Chigozie Obioma’s epic second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is inspired by a real man named Jay whom Obioma met in his travels to Cyprus and who was swindled out of his money in a scam which led to his demise. The book features Chinonso, an uneducated poultry farmer in rural Nigeria who becomes so enamored of Ndali, whom he saves from jumping from a bridge, that he sacrifices everything—land, dignity, sanity—to have her. Chinonso’s guardian spirit, or his 700-year-old chi, narrates the book.
Chinonso’s love is not enough to overcome the fact that Ndali doesn’t love him back and that her family—which is better educated and wealthier than his—will never accept him.
The title of the novel is a loose translation of a Nigerian proverb related to a common phenomenon based on the mournful sound that a group of chickens makes when hawks swoop down and take one of their fellow birds. It doesn’t have a precise or neat English equivalent, but Obioma elegantly returns throughout the novel to the sentiment it evokes. The proverb is about what individual power we have and what is beyond our control.
It’s a proverb about destiny, Obioma says. “When something bad happens to us, are we powerless, or is there something we can do to stop it? Usually we say this is something God has done. Someone might say it’s God that gives voice to the little things and to the sound that the chickens make.”
In the novel, the voices of those who would seem inconsequential or little or powerless are centered even as the reader wonders if they will survive their fate. The backdrop to this fateful love story is the story of the old and the new, of keeping tradition and culture in the face of westernization and assimilation.
The use of the ancient chi as narrator allows “a kind of comprehensive account of how Africans saw white people when they first came to Africa,” Obioma says. “The chi describes how we can maintain some of the small particulates of how people used to live at a time when there’s a movement among black people toward the ancestral religion again and a lot of people are trying to understand what the people have lost through colonialism.”
At the intersection of these philosophical and structural questions, Obioma knits together African spirituality with traditional Western touches as he channels the Greek and Shakespearean tragedies he grew up reading. In An Orchestra of Minorities, the clearest parallel is The Odyssey. “There’s something about the journey that mirrors Chinonso’s experience, him trying to get his woman back.”
Africans believe, broadly, in the universe of this novel in the supernatural realm, “the reincarnation of events, not just people,” Obioma says. “The arrow of misfortune…these are some of the ideas at the heart of the Igbo belief. Something happens to you, you don’t deserve it, it just comes to you, there’s no explanation for it, really. This is something I’ve always wanted to probe for a long time.”
In An Orchestra of Minorities, Obioma finally gets his chance to probe. The most haunting revelation may turn out to be that destiny is not the most pressing open question of them all. Instead, it may be that each of us is powerless to answer the question of whether we can survive our fate until we are tested.
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and educator living in New York City.