There was a Country: Baying at the ghost of Biafra

For our father, Corporal Ohanugo, you who never came back to the children of the barracks…

[In which I compile my  various thoughts on Professor Chinua Achebe’s book, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra culled from my numerous postings on Twitter, Facebook and listserves. This is intended to serve primarily as a historical archive of my views. So I (we) may not forget.]

I enjoyed reading Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. Many devotees of Achebe will recognize several chapters from previous essays; however he does a good job of putting them together to tell a majestic story. It is an important book, one that should adorn every thinker’s book shelf or e-reader. What I am going to say here  is not a review or critique of the book; I don’t think that the world could stand yet another review of that book. Yes, there are some really good reviews of the book and there are many atrocious rants posing as reviews. My favorite review is by Tolu Ogunlesi whose coolly cerebral analysis puts to shame the reams of hot air from several architects of Nigeria’s ruin.  Reading the book clearly makes the profoundly sad point that many who have “reviewed” the book dispensed with the inconvenience of reading it. Too bad. Achebe’s memoir is a great, nostalgic look back at a very complex era, one that should have elicited a more coherent and respectful engagement than what we witnessed when the book was released. To be fair, Nigeria’s educational system is at best incoherent, in reality in shambles.  Not much of what Achebe had to say can be gleaned from Nigeria’s classrooms. And so, many people have reacted with pieces of dog-eared crap because Nigeria has not invested in an instructional and intellectual infrastructure that keeps her history intact. It is Nigeria’s loss, not Achebe’s.

The noise making and intemperate dance of shame that heralded Achebe’s book are a sad commentary on how many Nigerians conduct the business of scholarship these days. Many people should be stripped of their academic degrees; they are a disgrace to scholarship. There are many things to disagree with Achebe about, but one comes away with a sad realization that we are witnessing the passing of an era, of principled hard-working writers and thinkers, well-educated and brought up to believe in intellectual rigor. I say to those who “reviewed” the book before reading it, please go and read that book before you open your mouths one more time. Talk about a hardworking scholar; the man puts together an impeccable compilation of academic sources including my favorite historian, the indefatigable Professor Toyin Falola, in order to tell a compelling story about his life and our world. And yes, There Was A Country is not all about Biafra. There are powerful passages there for instance about the burden of the writer of African extraction, profoundly moving are his thoughts on what we should be preoccupied with as writers and thinkers. Achebe is a meticulous writer, providing sources everywhere appropriate. And that’s the other thing; many Nigerian writers would not know to go to Professor Toyin Falola as a reference, not as long as there is a Western scholar babbling stuff about “Africa,” Achebe did.  The sources alone are worth the price of the book.

The truth must be told: Most people commenting on Achebe’s opinions were merely reacting to what he wrote about Chief Obafemi Awolowo in an Op-ed piece in the UK Guardian on Tuesday, October 2, 2012.

This is what Achebe said about Chief Awolowo:

“The wartime cabinet of General Gowon, the military ruler, it should also be remembered, was full of intellectuals like Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others who came up with a boatload of infamous and regrettable policies. A statement credited to Awolowo and echoed by his cohorts is the most callous and unfortunate: all is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.

It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is, on the surface at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose – the Nigeria-Biafra war – his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation — eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.”

It is not the most elegant critique of Pa Awolowo’s role and complicity in the genocide that was Biafra. But then, there is something offensive about expecting Achebe to be “objective” in his narrative. There was a horrific conflict and he is telling his side of the story. Readers are mature enough to understand that Achebe is coming from a certain perspective and they respect that.  As Achebe reminds us, until the lions  produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter. Facts are facts and not even the saccharine hagiographies offered by insincere architects of Nigeria’s ruin can change that. To my dying day I will always maintain that Pa Awolowo and Pa Enahoro are culpable in the genocide that wiped out millions of Nigerians. They said it themselves, garrulously and loudly. We cannot and should not run away from that.  Simply Google their names and the truth will come tumbling out of their boastful mouths.

Yes. Chief Awolowo virtually accepted responsibility in the blockade that starved millions of women children and defenseless women of Biafra. In response to Achebe’s biting words about Pa Awolowo, many exhumed a 1983 interview in which he tried to defend his role in the civil war.  It is an awful interview with patronizing and condescending opinions about the other. He says of his role:

“You won’t hear of a single lawyer, a single doctor, a single architect, who suffered from kwashiorkor? None of their children either, so they waylaid the foods, they ambush the vehicles and took the foods to their friends and to their collaborators and to their children and the masses were suffering. So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers will suffer most.”

If you do not start from a point of truth and courage, you have a broken compass. What happened in Biafra was genocide, no ifs, no buts. I have always thought that as a (contrived) people, our cowardice is primeval and savage. The criminals who did this to millions of women, children and the defenseless are still alive as “statesmen.” The evil dead are immortalized in currency notes and their evil names adorn airports. I respect Pa Awolowo but I think he was not only wrong, he and Chief Anthony Enahoro are culpable in the genocide that was Biafra. I am not Igbo, not that it should matter, but  I could tell you about what it meant to be caught in a war-zone (Benin City under the Biafran army occupation) at age 8, without your parents, tending to your six-year old brother while living in a two-room lean to of a distant relative. I could tell you that the terror lives with both of us to this day. Because war is hell.

Yes. the Nigerian civil war is infinitely more complicated than any book I have ever read can script it. My parents’ ancestral land is part of my experience but not in terms of a formal education. It is quite possible that without a free primary education powered by Pa Awolowo’s vision, I would not be here today. It is also true that many Biafran children are not with us today because Pa Awolowo denied them that which he offered me so generously; food, water and life. That is the absolute truth and Pa Awolowo confirmed it in the God awful (yes, awful) interview that many proudly brandish all over the place. It is impossible to forget Biafra, but today, Nigeria is in a very bad place, on many levels. Those that ruined our country are still strutting about handing us gobs of malu droppings. In the meantime in medieval places like Aluu, youths are slaughtered and burnt alive for allegedly stealing phones. Nigeria’s retired crooks are on social media tweeting quotes from Mahatma Gandhi. I mean, how difficult is it to say that the forced starvation of children and women was wrong?

Again, I say to these people, read the book. Despite Achebe’s anger, he devotes space in the book to reflect on the positive qualities of Pa Awolowo and he gives him due credit.

“By the time I became a young adult, Obafemi Awolowo had emerged as one of Nigeria’s dominant political figures. He was an erudite and accomplished lawyer who had been educated at the University of London. When he returned to the Nigerian political scene from England in 1947, Awolowo found the once powerful political establishment of western Nigeria in disarray— sidetracked by partisan and intra-ethnic squabbles. Chief Awolowo and close associates reunited his ancient Yoruba people with powerful glue— resuscitated ethnic pride— and created a political party, the Action Group, in 1951, from an amalgamation of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Nigerian Produce Traders’ Association, and a few other factions….

Initially Chief Obafemi Awolowo struggled to woo support from the Ibadan-based (and other non-Ijebu) Yoruba leaders who considered him a radical and a bit of an upstart. However, despite some initial difficulty, Awolowo transformed the Action Group into a formidable, highly disciplined political machine that often outperformed the NCNC in regional elections. It did so by meticulously galvanizing political support in Yoruba land and among the riverine and minority groups in the Niger Delta who shared a similar dread of the prospects of Igbo political domination.” (Kindle Locations 784-797)

Yes, Achebe said all that about Pa Awolowo. Read the book first before reviewing it. Too many of the combatants in this shameless orgy of finger-pointing dunked the conversation in the filthy lucre of true and tired orthodoxy, to hell with a new realistic way of looking at our world. Think about it; in a certain sense, for a long time now, Western education and civilization have foisted on Black Africa, two tribes, one made up of the self-serving intellectual and political elite, and the rest, the dregs, the dispossessed. The poor are the ones that die by the millions, they are the ones that watch their children die of malnutrition, and endure abusive public education in the hands of intellectuals and politicians. They are the ones that are doubly victimized by thieving pastors. Their suffering knows no end. I ask my fellow intellectuals and professionals today: How many of us are in Nigeria? How many of us have children in Nigeria? How many of our children can speak an indigenous language? How many of our children give a hoot about any of this? It is our collective hypocrisy that even as we fight over dead leaders like Pa Obafemi Awolowo, our children are abroad at Starbucks, sipping lattes with their Spanish teachers. We will line up the poor, struggling in the dying remnants of ancient civilizations, to fight for our ideals.

What has happened to Achebe’s book is ordinarily an outrage. But it sells books and Achebe should be chuckling all the way to the bank. Ignorance sells. It bears repeating: Our intellectual and ruling elite know one fact – fiefdoms are not sustainable in the 21st century. We see this in their behavior. Their children and families are ensconced in the best communities and schools of the West, learn English, Spanish and lately Chinese, and busily acquire skills for 21st century survival while they force the dispossessed to look back in anger at their version of history. This they know: Expanding the boundaries of their world, their new ethnic enclave of middle-class living to embrace even more is anathema to their civilization. Our people are the new savages; our leaders are the new Conrads, little Naipauls shivering in the warmth of the other, dressed in ill-fitting Tweeds. The children of our pretend-tribal warlords do not speak a single “African” language, would not know a Yoruba from Siri. That is our Achilles heels, the rank hypocrisy of the intellectual and ruling class.

621486_10151539704259616_1621884748_oChinua Achebe has said his piece and we should applaud him for jumpstarting a conversation. I believe his narrative more than that of a Pa Awolowo or Pa Anthony Enahoro garrulously defiant about the need to starve to death children, just to make a deadly point. By the way, I did not need Achebe’s book to come to that point. I am also very interested in the minority narrative, something which Achebe mostly ignores in his book and which many others gloss over, as if it is a patronizing afterthought. It is what it is, those of us cursed with the minority  label daily endure the ordeal of our communal balls being squeezed by the big three groups – the Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani and Igbo. I will concede that many Igbo intellectuals have reflected deeply on the war and to their credit have been unsparing of Igbo leaders in the horror that was the Nigerian civil war.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for instance managed a certain distance from the war in her lovely book, Half of a Yellow Sun. That book, which I reviewed here, should be required reading in every classroom everywhere in the world.

Many things I don’t understand, but perhaps, Africa is where bad ideas go to die. And yes, my point is this: Chinua Achebe’s book, There Was a Country, has fueled the bile of ancients, flag barriers of ethnic prejudices, shaking gnarled fists at the truth of Nigeria’s shame. There was a country indeed. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but nations and physical boundaries are so 20th century. Nations as we know them are dying, and not just because the great teacher, Chinua Achebe says so. Even as thriving nations are helped along to the new paradigm shift by their intellectuals, there is no end to the finger-pointing and recriminations among Nigeria’s narcissistic, navel gazing, and in many instances, thieving intellectuals. My generation of intellectuals and rulers (I would not call them leaders) has proven eloquently that we have lost the plot when it comes to Nigeria’s desired future. Many of us have taken to open looting, and virtually all of us have become defensive and perhaps abusive when it comes to getting feedback. Follow our intellectual and political elite and their buffoonery and Biafra seems so far away:

Our intellectuals are asleep at the wheel of divination. That is a shame. It is time for us to face some honest truths. Today, for many intellectuals, Biafra is an academic exercise for the most part and a dishonest one for that matter. Any notion that Biafra would have been a nirvana is easily dispelled by the state of Eastern states today. Corruption has eroded the people’s sense of self; the struggle continues, to use the cliché. There is not a single credible museum dedicated to the war effort anywhere in Nigeria. There are pretend-museums, but nothing like you would expect in honor of millions dead. In Anambra State, children of the traumatized and dispossessed are “educated” in hovels as this appalling video shows.

Back to Achebe’s book. Achebe needs no one to defend him and I am sure he expected some reaction to the book because he makes many statements in there that are controversial. There is plenty to disagree with in the book, for example, Achebe says:

“I have written in my small book entitled The Trouble with Nigeria that Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo. The origin of the national resentment of the Igbo is as old as Nigeria and quite as complicated. But it can be summarized thus: The Igbo culture, being receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive, gave the Igbo man an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots in securing credentials for advancement in Nigerian colonial society. Unlike the Hausa/ Fulani he was unhindered by a wary religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies. This kind of creature, fearing no god or man, was custom-made to grasp the opportunities, such as they were, of the white man’s dispensations. And the Igbo did so with both hands. Although the Yoruba had a huge historical and geographical head start, the Igbo wiped out their handicap in one fantastic burst of energy in the twenty years between 1930 and 1950.”

Achebe, Chinua (2012-10-11). There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Kindle Locations 1226-1233). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Achebe lost me here. My own people do not resent the Igbo. Achebe lost me there, yes. But I certainly understand why he would say that. The Igbo have suffered pogroms, massacres, genocide, economic and political marginalization and a man can be forgiven for those feelings.  Everything has context. These words that I excerpted above were first written in that great little book of his that roared, The Trouble With Nigeria. Indeed, it is the case that many thoughts in There Was A Country are previously articulated in several other essays as Achebe meticulously documents in the various sources in the book. It is not a hagiography of the war; He is harsh in his assessment, not only of the Nigerian experiment, but on the Biafra leadership. Achebe is harsh on Biafran leader Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and provides credible sources who are severe critics of Ojukwu. He is harsh on the January 15, 1966 coup plotters and he ridicules Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, one of the masterminds of the coup.

What I find surprising is how little of Achebe’s works have been read even by many of Nigeria’s intellectuals. Very little of it in this book is new that Achebe has not previously said. I will say however that the beauty of the book is how it tells a story as if it is all new. Achebe is a master story teller. If children can now ask elders questions about Biafra because of Achebe’s book, then he has been successful beyond my wildest imagination. What Achebe’s new book has told me is that there is hunger in our land – for stories; that Nigerian youngsters pine for history, for the written word; that perhaps, writers must reflect on their role in creating a culture of people actively engaged in their writing.

Decades of decadent irresponsible governance have robbed millions of Nigerian youths of their birthright – a good education, safety and security. Add to that a future that is certain only in the sense that there is probably none. Again, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a good book for those who want to read something contemporary,  engaging and evocative regarding Biafra There are many contentious issues that Adichie brings up – and there is no shortage of robust debate about them. That is what a book should do. Dan Obi Auduche also has a helpful bibliography of eighty books on the Biafran war here. Adichie’s book has a reference list of thirty books. My favorite essay on Biafra by the way is My Biafran Eyes by Okey Ndibe. You may feast on it freely on Guernica here. Achebe has achieved what many intellectuals like him have attempted and failed – which is to write an engaging story of that period of our history when the world watched as children’s tummies swelled from hunger, not from food. Achebe, the eagle chuckles atop the Iroko. I salute you, Professor Chinua Achebe.

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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.

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.


 

Eghosa Imasuen: On Fine Boys and Yellow Girls

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

                   –       Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen

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

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

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

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

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

And this one is one of my favorites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Impossible,” we shouted. “Never.”

Those were halcyon days.

Chioma Okereke: Sweet Leaf, Bitter Taste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helon Habila: Measuring Time Slowly

Reproduced here for archival purposes. First published in 2007

Helon Habila is one formidable writer – of short stories. With the short story as a canvas, he takes his work ethic, mixes it up with his excellent powers of observation of the human condition and finishes up his patented recipe with a delicious dollop of prose poetry. With the short story Habila struts his stuff, gently telling complex truths with the aid of simple enchanting prose. The reader comes away comforted by this gentle storyteller who weaves evocative tales of mean giants who trample upon the innocent as they build monstrous edifices to tyranny. Habila’s short stories leave you pining for more. Unfortunately, more is not necessarily a novel. The novel as a medium of expression undermines Habila’s strengths and exaggerates his weaknesses. Too bad, because on reading his latest offering Measuring Time, it is easy to forget that Habila is a celebrated writer with formidable literary skills. After all Habila has won both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing. You don’t get those accolades from tepid writing. I personally regard Helon Habila as one of Nigeria’s important writers.

Clearly making the transition from the short story to the novel, in my view, has been problematic for Habila. I have bought both books that he has written – Waiting for an Angel, and Measuring Time. I am yet to finish reading Waiting for an Angel; instead of chapters, it is organized in chunky sections and each section reads like a good short story that yearns to be completed. The book in sum reads like a short story stretched too far. In Habila’s novels, truths that seemed profound in his short stories morph into overwrought banalities buried in way too many words. The analogy that comes to mind when thinking of Habila’s two books is that of an ungainly stretch limousine populated with soulless characters. Some vehicles should not be stretch limousines.

 In Measuring Time, we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of a set of twins – the scholarly but sickly Mamo and the soldier of fortune LaMamo and in so doing we peek through the window of Nigeria’s dwindling lights. Their mother dies during their birth and their father Lamang turns out to be one emotionally absent father. The twins are left to fend for themselves with the aid of extended family members. LaMamo and Mamo are separated early in the book as LaMamo sets forth to join a mercenary group. Mamo stays behind in the village to ruminate on the meaning of history and to write autobiographies, most notably of the Mai or chief of the village of Keti (the Mai is expecting a hagiography but the idealist in Mamo would not oblige). LaMamo and Mamo connect through the distance with long letters from LaMamo. The writing in the letters reminds the reader of the contrived English that seems to be the rage these days thanks to Uzodinma Iweala’s relentless (exasperating, I might add) use of that technique in his books. My humble opinion is that the technique fails to deliver in Habila’s book.

 So why read the book? I must say in Habila’s defense that Measuring Time does grow on the reader, slowly but surely. Reading the book was a worthwhile, albeit frustrating exercise. The book does dip its many toes into too many issues and flees without any serious attempt at in-depth analysis. Habila’s technique seems to be to slyly force the reader to think about these things, and in the process, force the reader to do the research. If that succeeds in awakening a consciousness in the reader, then Habila’s experiment has been successful. This reader will never know. For me, it is hard to focus on the myriad issues in the book, thanks to an avalanche of clichéd, uneven prose and dialogue that zigzags between American conversational English and English as is spoken in Nigeria. Surprisingly, I found the book’s editing to be mediocre, with the occasional word used inappropriately. The wooden prose may have been as a result of over-editing, I’ll never know. My first experience with chapters that are not numbered was with Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn. I did not like it then and I don’t like it that Habila adopts the same technique in his books. Annoying, especially since each chapter reminds me of an unfinished short story.

The reader plodding through Measuring Time feels like a ravished diner picking through a crab for crab meat. Hard work, but there is at least the promise of meat. Every now and then, the crab offers some meat but one wonders if it was worth the effort. My verdict is that the reading was well worth my time. There were gems. My favorite chapter (or section?) is the one named after the book, Measuring Time (p 138) the one that houses my favorite lines: “… and as he waited he measured time in the shadows cast by trees and walls, in the silence between one breath and the next, in the seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and months that add up to form the seasons “ (p 139) Scrumptious. My favorite sentence: “Lamang died in degrees.” (p 215) Neat. There are more gems like that but you really have to plod through the book page by page to enjoy them.

All in all, reading Measuring Time was comforting for this reader who escaped Nigeria many, many moons ago. Where the book was good, one could almost taste Nigeria. My pre-teen daughter Ominira asked me if I liked the book and I said yes. She has the book now and she seems engaged in it; she comes out of nowhere every so often and asks me questions about meanings buried inside the book. She seemed traumatized by a section in the book where the twins kill a dog and rub the dog’s rheum in their eyes. American kids don’t like dog murderers; I’ll have to find Habila and make him pay for my daughter’s psychological counseling. Ominira has been dragging the book all over the place along with her ipod and other accoutrements of American youth. It is a good thing. Our children should read these books. Would I read Habila’s books again? Absolutely, once I find my copy of Waiting for an Angel.

Olusegun Adeniyi: Power, politics, and the killing of a nation

I so badly wanted to read Olusegun Adeniyi’s book, Power, Politics and Death detailing his alleged reflections on his days as a spokesman to Nigeria’s late President Umar Musa Yar’Adua, a man whose wholly ineffective tenure has now being glorified and lionized by the chic incompetence and buffoonery of the present occupant of Aso Rock, “President” Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.  I was fascinated; here was a man who had front row seats in those days when Nigeria was listing and drifting in the morbid hands of a dying or dead man (depending on who you were listening to in those tragicomic times). I badly wanted Adeniyi’s book. He was Yar’Adua’s press aide and I could be forgiven for believing that he saw and knew a lot of stuff and that he recorded them down as all good journalists do who find themselves caught in the grip of history. So my excitement was understandable. Getting books from Nigeria is becoming easier by the day thanks to the tenacity of technology and the resourcefulness of some Nigerian writers and publishers. Some folks are using the Internet to the maximum and I applaud all that. Still, the book was hard to come by but I ended up buying a copy from Abuja for over N5,000 and also acquiring an electronic copy which is my preferred mode of reading these days, for practical reasons.

Well, I managed to finish reading the book, an irresponsible act I will regret to my dying day. It was easy to read the book; there is nothing there, nothing, zero, zilch. Adeniyi’s book is innocent of substance; that is the most generous thing I can say about that placebo of a book. There is an enigmatic preface in there somewhere by the equally enigmatic Dele Olojede who manages to write a non-preface that avoids what he says between the lines; “there is nothing here to talk about but Adeniyi is my friend and if I keep writing long obtuse oblique sentences he will go away.” But then, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Every Nigerian thinker should own a copy. It is an important book that says a whole lot about what it does not say. It communicates volumes about the lack of vision, perfidy and collusion of our intellectual elite in the ongoing looting and pillage of Nigeria for their own and their families’ profits. It is only the lust for money and prestige that will make formerly decent people like Adeniyi, Dr. Reuben Abati and Mallam Nuhu Ribadu to work for odium and the scum of the earth. Shame on our intellectuals.

What we surmise from reading Adeniyi’s book is that he is perhaps a lazy idle civilian who spent most of his time drinking peppersoup and wallowing in denial about the massive corruption and ineptitude that was and remains  the hallmark of democratic governance in today’s Nigeria. At the end of his tenure, he escapes Aso Rock with reams of poorly written dog-eared memos and he proceeds to punish us with them. Mimicry is going to be the end of us. In the West, press aides write memoirs, so Nigeria’s “press aides” must write theirs, even if it kills us. American presidents have libraries for their papers, so former “president” Olusegun Obasanjo, “Father of modern Nigeria” must have one for his “papers.” Tell me, what has Obasanjo contributed intellectually and morally to our nation that cannot fit between the pages of a ten naira exercise book? Someone is mistaking moin-moin wraps for papers. By the way, the carcass of the “library” is now being used by our ever resourceful dispossessed to dry aso ebi dresses and egusi seeds.

You must read this book because I am telling you, misery loves company, let it not be that I am the only one who lost money buying this money waster of a book. Add the opportunity cost of the time it took me off my busy schedule, I should sue his sorry behind. There is absolutely zilch, zero, nothing that I read in this wretched book that I had not gleaned from reams of stuff freely available on the Internet, nothing, I repeat nothing. It was like reading typed minutes of the mind of Sahara Republic’s Omoyele Sowore. I did not need to go to Adeniyi to read Sowore’s mind, I have his cell phone number on Amebo my Blackberry. How is it possible that you are the press secretary of a nation’s president and at the end of your tenure you have nothing new to say that improves upon the silence? How is that possible? It is very possible because these characters are accountable to no one but themselves.

This book makes you really angry; you come to the sad realization that the past decade of “democracy” was wasted. This democracy has been worse in my honest opinion than even the dark days of that deadly buffoon, “General” Sani Abacha. I honestly do not wish the military back, a pox on their houses. But for the avoidance of doubt, just to be clear, I am 100 percent against what passes for “democracy” in Nigeria today. It is a plague on us. And yes, If I had to choose between the late “General” Sani Abacha and “President” Goodluck Jonathan, it would be a no contest; I would kiss Abacha on both evil striped cheeks and welcome him back to Aso Rock. I repeat: This democracy is the worst thing that ever happened to Nigeria – after the new Christianity of course. I said it. Sue me.

The prodemocracy war was between Abacha and the fools now ruining us, more specifically the leaders of the prodemocracy movement and their NADECO thugs in agbada. The ordinary people had no dog in the fight. Abacha never bothered my parents in the village. He only went after those who wanted what he had. Under Abacha, my father never saw the hell that he is enduring under “democracy.” My mother danced under starry skies and did not worry about safety and security. Today, my dad’s pension is unpaid, he is afraid of his shadow and some times when I send him money, it is like I am sending it to armed robbers. His grand children are trapped in bad schools and endure life without a communal municipality. We are in denial, folks. I will never ever fight for democracy again, never. This democracy is a plague on our country.

Yes, some very powerful and good people were murdered by Abacha and his goons. But then for every one of those murdered, hundreds have died in the hands of the incompetence and mimicry we now call democracy. If we are going to be miserable, we better have a good excuse. These thieving civilians in Aso Rock and NASS are worse than Abacha in every way. And of course, Adeniyi, Abati, Ribadu and Mallam el-Rufai make it abundantly clear that our intellectual elite are deeply unprincipled and irresponsible. Let us be honest with ourselves; these vagabonds in power are stealing Nigeria to the ground. At this rate nothing will be left. And they are incompetent to boot.

It is easy for us to say that things were dark in the Abacha days. But we were duped into this Animal Farm that they call democracy. Our political and intellectual elite are taking care of themselves and their families in Europe and America and telling Nigerians to go eat eba without meat. Where is the outrage? An entire generation of youths has been miseducated because the funds have been looted. It is summer time here in America, our political leaders and their thieving civil servants are all here celebrating the graduation of their children from choice Western schools and thanking “God” for his mercies, whatever. After ten years of this, education in Nigeria’s public schools is not fit for human consumption. I know because I pay the fees and I read the “sentences” of my grateful wards.  We are all sitting around pretending that all is well, watching other people’s children being mistreated by semi-illiterate teachers in pigsties and we say this is better than the military. Not by much, I say. I have nothing but contempt for what is going on in Nigeria today. That we have learnt to live without a government does not make it right.

The Nigerian military raised my generation and gave us a world class education. Left to these bloody civilians I’d be on an okada motorcycle to nowhere. What frightens and saddens me the most is the abuse of this generation of children in the name of education. We have teachers that cannot teach, lawyers that cannot write simple sentences, doctors that are glorified butchers and “poets” that write incomprehensible books and sell them to “universities” as required text. The cycle is vicious and unsustainable.

For Nigeria, the first order of business on the road to empowerment is to reject this pyramid scheme or “democracy.” Nigeria is Animal Farm. Oh yes, the book, Adeniyi’s book, buy the book, it is a good book! KMT.

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.