Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Month: May, 2015

Fiction Faction: New world

I come from a land that has streets with no names. Our people did not name the streets of our village because they saw the coming of smartphones, Google, e-mail and Facebook. Well, the little path that goes from my father’s village to my mother’s village is called the little path. Was. The little path is no more. In the land of my ancestors, people don’t venture far from the earth. There are no mortuaries; when they die they practically fall into their graves themselves. My father’s father was buried by the path half-way to my mother’s people. He is no longer buried there. A government thief built an ugly mansion over my grandpa’s bones.

Today, I stare at the remains of winter in America; earth is frosting on chocolate cake. After all these moons, alien images and clichés stick to me, like white on rice. I have ventured far, very far from home. When I left home many decades ago, no cellphone chats charted my way out of Customs and Immigration into America’s issues. My parents put me inside the capsule to somewhere and hoped that someday I would be back. I am still here in America. I am not going back soon.

Nothing stays the same. Not even in America. The changes make me dizzy and I obsess nonstop about the way things used to be. Here in my part of America, our drugstore no longer has human cashiers. The owners remodeled the store, and replaced humans with machines that talk to you. You simply walk up to the machines, scan your goods, pay and leave. It is very disconcerting; I keep looking for the humans to return, I actually miss them and their attitude. I know now that I love people and I cannot shake this cold unfeeling nothingness I get from interacting with a machine that proves its indifference with faux warmth.

Don’t get me wrong, I am high on the possibilities and the opportunities riding on the strong backs of these new and emerging technologies, but I do wonder now if there are downsides to all of this. The world is becoming more and more shaped by a few powerful cognitive elite. We are struggling to deal with and adapt to the awesome force of these new technologies and the new billionaire dictators that built them.

Life is war. We were all born into a war that we did not ask for. And people write about life, sometimes it is mostly gory. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, they belonged to a certain era when one had no choice but to concentrate all of one’s creative passions on one medium of expression – the book. I read a lot of books, mostly about the condition we find ourselves as people of color in a white man’s world. However, I am first and foremost a writer of creative stuff, whatever that means. Lately though, I am known more as a book reviewer than anything else, which I find interesting. I think that a critic’s work in itself is creative work. We may not like it, but it is what it is. The critic clearly has a role to play and I would say we are in dire need of honest courageous tell-it-like-it-is book reviewers.

Some people should really not be writing and they should be told that. Some writers are also full of it and they should be told that. Some works are fun to read and they should be celebrated. It is a shame that we are talking about books because in my clan we are steeped in the oral tradition. Some of the world’s greatest “books” have been “read” to us in song by our ancestors. My mother is one of the world’s greatest living poets; she has not written a lick. She would be great on YouTube. She would at least help to preserve one of our dying languages.

On social media, walls are colorful wrappers wound tightly around the new municipalities of ME. Social media is falling leaves, hearts fluttering, forlorn, and drying on yesterday’s clothes lines. People are waving hasty goodbyes out the windows of indifferent relationships. It is complicated. Life goes on. There are no nations as we remember them. We have fled lands ravaged by thieves preaching democracy. Soon a generation will come and in their history books they will learn about something called a check and the gallant art of balancing a checkbook.

Social media. The new frontier has edged into our consciousness. America. Deep in the windy beauty of this land, the majesty of Nigeria, the land of my birth goes howling. We fled our gods, mean angry bloody gods foaming blood in their blood thirsty mouths wielding blood drenched cutlasses between steely teeth. Here in Babylon, alien gods kill us with the kindness of indifference. We retaliate by turning their plates on their heads, these patronizing, condescending gods. Africa. We fled her bloody windows for Facebook Nation. Every day children reject what passes for African culture today. They are not all mad. What is going on? Let’s talk about these things.

On beauty and narrative in Jola Naibi’s Terra Cotta Beauty

I enjoyed reading Terra Cotta Beauty, Jola Naibi’s book of short stories. Yes, I enjoyed it a lot; it took me back to Lagos, the land of my birth. It is a quiet little persistent book. As I read, I grew to respect the book before me. The characters are well-developed and unlike the caricatures that characterize the products of poverty porn, they carry themselves with the dignity of thinking albeit long-suffering human beings. There are very few editorial issues in the book, a great feat for a self-published book. As literature goes, this is not what I would call a muscular literary work but it hit my hunger spot. I am happy.

So what is the book about? As far as I can tell, it is about life in Lagos in the nineties and possibly early 200o’s. If you don’t know where Lagos is, you can stop right here, it is okay. There are seven stories in the collection, each connected to each other in a clever and innovative way.TerraReal

Ol’boi, the first story, a thrilling story about family, the violence of robbery and corruption, starts out the collection with great promise:

“They had lived on that street for as long as he could remember. It was a short street that ended in a T-shape at a cement wall that shielded the backyard of another compound on another street. Everyone in the entire neighborhood dumped their rubbish at this end of the street. Very rarely the authorities would clear the trash, but most of the time there was a huge pile of garbage at the end of the street which stunk like rotten eggs.” (p 1)

A Laughing Matter, and Terra-Cotta Beauty, both offer a unique look into the tyranny of military dictatorships and patriarchy and the brave fight against both dysfunctions. They were my two favorite stories in the collection. Terra-Cotta Beauty, the piece that bears the book’s title is a lovely read, with pretty prose like this: “My mother… often smelled of the earth. It was the same matinal smell that my grandmother, who would end up raising me had.” (p 27)

Iridiscent hope is a travelogue of sorts as the main protagonist hawks her hope for a better life in Lagos and in her travels from home of the day to work, exposes the reader to the precariousness of hope, and life in Lagos. It was my least favorite story, it went nowhere fast and it read like reportage from a distracted journalist. By the way, you can read it here online on Africanwriter.com.

Running in the Wrong Direction is a moving commentary on migration, the search for meaning, peace and prosperity in life. It is ultimately a commentary on child labor and the plight of young children who are forced to leave the comfort of home to seek prosperity in the war that is the typical African city, this time, Lagos.

The Fire Starter uses an account of arson to paint a compelling portrait of class struggle. Well done.

The Sacred Geometry of Chance is down to earth African romance, shorn of the mimicry that is much of romance literature by many African authors. It is also a commentary on patriarchy, teen sexuality and pregnancy. It does go on too long and ends strangely, well, it does not end. I loved this line: “Until it jumps into hot water, a frog does not realize that there are two worlds.” (p 117) Now, that is good writing!

There is a good interview of Jola Naibi here. She writes beautifully, several passages in the book are full of gems like “He taught himself to read and write; whenever he saw books, his heart soared.” (p 92). You will not find the unctuous sermons that pass for literature in much of contemporary African literature, feminism, patriarchy, child and marital abuse, blah, blah, blah. She simply writes as she remembers. The issues are not the stories; they are part of the stories’ lives. Nice and refreshing.

Terra Cotta Beauty is not a perfect book. For one thing, it is a bit too restrained for my liking, somewhat of a victim to be liked by all, especially the West. Still, it is a good read; I recommend it highly, especially for teenagers and young adults. Illustrations, perhaps using pencil sketches would have been nice to break up the monotony of text and still my attention deficit disorder. Every now and then, the prose is too clinical, a mechanical clack clack clack of the keyboard – a writer, writing as if unsure of herself. Again, the use of italics for indigenous words rankles. Why capitalize molue in the 21st century? It is an English word, for heaven’s sakes. Google it.

naibi2Naibi deploys impeccable Pidgin English which she promptly italicizes and explains with standard English. I really hate that she does this.

“Wetin dey do you now? (“What is wrong with you?”), his companion spat at him. “You just dey do like person wen don lose im mama, you no hear de tin wey Ol’Boy talk—im say mission accomplished! So why you dey slack now?” (“What’s wrong with you?” “You are acting like someone who has lost his mother. You heard what Ol’Boi said—-mission accomplished! Why are you slacking?”) (p 93)

Again, I don’t like that Naibi italicizes the Pidgin English, and then helpfully translates it, presumably, to Western readers. It is what it is but I prefer this approach to the bastardization of pidgin preferred by Nigerian writers who write primarily for the West’s consumption. A lot is lost in the unnecessary translation. It is perhaps true that the paying audience is in the West and the writer is under a lot of pressure to get as wide an audience as possible, but there are unintended consequences. The writers of the West gained traction in other climes by being relentlessly insular even before the advent of Google. That insularity bred a nagging curiosity in readers. It is counter-intuitive but I suggest strongly that African writers need to find the muscle to be insular, to force Western readers to be curious enough to want to learn about African communities by getting off their duff and doing the research themselves. But then, we are not negotiating from a position of strength. They have the money and the publishing houses. This is why I love Facebook and Twitter; you can’t italicize egusi over there. At least not yet. Don’t mind me jor, Terra Cotta Beauty is a good read. Stop reading me and go buy a copy. Now. It is an order. LOL!

Yesterday’s tales: Everything is as it should be

So the other day, I had surgery done. It was no big deal, really. There was this needy benign growth on my left shoulder that, well, kept growing. I called it the monkey on my shoulder. My family hated it. They called it names, awful names. They wanted it gone. It became a conversation piece in our household; my family came together around my monkey, it had to go. This, even though my doctor had decreed that it was not a problem. My wife overruled our doctor. It had to go. You do what your wife tells you. Your doctor does what your wife wants.

Before the doctor slices into you, they take you to a private room for “prep” work, in which you are handed over from one medical busybody to the other. They ask you things, you mostly lie to protect your dignity. Sample stupid question: “Would you consider yourself a light, moderate or a heavy drinker?” Heh! They wanted to know if I was allergic to any medicine. I said quinine, hoping to be quarantined; I needed the rest from work and home. The nurses googled quinine on their laptops (yes, they didn’t know) and huddled anxiously when they saw the word “malaria.” The nurses were smart, pretty and sweet, almost shy. One brunette seemed to take a liking to me, the way a cheerleader takes a liking to a bespectacled nerd. “He is so sweet,” she enthused breathlessly to anybody who would listen. She fussed over me, paid every attention to me. I was flattered. I overheard her teaching several other nurses how to mangle my name.

Brunette Nurse went and found a Nigerian nurse to say hello to me, I don’t know why. She was Ndiigbo, we grinned sheepishly at each other as we struggled to humour this white sister trying to forge a kinship. We did not understand the rejection; why, culturally we were each closer to her than we were to each other. Through contrived accents we happily rejected each other and Ndiigbo fled into the mess of rooms and broken patients. I missed my wife and I asked for her to be with me. Brunette Nurse went and got my wife. My wife sat with me and nobody came again to fuss with me. Then some stalwarts came to wheel me away for the operation. They would not let my wife come with me. Brunette Nurse wished me luck.

Going to the operating table is interesting. There is a strange finality to being wheeled away. It feels like going to one’s execution. In the operating room I am strapped to a gurney by pretty chatty people, babbling nice things. They are trained to be affirming, encouraging me even when I am not following directions. The surgeon is chatty, but indifferent to knowledge outside of his profession. I like him. He is in his forties but he is still wearing the spirit of a boy. He tells me that his parents bought this house in this great neighborhood in the 60s; he doesn’t know what the house is worth today. He has trouble converting the past to the present value. I help him. He grows quiet. Except for a colonoscopy, I have never really done anything this invasive. As I lay there shivering on the operating gurney, I remember my uncle Elephant in my ancestral land; poet, griot and herbalist. He believes that witches and wizards are responsible for the fate of the living. All ailments including apparently cancer, were treated by an enema which he gleefully administered to the unwilling. He made some of the most awful-tasting concoctions out of plants that grew around our compound. I have not-so fond memories of trying to swallow his creations in the sixties during the Nigerian civil war. At those times, the war didn’t seem too far away.

The doctor starts snipping away at my monkey with a studied nonchalance. I loudly marvel at the invasive techniques of Western medicine. He asks me: “What do you mean?” I think to myself, this man is an idiot. How did his ancestors get to the moon? I survive the idiot’s knife. I actually like him. He is not an idiot. He is a professional who has little patience for the undisciplined flourishes of a literary mind. Surgery over, my wife retrieves me and takes me home. It has been a long day; my wife wants a sandwich. We get one from a bakery. I don’t like sandwiches, something about meat between slices of bread I find merely fascinating. I want to go home to comfort food; my wife’s white rice and goat meat stew. I reach into the hospital bag that houses my belongings and my friend waits patiently for me in my iPhone. My friend’s question lurks anxiously, “How did it go?” I type back, “nbd, I am still here, everything is as it should be, lol.” The response returns dripping with relief and exasperation: “You!” I am still here. And the beat goes on.

This American life: Coming of (old) age

I have always wanted to be an old man. Growing up in Nigeria, childhood seemed to be an overrated experience. We were not poor, but my parents were spartan in affairs that mattered to me a lot. I was always hungry but it always seemed that the best meals were reserved for elders, certainly the choicest parts of meat and fish. The elders of my childhood had problems with their teeth, I think because they ate too much meat. I had problems with my teeth because I hissed a lot at their greed and I did not get enough meat to keep them busy and fit. Old men also did not do any chores. I never quite understood what old people did, outside of supervising women and children nonstop and demanding things meant solely for their comfort. They rarely strayed from their favorite chairs after returning from work. And everything they said seemed to make sense even when it didn’t make sense. In any case, any child or woman who dared question the inanity of their alleged wisdom would find a suddenly spry “old man” connecting painfully with sensitive parts of their body or heart.

For me, as a child, all parents were old people, especially the men. My dad enjoyed being an old man. Everything I loved was reserved for him. I loved chicken gizzards, that was for him. I loved chicken legs, that was reserved for him. I loved to do nothing but supervise other people as they cleaned the yard. That was his responsibility as I cleaned the yard. When he bought his car, becoming an old man became even more attractive and sexy. He would get up and go and come as he pleased and return demanding things. I started going to church every Sunday praying to God that he spare my life so I could become an old man with the necessary benefits that accrue to old people. God answered my prayers, but in the wrong country. It is great to be a man in Nigeria. It is even greater to be an old man in Nigeria. I live in America now, I came here as a young man, I am now an aging er old man. In America. Trust me, you don’t want to be a man in America. You are not in charge, never will be. You certainly do not want to be an old man in America. Your children cannot wait to take you to an old people’s retirement home where if you are lucky you would spend your days staring out of a fake window as a nurse forces you to down pureed pounded yam and egusi.

It is not always a bad thing. There are some good days. Saturday morning. I feel great. Feeling really great is a rarity at my age. Energy comes in limpid spurts, the mind adjusts, learning to be super-efficient with time and energy. The older you get, the scarcer they are as commodities, I mean, time and energy. Hurry up children, hurry up, daddy is feeling great today. Daddy has energy today, let’s do all our chores before daddy has to take a nap! The kids are happy to see the return of my energy and my sense of responsibility as a father. We are going to the optician to finally get those eye-glasses for Netter_Shoks, we are going to the shopping malls, Ominira has some gift cards she must spend or I will lose my mind from the constant asking to go to the shops because Ominira has gift cards that must be spent, we are going to the shops to rescue things we don’t need from bankrupt stores, we are going to the barbershop, me and the boys. Why, I feel do great, I have already played two rounds of cards with my son, Fearless Fang. He has this card trick he plays endlessly, starting with the chant, Daddy, pick a card, any card! It is a card trick that doesn’t even annoy me, even after a hundred chants of Daddy, pick a card, any card! Life is good today, life is really good. I wish my wife was at home with us today, life would be really great. But she is the real breadwinner of the house, she is out making money and I am here at home doing baby nurse! America get as e be sha! America is no respecter of age. But life is great today, life is really great. Maybe I’ll have a drink to celebrate a golden day. And ruin a golden day.

 Drink! Man, I was young once, and I could really down a few Gulders. And a few bottles of Odeku Stout. And some ogogoro. Yep, I used to be able to drink up a storm. Not anymore. At my age, a decision to down a single shot of cognac (yes, VSOP, my favorite life’s nurse) is not made lightly. The timing of the indulgence has to be just right, the calibration (of the number of drinks) has to be just right. Too late at night and I am groaning all night and groaning all morning. More than one drink and I am groaning all night and all morning (WHO has just ONE drink?).

 My eyes are going bad on me, they are not usually the first to go, but they are a close second, or third, or fourth, many things begin to abandon you in the twilight of your journey. The problem is that they abscond at exactly the time you need them the most. Try reading without your eyes. My eyes are so bad these days, I have to take off my eye glasses just so I can read,

 I remember Wole Soyinka’s ruminations on his first white hairs. I only remember it now, because I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now. Here, see if you can understand it.

To my first white hairs

Hirsute hell chimney-spouts, black thunderthroes
confluence of coarse cloudfleeces – my head sir! – scourbrush
in bitumen, past fossil beyond fingers of light – until …!

Sudden sprung as corn stalk after rain, watered milk weak;
as lightning shrunk to ant’s antenna, shrivelled
off the febrile sight of crickets in the sun –

THREE WHITE HAIRS! frail invaders of the undergrowth
interpret time. I view them, wired wisps, vibrant coiled
beneath a magnifying glass, milk-thread presages

Of the hoary phase. Weave then, weave o quickly weave
your sham veneration. Knit me webs of winter sagehood,
nightcap, and the fungoid sequins of a crown.

My objective, indepth review: Very nice poem. Very nice. But wetin di man say? End of review of head-breaking poem by olodo (moi!). I don’t remember my first strand of white hair.; I remember a wave, a mean army of amebos outing my mortality before pretty damsels. That is the other thing, all the beautiful women start coming out of everywhere once your white hair starts sprouting all over your ancient body. Maybe, your eyes are so bad, every woman looks beautiful. But either way, life is unfair. While my father’s white hairs came out in steady dignified spurts, mine simply overwhelmed my vanities and I just knew there was no need trying to cover them up with hair dye. America does not pay me enough to buy the amount of dye I would need to recover my youth.

 Life is a cycle. I am at a certain age now, and my children treat me like their son. I know now why old folks look so calm, wise and all-knowing – they have no energy to do anything else. Everything has to be rationed, I mean everything – emotions, food, booze, because there are consequences for overindulgence. I was a warrior once, jumping off rooftops, beer in hand, walking around fertile markets with my manhood as the weapon of choice. Now I watch today’s warriors, fools, jumping off rooftops, beer in hand, walking around markets pregnant with mischief, wagging their manhood at the unimpressed. They are unimpressed, right?

Old age is not that bad, my stomach is still trim. Well it is not bulging yet, but I see the beginnings of a paunch… My passions have aged, mellowed. I give advice to the young and they pretend to be awed by my inanities. America. I am in the wrong place and time. The old don’t get much respect in America and I miss Nigeria. In my time in Nigeria, the toothless ate all the best pieces of meat and the children simply looked on and prayed to get old enough to own their own piece of meat. In America, my doctor says I should avoid red meat, because, get this, I am aging! Na my turn form five dey wear knicker!

I am officially an old person in America. The mail came some moons ago and I got my membership card to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). With your AARP card, you get pretend-perks like airfare and hotel room discounts. Big deal. At my age, in my village in Nigeria, you get a chieftaincy title. In America I got a piece of paper screaming “old man!” Old age robs you of memory also. Anything that is not inside Amebo my iPhone might as well not exist. I have to write everything down or else I forget. My doctor says not to worry, as long as I know that I am forgetting something I am fine. He says when you forget that you forgot then you are in real trouble. Sigh!