Uche Nduka’s Ijele: Recollections for the tattooed ears of the wind

The poet Uche Nduka works hard at defying labels and definitions. His new work Ijele, published by Overpass Books, Brooklyn, N.Y. only deepens the enigma that is this seer. Who is Nduka? Well, if you group Nigeria’s post-colonial literature by generations, starting with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka et al as the first generation, Niyi Osundare et al as the second, Nduka would belong in the third generation. From my perspective, this generation is probably the least studied, which is interesting because they have put together a robust body of work over the years.

ijelepictureNduka’s generation of writers is mostly scattered all over the globe; the democratization of writing through the Internet has dispersed their works all over the place and it is hard to pin their works in defined volumes. Who are these writers and thinkers? In addition to Nduka, I am thinking of writers like Olu Oguibe, Afam Akeh, Molara Wood, Lola Shoneyin, Victor Ehikhamenor, Abdul Mahmud (Obemata), Obi Nwakanma (Rex Marinus), Sola Osofisan, Obiwu Iwuanyanwu (Obiwu), Chuma Nwokolo, Nnorom Azuonye, etc. Some of them, like Nduka, Akeh, Osofisan, Oguibe, Obemata and Wood, are elusive, if not reclusive. Almost all of them are defined by a common trait: They are not overly eager to publish. Several years ago, when I first came across them in a listserv (krazitivity), I was struck by how much they obsessed over each word of their work, employing rigorous and sometimes brutal peer review to polish their works. The good news is that many of them are finally coming out of the literary shadows. In addition to Nduka, Akeh has a volume of poetry, Letter Home & Biafran Nights coming out soon, Ehikhamenor just released Excuse Me! (Parrěsia Publishing) and more works by these writers are on the way. You don’t have to wait for published works though; simply google their names and feast on the prodigy of these renaissance artists.

I enjoyed reading Ijele. For one thing, it is different. It is billed as poetry, I am not sure we are to call it that. It certainly makes one reflect on how poetry is defined today. Nduka is not merely boundary bending, he is not bothered by it; he leaves that issue to the reader to resolve. By the way, I love traveling everywhere with a book of poetry because there is no pressure to finish reading it ever. I play this game where I randomly open the book to savor a literary treat. Ijele did not disappoint, it is full of treats. Take the piece Rough Plaster; how can you not be intrigued by these delightfully rebellious lines?

you can be as oversubtle as you want. i’m not interested. why deny the vigor of discordant anagrams. the city-hearted will express errata. disillusionment will grow old between coitus and faux pas. take on magnetism: taste paragenesis. there is no escape from this becoming. you take a step towards a memo for lobsters. i shall mislead all these tourists asking for directions uptown. (p 6)

In Ijele the poetry seems disconnected from space and context, chock full of enigmatic lines, curt, rebellious and uber-cool. The reader is forced to appropriate and own the poems and assign deeply personal contexts to them. And enjoy them. Ijele is impressive, a pretty little book pregnant with lovely divinations. I was struck by the lunatic, mathematical precision of Nduka’s genius. As an example, the piece, Exit Trampoline is a puzzle; its lines read like concept titles for long poems in the head.

i will flash you 3 times and then strip. if the sky complains throw it down from a balcony. The dawn may or may not squeal when it falls. razor again but textile not steel. (p 2)

Ijele is shattered shimmering brilliance, white flapping wings of dying innocence drying on clothes lines, soapy, reeking of malarial feverishness. Nduka is quietly defiant and unapologetic about his life, the sum of his experiences. He declares at the beginning of Ijele, “three continents converse in me, no one can stop their arguments.” (p 3) Indeed, in Nduka’s peripatetic musings the restless angst of exile is acknowledged – and abandoned. In Not Surrendering, everything comes together nicely in a loud vulnerable sigh:

i see you as you braid her hair, orchids of mire, seven-petaled night. beyond needing time to nurse a child. the art of breaking hoops. Soot undersung otherwise. I must understand & not mock my task of flight. I need your attention. Venice can wait. Someone like you walks through faces i can fade into. the hidden lust of a star teasing the sky can’t stay hidden any longer. i did not know what to say when she told me he kicked her umbrella off her hand into traintracks. the sidewalk painters of prince street need your attention. my seabag hangs on a wall. (p 4)

There are things the reader sees in Nduka’s words, he blindsides the reader with the cool torrent of his words: Exile, longing, despair, narcissism, all wrapped in the toga of invincibility, of coolness, defiance, even. Here, defiance is an art, a protest march in one burst of a movement. In the lunacy, chaos is disciplined into focus – sheathed machete writing, writhing in pain, refusing the anesthesia of ogogoro. Cool scared, a careful riot almost at the tipping point of manipulative contrivance. We are scared still because we are boys still:

until the tackle took you. i was charmed by your seminars swear words. stay or be away. damned either way. we lose the world the moment we define it. the clutter of yesterminutes. connecting boundary to source. you rolled into mornings, yestermornings. furnished or not, no room escaped our love, pulse and pause: our entanglement. this clarity of hair-hold. (p 8)

In the stunning lines of Pedigree, the reader imagines the power of words folding the past into the past, threading the present into the past, and willing a future that is now:

your appetite parts the day. breaks the day into two. on one side a house. on the other a wilderness. you cover both sides. what stresses them. not departing birds. there are plenty of bridges still to burn. sometimes shriveled flowers. what stresses them. not harmattan threshold. there is still the tooting bamboo. perhaps nailhead perhaps white paper. like leaving a toll gate. one half is a wisp of silk; the other a conversation with bass clarinet. discourse on her abandon. the wanton, the sultry belle. she is at the north gate. in the hallway. at a foyer. in an emergency. her fireflies are wind-bled. (p 9)

Coitus is a recurring encounter. Semen drips from the pages into damp dank drunken stairwells, odes to broken men, women and dreams. The narcissism, the fuck the world attitude never truly overwhelms because there is the constant re-imaging, re-booting of self. In poems like Tactic or Reprisala and Any Way You Want, the reader’s mind is fixated on this intrepid wanderer: You wonder, where has this poet been? Where have those hands touched, what?

You dared and joined the nudist circus. Later you had nightmares of trekking around town naked, not finding clothes to wear. You remembered Auntie Joy’s store at Ajegunle where she sold 7Up, Maltex, trebor, bread, peppersoup, Gala, kolanut and beer. You recalled me testing how fast my fingers could lift a coin or two from her wooden cashbox without being seen. You knew she occasionally caught me during those pilfering sessions but hardly rebuked me. Instead she always pulled the box nearer her at the discovery of an invasion or impending invasion from me. Most tomes she delighted me with offers of soft drinks and pieces of fried meat. Now these are recollections for the tattooed ears of the wind. (p 44)

In Estate Too, Nduka alludes to our daily war. In this new war, all we have are words, and we are not winning this war – of words. For they have the machines that staple our angry words together into meaninglessness.

must you stage an escape? Must you paint a skinscape? date blunder, not plunder. kick a habit, not a rabbit. intrude on vixens and wizards. shine on roof and briefcase. till the soil of lunatic aromatics. moving like a caterpillar. how do you handle a stressful situation? you eat chocolate and play a piano. are those actions vague and wooly? no. are they palliatives? no. (p 53)

Nduka writes about sad days. And happy days. Everything is mixed up; it is a rich mess, he chants, cowries aloft. He is right, the poet sees. The poet is a seer. Nothing escapes Nduka’s brooding gaze, not even hickeys; I must shroud my lusty neck in turtlenecks. This is not the seventies. This volume of poetry is the sum of the poet’s experience, smashed, broken china in the rain channeling JP Clark hung over from his rage. Periods, full stops, bear sentences like burdens, each almost unrelated to the next. Do not even attempt to connect the periods. For each line is a poem. Brilliant.

With Ijele, one soon ceases to be shocked. You have to read Coming Apart (p 63); these are words trekking onwards with more than a sideways glance at Nigeria, that geographical construct the poet is not coming back to because he never really left in the first place. The poet says these boundaries live rent-free in our heads. There is something schizoid about these lines, feverish, alternating among shades of darkness and light, the clashes blinding the eyes. And nightmares return in reverse order: Aluu, Biafra.

six children burnt in front of their parents. dying for what they knew nothing of. that country? “mere geographical expression.” some historied sepia. my room rejects drapes. chimera is something else. I whiz with it… this won’t do. this won’t do for meridians or for you. once a year and once upon a bear. an allergy that needs to be heard. you do sugarcoat it. a solidarity abandoned. who believed that tripe: “no victor, no vanquished.” miles away from where snapshots are.

Nduka the poet is a weaver-bird that has witnessed things. There are words in these meanings weaving more meanings from the diarrhea of the mouth, stages of needy grief, defiant, aloof, defiant, and needy. Nduka the poet is an imp, a mad, brilliant imp. You break into an impish grin at these lines in Counterfactual:

at the soul’s Sulphur Springs, i took photographs. when i went into a darkroom to develop them, the negatives went into a coma and never woke up. say something. break out. break out from twisting your grunts around a bus stop. i throw way salute-0. Man no die, man no rotten, you may prostrate before those vengeful elders but don’t do it on my mat. not even between clauses and golden pots. (p 67)

Fascinating. Sometimes you imagine this mad man in the market place wandering around muttering to himself picking up unrelated trash by dusk. And the clutter is art. Sometimes you think the poet is talking about you. There is sense in the broken shards of broken men. You are filled with wonder as you find the eulogy in the lunacy of the lines of Slow Trek and your heart breaks into applause:

what is connected disconnects itself. grief raps loudly on a windowsill. you head for the fast track ahead of earnest scavengers. in this season of financial homicides, bills rig your worth. rig your worth. but you keep a date with mourners for no one is free from the madness of death. of course the last gasp remains a prophesy on a slow trek to infinity. it badgers wine, flowers, meal for two. it is the voice that speaks undisturbed. a drop of water is its drop of seed. it teaches what holds, what thaws, what delights. hard lives pluck dignity from ancient experiences. (p 69)

Sometimes the self-absorption grates the poetry into overbearing nonsense. Read Into The Fray and you shake your head at lines like: who gives a shit about how much ice is on your Rolex? (p 71) You want to know and perhaps own the poet’s demons. You have a sense of an interesting, perhaps, dark existence lived in luscious painful narcissism like the rest of us. In Branching (p 72) the bemused reader asks: Why do we waste our lives so? Nduka doesn’t seem to give a rat’s arse what you think. He has written. You figure it out. He has spoken. Listen to the wind-rush of brilliance and lunacy. (p 72)

In Likeness and Impasse (p 73), Nduka is at his most powerful. He keeps the reader at bay, helpless. With the context withheld from view, the reader flounders and begs for context, crack cocaine between the covers, emptiness and nakedness, natural allies in the buff. There are all these phrases twisting in the wind, tart, bad attitude. And funny as hell. The lunacy is almost contrived but not quite. Everything is in place in the way a lunatic’s things are not in place; carefully strewn about with the careful carelessness of a diviner’s cowries. All the emotions are here carefully sifted from the silt, exquisitely calibrated.

Is this poetry? I don’t know. I don’t care, I am a consumer, mine is to enjoy it. This is different, it does not fit anywhere. I don’t obsess so much about the lines of poetry. I simply enjoy them. I enjoyed every morsel of Ijele, even those I disliked. That is the beauty and genius of Nduka’s brooding insouciance. Music is the result. Joy triumphs over the banality of heartache. Listen to the dibia in Through the Gap (p 81)

To countervail rudderlessness with rootedness. I can’t love you unconditionally, you said, I won’t hold that assertion against you. The caucus is of no interest to a poet waiting tables.

Applause. Dambudzo Marechera would approve.

Chika Ezeanya on Olaudah Equiano: Before We Set Sail

The writer speaks out of real or imagined experience, tales do not spring from nothingness. And often, the reader studies fiction closely – for the truth. Works of fiction tell us stories of an era and complement history books. Yes, there is this compartmentalization; there are history books and there are novels and it is not often that you find a historian who tries fiction to document a lived life, writing history, so to speak. I recently got lucky; I just finished reading Before We Set Sail, a historical fiction by the historian, Chika Ezeanya. It is a novel based on the imagined life in Africa, of the freed slave Olaudah Equiano. Equiano, aka Gustavus Vassa (1745-1797) hardly needs an introduction; as a freed slave, he actively advocated for the abolition of the slave trade. In his lifetime he was variously an author and entrepreneur who travelled widely around the world. He wrote an autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, in which he maintained that he was a child slave from Igboland in Nigeria who eventually bought his freedom.

Equiano may be dead but he lives on not only through a vast volume of work devoted to his life, but thanks to controversy about his place of birth and the authenticity of his narrative as a child slave from today’s Eastern Nigeria. One school of thought asserts that Equiano was most probably born in the United States, not in Igboland as he claims in his autobiography. These scholars argue that much of his narrative is based on secondary sources. The most persistent of these “birthers” is Vincent Carretta who tried to make the case that Equiano was born in South Carolina, in a 1999 essay Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on Eighteenth-Century Question of Identity. He extends his analysis into his biography of Equiano, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. Jim Egan’s incisive review of Carretta’s book sheds more light on the issue. Skepticism about Equiano’s narrative has been met with an equally vigorous push-back from several scholars. Ike Anya’s feisty essay describes with some hilarity the fireworks that ensued when the two opposing forces met. Here is an analysis that lays out the argument for whether or not he was born in Africa.

In writing the book, Ezeanya sought to fill that gap in Equiano’s narrative, growing up as a child in Igboland, being captured as a child slave and sojourning in several places before being sold off and shipped to the West Indies. According to Ezeanya, there is little in terms of that aspect of Equiano’s life that is documented elsewhere. What do I think of Ezeanya’s work? I loved it. In my judgment, Ezeanya pulled off this ambitious project rather nicely. She combines her muscular skills as a historian with a gift for storytelling to produce a suspense-filled, engaging and informative novel. Ezeanya also wisely sidesteps controversy about Equiano’s place of birth and with the aid of deft research and sleuthing cobbles together a story about what life must have looked like for Equiano or any child in his circumstances in Eastern Nigeria during that era. That is the issue, an undue obsession about Equiano’s true origin misses the fact that these awful events happened to someone and to a people. Ezeanya has a useful book trailer on YouTube where she provides a context for the book. Biko Agozino who reviewed the book here gets to the heart of what I admire most about Ezeanya’s novel, which is that this is not yet another hagiography of Africa penned by a starry-eyed clueless Pan Africanist:

 [Ezeanya] displays evidence of thorough historical research on what Cheikh Anta Diop theorized as pre-colonial black Africa. The only distinction here to her credit is that Diop painted a Negritude picture of an improbable civilization that appeared so perfect that there were no villains while Ezeanya shocks the reader into accepting the obvious reality that there is no such thing as a perfect civilization in a history characterized by widespread violence and terrorism. Readers who expect to find an un-spoilt innocence in pre-colonial Africa will be disillusioned to find that there were already unscrupulous people driven by greed to seek to profit from the sorrows of their fellows. Similarly, those seeking the heart of darkness in the pre-colonial epoch would be shamed into finding a thriving civilization in the hinterland.

Agozino is spot on. In Before We Set Sail, Equiano the young protagonist leads the reader through several civilizations, cultures and geographic states in parts of what is today’s Nigeria, beginning with his home town which he calls Essaka from where he and his sister are abducted into slavery. Written with pride and understated passion, the book is a quietly bold and successful attempt to assert a particular narrative because as Chinua Achebe reminds us in the East African proverb, until the lion tells the story of the hunt, the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter. Ezeanya helps Equiano tell his story and assert Black Africa’s humanity and civilization with defiance and pride. In the process, the reader learns a lot about the Black Africa of the mid 1700s through the eyes of this book and Ezeanya’s heart and soul.

I loved the prose. My best line: “I stared at the ground as my tears made balls out of the mud.” (p 69) Nice. Ezeanya’s imagination is vivid, you can feel the ambience, the atmosphere; ancient groves of malevolent deities come alive and in some passages you are filled with an intimidating spiritual presence. The pacing is exquisite, it would probably make a good movie script. Ezeanya’s depiction of commerce at the Bende slave fair shook me to my roots and the savagery will stay with me for a very long time. Ezeanya does a marvelous job at capturing the times and the good and the bad. These were medieval times, commerce was robust and cowrie shells and slaves were used as currency.  It was also a highly organized patriarchy in which men spoke and women and children were mostly seen not heard. But it is a thriving place that the story describes, there is sadness and joy, and in the story of the abduction of Equiano and his sister Ezinne (at ages 11 and 8 respectively) we see children enduring heartbreaking loss and we are strangely diminished. The reader learns that Igboland was a civilization whose people were filled with the knowledge of genetics and science. Even before the coming of the white man, the men had access to guns which indicates that there was inter-state commerce.

The research is exquisite, awe-inspiring. Ezeanya invests her creative energies in developing with great attention to detail, a few major characters like Didi, easily the best female lead character in the book. Like Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Equiano masterfully appropriates the English language as his own.  There are so many lovely stories within stories in this feisty book, including one that explains the origin of the four market days in Igboland. That fable alone is worth the price of the book. More importantly, in this book, one comes face to face with a certain Africa that has been relegated to the background of history in the race to stereotype and diminish her worth. We see thriving industries, astute businessmen and women negotiating deals with the best (or worst) of the West. We see a vibrant, highly organized workforce of slaves and apprentices Iron smiths and apprentices. Ezeanya makes the crucial point that the Igbo had slaves, that indeed there was a thriving slave trade before the coming of the white man. Beyond the clinical banality of commerce, the book also offers powerful evocative testimony to the efficacy of spiritual priests and indigenous healers.

Before We Set Sail is not the poverty porn that characterizes much of of what is referred to as African writing; instead Ezeanya pens a wondrous tale of Equiano’s childhood with loving parents, living in harmony with siblings and relatives in a land thriving with commerce and industry. Ezeanya pulls this off with a writing style that hearkens to Achebe’s, words steeped deeply in a way of life that seems now to be eluding a people long used to being uncritically assimilated into Western ways:

Just as I have brought my son to you here today, so Ijeenu your great-grandfather was taken by his own father to somebody who agreed to train him. Today, you have the ways of Akputakpu in your blood. I ask only that you do unto me as someone else did to your own great-grandfather — teach my son the ways of Akputakpu so he can teach his children and his children’s children. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch. If one rejects the perching of the other, may his wings be broken. (p 59)

Ezeanya frequent deployment of proverbs and parables to convey the book’s burden reminds us of the Igbo saying:  Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. Equiano puts it beautifully in the book:

Father had often warned me when I engaged in rough play with older boys that “the crab says it has no business with any play that involved the twisting of arms.” Our education in Essaka, although not written like the Aro people or the British and people of the New World, involved the heavy use of proverbs, idioms and such wisdom packed in short, easy-to-remember sentences. From one proverb, one could write thousands of volumes such as the works of Plato, St. Augustine or, more recently, John Locke. (p 129)

This book is all about history, in delectable doses. Readers will find invaluable  insights into the Ekpe secret society, the ancient writing nsibidi or nsibiri, the treatment of biracial children in Calabar (they were disposed of like twins), etc.  We also learn about many dysfunctions and issues that are  with us today, for example, marital abuse, and the West’s reluctance to effect technology transfer (like rum manufacture). The hunger for Western consumer goods heated up the slave trade (not much different than today, many consumers might as well be slaves), and we observe ruefully how the wholesale assimilation into a Western culture turns a people into caricature-consumers as gaudy ostentation is bought with hundreds of slaves.

It is not a perfect book. For one thing, I am surprised and disappointed that such an important book has been so poorly publicized. Before We Set Sail is published by The History Society of Africa and is available in both kindle and paperback at amazon.com and other leading book stores.  You can read excerpts at www.beforewesetsail.com. Go find a copy and enjoy yourself. There are minor editing issues and sometimes, the prose becomes awkward and ungainly like a civil servant’s memo.  The book is rich with profound sayings, many awkwardly translated, for example, “Show me one living person who doesn’t have one problem or the other? Is there anybody whose anus you could look at and not find pieces of shit?” (p 22) This is not so much a criticism but an observation of how things get lost in the translation because of transitions like the forced voyage to the new land and the unlearning of one’s ancestral language. When Equiano reflects on “the fattening rooms of Calabar” one soon realizes that the term is a misnomer. If the dialogue is sometimes stilted, it is consistent with the style of the flamboyant Equiano. Before We Set Sail is technically a novel, but the absence of a bibliography is disappointing. A bibliography would have been helpful. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun comes to mind as a worthy example; it has about 30 helpful references on the Nigerian civil war. And yes, my pet peeve: Nigerian words were painstakingly italicized as if to hard-code our otherness.

All in all, Ezeanya spoke to me in this book. I read the book  at a time when I was reflecting on the notion of identity, chafing at the realization that even as color confounds, Africa is fast becoming a pejorative used to lump together for nefarious reasons, scores of nations and cultures and languages. Did Africans sell off fellow Africans as slaves? Did these people see themselves as monolithic Africans or as distinct nations warring each other for spoils and profits? Much of the contemporary commentary on Africa is superficial only because good scholars have bought into the myth of a monolithic Africa. Ezeanya brilliantly rejects that narrative and offers a uniquely creative version  of world history that doubles as an enduring celebration of the humanity of a people long hunted and haunted by forces beyond their control. All through this lovely book, nothing tells of the abiding dignity and pride of black Africa more than these resounding lines by a defiant Equiano:

The strength of my nation in farming is profound; my people never lacked food, and the rarity of ill-health among my people is direct testimony to the wealth of our diet, and our industriousness. We cultivated yam, our chief staple in several varieties; also, maize, beans, fruits of diverse kinds, assorted vegetables, and other crops made their way to our tables every mealtime and to the market every market day. Fish, game and certain edible insects are found in abundance in my part of the world, and provided the nourishment we needed from time to time. (p 29-30)

Hear! Hear! I love this book.

This writing life: Ranting, cutting, grunting and pasting

For you…

“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”
– Lawrence Kasdan

The other day my friend was bemoaning a writing slump. The words were stuck somewhere, refusing all entreaties to come out – and play. My friend is a fairly prolific writer; multitasking on a book, a blog that could use some more tending and an active Twitter and Facebook account. If my friend’s tweets and Facebook postings were cobbled together, the result would run into thousands of words that make delicious sense. This is the same for many other folks that I know who are regularly afflicted with anxieties about that affliction called the writer’s block. They should perhaps get off Facebook and Twitter to write what the world considers writing. I hope they do not flee into the dying warmth of books. That would be sad because like my friend, they are a lovely, vibrant presence on social media, coolly cerebral with enough wit and zing to make us grateful readers always wanting more. But like a happy spinster who is not happy until she bows to the dictates of tradition and immerses herself in an unhappy marriage, many of today’s writers are not complete until they have filled the spaces of tradition. They must write that book, maintain that blog that defines and completes them if they are to remain current in that coveted coven of writers.

If you are a writer, it is easy to understand my friend’s anxieties about (not) writing. One must write to be called a writer. Even in the 21st century, in the age of the Internet, one must write in the right places to be called a real writer. Even as the book is dying, the first and best space that establishes a writer’s cred is the book. Conventional wisdom says you are not a real writer until you have written a book. I do book reviews; as long as I fawn over a writer’s works, I am safe, but I always get the “Go and write your own book!” venom spat at me whenever I sheepishly admit that perhaps a book I just read is not to my personal taste. I have never written my own book; I have contributed pieces to a number of books. However, I prefer the digital space, it responds instantly to the immediacy of my thoughts. What I have to say should not have to wait to be cloistered in a book. I write nonstop and all my writings floating freely on the Internet would fill several books. But I am the first to agree that I am not a writer, certainly not in the conventional sense. I am a reader who writes, so there. I have previously said that I will never write a book; scratch that, I am feverishly writing a book of awsome prose. This has nothing to do with the fact that next year’s NLNG prize, a mere $100,000, will be for prose (whatever that means). I intend to enter for the competition. And I expect to win.

I do maintain a blog. This blog. If my blog is feeling neglected, it is because this is the first time in a long time that I have written my own blog post. In my defense, I was occupied elsewhere, I fell in love with a certain campaign for the presidency of the United States and I could not stop obsessing, reading and writing about it. I could not. Actually, I was propelled not so much by love, but by rage, a certain burning anger about the sense of entitlement of the other, that had declared me the other. I wanted to make this so right. President Barack Hussein Obama had to win this for humanity. I found a spot under an e-tree and I kept reading, writing and ranting about my world, the world I would leave our children in. The polls held me spellbound; I trolled the Internet looking for polls that would tell me what I wanted to hear, and I hissed and snorted with derision at those that told me that well, my Obama was toast. In my rage, I became the other, snarling, hissing, and foaming in the mouth like a venomous snake that had fatally bitten itself. In the end Nate Silver was right to the last dot, and America proved why it is perhaps the greatest nation on earth; she broke down under the withering sun-rays of my glare and elected the right person to the White House. That Tuesday night ended my long vigil of cutting, snorting, grunting and pasting war missiles on Twitter, Facebook and listservs. My audience endured this avalanche of venom, glee, data (yes, Nate Silver is the man, when it comes to accurate polling data) that kept me hostage to my own fears and desires. I could not physically write, but some would say I was writing. If I cobbled together all I have “written” in the past several months, it would be an embarrassing pastiche of borrowed rage. It is over (Obama won, yay!!!), and I feel better. So I did not write anything original in that time period, but I was busy doing my best to rescue our presidency from those who do not see us as Americans. Actually, come to think of it. that is not correct; I managed to write reams on Facebook and Twitter about Chinua Achebe’s new book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. I should cobble together all my tweets and Facebook posts about it into one essay and see if it makes sense. Now that’s a thought. Nah, I think I’ll simply keep reading.

Reading is easier for me than writing. Yes, writing has been hard for me in the past few months but I have managed to read. Most of what I have read has been about identity and our shared humanity. So, I read Chinua Achebe’s memoir, and Chika Ezeanya’s Before We Set Sail, an awesome historical fiction about Olaudah Equiano. I also read Uche Nduka’s lovely book of poetry, Ijele and Wole Soyinka’s new book, Of Africa. Achebe’s book as we all know caused a furor among Nigerians because of his views on the hell that was Biafra. It is probably the only book that I know that was reviewed by people who are yet to read the book, a big shame. I also took a detour into unfamiliar territory and devoured Lara Daniels’ romance novella, The Officer’s Bride. There was no rhyme or reason for why I chose these books; they just happened to be around, and I grabbed them to calm my nerves in the searing heat of the campaigns. I am back now, I am feeling a lot better and I promise to write more often in the traditional places where people expect my opinions. I took a lot of notes in the e-margins of these books (yes, Kindle is great like that) and I hope to cobble together my opinions on as many of these books as I can mutter. Pray that I get this done before the next presidential campaign.

In other news, a big congratulations to Chika Unigwe for winning the NLNG Prize for literature, a prize that is growing in stature and dollars. I am happy to see that the sponsors of the prize have stuck with a vision, mostly from listening to often biting criticisms. That is how it should be. The prize is still a work in progress and I shall have a lot to say down the road.  Unigwe’s victory was also a commentary on identity and porous walls. The NLNG Prize in granting eligibility to writers in the Diaspora has ensured that no Nigerian writer subject to the debilitating mediocrity of most of Nigerian publishers will ever taste that prize. Mediocrity does not compete well with imported excellence. And again, I am not referring to the Nigerian writer. Speaking of which I know of many great Nigerians on Facebook and on Twitter who should be writers based on their postings. Tell them they are writers and they embrace writer’s block.  I am back here I think, but I can’t promise I’ll stay here forever. I wail wherever dawn meets me. Let’s just make this simple, don’t wait for my blog posts, instead, follow me on twitter and on Facebook. I accept all comers.

I am enjoying reading the works of African writers, I wolf them down any and everywhere I can find them. They are doing for me, what Soyinka and Achebe’s generation did for me in my childhood. They are different writers and thinkers but they were the Internet warriors of my time. Their generation of writers taught and entertained my generation – in the absence of the mystery and magic of technology, computers and the Internet. As a teenager, I loved Soyinka’s the Jero plays, and Ake, that wondrous book ranks up there on my list of memoirs. Soyinka is a genius as a playwright, however much of his poetry does not speak to me. There are many other poets of his generation that do (JP Clark, Awoonor Williams, Okogbule Wonodi for instance); nothing against his genius, just a personal preference. My lover swoons each time she reads Telephone Conversation. Whenever I am headed to the doghouse, if I read it to her, it sometimes earns me a reprieve. I really do not much care for Soyinka’s prose; it is opaque when it should not be. How many PhD theses have been written on that (in) famous line in The Interpreters, Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes?

My favorite Achebe book is Things Fall Apart, followed by No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Arrow of God in no particular order. I don’t much care for Anthills of the Savannah. I love his essays,. Many people I respect have convinced me that in a technical sense at least, Arrow of God is Achebe’s best book. My dad, Papalolo, the autodidact swears by A Man of the People. He also loved No Longer at Ease. He admired the new bourgeoisie, the new intellectuals coming back home from England in those big ships and he was amused no end by their antics. I remember him, glass in hand (filled with Star Lager) twirling an imaginary key ring in his hand and going, “Sam Old chap, how’s the car behaving?” That was perhaps paraphrased from No Longer at Ease. My dad always reminds me that if I had not been born, he would have ended up in England like the Soyinkas and Achebes, and returned from England dressed in a winter coat and gloves! He also loved TM Aluko’s works, especially One Man One Wife and One Man One Matchet, don’t ask me why. Those were the days. Whenever I remember Achebe, I remember my dad Papalolo and the power of words, how one man’s words far away could connect me and my dad and bond us over a shared passion. I do love my dad and many of my stories come from him, especially Cowfoot by Candlelight. I have said he was an autodidact, he did not advance past the 8th grade but the quality of the education of his time was such that he could today put many PhDs to shame when it comes to reading and writing. Rant over. And you, my friend, this is a long rambling way of saying, keep writing. I enjoy your writing. And you know that.

Teju Cole, palimpsests, and Sebald’s ghost

I don’t think one can write from a compromised moral position –  W.G. Sebald

Random House, Teju Cole’s publisher, in publicizing his book, Open City, urged readers to read his prose and be reminded of the German writer W.G. Sebald who died in 2001.  From many of the reviews of Open City, many took heed and agreed with Random House that the book reminded them, perhaps too much, of Sebald. The gloves are coming off in installments. Many readers have noticed the influence and they are muttering about it. The opinions have varied from supportive references, coy hints of plagiarism to outright outrage. I previously reviewed the book here. To be fair, even cursory comparisons of Sebald’s Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn with Cole’s Open City provide plenty of ammunition:

Here are the first lines of Sebald’s Ring of Saturn:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a month; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past that were evident even in that remote place. Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility.  It was them that I began in my thoughts to write these pages.

And here are the opening lines of Cole’s Open City:

And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park. In the other direction, going west, it is some ten minutes to Sakura Park, and walking northward from there brings you toward Harlem, along the Hudson, though traffic makes the river on the other side of the trees inaudible. These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway. In this way, at the beginning of the final year of my psychiatry fellowship, New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.

The resemblance is more than thematic and stylistic, there are similarities of substance. Sebald’s narrator starts out as a patient in a hospital, Julius, Cole’s narrator, is a young doctor in a hospital. It goes on and on; the similarities are plenty. Clearly Cole owes Sebald a huge debt; the least of which would have been an honorable mention in an introduction in the book as his primary influence and inspiration for an admittedly good book. That did not happen, Cole does not share. The blog Bauzeitgeist observes:

The book is clearly influenced by the writing of W.G. Sebald, and in many ways alludes to Sebald’s masterpiece, Austerlitz. Part of the novel takes place in Brussels, and there is even discussion of King Leopold, discussion of ancestors surviving war-ravaged Germany, passages about the Holocaust, and a number of other discrete references to Sebald’s scenery, including mention of crossing the English Channel–the opening scene of Austerlitz.

Bauzeitgeist is quick to conclude that “Cole’s novel is very much its own work, however, with a more contemporary, and American (and African) atmosphere, centered on a far less anonymous main character, who in addition to his perambulations across Manhattan and his four-week visit to Brussels, spends many parts of the novel discussing his family and other relationships, including some wonderful passages recollecting a childhood in Nigeria, including Lagos”

Jay Caspian Kang writing here grumbles about the “influences”:

I know it’s bad manners, but I find it impossible to talk about Teju Cole’s Open City without bringing up a certain dead German writer who wrote about taking walks, meeting professors, eccentrics, immigrants, and people who said things like, “I walked around, looking for an entrance, thinking of these nearby waters. Later, I would find the story recounted by the Dutch settler Antony de Hooges in his memorandum book.” The first 50 pages of Open City, in fact, read so much like W.G. Sebald that my ADD-addled imagination began to paste photos of funny owls and thoroughly unremarkable, vaguely European landscapes onto the pages of the book… As the book moved out of New York, it shook off a bit of the Sebaldian tone and that slow churn of significance, and moved into its own skin. Which I enjoyed. But Sebald still hung over everything and once I put the novel down, I wondered why an author would choose to create a voice with such an immediate, and, frankly, obvious influence.

Thomas Lewek here unwittingly, perhaps coyly, makes the point, without as much as mentioning the ‘P’ word, that when you compare Cole’s Open City with Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, there is more than a stylistic resemblance:

Comfort with sensuality exposes another noticeable disconnection between Cole and Sebald. Sexual relationships exist in Open City whereas the Sebaldian universe remains cold, and uncomfortable with the concept. Compare the following two scenes, the first from Cole, the second from Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn:

In the faux Louis XV bedroom, her shyness dissolved…Then we both went down together, by the side of the Baroque bed, both pushed up against its satin shams, and I pulled the linen skirt upward to her waist.


A couple lay down there, in the bottom of the pit, as I thought: a man stretched full length over another body of which nothing was visible except the legs, spread and angled. In the startled moment when that image went through me, which lasted an eternity, it seemed as if the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged.

(By the way, Mark O’Connell has a great piece on Sebald in The New Yorker, Why you should read W.G. Sebald.)  James Woods, the respected critic who knows both writers’ works extremely well (he wrote the Introduction to Sebald’s Austerlitz) observes in his New York Times review:

So the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing). The first few pages of “Open City” are intensely Sebaldian, with something of his sly faux antiquarianism

In the end, Woods pronounces Open City “a beautiful, subtle and… original novel.” I agree. Woods notes:

[T]he novel soon begins to throw off its obvious influences. The prose relaxes into a voice rather than an effect, and it becomes apparent that Cole is attempting something different from Sebald’s project. Eschewing the systematic rigor of Sebald’s work, as well as its atmosphere of fatigued nervous tension, Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition. This is extremely difficult, and many accomplished novelists would botch it, since a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake.

Edwin Turner in his review agrees also and observes similarly:

“If it needs to be said: Yes, Open City recalls the work of W.G. Sebald, who crammed his books with riffs on history and melancholy reflections on memory and identity. And yes, Open City is flâneur literature, like Sebald (and Joyce, and Bolaño, perhaps). But Cole’s work here does not merely approximate Sebald’s, nor is it to be defined in its departures. Cole gives us an original synthesis, a marvelous and strange novel about history and memory, self and other. It’s a rich text, the sort of book one wants to immediately press on a friend…”

Not all of Turner’s readers are that generous or objective. “Squinto13” commenting on Turner’s review says ruefully:

“I remember seeing that Cole had made a top ten list of “solitude” and that Rings of Saturn was his numero uno [here]. The Sebald similarity actually bothered me substantially. I don’t know. As someone who cherishes RoS as one of those great hidden gems, knowing that Open City is probably more well-known now than RoS is (or ever was) feels like the brilliantly original prose/tone of RoS was stolen and re-directed for greater consumption. Like Google stealing an idea that a smaller company got right or something. I wouldn’t accuse Cole of intentionally doing this, and the book has many merits – it’s still probably my favorite book of 2011, though I haven’t read many beyond some of the other prize winners, and the conversation with Farouq was top notch and non-Sebaldian – but I can’t help feeling like praise for this book owes more to Sebald than to Cole himself.”

Eric Shanfield dismisses it as reading “almost like a parody of Sebald.”  The angriest comment however is on Amazon in the customers’ review section of Open City:

This is less an homage to W. G. Sebald’s novel Rings of Saturn than a wholesale picking of his literary pocket. I found it difficult to read a single page without having to put the book down in mortal outrage because of each passage’s semblance to a similar passage, done better, in Sebald. I don’t know how people aren’t taking to the streets.

I honestly believe that talk of plagiarism is over the top (Cole and Sebald are two distinctly different authors with different messages), but the relationship between Teju Cole’s works and Sebald needs further plumbing and analysis by scholars. It is fair to say that Cole appropriated Sebald’s styles and literary vehicle and adapted them to suit his own unique (yes, unique) literary burden. You read Sebald’s works and you are taken by how much Cole clings to Sebald like white on rice. Examine the following passage from Sebald’s Austerlitz and it is hard not to think of Cole’s prose:

My memory of the fourteen stations which the visitor to Breendonk passes between the entrance and the exit has clouded over in the course of time, or perhaps I could say it was clouding over even on the day when I was in the fort, whether because I did not really want to see what it had to show or because all the outlines seemed to merge in a world illuminated only by a few dim electric bulbs, and cut off forever from the light of nature.  Even now, when I try to remember them, when I look back at the crab-like plan of Breendonk and read the words of the captions – Former Office, Printing Works, Huts, Jacques Ochs Hall, Solitary Confinement Cell, Mortuary, Relics Store and Museum – the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.  Histories, for instance, like those of the straw mattresses which lay, shadow-like, on the stacked plank beds and which had become thinner and shorter because the chaff in them disintegrated over the years, shrunken – and now, in writing this, I do remember that such an idea occurred to me at the time – as if they were the mortal frames of those who once lay there in that darkness.  I also recollect now that as I went on down the tunnel which could be said to form the backbone of the fort, I had to resist the feeling taking root in my heart, one which to this day often comes over me in macabre places, a sense that with every forward step the air was growing thinner and the weight above me heavier. (p 29)

What do I think? If you ask me, Cole definitely needs to wean himself of Sebald. Too much of everything becomes more than just influence. Read Cole’s beautiful essay, Blindspot in Granta (August 20, 2012) about medical issues with his eyesight, he quotes a passage in Open City and it is as if you are reading Sebald in Austerlitz because there is a similar experience that the narrator undergoes. It is eerie. Here is my favorite passage that reminds me of Cole’s Granta essay because it is uncannily similar to Cole’s narrative about his eyesight:

I was in some anxiety at the time because I had noticed, looking up an address in the telephone book, that the sight in my right eye had almost entirely disappeared overnight, so to speak. Even when I glanced up from the page open in front of me and turned my gaze on the framed photographs on the wall, all my right eye could see was a row of dark shapes curiously distorted above and below— the figures and landscapes familiar to me in every detail having resolved indiscriminately into a black and menacing cross-hatching. At the same time I kept feeling as if I could see as clearly as ever on the edge of my field of vision, and had only to look sideways to rid myself of what I took at first for a merely hysterical weakness in my eyesight. Although I tried several times, I did not succeed. Instead, the gray areas seemed to be spreading, and now and then, opening and closing my eyes alternately to compare their degrees of clarity, I thought that I had suffered some impairment on the left as well. Considerably alarmed by what I feared was the progressive decline of my eyesight, I remembered reading once that until well into the nineteenth century a few drops of liquid distilled from belladonna, a plant of the nightshade family, used to be applied to the pupils of operatic divas before they went on stage, and those of young women about to be introduced to a suitor, with the result that their eyes shone with a rapt and almost supernatural radiance, but they themselves could see almost nothing. I no longer know how I connected this memory with my own condition that dark December morning, except that in my mind it had something to do with the deceptiveness of that star-like, beautiful gleam and the danger of its premature extinction, an idea which filled me with concern for my ability to continue working and at the same time, if I may so put it, with a vision of release in which I saw myself, free of the constant compulsion to read and write, sitting in a wicker chair in a garden, surrounded by a world of indistinct shapes recognizable only by their faint colors. Since there was no improvement in my condition over the next few days, I went to London just before Christmas to see a Czech ophthalmologist who had been recommended to me. [Sebald, W.G. (2011-12-06). Austerlitz (Modern Library Paperbacks) (Kindle Locations 579-594). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.]

Cole is his own best enemy. Cole is an accomplished and important writer and it bears restating that Open City is a unique, original novel, albeit one borne on Sebald’s powerful literary shoulders. I do not believe that Open City would have been birthed without the benefit of Sebald’s prodigy. On the other hand, you have to be a really good writer and thinker to do what Cole did with Open City. I do fault Cole on one point: Cole should have given Sebald credit in the book and not look like he waited to be prompted by alert readers before showering him with encomiums. What Cole did is perhaps a more intense version of Ola Rotimi’s adaptation of Oedipus Rex in The Gods are not to Blame. Rotimi is careful to give due credit in his play. This essay would have been unnecessary if Cole had given Sebald credit in his book.

Again, in virtually all of Cole’s works, the Sebald influence is everywhere, it is hard to miss, and it is obvious that Cole has been studying Sebald for a long time. There are little things; the grainy black and white photos in Every Day is for the Thief now remind me of those in Sebald’s books. And all of Cole’s writing today have been travelogues, what James Wood refers to as flâneur.

Cole does not like the reference to the Sebald “influences” and the negative connotation. In this interview he bristles at this question:

It strikes me that if there is a resonance between Sebald’s work and your own it’s what you’ve just described. A lot of reviewers have latched onto stylistic similarities. But it seems to me it’s far more the legacy of traumatic events connecting you than questions of style.

And he responds dismissively with an air of annoyance and tries to put some distance between him and Sebald:

Absolutely. I’m very grateful for that, and I completely agree. Stylistically speaking, I take a lot more from poets like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, and prose writers like VS Naipaul, JM Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje and James Salter. It’s fair to say a lot of the cadences in my sentences are inspired by Naipaul. But few critics pick that up, and somehow end up latching onto the Sebald thing instead. His sentences are completely different from mine. His are long, looping and sort of intoxicated, whereas my stuff reads like court testimony; it’s very laconic. To me, that’s an important difference. I know I shouldn’t read reviews, but I do, and somebody recently wrote that it was absolutely disgraceful how I was picking Sebald’s pocket. And I just think, “Well, I have no response to that…

Well, Cole owes Sebald a huge debt of gratitude, no ifs, no buts. Since Open City, as if stung by the criticisms, Cole has been on a charm offensive writing effusive and really good essays on Sebald’s works, like this one here on his poetry. Writing in the UK Guardian, Cole lists Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn as his number one novel of solitude (August 24, 2011). He fairly gushes and breathlessly describes it as a “novel of ideas with a difference: it is nothing but ideas. Framed around the narrator’s long walks in East Anglia, Sebald shows how one man looks aslant at historical atrocity. Formally dexterous, fearlessly written (why shouldn’t an essay be a novel?), and unremittingly arcane; by the end I was in tears.”

In any case, scholars are going to spend an awful amount of time analyzing the relationship between Cole and Sebald and judging whether it was wholesome, that is beyond my pay grade. Judging from this scholarly blog piece from the English department of St. Columbia’s College, history will be kind and just to Cole:

W.G. Sebald’s death in a car crash in 2001 was a great loss to literature; he was in rich form, and we could have expected several really fine books in the years to come. We could hardly, however, expected that a literary descendant would have appeared in 2011 in the form of a part-Nigerian ‘professional historian of Netherlandish art’ writing about the perambulations of a part-Nigerian psychiatric doctor as he is wandering around the island of Manhattan.

But Sebald is the influence that Teju Cole’s first novel Open City inevitably evokes. It’s not that Cole doesn’t have his own voice (through his narrator Julius) or that his book isn’t an achieved work of art in its own right. It’s just that some elements are inescapably ‘Sebaldian’: the melchancholy shimmer of its beautiful prose, the apparently freewheeling associations in the mind of the narrator, the fascination with loss and the layerings of personal, cultural and architectural history. ‘Novel’ also seems a crude label, as it does for The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. And the narrator himself is a tricky figure – in Sebald, often slipping behind veils of irony, in Open City an altogether more ambiguous character than his highly-educated surface at first suggests.

This testimonial in itself is a major achievement for Cole, not many writers will ever have that honor. Ironically, he has done more for Sebald’s works than Sebald could have hoped to do in his lifetime. Cole has established himself as a great voice and an important gifted writer; on balance, given his creative adaptation of Sebald’s works as a vehicle for his own unique ideas, it is a testimony to the force of his voice that he has come away largely unscathed from the grumblings about his relationship with Sebald. Lesser thinkers would be doomed today.

I am a personal admirer of Teju Cole, a groupie even, he has been a great griot and enriched literature as we know it, for that we must appreciate and honor him. Cole will be with us for a long time stoking the embers of burning boundaries, cunningly testing the limits of what is acceptable in literary discourse. I don’t know of any writer in recent times that has garnered as much critical attention as Cole. He has done incredibly well and he deserves the accolades. He does need to come out from under Sebald’s brooding voice. For now, judging by his recent essays, it will take hours of therapy to wean him from Sebald’s shadows. Cole has a flair for mild drama. Reminiscent of the mysterious nocturnal visitor to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, he recently wrote a moving essay on his visit to Sebald’s grave. No word on whether he left flowers and a half-empty bottle of cognac. And oh, did you know that Teju Cole is the nom de guerre for Yemi Onafuwa? Find out from Margaret DeRitter in this awesome essay about the writer also known as Teju Cole.

Lola Shoneyin: Loving Baba Segi’s Wives

 Reprint: First published in Next Newspapers, December 2010

The writer Lola Shoneyin lives life joyously on her own terms, tastefully wearing her smarts and sensuality in a world bound in rigid emotional ropes of hypocrisy. Her poetry is scrumptious, turning cold rocks into sniveling lovers. She wields words like fierce weapons against the past tense posing for tradition. This thinker of Nigerian extraction is ahead of her time in promulgating innovative ideas and in the way she deploys her myriad energies to the arduous task of jump-starting courageous conversations in a complex society like Nigeria

Cassava Republic has just released Shoneyin’s novel, ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’. I adore this book. From start to finish, it is a triumph of life over adversity, a joyful ode to the sensual mystery and resilience of the human spirit. I love this book. Shoneyin brings together her unique poetic senses and her love of the human story and wraps up a great tale with muscular prose.  Politely defiant, Shoneyin bends every cultural artefact and taboo in her brainy sensual path. This is a soap opera between the covers. I love the author’s bold use of language and imagery. She teases, she taunts, she soothes with her words. This is a rebel gleefully tugging at silly clay boundaries. Every other page hides sentences that desire to stir your consciousness – and your loins. Nothing is taboo for Shoneyin; she is eclectic in a brilliant near-reckless manner. Her words are defiant, and drunk with the sweet musky smell of primal sex. Sexual tension keeps the pages erect and thirsty for lusty sex. And the curses and trash talking rain down freely, Nigerian style.You might as well be riding around in a bolekaja enjoying Nigerian life at its most impish.

In ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’, Bolanle, a university graduate joins Baba Segi’s household as the fourth wife. Using this canvas, the author inspects Nigeria’s motley issues, as if from a dirty window. It is pretty, ugly, and riotous and secrets do not stay hidden for too long. Nigeria is a market and everything is sold in the open. In the process, we are entertained. Shoneyin taps furiously and insistently on social issues, prying their doors open for the reader to confront. Issues like marital abuse, rape, sexuality, infidelity the relentless march and meanness of the new Christianity, the ravages of a soulless consumer society and the resulting mimicry of the other as in women bleaching their skins to look attractive. There is an abundance of misogyny, and patriarchy reigns supreme. Sons are a premium over daughters and well sought after and celebrated by the society. Baba Segi is a loving father, if a bit of a buffoon and a crude lover. He is an unattractive man who has a disgusting habit of losing his bodily fluids when he is stressed. But he is a good provider and the women humour him, to a point. Women and children cope by manipulating men – with mixed and unintended results.

Shoneyin addresses the mystery and complexity of relationships and sexuality from a woman’s perspective. Not many would agree with her sympathetic, almost defiant take on the issue but she does give a powerful voice to those whose crime is to be different from the tyrannical majority. In that respect, compassion gushes from her pen. In the crush of issues like arranged marriages and the expectation that women and children are chattels beholden to men, there is a lesson here: Women dream also of the same pleasures and desires that men take sometimes violently.

The book gains confidence and traction with the turning of each page, however, it was hard following the chapters as the points of view changed. It stretches credulity to imagine Bolanle the fourth wife as a university graduate married to a semi-illiterate polygamist. She does not present herself as learned. The wives’ characters could have been fleshed out a bit more robustly. In a few instances, the dialogue was awkward. My worst line: “Well, you know before you wrap leaves around liquidised beans one must ensure that the ingredients are complete.” (p221) It is the worst translation of a proverb I have ever read.  The book is partly a conversation about paternalism and misogyny but it comes across as hostile to men. Baba Segi is depicted as a hapless buffoon who loses his bodily functions under stress. Men are typically depicted as bumbling idiots with balls for brains and the book gleefully lobs insults: “Men are nothing. They are fools. The penis between their legs is all they are useful for. And even then, if not that women needed their seed for children, it would be better to sit on a finger of green plantain.” Regardless, the book will keep a reader thinking for a long time. Not many would agree with the too-tidy ending, life is too complex for that. But who cares? I love this book.


 

San Ysidro Windsong

for you, my friend, you who paid the ultimate price… for a dream deferred…

It is today in America. And it is tomorrow in Nigeria. The heart aches for Nigeria, for home. Africa comes calling and I must go touch the eaves of the ancient caves that guard my umbilical cord. I am fleeing the darkness of a dying winter, chasing the promise of spring. I am escaping darkness, racing, fluttering heart, to the sun where my ancestors sit waiting for me.  I am racing to the sun where my mother stands pretending to tend the cooking pot, eyes roving the skies for the white man’s bird that will drop me, restless son, onto her aching laps. The wandering disease attacks me violently and I must go. I must go bathe in the stream of the forbidden fish. I must drink deep from the palm wine of the palm tree that never dies, air-conditioned coven of witches and wizards. I must walk through the little path where my grand father is buried and go feed my mother’s people in the smoky pantheon where dignity fights a ferocious battle with poverty. My stomach, hostel of the white man’s food will collapse in peppery shock, my cells will protest the invasion of harsh peppers, but I will sit down in my mother’s smoke-drenched kitchen and eat everything that flows from the pot that sits on the tripod of firewood that cooks wonders. Izuma of the stout bush that cannot be felled, I come to you; your little boy in the blue suit, shivering in the summer sun is home, to you. Izuma of the endless savannah, hold me. Your little boy is back.

My friend, a thousand stories invade my aching head, a thousand stories collapse in my aching head, and in my aching head, a thousand stories morph into a giant lie.  And they call it fiction. There are no mysteries, only lies. Warriors and poets jump out of digital vinyl in pretty lock step, at ease with the white man’s digital 0s and 1s. Baba the prophet dressed in his underwear and marijuana smoke hangs laconically from the door of the overloaded molue bus, and wails his vision in a voice crisp and guttural, in the voice of the masquerade that just escaped the anthills of the playground of my childhood. And with Baba’s horn, you can taste Lagos heavy with the smell of sex, shit, blood and petrol. The poet leans on his solo horn wailing sad sorrow, soaking my cells with songs of promise and sadness. And you can taste Lagos heavy with the smell of sex, shit, blood and petrol. I close my eyes and the women of Africa arise from digital vinyl, they rise as one from the rivers of Africa and their dance tells the story that I know by heart. I close my eyes and my heart races to the playground where I performed dark sensuous experiments with Angelina:

If your eyes squint hard
 until the blood points the way to the anthill
  that houses the cheer leaders of the spirit world
   you will see them…
    dancing, dancing, dancing.
 
Hear the horns
 teasing the envious skies.
Hear the drums chasing the dancers’ feet.
Feel the dancers’ feet chasing the drums until
 the eyes get all confused.
 
And every night
 we will go to sleep with the dream that you handed us…
And suddenly things don’t hurt nearly as much.

Many moons have passed through the big river of this life and I have not spoken to you my friend. You are sad and I cannot help you. But you say it is well. Here, if you come close to me, sit by me, by this fireplace, home of the white man’s fake wood that burns at the flick of a switch, I shall tell you of my travels. And maybe, then, you’ll feel better. I have been to the white man’s planet. The white man lives in another planet. And he knows it. But he is not telling us. My mother, Izuma, conqueror of the stout bush told me that the white man knows where God is but he is not telling us black folks. The white man wants to protect God from us black folks because we may kill him in the rage of our condition. We are different from the white man and he knows it. But the white man humors us, assures us that we are the same; we are from the same planet. That, my friend, is a big lie. They are different people, from a different planet, white folks. They come from a planet where everything is different, even their rice is colored funny. We are not one with the white man; we are not of the same planet. But the not knowing keeps us apart from they that know. The white man is an alien nibbling delicately on what is called art in our planet.

And my friend, I shall die and come back, Phoenix, king of the ashes of exile and there shall be no nations, as we know it. There shall be no boundaries. Relationships will be strung tightly through lines that transport 0s and 1s to the conscience of liquid crystal displays. Relationships will pop at your monitor-mirror of a thousand uses, seeking warmth, seeking solace. There shall be no nations and no boundaries. And no moats, no waters will hold the flight of fear from the lands of shame and terror that bore us and tore us violently from our mothers’ umbilical cords. And you have not seen the flight of the fleet-footed from the cold and heat of evil lands. The worst is yet to come, my friend, the worst is yet to come.

And so, I am trapped in the white man’s capsule that flies a billion times faster than the angry catapult of my childhood. We are going west, chasing dawn, like a fool chases his shadow, I wonder if we’ll ever catch dawn. I just had breakfast in the east, now skinny little white women in uniform are offering me breakfast again. I gain a breakfast, gain three hours and I lose everything else. Deep in the bowels of the white man’s bird, I regale my fellow travelers with stories of exile in America’s Mississippi delta. I tell them of my days in the delta, trying to be a black student in a white school. I tell them of the white professor who literally patted me on the head and called me a handicapped child who needed special ramps into the highway of academic success. Because I am black. I tell them of the professor who would not talk to me in class even though class participation accounted for most of the grades. Because I am black. I tell them of the fear of soiling my pants as pot-bellied white men in white sheets and hoods gamboled merrily on the lawns of white fraternity houses at 2:00 a.m. while my ancient car threatened to sputter to a stop right before their salivating selves. I was afraid. Because I am black. Deep into the night, the scotch whiskey hissed through the rocks and raced through my arteries to calm my nerve cells and I held my fellow travelers hostage with tales of horror inflicted on me by their forefathers. The shame on their faces was enough reparations for me. There must be a God.

Dinner at the Gaslamp quarter in San Diego. Our dinner hosts have more money than they know what to do with. The prices on each of the appetizers will buy two month’s supply of egusi soup for my entire family. Our hosts push the menu in my face and they say order whatever you want. They show me the wines, with prices that drop my jaw to the floor and they say order what you want. It is a food lover’s heaven if you are from the West and love eating artwork. Me, I am dreaming of a big bowl of hot steaming pounded yam and ogbono soup choking in the wealth of stock fish, smoked fish, cowfoot, tripe, oxtail, and snail bigger than the ears of an elephant. But I am in San Diego, having dinner with wealthy attorneys who want to sell me what I don’t know and I must look sophisticated. I choose “pan-seared escargot and roasted fingerling potato” as my appetizer and “steak au poivre, pan seared 8 oz steak, cognac and white peppercorn sauce, pommes frites” as my entrée. For dessert, I ask for a glass of cognac. My friend, the African-American is moaning his displeasure; he doesn’t like the food and he wants to go to Burger King with me and wrap his gentle fingers around the biggest and juiciest burger that he can find. With French fries. And he wants to wash it down with fresh moonshine (American ogogoro), straight from the plains of St. Petersburg Florida. “Where are my fries?” he wails softly as the expensive artwork that passes for food is placed delicately before us. In the presence of expensive food that tastes like plastic credit cards, my thoughts race and I am thinking of my fate in my old age. Will my American children dump me in an old people’s home to die a slow death from eating alien meals? Will my “assisted living counselors” serve me pounded yam, with egusi and all the trimmings? Or will my meals come in the measured manner that lab rats are fed in biochemistry labs?

We are two Americans and we are going to do brunch and margaritas across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. We shall stop at the restaurant just across the border. They say we may cross the border without visas, without passports. We are Americans they say. All we need is our American driver’s license. I don’t believe it. I carry my American passport just in case my Nigerian accent mocks my claims of alien citizenship. My friend, the blonde one teases me about carrying my passport. She doesn’t have to worry, she is a pretty blonde American, she will travel the world naked and American marines will die defending her right to be naked. I am a different issue altogether. I am American on paper. And I am black.

The trolley takes us rolling past San Diego and gently coughs us up at the border in San Ysidro. I leave America behind just by the bridge where the one-man mariachi band trolls for dollars. My pretty blonde friend holds my hands as the taxi drivers hurl themselves at us hustling for fares. I hold her hand. She is afraid. I am afraid. We are both afraid for different reasons. We eat lunch in Tijuana, a meal that looks like the raw ingredients for rice and beans and stew. A mariachi band comes to our table and we request a song. The bandleader looks at us and asks if we want a song for lovers. We say no, our spouses would not like that. We want a happy song. And they sing for us a sad song.

We take the taxi back to the border. My friend has her driver’s license. I have my driver’s license and my American passport, just in case. When we get to customs, the American asks my friend, “Are you an American?” and she says, “Yes” and waves her driver’s license at him. He waves her into America. But she won’t go, she holds my hands still. She is afraid for me. I wave my driver’s license at the American and he ignores my license. My friend the pretty blonde is still holding my hand hostage when the American asks me, ‘Are you an American?” I hold on to my blonde friend’s hand and I say, “Yep!” and the American says, “Where were you born?” I say, “Lagos, Nigeria.” The American dons a wicked smirk and asks, “When did you get your U.S. citizenship?” and I say, “It has been a long time, I don’t remember, sometimes in the early nineties…” And he goes for what he thinks is the jugular and asks wickedly, “How many stripes are there in the American flag?” My rage wells up from within the bowels of my river of shame, I reach for my American passport in my back pocket and I fling it down on the idiot’s desk and I wail: “What a stupid question! I am not answering that! Here, I am an American, I am a dumb American, here is my passport, are you happy now? America is safer BECAUSE OF YOU! Are you happy now?” My friend the pretty blonde squeezes my hands tightly as if squeezing away my rage. They will arrest me if I don’t control myself. She mutters something about taking an anger management course. The stupid American grins even wider and waves me into America, with a smirk and says “Welcome home!” Welcome home! I am an American. I am a Nigerian. I am a human being. Let me in.

I am happy to leave Tijuana. In Tijuana I saw my past, my present and my future and my heart wept. My conscience died many times as little children, offspring of beggars tugged at my shirtsleeves and heart pleading for quarters. I reached out to hold one, just big enough to be my little boy and he scampered off, running from the alien intimacy and warmth of another human being. I think I shall go home and hug my boy.

So my friend, this is the season of the wandering disease. It has infected me and I must travel all over seeking solace in cold and hot places, looking for answers that elude me at home. Trapped in the grip of this disease that sends my restless soul shivering, I have been to places the beauty of which will haunt me forever. I have been to places, the sadness of which will haunt me forever. Be strong, my good friend. I must leave you again. I am going on this journey to where we came from. They have lampposts that have no lamps. They have telephones that have no voices, and roads with potholes that swallow cars the size of elephants. And everywhere marauders roam the land masquerading as policemen, soldiers, politicians, robbers, dinosaur-size mosquitoes and locusts, robbing and pillaging the sweat of our people. But it is still a beautiful place, the land of my birth. I shall eat simple meals, drink ogogoro from recycled soda bottles and if I am lucky I shall dance on the streets with Rex Lawson and Celestine Ukwu. Wait for me; I shall be back from this journey when my glands break free of the fever of the wandering disease. And I shall come back for you, lion cub. Farewell, lion cub, I shall miss you… And I wrote this song for you. I shall miss you, lion cub.

Now…
it is sun down at the ilo;
follow the dust storm
and you can’t miss the ilo…
the poetess with the flute
chases the masquerade
with her flute…
 
Now…
the flute taps a solo wail
points the masquerade’s feet
to the right address
on this tired, tired, earth.
Now…
Listen, listen to the air
the air is an orchestra
horns insistent
piercing the crisp silence
of an evening gone to bed.
 
Now…
hear the air wail…
the air… phoenix
is a talking drum
can you hear the air?
 
 Now…
listen to this…
the drummer’s insistent beat,
truth lands on concrete
bounces off nonchalant ears
but the truth has landed…
 
 Now…
close your eyes 1967
can you see him
masquerade…
breathing the fumes
of the anesthetic?
 
 Now…
hold this Fanta bottle
of ogogoro
to lips in shock
hold this last stick of Galleon
does the smoke shield your rage?
 
Now…
lean on this last wall
of dreams gone awry
belt out this last solo
song of the masquerade
music of our forefathers…
 
Now…
the trumpet must travel
burrowing through bridges
draped in the morning dew
of dawn… paying toll to no one…
 
And…
the children
they sat at your doorsteps
ears hoping for the footsteps
that will never walk this way again
 
 And…
the children
they sat at your doorsteps
ears hoping for the return
of the trumpet
that sells ogogoro
in Fanta bottles.

 

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.

#Caineprize – The Thirteenth Caine Prize Shortlist: La Salle de Départ

Every now and then one comes across a story that belongs in you, that should have come from you, that tells it exactly how you have been meaning to tell it, but you can’t because well, you are the story. La Salle de Départ shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize was stolen from inside my soul. I should sue the author, Zimbabwean Melissa Tandiwe Myambo for doing this to me. This is one of the finest stories I have ever read. It features vivid soaring searing imagery with profound insights, yet tender, sensitive, touching. Still, Virginia Woolf’s gentle but insistent spirit comes bleeding through, holding the hands of her brown sisters. I salute you, Myambo.

What is this pretty story about? A young man (Ibou) ends up in America thanks to the generosity of the extended family. On a visit back home (Senegal), he balks at taking responsibility for the future of his nephew Babacar who the mother (Fatima) wants to go to America, the land of milk and honey. The dream is America; the nightmare is the nephew, Babacar. The extended family spreads poverty and the protagonist kicks against this new imposition.

Where do I start? Pretty does not even begin to describe the prose. The dignity of this story spoke quietly to me and comforted my soul. Bravo. La Salle de Départ is a familiar story revamped in colorful black and white. In untrained hands, this would have been another tired tale of home and exile. Instead, Myambo pulled it off as a thoughtful treatise on that movement we call immigration. Quietly, everything is laid bare: The politics of blood and (un)belonging in the era of globalization.

A good story should be like good sex, you want some. I got some in this story. The reader’s mind floats on a lazy river of laconic prose, built on the sturdy backs of painstaking research and searing attention to detail.  It is interesting, Myambo barely moralizes or editorializes, for once, this is a story, what a concept. You enjoy it quietly, sigh, and then the story’s issues start to tug at your conscience’s shirt, insistently thus: “Can we talk about this?” And for once the italicized words did not draw my ire; they seemed to dignify the words, drawing you in, inquisitive at these French words that are now the other against Senegalese words. It is brilliant how she explains the words – with dignity and pride. Nice.

Rather than a tired tale told perhaps for profit and a desired audience, this story comes across as a lovely time marker of an era when all the civilizations came together under a gnarled baobab tree and amused each other with the strangeness of (not knowing) the other. These civilizations and their technologies, tools and toys brush against each other like strangers overflowing in an overloaded elevator. And the reader is reminded: Halcyon times are dying, love letters giving way to the intensity of digital texts and (e)motional affairs. Myambo’s eye for detail is complimented nicely with exquisite prose poetry. Hear her describe those Baroque buildings that are the hallmark of American university campuses:

“Father nodded at her to begin reading the letter and it was only then that she noticed the photograph that had slipped out from between the pages. Picking it up, she gently shook the dust off of it and wiped it on her pagne. It was Ibou with two other young men and two girls standing on the steps of what looked like a library or some other majestic university building propped up by ornately-decorated columns. To Fatima, it looked like a concrete wedding cake.”

“It looked like a concrete wedding cake.” Anyone who has ever been in an American university campus will enjoy the brilliance of that quote.

It is very clever how Myambo buries the clues to the meanings in subsequent sentences, like a lovely and enchanting egg hunt.  To get a sense of how beautiful this story is, think about Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories (Interpreter of Maladies, and Unaccustomed Earth),  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (The Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun), Chinua Achebe (No Longer at Ease) and Camara Laye (The African Child).  Behind all that beauty and powerful prose she fearlessly examines and updates notions of physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries. This she does with careful research, exquisite pacing and lovely prose poetry wrapped in a familiar but enchanting ambience. And yes, there’s technology jostling for space under the Baobab tree. People actually text in Africa! What a concept:

““It’s a text message from Ghada. I can’t believe my roaming is finally working again and of course, just in time for me to go to the airport.””

Where there is a certain viewpoint, it is not a cloying, in your face unctuousness; you simply catch a whiff of it. And they are real issues, e.g. patriarchy, the extended family system, immigration, etc.

“Perhaps she would have more choices if she had more brothers to rely on. Brothers were like the wind, they could go places she could not. She was like the sand. She could only be blown by the wind. But now she had a son and Ibou had to help her build wings for him. Her dream for Babacar was for him to go and live with his Uncle Ibou all the way, theeerrre in America, to go to school there, sow success for the family there and harvest green US dollars to bring back here.”

Everywhere the reader’s eyes roam, there is sad beautiful prose:

 “Again. He was always leaving. Her memories of him were distilled down to a series of departures, snapshots of ever leaving. And now he was leaving without having agreed to take Babacar with him. It was her turn to fix her gaze on him, willing him to respond in the affirmative…”

And again:

“I am the one who waits always and watches others come and go. I am the one who always remains behind so that you can go.”

The story reminds us that daily familiar themes are renewed in our consciousness even as we fight our individual wars and get comfortable in the new municipality of the individual, the ME. In Senegal, we witness culture clashes, with hygiene as proxy, resulting in alienation at home and in exile.

“Delicious! An excellent cook, but why was the squat toilet never flushed properly? Why were there always lumps of other people’s shit floating next to the foot pads? He pushed the carrot around with his tongue, trying not to think about that and he wished he felt guiltier for constantly thinking about it. But he couldn’t stop himself. Ghada was luckier in that sense, she was closer to her family. But then again, her family was different.”

The advocacy here is more sophisticated than I remember. All through Myambo expertly takes us on ride through sleepy streets pregnant with the fragrance of fried beignets and cold bissap juice.  Lovely.

The new nuclear family is about cutting clean through the umbilical cord of poverty and family ties. Or is it? Are we breaking free past the shame of self-loathing?  Is this self-loathing, liberation, acculturation or mindless assimilation?

“He looked at her for a long time but he couldn’t hold her gaze. It wasn’t so much that he was afraid of what he would see but rather of what she would see, the feelings he did not care to admit even to himself. Somewhere deep down, Ibou experienced familial obligation as an intolerable irony. When his mother passed away in October of his first term at university, a strange aloofness was born in him. He never mourned her. It all happened so far away, in another time and place. Instead, all his childhood memories were slowly suffused with a sepia tint typical of old-fashioned photos, the type of photos one looks at but feels no connection to. Somewhere along the way, Senegal had died for him. It was all too abstract, too removed from his daily reality; family responsibility weighed on him but not as heavily as he felt it should. How many years had he been away? Half his life had been spent in another country, in another culture, where the ties of family do not strangle one’s bank account and stifle one’s emotional resources. He wished he felt more guilty. If he were a better person he would.”

We see the tension between home and exile and the expectations of the extended family that ironically funded the protagonist’s new independence:

““When we sent you to America, it was for the good of the family. We sent you to study for us.””

This story cut me all over like a playful knife and it ends too soon for me, gifting me with the best sad ending I have encountered in a long time:

““Goodbye,” he said. “Thank you for everything.” Awkwardly, he embraced her rigid shoulders and then quickly turned and pushed into the crowd putting their luggage through the X-ray machine. He took his carry-on and put it on the moving belt. Then he took off his watch, his iPod and his cell phone and put them in a tray along with his laptop. He stood in front of the metal detector. When the official waved him to come forward, he stepped through the metal frame, trapped for a second on the border between his world and hers, silhouetted against the bright light of the other side. Time teetered; she held her breath. But then he was through, into a world where she would never venture. He looked back at her and lifted a hand. Then he was gone. She would wait for his plane to take off.””

I have thought hard about what I did not like about this story; I am not coming up with much. The themes are familiar but they are still here with us and Myambo addresses them expertly in real, rather than in nominal terms. Of all the writers on the Caine Prize short list that I have read to date, her writing comes across as the most polished and sophisticated, it is almost as if she is overqualified for the competition. She is not; there are many more where she came from. As an aside, Myambo must lead a very interesting life, a Zimbabwean writing so convincingly and evocatively about Senegal.

Finally, as I was trying to figure out how and why Myambo’s La Salle de Départ spoke to me so beautifully, I chanced upon Jasmin Daeznik’s poignant and at times sad New York Times piece,  Home is Where They Let You Live. And then it came together for me personally; both pieces made me refocus and reflect in a profoundly personal way on the notion of home and exile and the responsibilities and burdens I have had to bear and in some instances jettison on the way to crafting a sustainable self-identity. Home is not always home.

Related posts:

Stephen Derwent Partington “On Admiring Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s ‘La Salle de Départ’”

Ayodele Olofintuade – Long Drawn Out Departures

Backslash Scott Thoughts Caine Blog: “La Salle de Départ” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

The Niger Delta and the Lost Promise of Outrage

Reproduced here for archival purposes only. First published in December 2009.

Once upon a time in the Niger Delta, the seas were so beautiful they were celebrated. Once upon a time in the Niger Delta, the seas were fertile, and the farms pregnant with fat produce. And then oil came. It is a familiar story told by activists of the Niger Delta of Nigeria. The history of the Niger Delta is the truth, nothing but the sad truth. The Niger Delta of Nigeria has been a fiery hell since 1956 when someone started drilling for oil in Oloibiri. A once beautiful.

idyllic place of wonder has since been turned into a deadly eco-disaster thanks to successive armies of mis-rulers, multinational corporations and an apathetic docile people.

Today, what is happening in the Delta is black on black crime. Nigerian leaders are colluding with oil companies to do to the Delta what would not be allowed in the hog farms of America. It is an outrage. That is the point that the book Outrage by Ogochukwu Promise manages to mangle in about 340 very long pages. The writer Promise takes on the ambitious job of capturing the devastation of the Delta in prose and sometimes in poetry. It is truly an ambitious project that falls flat on its face and then crumbles from its own weight because it is built on a rickety anemic foundation. The book is a nightmare in terms of design and structure and there is ample evidence that no editor ever read this book. It could have been saved by a professional editor. Perhaps. Reading Outrage was an exercise in frustration. Here is a writer resident in Nigeria the scene of the crime, she has several rich stories to tell she has a booming poetic voice and she has the energy and the passion to go with her gifts. But then you read the book and wonder did an editor even as much as glance at this book? This book was obviously never edited.

Don’t get me wrong, Outrage was an ambitious project; a lot of sweat equity went into producing the book. And it has some promise in several parts. The book’s prologue that sets the stage for a story involving generations of fighters willing to fight for freedom for the people of the Niger Delta is almost worth the price of the book. It is a good short story in its own right. The poetry when Promise invokes it takes the reader right to the mysterious Delta of the poetry of Okogbule Wonodi, Ogaga Ifowodo, Gabriel Okara and Tanure Ojaide. It invokes incantations of our sisters and mothers of Africa gently pounding the earth in dance until the pain goes away for a bit.

There is promise everywhere: The book’s cover is inviting – an angry young man, with bloodshot eyes glowers at the world, fire everywhere, red everywhere. Judge this book by its cover at your own peril. If you are trying to understand the problems of the Niger delta this book will not help you.  I really couldn’t tell you what the book was about and I read it a number of times. It is a busy book, cluttered with way too many characters; I needed a genealogical chart to trace the characters’ journeys. Ironically, plotting the chart of characters made the story even more improbable. Chronological ages were not lining up with the story’s trajectory. There was some good poetry wasted by bad editing and clichés. In the end, the story morphs into a deeply improbable tale made murky by the writer’s insistence on sticking to a certain plot, credibility and probability be damned.

The story speeds past huge swathes of time just to get to the writer’s anxieties. It is hard to tell what era one is in. Even though the story presumably starts in pristine times, there is a life-size Sony flat screen TV set early on in the book. Confusing.  These gaps are unforgiving in their constant reminder that the story is missing many ingredients despite its richness. Where for instance is the shame of Biafra in this story that started well before oil gushed out of Oloibiri?  The omission of the Nigerian civil war in this book is strange.. I would say that the book is too rich in seasonings, too poor in coherence. My advice? Read the prologue Sunrise, skip everything else and then read the epilogue. The story begins and ends there. Everything in between is sheer tedium. I would know; I read the book three times. This is unfortunate because Promise is a writer with obvious talents, poetic sensitivities and a prodigious industry. She has published by my count almost two dozen books, she is no slouch. I hope that her other books are not as sloppy as this.

The book Outrage is an abject lesson about the power of expression – of that which we know. The Niger Delta throbs like a viral phallus in every cell of Ogochukwu Promise’s consciousness. Hear her poetry, close your eyes and you can feel the salt sweetness of the Delta. Outrage also offers many lessons beyond the injustice and horrors that have invaded Nigeria since that wretched day in 1956 when someone attached a mean breast pump to Oloibiri’s breasts and started screwing the beautiful people of Nigeria’s Delta. The book tells the unintended story that what is happening to home grown literature in Nigeria should alarm lovers of Nigeria. There are bright spots but the publishing industry is barely struggling, producing sub-par works. Outrage is an exercise in carelessness; there are all these misused metaphors and grammatical errors galore litter several pages of the book. Words are frequently used inappropriately – hens “quacking”, goats “blithering.” It is my fervent hope that this book is not being used somewhere in Nigeria to guide instruction. No editor read this book, indeed, I wonder if a spell checker was turned on as the manuscript was being written and that is a big shame. There ought to be some standards-based process for allowing a book to be published.

In fairness to an editor, the book would have been a challenge to edit. It is not enough that words are often used inappropriately; “weather” instead of “whether” etc, the book was an overly ambitious attempt at writing an epic. It ends up, by poor design, being merely an epic tome. The story drags on and on over many (I mean, many) decades and gamely hangs on to the story and the main characters until it is mathematically possible for a human character to mercifully die off at a biologically impossible age (I calculated!). Part of the problem lies in the strong will of an author who is grimly determined to tell a story, plausibility be damned. An editor would have helped to chop up the story to a manageable, delightful edible size. Sometimes, the book races blatantly to a desired point by merely short-circuiting all credibility. For example, Arogo, one of the main characters does not see the inside of, presumably a primary school until he is 14, he attends this school for just four years, after which he is admitted to presumably a university in England. He leaves behind his wife (that he conveniently married in the village before he leaves) returns 15 years later to the waiting arms of his wife and son and proceeds to basically picks life up from where he left it and his family. Possible but improbable.

It is sad that fully five decades after Things Fall Apart was published, the Nigerian publishing industry is still virtually inchoate as the environment that drove Things Fall Apart to be published abroad. In many ways when you adjust for all the enormous resources available to today’s writers, one could argue that the publishing industry has gotten worse since then. Sure there are incredibly bright spots, like Cassava Republic, blogs and websites, etc, etc, but these are sadly outliers. There are many reasons why things are in near disarray; it  is not all the fault of our writers. To say for instance that successive Nigerian governments have been irresponsible is to engage in polite understatement. There is not a shortage of passionate, talented writers like Ogochukwu Promise in Nigeria. But the sad quality of the production mirrors the sad quality of virtually every production from virtually every Nigerian institution. Art imitates life’s reality. The frustration with all of this is that there is a beautiful story in the book Outrage. In the undisciplined hands of vanity printing, the result is a tedious disaster. It is a rich but inchoate tale told by a talented story-teller whose voice has been garroted by a communal mediocrity largely beyond her control.