Noel Obiora is Senior Legal Counsel for the California Public Utilities Commission, where he has spent nearly two decades deciphering and analyzing all legal aspects of the commission’s regulatory process.
Before that, Obiora had her own private practice in Los Angeles, and long before that, Obiora, 55, was a shy kid in Nigeria who dreamed of becoming a writer.
Now, finally, Obiora has made that dream come true with the publication of his newly released legal mystery, “A Past That Breathes,” set in Los Angeles in the 1990s, a place he knew well – “I was my own courier and did all my shopping ”- during his ten years there. (He now lives in Benicia in the bay area.)
Obiora, who cites both “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Bleak House” as influences, started writing the book some time ago, but went to London to study acting. “I wrote my thesis piece and then came back and wrote another piece,” he says, adding that he always writes late at night after work or on weekends. “But every time I opened the drawer, I would say, ‘I really like this story.’ I did this in the workshop in 2009, then didn’t do anything for a long time before finally coming back and finishing it.
Obiora recently spoke via video about his roundabout path to becoming a novelist and how being black but not American shaped him as a person, lawyer and writer. This story is edited for length and clarity.
Q. What brought you to America from Nigeria?
I came for college. My sisters had been to school here and came and went. I was going to go back there after school, but soon after I arrived there was a coup in Nigeria, then another, and it continued.
Q. What was culture shock like to adapt to America?
Everything was just bigger, brighter, faster. The proportions were just different and so were the possibilities. Coming from a third world country where what little you have has to be managed, you come here and the possibilities seem endless.
Q. Did you first want to be a writer or a lawyer?
When I was eleven, I wanted to be a writer. I was an introvert, the kid who stayed alone and read a lot. My aunt was [renowned Nigerian novelist] Flora Nwapa, so knowing someone who was successful added motivation. In high school for our drama club our library didn’t have enough plays so I started writing plays for us and then tried writing stories.
Q. So how did you become a lawyer?
In order to keep my status in America, I had to stay in school, so after college I went to law school. I came to law by elimination. First I tried engineering, but couldn’t sit still in math class. Then I studied economics but after graduate studies in economics you become a consultant or you will get a doctorate. and teach. Someone said you have to find a job to earn money so you can afford to write. My father was a lawyer, so I gave up the law.
Q. How did you end up in Los Angeles?
Young man, go west.
It was my first time seeing snow in Connecticut, and before I adjusted to it, I thought California was the place to be. And I wrote a film script when I got here. Then “LA Law” came along and it became the thing that brought me to Los Angeles. I think I might have published a book sooner if I had been to New York where my sister lived and had support, but “LA Law” really tempted me to come here.
Q. Your book is full of intrigue and characters. Have you written a detailed plan to keep everything straight?
I am not very good at writing with outlines. When you have an idea, the outline seems to tell you to wait. It’s only when the passion doesn’t drive you so intensely that you stop and say, “Where are we going next? “
I can’t tell you how many people said, “Stick to your daily work.” But then I would put it away and later read it again and say, “That’s good. English is not my native language, so someone can edit everything else. ‘
I really didn’t care how big this book was as long as it said what I wanted it to say. But all the editors have said, “You must be crazy if you think someone is going to read a first novelist who writes 1,500 pages.”
I was prepared for it not to be released because I wanted it to be something that I like, but I cut a lot of the story from the characters.
Q. How has being black but not American shaped your perspective on race as a person, lawyer, and writer?
The public education system in Nigeria did not tell us about America’s racial history even though we came from a colonial system. When you come here you see the stereotypical white political messages about black people, but if you come acting because you are just going to school, there is a tendency – which is in part denial – to think that it does not. does not concern you.
The disadvantages that racism becomes are a compromise with the advantages you get from going to school here. You don’t internalize racism and brush it aside. But the more you are here and the more you educate yourself, the more you understand. And when you realize that you are staying here, you feel what it is like to live with racism and systemic oppression. You don’t go there anymore.
The legal system has opened my eyes – watching the courts work is very difficult to digest. I set out to write the novel about my frustrations with the system. In the shows, movies, and books about the justice system, you can always tell the good and the bad, but that’s not what I found.
I didn’t intend to write a novel about racial or social injustice, but in this system you can’t write a book about problems without thinking about it.