In Conversation with Onyeka Nwelue

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“…sometimes, one universe flows seamlessly into another such that one can no longer differentiate what is real from what is fictional.” – Onyeka Nwelue

First of all, thank you, for writing The Nigerian Mafia Mumbai. The book is so refreshing, so relatable for me. How did you come about to write it? What did you see in life to create Uche?

I must thank you for finding the time to read and show appreciation for The Nigerian Mafia: Mumbai. It gladdens me to know that you consider it refreshing and relatable. I feel that I have attained a great measure of success considering that I set out to write a fast-paced piece of literary entertainment that readers can relate with.

When the thought of a relatable piece of literary entertainment came to me, I considered a lot of possible scenarios against which I could set the story idea until at last I decided to pay attention to my travels and the people I encountered on my trips. India, being one of the most frequent travel destinations, came to mind. Perhaps this is another of my many literary homages to India – a country I consider home.

We know that you’re involved in the film and music industry. Tell us something about yourself that’s not there on the Internet.

Yes, I started with filmmaking at Prague Film School where I studied Directing. I don’t know if that information is on the internet. But I am sure on the internet you will see a list of the movies I have produced, one of them being a screen adaptation of my book, ‘Island of Happiness’.

Music, for me, could be said to be something that has passed on to me from my father. He was in the record business as a young man in Italy. I was in my early twenties when in France I went into the music business, going on to set up a record label, Lacave Musik, and a consultancy firm, Blues and Hills. Through these business entities, I have had professional contact with almost every notable artist from Nigeria. 

Recently, I have stepped away from the business aspect of music, to assume the role of an artist. This recent development is borne out of necessity. It is therapy for me. I had a rough time with the academic establishment in England which made me seek psychiatric help – hence I went into music, to aid my healing process.

I read something about you being terminated from Oxford and Cambridge. Would you like to put some light on what happened?

The termination of my Academic Visitor statuses in Oxford and Cambridge was politically orchestrated. While in Oxford and Cambridge, I had legitimately set up the James Currey Society in affiliation with the Africa Studies Centre University of Oxford, which awards fellowships to academics, artists, and creative individuals. My travails started when the James Currey Fellowship was rightly awarded to David Hundeyin, a notable journalist who is perceived to be a fierce critic of Nigeria’s ruling party and their choice of a questionable candidate for the 2023 presidential elections. A notable member of the ruling party who also was a major donor to Oxford’s African Studies Centre had to strong-arm the establishments at both Oxford and Cambridge to terminate my fellowship and dismantle all the work I had done in the course of my stay.

They resorted to a cheap smear campaign aimed at rubbishing my image. And to a considerable extent, they enjoyed some success with that amongst circles who readily believe that an African shouldn’t aspire to much. I still can’t come to terms with the fact that the British university establishment would submit themselves to being the lapdog of a Nigerian politician whose person and party are saddled with that much baggage as would make any sane person cringe.

How did you discover India? What was your first experience about our land?

India is a land of stark contrasts. You get to see rich and poor, affluence and penury, dwelling side by side. I think I love India and that is why I keep coming back. I discovered India when as a teenager I visited for the first time. I ended up staying back long enough to write my first novel, ‘The Abyssinian Boy’. That novel catapulted me into fame almost immediately. My first experience with India paid off! 

What are the biggest similarities between India and Nigeria?

Like India, Nigerians have big dreams. It doesn’t matter where circumstances of birthplace a person, but they always dream of making it big in life. Also, like Indians, Nigerians travel a lot. You find them all over the world. 

I really want to ask you this. I’ve lived nearby by Bandra all my life, but never felt the Nigerian mafia to be as big as you’ve mentioned in the book. Is this something totally fictional, or did I miss something growing up?

This novel is a work of fiction. They are the figments of my imagination. Yet for the fact that the story is relatable, it therefore calls upon the reader to be more observant, to see for themselves how much of reality has been made into fiction. 

What was the primary inspiration for The Nigerian Mafia Mumbai? Have you yourself had to deal with the mafia in Mumbai or back home?

The Nigerian mafia is a real thing. Although not as organised as one might readily expect, the authorities in Italy have come to recognise the level at which the local Nigerian mafia operates. Once or twice, I’ve had a brush with members of the Nigerian mafia. 

The entire novel is good, but the climax punched me in the gut. The whole thing about Uzo. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to write something like that. What was going through your mind while writing it?

Well, you know how it is with these things. Most of the time, the writer goes on with the flow in the course of writing, and when he is done with the book, he detaches from it and moves on to the next project. 

To answer your question, I was simply going with the flow in the course of writing that part and every other part of the novel.

After writing something so dark, how do one prevent being disconnected or disoriented from the real world? How does happiness come back?

Writers alternate between the multiple universes that exist in the real world and the world of their characters. I think it is a normal thing and happiness, just like pain, exists as much in the real world as in the world of fiction. And sometimes, one universe flows seamlessly into another such that one can no longer differentiate what is real from what is fictional.

I say God of Small Things is your favourite book. What makes Arundhati Roy so great, according to you? 

Arundhati Roy writes with feeling and compassion and she effortlessly conveys these to the reader.

Apart from her, who are your favourite authors? And how much do you read regional stories?

I have a lot of authors, both living and dead, whose works and personalities I revere. Mentioning some and leaving out the others would be most unfair. I read every book by Wole Soyinka, by the way. I don’t feel guilty that I am mentioning only him. 

Please tell us about your favourite works of yourself? What are the projects that you’re currently working on?

Whatever I am working on always passes as my favourite project. And as soon as I am done with it, it falls from that position of grace as another takes its place immediately. Currently, I am working on a novel which I have titled, ‘Gangster, Gangster’. It is about a Congolese who travels to France as a member of Papa Wemba’s band. On getting to France, he absconds to Brussels, to meet everything that life had in store for him there.

What’s the top three advice you’d give to budding authors from India, Africa, and other ‘non-Anglopsheric’ nations of the world?

My advice would be to put their soul into what they do – to write and promote their works. And most especially, to do so in the knowledge that none other than themselves would be more passionate about their artistic success. 

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