Molara Wood’s Indigo: Enchanting Seasons

He wore one of his special embroidered dashiki tops that must have been high fashion when I was a girl. Now it spoke only of longevity.

                                  – Wood, Molara (2013-07-11). Indigo (Kindle Locations 374-375).

There are many reasons why you should read Indigo, Molara Wood’s delightful and enchanting debut collection of short stories. First, Wood is a great story teller with a distinctly inimitable voice and it shows in this book. Second, Indigo is quite simply good writing, one that should be required reading in creative writing classes. As a writer, for Wood, the gift of beautiful writing is not enough, she models hard work. Wood is uncompromising when it comes to the written word; everything must be in place or the sentence won’t see the light of day.  Third, Wood ensures that in her stories, you will be entertained in the grand tradition of the oral storytellers of Africa, Wood proves masterfully that the short story lives and lives well. Nigeria is a land of storytellers; judging from this collection, Wood is a worthy ambassador of Nigeria. It helps that virtually all the stories in Indigo have been vetted externally and subjected to rigorous editorial reviews. Several are award-winning and previously published in reputable journals and books.

Seventeen stories make up Indigo. Using these engaging stories as robust, throaty vehicles of entertainment and enlightenment, Wood addresses a legion of topics expertly and in an orderly manner. The reader is not overwhelmed. These are not unctuous social commentaries pretending to be short stories. The stories are mostly narratives of triumph over adversity in the face of unconventional wars. Wood deftly avoids poverty porn and frees the reader to reflect, unsolicited, on the issues of contemporary Africa. What I really love about Indigo is this: Several stories are simply stories, like comfort food, you sit at Wood’s feet and just listen to a good story. This Wood does with her brainy, wry wit and signature tart prose; sentences are little daggers she throws at pressure points to get the desired reaction. The missiles, tightly wound, with Molara-esque attitude, fly off the pages and assault the senses in a gently seething riot of colors. As a luscious side benefit, I swooned over the stunning cover art, ‘Pensiveness by the legendary Muraina Oyelami embedded in Eazy Gbodiyan’s and Victor Ehikhamenor’s brilliant Indigo cloth themed cover designs.

Indigo CoverThe book takes off, guns blazing, starting with Indigo, the title story, a touching tale about childlessness, societal expectations and culture clashes. And so the feast of words, carefully spun together begins. There is an abundance of impish lines to keep the reader engaged in this feisty book:

‘Shhh!’ Bola’s aunt, in whose arms the baby nestled, placed a finger to lips that seemed to occupy half her face. Her baggy boubou attire did nothing to hide the tyre-like circumference of her midriff. A mole perched on top of her left earlobe like an audacious fly. (Kindle Locations 56-59).

Throughout the book, Wood mostly appropriates the English language as her own. There are so many stories to fall in love with here. Read Gani’s Fall, a sly conversation about patriarchy and polygamy – and a delightful fable about an impish alliance among wives in a polygamous home, and laugh your ribs out. The language soars on the wings of a vivid imagination; a lovelorn woman complains of longing for the husband and you sigh as she moans about his absence from her bed, “he hardly ever darkened my doorway.”

Here are my favorite lines:

The widow next door to him in the village does his laundry for him. Some whisper that she does more. (Kindle Locations 375-376).


The family cat, ever sluggish, rediscovered speed and tore away. (Kindle Locations 320-321).

You must read Night Market. In this gorgeous story, all of Nigeria’s dysfunctions spill out into the streets with an African American spouse as a deeply disturbed witness to the mayhem – and, oh yes, there’s a little bit of magic realism thrown in:

‘Ah,’ piped up Chinyere, ‘people go to di night market to buy and sell. The road shrink, true. But the road between heaven and earth open wide at the night market . Animals turn into human beings to buy and sell, ghosts come to buy and sell. Dead children sef, even come to buy…’ (Kindle Locations 733-735)

Kelemo’s Woman reminds the reader of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. It is a play on gender relations slyly presented as a short story around a military coup. Some of the dialogue seem eerily prophetic given Nigeria’s current challenges:

This country is being run to the ground, and soldiers will only speed up the burial. You, me, and others like us, are going to have to fight – and sacrifice – to turn around the course of this nation! (Kindle Locations 992-993).

Night market

In A Small Miracle, Wood displays her gift for good dialogue and for arranging words on the palette like the diviner’s cowries. Beautiful Game is quite simply a beautiful story. England and soccer come alive in the hands of immigrants. In In Name Only, a story about a sham marriage to legalize residency in England is expertly used to showcase life as an immigrant in moody Babylon. In Leaving Oxford Street and The Last Bus Stop, the Nouveaux rich, social climbers and dreamers wallow in fashion statements, dreams of wealth, and the forced mediocrity of relocation. I was moved by In the Time of Job, a pretty story about immigration and an unlikely friendship among two people from opposite sides of the ocean.

The Scarcity of Common Goods is probably my most favorite story. I love how Wood weaves class issues, infidelity and societal expectations into a most unusual tale. But then Smoking Bamboo has to be the best love story I have read in a long time. Here, Wood’s imagination soars gently and rests firmly on the reader’s own imagination. It is a truly authentic and wondrous story swimming mostly in awesome prose-poetry. Still Wood manages to talk to us about the ravages of war and drug and alcohol addiction on communities.  It is also about migration – the endless restless quest for peace, prosperity and happiness. The character Amugbo reminds the reader of Unoka in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. You don’t want this story to end, this pretty but sad tale of a wind-swept, war-ravaged land filled with women and children only. And one drugged man. Smoking Bamboo alone is worth the price of the book. Hear Wood:

When Angelina stepped in her delicate manner on the moist earth her toenails crimson, I thought babies would fall from the sky. And I saw the fierceness with which Amugbo’s bloodshot eyes lit upon her. I had seen it coming days before when in my mind’s eye I saw a great bird whose wings swept the air up and down, beating sprays out of clouds that hung heavy in the late morning sky. The wings went still over our ravine , cosseted by an endless canopy of trees. Avian eyes observed water vapours rising in airy steams from the gorge to be sucked into ravenous clouds. (Kindle Locations 2127-2131).

And the song “Angelina, Angelina, o ti lọọ wa ju!” took me back many decades when High life music ruled Nigeria’s dance floors. Oh Nigeria!

There is one sense in which Indigo is an important book; Its treatment of gender relations, patriarchy, and polygamy.  I found myself thinking of similar themes in the books and essays of writers like Lola Shoneyin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Taiye Selasie, NoViolet Bulawayo, etc. It would make for an interesting and valuable scholarship to study the works of all these thinkers in in relation to patriarchy, gender tensions and related anxieties. I previously shared my views on Adichie’s approach (here). I would say, compared to Adichie, Wood’s approach is more subtle, more sophisticated and definitely more respectful. Unlike Adichie’s Americanah, Indigo deploys less of caricatures to describe patriarchy and make her points about gender issues.

The book is not without its flaws (yes, I know, no book is perfect): Sometimes the purpose of the English language is to remind us of how much we have lost in the translation of our lives into that of the other. Wood is mostly successful in appropriating the English language as if it is Nigerian but some translations of indigenous proverbs are awkwardly done, like: “The child does not recognise the enchanted herb; and so calls it a vegetable.” The reader yearns for a crisper version. Or blessed silence. Stories like Fear Hill and Trial by Water read like promising works in progress. Written in Stone is perhaps, the most ambitious – and the most flawed.  It is a bold attempt at historical fiction that is compromised by a certain looseness with historical facts and a disconnectedness that makes it read like two halves of two unrelated stories. It has the protagonist coming upon written communication in the caves of walls in 1879. In English. Historians would no doubt find that improbable in Nigeria, if not inaccurate. I would have loved a collaboration between Wood and a gifted illustrator like Victor Ehikhamenor to make the stories more alive and give them an additional dimension, it is just as well, the stories engaged me nonetheless.

The 21st century is reshaping the role of the book with spectacular muscle. Devotees of Wood will instantly recognize most of these stories; over the years she has been prolific on the Internet and social media, giving of her gifts pretty much freely. I easily found half of the stories on the Internet. I see profound opportunities on the Internet for thinkers like Wood whose gifts are hobbled by the lack of a robust publishing industry in Black Africa. However, worldwide, relying solely on the book to access the reading audience is becoming a problem. The book is fast becoming primarily an archive of sorts.

Molara Wood PHOTO by TY Bello (2)As a near-aside, Wood has a legion of followers in the literary world but many readers will not recognize her.  Well, she is arguably one of the most influential of what would probably be referred to as the fourth generation of writers – an enigmatic and elusive group of writers in their late thirties to early fifties range who have quietly redefined contemporary African literature as we know it today by moving it with brawn and brain into the digital world. Much is known about the older generation and the very young generation, but very little is known of this quiet but powerful group, on whose laps it fell to, in effect, digitize African literature. There are too many names to mention, but they are finally stepping out of the shadows and writing books. It’s a good thing.

Wood’s passion for African literature is legendary; courageous and visionary, in the early 2000s, she dropped everything in London and moved back to Nigeria to help found NEXT newspapers, one of the most exciting acts of journalism to ever come out of Africa. At NEXT, she nurtured many of us as our editor and kept us in line with her keen eye, passion for the word, and a punishing work ethic. When the NEXT experiment folded, she remained in Nigeria where she continues to be a mover and a shaker in literary circles.  For thinkers like Wood and her generation of writers, the book as a medium of communication is a wretched vehicle for their gifts, the Internet is their book, literally. You would have to go to the Internet to get a sense of Wood’s contribution to the literary arts. There, she and many literary leaders daily supervise the new literary genre that features the real-time collision and collusion of reader and writer. One day, it will be possible to make money of this emerging genre. And it would be because of the visionary work of Wood’s generation. Google her. But first you must read Indigo. Oh, and I learnt a new word. Rill. Google it. After you are through googling Molara Wood.

What Dele Olojede owes us next

The respected journalist Olatunji Dare, former chair of the editorial board of Nigeria’s Guardian newspapers, writing in the Nation Newspaper recently, reflected on the promise and frustration that was the  defunct Next newspaper ( What’s next for NEXT?)  For many of us who had worked for Next, Dare’s words were bitter-sweet and caused quite a stir. His observations properly situated Next as a pioneer in 21st century Nigerian journalism:

“When it made its debut in December 2008, NEXT was only as an electronic newspaper.  A paper edition would be introduced in August 2009. Audio and video would come later.  But even as an electronic newspaper, its entry into Nigerian journalism was electrifying. The web design was clean, tidy and well-structured. Colour and space and type meshed to produce a visual delight. The site was fully navigable. The reporting was sharp… The headlines were sober; they did not scream at you nor offend your sensibilities. The writing was clean, crisp and lucid. The editorials were magisterial; thoughtfully and closely argued, they provided insight and leadership on a wide range of issues, national and foreign. Shortly after its debut, NEXT was parading some of the finest writing to have graced Nigeria’s news media in recent memory.”

Dare’s essay was a nice ode to Dele Olojede, the complicated thinker and doer who had dreamed of Next and implemented one of the most exciting runs in the history of Nigerian journalism. Olojede’s place in Nigeria’s history is assured, thanks to respected icons like Dare, history will be kind to him. Indeed Olojede was able to bring to fruition his pioneering dreams and those of quiet and largely unsung leaders like Ekundayo Ogunyemi (Naijanet)  Muhtar Bakare, Sola Osofisan, Philip Adekunle, Nnorom Azuonye and Omoyele Sowore who long ago saw the digital world as an opportunity and a bridge to bring together all our story tellers and stories in one huge digital playground.

I appreciate the kind words Dare had for many of us who were privileged to have been part of that journey that was Next. I will be forever grateful to Next and my editor Molara Wood for the opportunity to exorcise my demons and practice my craft and for the exposure to a wide reading audience well beyond my wildest imagination. In the beginning of my tenure as a columnist, Next was generous to me and gave me wide latitude to write about any and everything that suited my fancy.  My three years at Next have been the most productive in my writing life and I give Olojede and Next full credit for allowing all that to happen.

Having said all that, many of us were treated poorly as employees of Next. There were clearly management issues, many of them so egregious, in a real country, they would have landed Next’s owners in big trouble. It is easy to google and come up with evidence such as this, this and this  Dare’s article confirmed in me that for yet another Nigerian leader, the hunter’s version of history was going to whitewash the real history. It is a cultural dysfunction I suppose, one of our weaknesses as a people is to exaggerate the positives in a leader and minimize or gloss over his or her frailties. I am now convinced that the next phase in the struggle for the life and soul of our nation is to hold our intellectual and political elite accountable. They are getting away with murder literally. Without accountability, they have become self-absorbed and tone-deaf to reason.

Back to Olojede, the mystery and the power of the Internet that Olojede tapped into allowed him to harness resources everywhere and in many cases bring some young people home from Europe and America to Nigeria.  In my three years with Next, I never met Olojede, did not need to. My editor Molara Wood handled all my affairs pretty much; she went to great pains to make sure I was comfortable. However, after a few months it became apparent that there were some issues with funding. Wood wrote to me one day to say apologetically that my weekly contract amount was being reduced by management. It was unilateral; there was no offer to renegotiate my contract. I was fine and soldiered on, I really did not care that much even when the long delays in payment became indeterminable; as far as I knew they would pay up eventually. There were never any assurances from management that they were aware that we were not being paid.

After a protracted period of time, I finally contacted management by email to complain about the nonpayment and the silence and to express disappointment that no one had reached out to me to talk about the issues. I never heard from anyone. Instead, Wood informed me with concern that management had decided to stop paying columnists; I was free to continue writing but it would be without pay. To say I was appalled by such unprofessional conduct would be to understate it. By this time, Next was owing me hundreds of thousands of Naira.  At the time, It seemed to reek of arrogance and a callous disregard for the welfare of employees. When my editor left Next, I did not have the heart to continue staying there and so I left. To this day, I cannot brag about getting a single email from Olojede or Next’s management regarding my tenure or the huge sum I am owed. Olojede would not have accepted such irresponsible conduct from his employers in the United States.

I was extremely lucky; many others had taken huge financial risks to go work for Next. And suddenly they were being told unceremoniously to take a hike. I am still haunted by the terror I saw in some of those folks’ eyes when I visited in September, 2011.  What Next did to those young people is unconscionable and Dele Olojede and I know that in the West where we all studied and lived, that would have been beyond acceptable, they would have sent him to the cleaners in a court of law.

Shabby treatment aside, nothing has upset me more than the fact that Olojede has recently allowed Next’s website to shut down. There is an emerging pattern here: Olojede seems to act unilaterally and imperiously; he seems allergic to the term stakeholder or what it means to communicate an action before implementation. The shutting down of Next’s website is unconscionable and unacceptable. Over the years that Next was in existence, the website gathered several pieces of significance nationally and globally, pieces that are now connected to external websites as resources through hyperlinks. All those links are now broken thanks to Olojede’s decision to shut down the website. I shall be blunt; Dele Olojede’s decision to shut down Next’s website is irresponsible; it is not that expensive to keep a website going. More importantly, many of us who had hoped to have access to our column pieces are now struggling mostly in vain to recreate our works. We should have been given ample warning ahead to time to allow us retrieve our column pieces. This is simply unacceptable and I am happy to call Olojede on this this conduct more than any other management deficiencies of his. It is abusive, it is wrong, it is irresponsible. Mr. Olojede, I ask you to bring back the Next website by all means necessary

Olojede’s mistakes, and they are legion have only inspired the West and others to continue to lionize him. Last year he won the prestigious John P. McNulty Award  for “running a 24-hour newsroom on diesel generators.” The prize was a hefty $100,000. African exotica sells in the West. Let me observe ad nauseam that Africa’s political and intellectual elite would benefit from not being held accountable by the masses they purport to serve – and by an avuncular West too eager to give them a pass on even their most egregious acts of misconduct. The next frontier in the struggle for Africa’s emancipation is for us to turn the glare of accountability on our own leaders. It is important to share the great and the unsavory in our leaders. It holds them accountable and serves also as a guiding beacon for those who will come after them. I was not privy to the inner management workings of the newspaper but clearly money was an issue in addition to what many have analyzed as poor management. And so Next’s fate is also a commentary on what should be merely an expense in the interest of a society. I am not a fan of external interventions, but I would have applauded the West if they had helped sustain Next. Memo to the West: The cost of an unmanned drone would have kept Next alive for eternity and propelled Nigeria to a new planet in accountability.  My conclusion? Dele Olojede may be a visionary but he hurt many people and a good start would be for him to apologize to them. He should also restore the Next website as a matter of top priority And Olojede, you do not owe me any money, I have written it all off, don’t worry. Not that you are staying up worrying about it. But this you owe the world; turn on the Next website again. That would be nice.