Eghosa Imasuen: On Fine Boys and Yellow Girls

“In mid-1992, CNN reported that sixteen year-old Amy Fisher had just shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco, something about wanting the older woman dead so Joey – the bloody cradle snatcher – Buttafuoco could be free, I remember Amy was my age. Germany was unified, and British MPs had just elected a woman as speaker. The Soviet Union had been over for about two years, and the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine was threatening secession. The police officers who kicked Rodney King’s head in were getting acquitted for the first time. Grunge rockers were breaking their necks to that song, “smells like Teen Spirit” – inspired by the smell of latrines, I think – and African reggae singers were in a panic, rewriting songs, rearranging LPs and pushing back release dates now that Mandela was really free. Fuel prices here increased for the first time past the one naira mark. We had civilian governors and a military president. I was awaiting my matriculation exam results, hoping to make it into the University of Benin to study medicine. I was learning to drive on the busy Warri Streets. I was being a good son.”

                   –       Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen

Digital technology is poised to save Africa’s stories from the comatose printing presses of Africa’s “publishers.” Good writers still languish in Africa, staring at lovely stories trapped in the mediocrity of imitation books but all that is changing. E-books are here for African writers who are savvy enough to port their books to the Kindle or the Nook and share with the world.  It is a good thing. I have been buying and downloading books by writers living the living in Nigeria, warts and all. I am happy because now I can read many more of our stories than ever before. The Internet has been a boon to our literature. Why do I like reading books by writers “on the ground” in Nigeria as they say? I pine for the stories of our people unvarnished.

One of those books is Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen. I heartily recommend this book. There are many reasons why you should read this coming of age story. It is an important book on many levels. I do not know of any Nigerian novel that has taken the time to record history in the 90’s through university campus life as this novel has done. In this book, we follow the protagonist Ewaen and his siblings as they endure life under constantly feuding middle class parents, grow up amidst the drama that is Nigeria. We accompany Ewaen to the University of Benin and through his eyes we witness several issues that occurred in Nigeria in the 90s. There are so many issues: Campus cults took youth peer pressure to violent and deadly lows, there were brutal military regimes, a thwarted attempt at democracy (June 12th 1993), deteriorating educational and social infrastructure, etc. All through the dysfunction, the reader is taken through a tour of numerous relationships, some touching, some banal, and many quite dysfunctional. Marital abuse in the protagonist’s home is a sobering reminder of the war that young children endure in many homes. I admire how Ewaen, the protagonist’s spirit remained unbroken; he continued to weave joy and adventure out of situations that should have broken him irreparably. The book is a fine reminder that every day children trudge bravely through wars that they did not ask for, many of them in their homes.

Imasuen does a great job of painting the colorful atmosphere of campus life at the University of Benin, my alma mater.  Interestingly enough, In my time, in the late 70’s the decay had already begun, university staff quarters (the Junior Staff Quarters aka JSQ) were turning into sprawling slums selling food, booze, cigarettes and sex. The reader will find Imasuen’s palette a colorful world in which light-skinned women are described as “yellow” and only the initiated would understand what would be a slur in the West because Imasuen dispenses with the convenience of a glossary. Let the reader do the research. I like that even though as a result the book comes across as parochial. But then, we would never say that of a book written by a Westerner, would we? It is time for us to stand up for our self-loathing selves.

Imasuen has come a long way since his debut novel To St. Patrick. Fine Boys is chockfull of remarkable prose like this:

“The light that seeped in through the sheer curtains bathed everything in a blue translucence that made the room look like one of those Igbo market shops where the most awful pair of jeans miraculously became a pair of Versace specials.”

And this one is one of my favorites:

“Mesiri’s room was too tidy to keep anything in – your stuff could get contaminated by the hygiene.”

It is not a perfect book; it does get occasionally sloppy and tedious and I don’t like that the e-book’s pages are not numbered. It is as if Imasuen thought about a lot about the issues of that decade and threw them all slaphappy into the book, Imasuen struggles mightily between personal narrative and fiction. This is a fat novel that should have been pruned a bit. No detail escapes Imasuen, no matter how banal. It is a problem. Imasuen devotes the bulk of the novel to obsessing about campus cults; the Black Axe, Costra Nostra, Maphite, Neo-Black Movement. However, he did not penetrate the inner circle of the cults, the analysis was superficial. The reader wonders: How were these cults different from each other? Why did they mushroom in the 80’s and ‘90’s? What made them attractive to the teeming teens that joined them in droves? Why did hundreds of teens endure violent and reprehensible rites of passage in these cults? Was part of the reason because military regimes had become more draconian, brutal and corrupt and children grew up in these circumstances becoming cold, calculating and Machiavellian like their adults?

The book touches on the turbulent ‘90’s in Nigeria, brutal democracy and the work of the prodemocracy movement, with Western culture and democracy as asymptotes. There are identity issues, Wilhelm the half-caste or biracial is called oyinbo or white man. Lighter colored people are up on the totem pole of the caste system. People go to “summer vacation” abroad.  Gang members or “confra boys” man violent gangs, in the hostels smelly toilets are filled to the brim, classes are held in stadium sized lecture halls, with lecturers hollering without microphones, the cost of living is abominably high (it seems students are forever buying food, booze, cigarettes and lecture notes or “handouts” at extortionist prices).

The analysis focuses on the dysfunction of organized gangs or cults but invariably ignores the fact that teens tend to move in gangs, benign or otherwise. It is hard for the reader to ignore the protagonist’s own gang with its own rules, youths with names like Odegua, Mesiri, Wilhelm, Tuoyo, Oliver Tambo, Fram Oluchi, Preppa, K.O.,and  the girls, Tseye, Amide and Weyinmi (Minor correction: Odegua is never a male name). It makes for an interesting albeit rambling stew of a story. Much of it could be seen as banal prattle. As an aside, properly edited and adapted it would make for a good Nollywood movie about life on campus in the ‘90s.  In Fine Boys, we witness consumerism at its worst. There is no purpose to these lives. This is the beginning of the end, the middle class fleeing a looming war zone, a great story sloppily told. But then if you love ogbono soup, you will not mind this story dribbling down your memory’s chin. One perhaps unintended outcome is that Imasuen paints the university students of the 90’s as not meeting their potential, as perhaps not too bright. Indeed much of their dialogue is banal self-absorbed prattle. Regardless, it is a very colorful life told in colorful language and with great drama. There is even a “thief catching ceremony” organized by “native doctors.”

The book is mostly well edited, an incredible feat in a society that is indifferent to quality control. Imasuen shows off some good prose; enthusiastic passionate honest writing when he is good he deftly employs luscious turns of phrases. He is definitely original. I do not know of many African writers who would have enough self-confidence to design a character like Ewaen’s girlfriend Amide who says she is waiting “for the rice to done…”

This is not a tidy book. Some would say convincingly that this book is not serious literature; it comes across as too autobiographical and parochial, with little attempt to make it less so. It was like Imasuen kept a detailed rambling diary of his activities growing up. The story meanders and some of the characters are not well developed, it is hard to tell them apart. The protagonist is too busy talking. It would have been more helpful perhaps to devote chapters to a few main characters narrating their tales in the first person.

I must applaud Imasuen for documenting an important era in a way no one has done in recent times. In the “Chair dance” I basked in the lush delicacy of a halcyon past, of teenage angst, fighting alienation. In Fine Boys, one comes across familiar themes present in African literature, but new and contemporary themes emerged also: Attempted suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, the new Christianity and he prodemocracy movement that swept much of Black Africa in the 90s. The novel was also in a way a detailed commentary on identity issues, One of the characters, Wilhelm the half-caste (biracial) is called oyinbo. Lighter colored people are up on the totem pole of the caste system. Summer vacation in London marks you out as part of the elite. Then there were the “Confra boys” seeking to belong by manning violent gangs.  Youths in search of the golden fleece endure campuses with smelly toilets filled to the brim, classes in stadium sized lecture halls, lecturers hollering without microphones and an abominable cost of living (it seems students are forever buying food, booze, cigarettes and handouts at extortionist prices). This is consumerism at its worst. For these youths, there were so many rites of passage, there seemed to be no purpose to their lives. From the vantage point of today’s Nigeria, Fine Boys seems to chronicle the beginning of the end, the middle class fleeing a looming war zone, a great story sloppily told. But then if you love ogbono soup, you will not mind this story dribbling down your memory’s chin. As an aside, it would be an interesting scholarly activity to compare Imasuen’s approach to semi-autobiographical fiction in Fine Boys, to the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina in his rollicking memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place.

In the end, Imasuen’s vision is apocalyptic as the characters muse thus:

“Pure water don reach Fifty Kobo? Things are getting costlier,” Oluchi said.

”And making change is getting even more difficult for the sellers,” I added. “Remember in year one when a Five Naira note could get you a cigarette and a Fanta?”

“Yea, round figure,” Fra said. “Now that combination is seven Naira.”

Preppa nooded, “Maybe by the time that medical student comes back to Uniben, a bottle of beer will be one hundred Naira.:

“Impossible,” we shouted. “Never.”

Those were halcyon days.

Chioma Okereke: Sweet Leaf, Bitter Taste

Dear reader, you should read this enigmatic book, Bitter Leaf written by the poet Chioma Okereke. It is a lovely book. And a frustrating book, more on that later. I fell in love with this spunky book and Okereke’s rich mind. The book also broke my heart because like most ambitious projects, it fell apart smack in the middle of its journey and nothing the author did could bring back this derailed story. Okereke is a very good writer, with a quirky utterly different and refreshing way of looking at our world. Sadly, the book proved to be a miserable vehicle for transporting Okereke’s ideas and let her down. The book had a lot of promise but it was too ambitious for her editor and publishers. But man, can she write.

I hope Okereke returns to titillate our senses again. For one thing, she sure can write sensual stories that stir things in in strange places of the anatomy. Okereke can describe a romantic encounter and make your breathing stop without the characters as much as touching each other. Yes, she is that good. But in the end, the book goes nowhere, absolutely nowhere. Her editors and Virago Press, her publisher should hang their heads in shame. That book should have been stopped exactly half-way. And it would have been a great production without the babbling bumbling filler that the other half represented.

Still, you must read this book and watch out for Okereke, she is going to be an important thinker if she doesn’t allow this book to discourage her ambitions. I loved the book’s atmosphere, vibrant, noisy, full of life. The books pages fairly tremble with nervous energy; markets and communities come alive and the reader wants to be part of the experience. For the most part, Bitter Leaf is a feast of lovely prose starting with its very first lines:

 ”Many things distinguish a place, its rolling hills or turquoise waters. There are civilisations that wear plates in their ears and others that wear hoops of gold. There are even cultures that kill their old before they become burdens on those that remain. Rituals are carried out all over the world at any given moment; some that everyone can relate to and some as foreign as a fire-walk in lands surrounded by snow. But many things unite people universally: births and deaths, gains and losses, departures and arrivals.” (p 1)

Okereke would be a complex dinner companion; she comes across as erudite, well read and willing to bend intellectual boundaries. Reading Bitter Leaf is like reading Okri’s Famished Road with a fresh set of eyes:

“Once the traveller was knocked to the ground by the force of a parent’s embrace, their dirt was removed with the tears and saliva of all well-wishers. Immediate sustenance would have to wait, as fresh animals were killed, cleaned and cooked in a feast that would draw even those unconnected to the returnee to the compound with watering mouths. The party would carry on well into the days to come, with more and more food being cooked and consumed. People dropped in to witness a reunited family’s joy and the returnee would regale all those present with stories from their journey, embellishing achievements or making light of troubles that had befallen them.” (p 2)

It is as if Bitter Leaf is written by a spirit disembodied from the world, from the outside, looking in, touching this, touching that, oohing and aahing. Delectable prose-poetry swims in the pages, walking and weaving in and out of strangely familiar markets. Like Okri, Okereke has a thing for roads:

“The straight, planned roads from nearby towns either dwindled or came to a complete halt once they met the copper-coloured earth of Mannobe, but every local knew where they were going. Once upon a time, directions were given by a series of orders: follow the bumpy road until you see the bush with yellow flowers – not the red, spiky ones, that’s right – then turn left and walk as far as the three gigantic potholes in a row, take a left after the burnt tree stump, and the Harbens’ compound is to the east…” (p 13)

What is this book all about? I have no idea. I don’t know of anyone that could give you a definitive answer, not even Okereke. The blurb says of the book rather unhelpfully:

“Bitter Leaf is a richly textured, poetic and evocatively imagined tale about love and loss, parental and filial bonds, and everything in between that makes life bittersweet.”

I tried hard but could not identify a plot in this book. This is an unusual book of interesting names; the setting is nowhere, it is as if there is a deliberate emphasis on mapping a shared humanity on the pages of today’s memory. There is a dog named Dungu, a place called Angel. There is a man named Babylon who lives in a place called Mannobe In the village lives a colorful cast of characters, people with names like Babylon the musician who is in love with Jericho, returned to the village from the city. There are also the twin sisters Mabel and M’elle Codon and there is an old man named Allegory.

Even as the book defies definition, it is quite simply the best love story I have read in a long time, a lovely romance story that stirred my insides like an adolescent’s:

 “He gawped at the smoothness of her skin and the gentle swell of her breasts that peeked out of the top of the dress’s neckline. Honing his gaze, he saw minuscule beads of sweat that made her body glow and he felt as if someone had dropped a plate of Mabel’s fiery red beans down his shorts. His previous comment had been entirely innocent but inexplicably her eyes had dropped downwards. She noticed the telltale swelling and kicked the back of his wagon sharply with the heel of her sandal. ‘Disgusting,’ she hissed, moving away from him. ‘Sorry,’ he offered, covering himself quickly. Can I help it if I am a man?’”

There is more where that came from. Bitter Leaf is tightly packed prose brimming with energy, a rich, sumptuous festival chockfull of everything enchanting: ambiance, environment, rich colors and throbbing sensuality:

 “He didn’t even wait for her to retreat before dipping back into his tent and ripping a leg off her chicken like a starving animal.” (p 72)

Aspiring romance writers would do well to read this book; Okereke is a master at documenting the chase:

“His eyes focused on her and her entire being began to pulse, She pictured those very same hands moving at lightning speed across her body. Imagining the feeling of his warm palms and the determined pressure of his fingers as they subtly responded to her movements, she fought to keep her spirit within the confines of her earthly body.” (p 53)

In Bitter Leaf there is an abundance of fresh prose – ordinary words arranged in new patterns by a brilliant diviner displaying crystal clear vision and lush vivid imagery.  Okereke rarely editorializes but when she does it is sometimes provocative, if problematic. This is because Okereke sees her world from a unique perspective and defines it with uncommon literary courage. The setting for her book is not Africa but the sum total of her experience. It is a new and refreshing way of bearing witness to the world’s madness. She rejects these savageries as belonging to, or unique to Africa. She makes a compelling case that this is one world and we all own her joys and tribulations. Everyone can see his or her hut in the pages of this beautiful but complex story. She paints our world with broad, vibrant, intense colorful strokes and forces us to look at the world in a different way, perhaps the right way. Startling is her brilliance. She pulls off this neat trick and lays bare the ugly slips of our prejudices. The mind reels in confusion; this should be an African story. It is. It is not. We are all one.

Bitter Leaf is a lush aquarium breathing deeply colorful rich loamy prose, phrases turning and ambushing themselves merrily and delighting the reader..

“Although Penny sucked greedily on the ice as it expired in the scorching heat, Jericho ran hers down the back of her neck, allowing rivulets of cool water to run down her dark skin. She sighed then bent down to grab the bottom of her dress. Lifting up the hem, she rubbed the ice up her legs. She caught Penny looking at the boy, whose eyes were now the size of small planets, then back at her. It was only then that she became aware of the people around her and the effect she was having. Almost immediately, the chunk of ice between her fingers evaporated. The small boy immediately handed her another piece, trying to initiate an encore. Jericho pulled Penny away, laughing, oblivious to the slap the boy received from his returning mother for the unwise sale.” (p 98)

Bitter Leaf is not a perfect book. When I think of the book, I imagine an intricate food web, no, I  imagine an aquarium. This is a work of considerable prodigy. Its strength is its tragic weakness, all these character flaws. Restlessness births these constant walks, these comings and goings in and out of village catacombs. Who are all these people? There are so many comings and goings, the reader’s head hurts. Bitter Leaf is an inspired story with a disastrous design. This is one instance where I would say a classroom education in how to write a novel would have helped. Where are the MFA programs when you need them?

Okereke is here to stay.  If she keeps up her craft (I pray she does), she would be a Ben Okri protégé uniting all civilizations with evidence of their shared savagery making a compelling case that sadness and joy are universal. Teju Cole and Okereke might be the dispatch riders of a coming crop of writers fascinated but not intimidated by physical boundaries. Where Cole is bold and brilliant, Okereke is mostly bold, with luscious flashes of brilliance. I love this passage, warts and all:

“As a child she liked to break off small sections of her pounded yam and rolled (sic) them into small balls. She loved the sensation of the cooling dome against her fingertips, the tug of the yam as it threatened to stick to them for ever like glue. She would assemble the little balls around the edge of her bowl. The first ball would be dunked into the soup until her knuckles almost disappeared into the broth her mother had prepared, the heat of the soup searing her skin and softening the yam ball so that she could barely grip it. Chewing was entirely optional, depending on what the soup contained. Her favourite then had been bitter leaf soup, which was curiously the opposite of what its name suggested. The yam would slide down her throat easily like an oyster; all that remained to bite on was the meat or pieces of dried fish in the soup.” (p 48)

I can imagine Okereke at a book reading failing miserably to account for her vision – to the guffaws of her audience. It bears repeating ad nauseam, very few people will get this book. It is boundary bending and original in its conception. I can only guess at the book’s main point: Civilization is a universal curse, savagery is everywhere. I agree. But first she must fire her editor. As an itty bitty aside, the experimentation with pidgin was a spectacular failure. Okereke is here to stay. Unfortunately, the book lost its plot exactly half-way. It was virtually impossible to move past the page where the book died a sudden death. I wanted to be patient with this book. But then, I kept asking: Where is this book going? This intense book was written with everything Okereke had in her power. Too bad she ran out of steam. After this book, bitter leaf soup will never taste the same again for me. I am in mourning for an aborted dream. I should sue Okereke.