Jude Dibia: Blackbird Singing

First published in Next Newspapers, August 29, 2011

For several weeks, Blackbird, the new book by the Nigerian writer Jude Dibia followed me everywhere.  When I was not with the hard copy, the e-book stared at me from inside Adunni my iPad. I just finished reading it; I won’t lie, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, despite the best efforts of its publisher, JALAA Writers Collective. It is a pretty book, I love the cover. It is of high quality both in design and texture. Blackbird is perhaps the best designed book to come out of a Nigerian publishing house in recent times. It helps that it is highly readable. I will leave it on my coffee table so that Americans will see that we also know how to write and publish books, yes. It is not a perfect book; I realize that our writers and publishers at home are working extremely hard against the odds; however JALAA needs to collaborate with a reputable editor. Blackbird suffers from editing issues that should have been caught even by an untrained eye. My review hard copy was missing page 276; that is absolutely unacceptable and unprofessional. The only reason I completed this review is that I was able to continue reading the book on my iPad’s Kindle app (no missing pages there. My sense is that I got a bad copy, quality control is an issue here). No one should have to go through all that just to read a book. I will not die until Dibia pairs himself with a professional publishing company. His literary talents are being frittered away by mediocre support. The patrons of the arts should seriously consider expending some of their boundless energies and resources to supporting writers like Dibia who are long on talent and short on critical support. The world would be better for it and it would begin to stem the ongoing distortion of Africa’s richly lived life by some of her more established writers.

An engaging treat. Luckily the book was engaging enough for me to want to continue reading it. Overall, Blackbird is a work of considerable industry and purpose. I was sad when I got to the end of this pretty book. I wanted more. Yes, Blackbird is an engaging book – and an important narrative. This book gracefully charts Dibia’s upward trajectory as the writer of Walking with Shadows and Unbridled. With Blackbird, Dibia has firmly established himself as a Nigerian writer of stature Let me just say that Blackbird is one of the very few truly credible looks at contemporary Nigeria since the end of military rule. Dibia does this by allowing the story to showcase the seething resentments of an impotent people being suffocated by the mean currents of freewheeling capitalism and insensitive thieves posing as leaders. In Nigeria, as Dibia shows so eloquently, no laws protect the newly free. Dibia gently powers the novel with convincing prose that unfortunately would have sizzled even more in the hands of a practiced editor, “The ocean refused to be still; it took more, claimed more, and retreated less but paradoxically the hungry sea left behind more of its unwanted children, its vomit littering Scorpion’s little patch of beach-front: a seagull’s skull, uncapped beer bottles, horse scat, empty packets of cigarettes, the left foot of a size twelve shoe, a dead army of used condoms, and an old deflated football.” (p 14)

Love and lust in Nigeria. Blackbird is a thrilling story of love and heart break on many levels, populated with interesting characters that proudly wear names like Scorpion, Razor, Nduesoh and Mfoniso. Well formed characters are carefully introduced with impeccable timing. The story revolves along the not too parallel lives of three couples whose demons intersect as a result of love and lust. The confrontations become a vehicle for examining today’s Nigeria. There is Nduesoh and her older white husband, Edward, representing the upper class. Maya and Omoniyi are struggling to make ends meet in the underbelly of Nigeria’s underclass. Ndoesoh’s sister Idara is betrothed to Gabriel, a police officer; they both hope to join Nigeria’s fast shrinking middle class someday. This is modern Nigeria with all of its challenges and triumphs. You will not see these stories in the traditional places where generous prizes are offered to writers willing to pen the past tense for glory. Dibia does a great job of getting into the hearts and heads of his characters. With the exception of a few spots, Dibia effectively deploys the English language as a mere vehicle of communication.  He does falter when he experiments unsuccessfully with Pidgin English. With Blackbird, Dibia makes the case that even in the new dispensation, there is deprivation also. Blackbird wears a carefully designed plot; indeed, Dibia is almost too fastidious in his attention to design detail. In this book, Dibia thought through every sequence, every movement. Gone (well almost) is the over analysis of issues, and the communal navel-gazing; some of the characters actually want to have fun. What a concept.

Well researched analysis. Using muscular research, Dibia tackles a sweeping breadth of canvas and he pulls it off nicely. Under the guise of a romance novel, he explores a broad swath of social issues, starting with the androgynous Omoniyi who is married to the sultry singer Maya, the object of Edward’s wandering eyes. He explores relationships, the failed promise of monogamy, and the yearning that results from material and spiritual deprivation. There are class struggles, sexuality and gender issues, extended family stresses, educational inequities, racism, the obsequious treatment of white expatriates by Nigerians, police brutality, urban renewal and gentrification, etc. Dibia relies on allusions and subliminal messages to tell his story. The protagonist Nduesoh’s self-loathing and self-esteem issues are a collective proxy for communal self-loathing: “She stared at her reflection in the huge mirror… she hated the sight that greeted her – the large landscape of a forehead, the flared nostrils that were begging for a surgeon’s knife, the puffy lips, the spaced out eyes and the gap between the two incisors, which could clearly accommodate another tooth. She was a monstrosity to look at without make-up…” (p 30) I love how Dibia documents perverse gentrification of once tranquil neighborhoods, Nigeria’s upper class have sharp elbows and they are not taking any poor prisoners. There is also true romance, affecting, it touched my rugged heart, all these loving couples that get caught in a culture war of the haves versus the have-nots.

Letting the muse loose. Dibia relaxed his literary muscles and let himself gloriously loose in Chapter 5 and 11 my two favorite chapters. Chapter 5 contains my favorite lines. ‘As Omoniyi walked from the bus, he suddenly felt intimate with this place. It had its own lost soul and palpable body; its own vibe, expressed by a pandemonium of car horns, mixed with the cacophony of tired bus engines, overlaid by a multitude of voices that talked, whispered, shouted, traded, cursed, laughed, cried, sang and sighed, all in unison. Once you set foot in Underground City, you felt its touch and its breath on you.” (p 104) You can almost touch and smell the places the book has been. Tenderness resonates everywhere. Listen to these lovely lines. “Underground City. A conglomeration of roguishly built shanty homes, it flanked the Sambo creek, a torrid expanse of water twisting like loins to the sea.” (p 104) There are also clever allusions to cities like Ajegunle in the barely fictitious names Dibia assigns places, for example, Elnugeja and Muelegba. I would say Chapter 11 is his best. Dibia comes alive with passion and conviction. It reads like the apocalypse. Nigeria’s burden is black on black crime. He unwittingly makes a compelling case. Our leaders are criminals and her followers are fools for taking their nonsense. This book updates the unending catalogue of Nigerians’ fate in the hands of successive herds of rogue leaders in an understated style.

Earning a place in our history. I love Dibia; he shies away from hallucinogenic crap, the staple of some of his writing colleagues.  I liken Dibia to Chukwuemeka Ike, one of Africa’s most understated literary icons. Ike is relatively unknown today because he shunned politics of drama to entertain and educate us with stories of contemporary Nigeria. Like Ike, Dibia is firmly grounded and genuinely focused on understanding our Nigeria. Through his eyes, we see the madness of urban sprawl and the devastation from the exodus from the villages. Dibia knows fashion in an intimidating way; but, he shows off this knowledge tastefully. Dibia quietly shows us Nigeria, a complex place while some of his peers write pretentious nonsense for the cocktail circuits of the West. Dibia has in at least one sense focused on tackling contemporary issues that the ordinary reader can identify with while the older generation of writers brood over the fading past tense. Nigeria is a nation reveling in self-doubt, pining for definitions that spell mimicry. Dibia’s story is familiar to us.

This is not a perfect narrative. Blackbird is not a perfect book. There are simple errors that should have been fixed by an editor. Some of the story’s conflicts appeared contrived and come off as a bit melodramatic, with little nuance. I would advise Dibia to explore his funny side more, He is downright funny when making fun of Nigerians’ quirky ways of giving directions: “That yellow house wey get green-white-green for doormat and opposite am you go see Mama Sikirat beer parlour or when you reach the end of the street, you go see one plank like bridge wey dey near Holy Ghost Church, cross am and in front you go see the house wey get tap for de front.” (p107) Sometimes it has the feel of a soap opera; it has its fair share of clichés and melodrama. At times the dialogue doesn’t flow as well. It clatters towards a hasty unconvincing end like a villager hurriedly gathering her wrapper around her ahead of a gathering storm. There are still traces of Dibia’s tendency to overanalyze; sometimes people just want to have fun. Some would say that Dibia has sewn a web too neat for real life. But Dibia doesn’t live a messy life. What is wrong with that? I make bold to say that this book with all its myriad imperfections is an important scroll. And just so you know, the book’s title, Blackbird, is inspired by Morning Has Broken, a song by Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. You have to give it to Dibia, he is coolly eclectic. I love this man!

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