This is a collection of short stories by the author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel about the Biafran conflict.
Cell One starts with a brilliant hook: "The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbour." Robberies perpetrated by the bored teenage sons of the staff in the University town escalate into gangs (called 'cults); gang strife escalates into murders. The narrator's brother Nnamabia, who has himself burgled his own parents and is handsome and spoiled rotten by his mother, gets picked up by the corrupt police for being on the streets after a curfew. So the family go to see him in jail. At first he enjoys the attention, despite the terrible conditions. But then an innocent old man is thrown into the cell with him. The old man is too poor to bribe the guards and gets bullied. And the boy wants to help the old man.
This is a classic tale of a selfish young man redeemed when he witnesses suffering (it is the tale of the Buddha) told in 19 short pages. It benefits from the way in which exotic details such as corrupt police and appalling prison conditions are written as if they were entirely normal and to be expected. There are carefully crafted details, such as how Nnamabia hides his money in his anus by "rolling one-hundred-naira notes into thin cigarette shapes and then slipping a hand into the back of his trousers to slide them painfully into himself." and of the strange compound with no police station sign "with patches of overgrown grass, with old bottles and plastic bags and paper strewn everywhere" where "they kept people who would later disappear". These details are notable for their subtlety.
In Imitation a Nigerian woman lives with her children and maid in "America, the abundance of unreasonable hope." She discovers that her husband, a businessman back in Lagos who earns big money but only sees her for 3 weeks at Christmas and 2 months in summer, has moved his latest girlfriend into her family home. This upsets her; she cuts her hair; she discusses the situation with the housemaid. And when he comes over to stay in America she tells him that she and the kids will be moving back to Lagos.
In A Private Experience the narrator, a medical student, is with a poor onion seller, hiding in a store room from the riots outside. As the two women, from opposite sides of the religious divide over which the men outside are rioting, shelter together, the trainee doctor examines the cracked nipples of the five-time mother and advises on breast feeding and nipple care. But afterwards she never finds the sister she was in the market with.
In Ghosts a retired university professor goes on to campus to chase up the payment of his pension (unpaid for three years, and yet he still has money and can but bananas for the poor men in the campus grounds). There he encounters a man he thought died when the university was taken over by the Federal troops during the Biafran war. This man had been a political firebrand and there was always "great disappointment upon seeing him, because the depth of his rhetoric somehow demanded good looks. But then, my people say that a famous animal does not always fill the hunter's basket." They discuss the Biafran war and their survival, the people they knew who dies and survived, skirting round possible shames at not having done enough in the war or somehow having betrayed someone or themselves: the guilt of the survivors of a defeat.
At the start of the story, the ghost of the title seems to be this old man: "Today I saw Ikenna Okoro, a man I had long thought was dead. Perhaps I should have bent down, grabbed a handful of sand, and thrown it at him, in the way my people do to make sure a person is not a ghost." But towards the end of the story it becomes apparent that the ghost is that of the narrator's dead wife who visits him from time to time to massage him. "I often want to tell Nkiru [his daughter, living in America] that her mother visits weekly in the harmattan and less often during the rainy season, but if I do she will finally have reason to come here and bundle me back with her to America and I will be forced to live a life cushioned by so much convenience that it is sterile."
In On Monday of Last Week Nigerian Kamara is working a child care for 4 year old Josh whose Jewish lawyer dad Neil spends long days at work and whose mother Tracy hides all day in the cellar doing something artistic. Then, on Monday of last week, Kamara, who has come to America to be with her husband, meets and instantly falls for African American Tracy. There is a lot of background about the neurotic parenting regime installed by Neil with its anxieties about child molesters and health drinks and allergies and reading challenges: "America parenting was a juggling of anxieties ... a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and failure. A sated belly gave Americans the luxury of praising themselves for being good parents, as if caring for one's child was the exception rather than the rule."
But Kamara has a sadness. She waited six years to follow her husband to America and now she feels she does not know him anymore. She is bewildered. "She did not like her bed but did not want to get up from in in the morning." But she can't tell her best friend in Nigeria because that friend's husband has taken a new wife: "she could not complain about not having shoes when the person she was talking to had no legs."
Jumping Monkey Hill explores a group of writers from all over Africa who have won a competition to attend a two week writing workshop at a posh South African hotel. It explores the diversity of Africa and the impossibility of ever having a single voice to speak for Africa. It also asks what a story is for. The leader of the workshop (who makes it obvious that he fancies the female narrator) criticises stories on political grounds: Africa isn't yet ready for gay fiction, a story about violence is urgent and political. The other writers criticise the great writers on Africa: no turn is left unstoned from Conrad to Achebe to Paton. The narrator's story is criticised for being unrealistic when it was utterly autobiographical.
The Thing Around Your Neck is yet another take on the Nigerian woman who gets a visa to go to the USA. Akunna (addressed throughout as 'you' making this an unusual example of a story narrated in the second person) us sonsored by her uncle but when she arrives in Maine he tries to molest her so she runs away to Connecticut where she works as a waitress. She is very prickly about the expectations that other people have of her so 'he' (boyfriend material) is initially rebuffed, even though "his eyes were the color of extravirgin olive oil, a greenish gold." But he perseveres and gradually 'you' begin to understand 'his' strange culture: "You did not know that people could simply choose not to go to school, that people could dictate to life. You were used to accepting what life gave, writing down what life dictated." But slowly, even with his weird ideas, he becomes more and more acceptable to 'you' (I think he must have been an enormously patient man!). And he wants her but she flies back to Nigeria for her father's funeral and refuses to promise that she will come back.
So for all that she accepts what life dictates, she won't accept the boy who so clearly loves her to get too close.
She is standing in a 'line' outside The American Embassy, queuing for an asylum visa, two days after she has buried her son who was shot by the soldiers who came to arrest her journalist husband (who had already escaped in the boot of a car to Benin). She is angry with her husband for publishing the story criticising the regime. He was not brave, she thinks: "It was not courage, it was simply an exaggerated selfishness." This very simple story, mingling her memories of her son's death with the chatter of the other people in the queue, is perhaps one of the most powerful.
The Shivering starts with a plane crash in Nigeria; Ukamaka, doing her dissertation in Princeton, fears her ex-boyfriend might have been on the flight; Chinedu knocks on her door, invites himself in and starts to pray with her. A friendship develops. He is Pentecostal and she Catholic. She can't stop talking and thinking about her ex-boyfriend even as she realises how horrible he was to her.
This is a new take on the problem of evil: "If you say God is responsible for keeping Udenna safe, then it means God is responsible for the people who died, because God could have kept them safe, too. Does it mean God prefers some people to others? ...God always makes sense but not always a human kind of sense ... If God prefers some people to others, it doesn't make sense that it would be Udenna who would be spared. Udenna could not have been the nicest or kindest person who was booked on that flight ... You can't use human reasoning for God ... You have to stop thinking that God is a person. God is God."
"Have faith is not really like saying be tall and shapely. It's more like saying be OK with the bulge and with having to wear Spanx."
In The Arrangers of Marriage, Ofodile Udenwa has returned from the USA where he is a doctor called Dave Bell to marry by arrangement Chinaza. She returns with him and has to start learning how to be American, changing her name to Agatha Bell, using American words like busy for engaged and pitcher for jug, cooking American food and living in rooms that "lacked a sense of space, as though the walls had become unconfortable with each other, with so little between them."
Tomorrow Is Too Far is about the guilt felt by the female narrator after her brother died. Although she was better than him, clever, better at climbing trees, he was idolised by the family to the extent that she doubted whether she was real. Survivor's guilt? Or something more sinister?
The final story, The Headstrong Historian, is perhaps the weakest. It preaches rather than entertains. It is about how colonialism conquered Nigeria as experienced by a woman who took her son to be educated at the Catholic mission and her granddaughter who became a historian so that she could correct the distortions of the colonials.
There seems to be a lot of anger in this book. The women are oppressed and the men oppressors. The white boyfriend of the title story seems all that a girl could desire but even he is not good enough for the untrusting narrator. African customs are good and Western customs are weird or positively bad. Surely it is Ofodile's choice if he wishes to change his name to Dave Bell and adopt different customs, even if the reason is simply that this will help him become richer. Clearly he shouldn't require his wife to change but it is his right to do so. Many of these stories seem to be predicated on the concept that people shouldn't change but poeple do and cultures evolve. My world is not the same as the world of my parents and while there are some things I regret, there are many things that I am glad there is a lot less of (racism and sexism being two very obvious ones which, if they haven't disappeared, are significantly less prevalent and certainly less sanctioned than they were when I was young.
But the writing makes up for the bitterness. When she describes scenes and when she writes about human emotions, Chima is brilliant.
December 2016; 218 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57