov, Toni Morrison, Alan Paton, Arundhati Roy and Elizabeth Bowen, among others.
What I don’t read while working on a book is any book that remotely resembles what I’m working on. I had to read George Saunders’s “Lincoln in the Bardo,” for instance, for a class I was teaching, and halfway through I wished I hadn’t included it in the list because the transient state of spirits and the liminality of some of the characters marginally resembles my new book.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
There are many, but the one I remember quite often is that revenge is not justice. This wisdom is from “Cry, the Beloved Country,” by Alan Paton. It is basic human instinct to want to unsheathe the sword once things have swung in our favor, now that the world can hear us, see us and pay attention to us. It is instinctive that we mount the hill and attempt to stomp on those who have oppressed us. It is common for us to say: For so long you made us feel this way, now we must make you taste what it’s like. This is what Paton’s character Msimangu — foreseeing an eventual end to the heinous crime against humanity, apartheid — means when he says: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.”
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Language. When a sentence jumps all of the rhetorical hurdles that life and our saturated minds place along the way to reach sublimity, I become moved to near tears. Consider this paragraph from Arundhati Roy’s novel “The God of Small Things”: “Being with Chacko made Margaret Kochamma feel as though her soul had escaped from the narrow confines of her island country into the vast, extravagant spaces of his. He made her feel as though the world belonged to them — as though it lay before them like an opened frog on a dissecting table, begging to be examined.” I call this audacious prose, and celebrate it enthusiastically.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
My people say that a poor maid does not reject the embrace of a wealthy prince because of bad breath. I’m hardly turned off by considerations of genre or type. So I have found even manuals — of how to hunt wild birds in West Africa — fascinating. That said, if one returns to a well again and again and finds only bad-tasting water, it is difficult to keep returning there. This is why I tend to avoid works of fiction in which plot isn’t a function of character but the reverse, in which a set of events is orchestrated and characters are thrown in as fillers. I have this sense of the Dan Brown books especially. So I tend to avoid “upmarket crime thrillers.” Although, a few pages in, I’m liking “My Sister, the Serial Killer,” by Oyinkan Braithwaite.