Monday, 31 December 2012

“Edible Bones” by Unoma N. Azuah




@omotayome For Twitter



The plot of an immigrant story is easily predictable. One must just accept that as a constant and, perhaps, resolve to find other thrilling qualities from it aside its plotting strength. That will greatly pay off. An immigrant story often suffers from its reflections as it as well gain from it. There is the strong urge to recline the newly discovered on the discarded past. Such writing is always a comparison of two opposites. In shunting between what is and what was, over-ambitiousness becomes inevitable. Most at times, there is a quick comparison between the grim and the attractive. Also, in this kind of writing, there are two monsters that must be satisfied; the foreign and the used to. That makes a writer unfortunate in narrating from two unalike worlds. And speaking of both, a writer is soon torn between what to balance and what should stir the reader’s imagination. "Edible Bones" falls fault to these. Or, maybe, I should say it shares the feature of its kind.


However, it is the simple prose Unoma brings to use that rescues the clich├ęd plot of this book. Every other thing, apart from a few, tailors after the crappy movies Nollywood has come to be known for. "Edible Bones" rides on the strength of a simple yet riveting prose. In the book, Unoma is indeed not on a task to over-impress with her diction, she writes simply with the mind just to tell a story. There is elegance in simplicity, Unoma Azuah shows that much in this book.


Over-ambitiousness

As it is with most immigrant stories, this book riles me with its over-excitement to side with the stereotype; that everything abroad is different from things here. That alone pulls down the main effort of the novel to de-stereotype the fixed reason for seeking greener opportunities. I could not just get my head around why an author would, maybe unconsciously done in this case, get along with the general skewed conception that only points to a shoddy research. But really, does Unoma need an in-depth research to know what level of exposure an average Nigerian is opened to? For goodness sake, an average Nigerian is almost, if not more, informed as his American counterpart. If nothing has prepared him for such, the media has done a great deal in that regard. He has movies, technology and books to get him such enlightenment on a silver platter. Everywhere is now One World, Third World must soon be scrapped from our mentality and word use.

Some parts of Unoma’s rendering of Kaitochukwu’s ignorance of the America culture are unimpressive. An instance of such is this;

 “’Can I have something to drink, please?”
’Soda?’
Soda?’ Kaito was confused. In Nigeria, Soda was a type of soap. The lady saw the confusion on his face and tossed a can of Coca-Cola to him.” (pg 14)

That kind of portrayal is just cheaply misleading, especially in a book that seems to narrate the experience of our present day realities. Soda drink is as much popular here as it is any(exposed)where, so why the hype?



These Floppy Lots

I have been searching for the word “prostrate” and I hope I stumble on a different meaning from its known meaning and usage, just to make sense of the way Unoma has employed the word. Also, there is no place it is known in Nigerian cultures that women prostrate when greeting. The best the traditions demand from them is that they curtsy. Unoma may have to take me on a special tutorial on the word “prostrate” someday. This is one of the numerous examples that smack of the careless editing in this book.

“‘Welcome my dear’ Kaito’s father greeted her. She prostrated before him, and he patted her back and asked her to stand up” (pg. 234)

Moreover, I do not understand the swift-age development Mukhtar, Amin’s son, goes through in this book between few pages. On page 48, he is 3 years old, how he becomes 4 years old on page 62 is what only the careless proofreading that goes into the book could explain. One can only rationalize this mistake if only one infers from the space of time between page 42 and page 68, which record Kaito’s second appointment at Amin’s store and the time his relationship with Sabrina suffers. A little more character development there could have done the job. So simple.

On page 48;

“It was his three year old son Mukhtar that was quite talkative. He would be the first to say ‘how are you doing today?’ to customers that patronized his father’s store”

And then on page 62;

“‘Is that your girlfriend?’ Mukhtar asked tugging at Kaito’s knee… ‘If she’s mad at you, get a basket of flowers. Ladies like that. My Dad gives my Mum flowers when she gets mad.’
As soon as Kaito closed for the day at Amin’s, he headed to a florist. He couldn’t believe that he paid attention to the suggestion of a four year old child.”


The Book

Kaito’s life is a path gone crooked. Overcoming the evils life throws his way will be a difficult circle to square. His joys and victories are not for long. Even his delusions quickly taper down as reality spits in his face. “Edible Bones” narrates the suffering of Nigerians whose successes are moored to the America dream. In a matter of granted visas, bought tickets and direct experiences, all that shimmer will turn into glossed rots. And when the stink of everything comes out, there will be the utmost need to justify and invalidate numerous actions. To some, the bones may be strong and others may pretend it is edible, but when it slashes the throat, the discomfort will not be bearable. When Kaito goes to America, all his pains will seem to have ceased. But on his immediate arrival in America, the bitterness that once was will reemerge with new taints.

Though the book almost assumes a didactic tone, the traces are barely noticeable. The characters are almost fully fleshed out. In this book, every character is a symbol representing a story. We have Kamalu, a perfect copy of a Nigerian student in America living on crumbs to hold up. There is Abuda, the exact depiction of a futile clutch to life. And Kaito, a life which all forces, traditional and foreign, are up against. Of all the things I came across reading “Edible Bones”, I realized that Pentecostalism as an opium is not only in Africa, Americans use it to relieve their boredom too:

“Today, the good news is from the book of John. God wants you to be fishers of men… not wants us to be fishers of money, not fishers of sex”… Each word that came with ‘not fisher of’ was punctuated with a piercing “Amen!” from the crowd. Some added ‘Preach Sis!’ Yet others responded with “Yes Lawd!”… (pg. 54)


The Rescue

“Edible Bones” is an easing-off read. The narrative is natural with an effect. The characters are fallible and quite relatable. The novel expresses its tales with an absorbing telling skill. It somewhat extends the ambit of trite immigrant stories. However unusually, “Edible Bones” combines the usual with the rarely-told in some instances. There are the immigrant issues, the gay syndrome, the psyche of the American culture, the hypocrisy of the American system, the beauty and ugliness of African communality and the coldness of modern life; all which add a refreshing twist to the narrative. Kaito’s encounters become the folder of other stories, stories that come to define the value of an immigrant life. Subtly, though more brilliantly, the tales of two different worlds are bared. Nigeria may be a home of wants; America is neither a land of easy coins.

With its simplicity of plot, naturalness of characterization and smoothness of descriptiveness, “Edible Bones” worked my reading appetite, but I hoped it had done better. 


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CLR will resume for the year 2013 in February. We so much appreciate your committed readership all through the year 2012. You, our readers, are the reason that has kept us going. We heartily wish you a fruitful and book-filled 2013. If you have any book you would love us to review in 2013, drop a comment or send us a mail (jomotayo01@gmail.com). Keep reading.
 


Saturday, 20 October 2012

"Swallow" by Sefi Atta

  • CLR features Oyebanji Ayodele again as he brings interesting discourse on Sefi Atta’s Swallow. CLR is glad to have his book review this month. Read and we hope you do Swallow.



Swallow sews Nigeria's culture and geography attractively. This it achieves by siting its proscenium in the Nigerian mega city of Lagos. Each character’s sentiments are expounded through the anal view of the narrator. Did I say sentiments? Yes! Swallow is a story neglected to the caprices of its own sentimental squall. It swings back and forth, touching existential subjects that may later inform one’s discriminatory stands.

This book is a reflection on the Lagos of the mid-1980s from the paradigm of Tolani, an immigrant from Makoku. The story presents, in a mesh of narrations and conversations, how Tolani darts in and out of Lagos in search of what convergences she shares with her mother; having lived a life filled with reminiscences of her mother’s tales, her encounter with Rose Adamson and their attempts to swallow condoms of drugs to breakthrough.


A RIDICULE ON MASCULINITY

The novel dunks one in feministic surpluses. It bares the ass of a male-centred society, especially with the likes of Mr Salako (a bank official with a lot of clandestine issues to his credit), Alhaji Umar (Mr Salako’s boss and partner in crime) and OC (a drug runner and Rose’s boyfriend).

Aside Arike, whose scooter-riding feat almost reduces to a convention dissenter, Sefi preserves the names of her female characters in gold. Iya Alaro; Arike’s activist aunty; Sisi, Rose’s multi-engaged mother and Violet, Rose’s prostitute-turned-hair dresser sister all wrest to nought the customs in their domains. It is in Swallow that you see females who are no teetotallers. They drown their pain and pleasure alike, orgying on beer and men-discarding gambits. They know the way in and out of predicaments. Tolani’s way of escaping from Mr Salako’s web accentuates this.

“I carried a worn plastic bag that morning. It had taken me hours to decide on the contents. Inside the bag was half a calabash, limestone, and chicken feathers. They were especially for Mr Salako. He came earlier than most other people in the bank, so he could carry out his fraudulent activities. I hoped to catch him in his office before the others arrived. One knock was all I needed before I heard his voice, full of guilt…
My heart was beating fast. He did not look scared. I picked up the calabash as planned and blew the chicken feathers into his face. He stood up so quickly his chair fell backwards.
Ye! She’s trying to blind me! I can’t see! I can’t see again! Aje! Aje! …
He was waving the feathers away, cleaning them from his face and clothes. I’d found them in the rubbish dump outside the block of flats in which I lived. The limestones and calabash came from my kitchen…” (Page 152-153)

Wondering why Rose’s name is not on the golden list? She never passes her last test like Sisi who comes back to savour her conquest in Lagos. I wish she had made it. The likes of OC in Lagos would have lost their business to her ambitiousness. However, this shows Sefi’s consciousness of how females cannot win all battles. This, to me, doesn’t undermine her position as a feminist writer. It only injects some reality into it.

I would not blindly fault the feminine folk on account of this:

“Chief Odunsi was humble about his background and apparently grateful to have a wife who overdressed and bleached her skin…She slept with the high society men she encountered, behind her husband’s back, to get him government contracts and also for revenge, because their wives looked down on her.(pg. 68)

The above is no flaw! It is a sign of the power women possess as against the gullibility of their male counterparts who, ascribe the results of what their wives make titanic oblations for to providence.
However, the African society is questioned on why it resorts to trivial things to explain its stern hold on male chauvinism. Imagine ascribing infertility to a woman’s passion for a moped.

“You have no child,” he said “You are riding around town on a motorcycle. You are out of control…” (Page 98)
That sucks!



 ‘WHO KNOWS TOMORROW?’

“Every morning at five thirty, when the air was cool, Rose and I caught a kabukabu from the end of our street to another district. There, we waited at a stop for our bus named “Who Knows Tomorrow? …” (Page 9)
This transcends a means of transportation. It is a very rich allegory which Atta herself may not have considered. Having conveyed Rose to her place of work till her sack, she fails to imbibe the most tiniest  doze of moral that permeates the moniker.

But that is the way in Lagos. Lagos, where WAI cannot peep into the obscured corners of dubious hearts; where the current trend of Pentecostalism can be lucrative with all its divine trappings:

“The pastor ordered the congregation to speak in tongues after a while. He stretched out his fingers: ‘I command you, in Jesus’ name! Bombala yatima shati wati’ ” (Page 147)

The future speaks a patois of mystery but Lagos and its ever-rushing denizens try to comprehend it. They end up not attaining their aim all the time though.


A SHAME ON "SWALLOW"

In an age where the Yoruba language is doomed to the willing tongues of market women and the oldies, Swallow kills the language more. Sefi Atta’s use of the Yoruba language is laborious and thus, kills the reader in me whenever they surface in the book. Letter ‘c’ for instance strolls with pride into Atta’s Yoruba alphabets. It makes me want to scream ‘Jesu Cristi’! This contrasts with my Achebe experience. It is in Swallow that Yoruba expressions have different outlook: some in italics and otherwise. That points to the author’s irresoluteness on everything that pertains to the language.

Her pidgin throws ferocious punches out of the pages of the book. They are also so sickening:

“…My sister, I done tire…”
As if that is not enough, she horsewhips the reader (especially the Yoruba’s) to feast on her soapy Yoruba-English interpretations. With all sternness, a good editor could have helped matters.
It strikes that the same author can easily pass for an imagist. She wields great imagery in this:

“I left the house before your father woke up that Sunday…I stopped walking as soon as the road levelled out, pushed my wrapper between my legs and got on the Vespa.
Vroom! You should have seen the old woman who was sitting on her chair with a chewing stick in her mouth. Vroom! Instead of spitting, she swallowed. Vroom! She slapped her chest. Vroom! She fell off her stool.” (Page 83)


Here is another I love:

“…My mouth tasted of palm oil. I couldn’t swallow my condom; it was the size of my thumb and as hard as a bone. What used to be my throat was now a pipe, my intestines were a drain and my stomach had become an empty portmanteau...” (Page 139)


***

This is just Literature. It is no spectacular breed. Literature shouldn’t just baptize you in ink and sweat. Dami Ajayi says this in Emmanuel Iduma’s Gambit Interview series:

‘…for one to gain a reader’s trust, one’s work must thrust at the reader…’

This is what I hold against Swallow: it in no way jarred the reader in me. Her flashbacks snail one’s read. Her inconsistent use of italics to present the flashbacks most times throws the reader in a labyrinth.  This is frustrating to the reader as he tries to figure out who’s speaking.

Moreover, I still find it very hard to believe that many of our writers don’t consider it a soil on their personalities to portray books the way they are not. I must confess that Swallow falls short of how it is presented in the blurbs. I have learnt from here to disregard blurbs. We should learn to give candid opinions about books.


“A better literary culture would be one that's not so dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement. It would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. We wouldn't want so badly to be liked above all. We'd tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions...”

I believe Atta still runs mileages from the full exploration of her craft. She can still hone it.


****
Oyebanji Ayodele could be reached via ayoyebanji@gmail..com

Sunday, 30 September 2012

"City of Memories" by Richard Ali


@omotayome for Twitter



In this book, there are questions of identity. City of Memories explores the gap between individuality and muddled self-personality. There is indeed a difference between the two. To ascertain one’s individuality is to understand one’s self worth and weaknesses. Aside the many minor stories hedging it, City of Memories delves into the tortuous journey of self-certainness. Swiftly, the reader is let into the characters’ quests for completeness. The expository is rapid and the plot mesmerizes in no time. It is never an easy following from the start, but with subsequent flashbacks and the blending of the same into present occurrences, the reader understands the conflicts.

Farouk’s love is rejected and bedraggled. His attempt at resolving that puts him at risk. His journey of discovery to Bolewa is not without some mixed dramas. He loves Rahila Pam. As much as he searches for personal completeness, his finding will also set off inflammable mysteries. Only at the end will the victims be known. From the start, everybody’s balance is undetermined.  There are secrets; stinking with worms. There are also discoveries; hunting and scandalous. Shards of issues meld with other broad concerns; the revealing of one becomes the evil of the other. City of Memories is all-revolving. When the last page rustles, Faruk will have love-hated and love-loved. And while the ghosts of horrible things breathe, political scores will be bloodily settled.

For Eunice Pam and Ibrahim Dabirama, theirs are familiar difference with their children as collateral things. It is with them that memories are blackened. Usman and Ahmed are two ill-assorted sides of startling memories back-dropping Ummi al-Qassim. The gory politics played by common lives also comes up. The power-fight for the title of the Guma of Fulani almost becomes a closure on the internecine war billowing in the North. The decades' long conflict between Jos settlers and locals are as well touched. The manner all these are reined in and interlaced with the main story is laudable. Richard Ali’s masterly hold on the reader is clearly visible. These brief reflective lines sum up the novel;

“The difference between us, Faruk, and those we rule over is that we regularly go to our cities of memory, not to live there, but to discover how things really are before disintegration sets in – the ideal past is where we find the solutions that help us each day that becomes our future”
***

Love-Hate


There is a reason behind every drawn sword. Eunice Pam draws hers for maternal love. But there are also other reasons why it must be sheathed; there are the helplessness of the weak and the innocence of many. When the other reasons are neglected for the survival of the singly loved, then the love is bestial. The relationship between Eunice Pam and her daughter, Rahila Pam, cannot be properly placed. It is one with consequences too disastrous. For the care of her daughter and the sustenance of her political clout, Eunice Pam will run the extra devilish mileage. Her love drowns Rahila Pam in mystery, leaving her stuck in the dilemma to requite her mother’s love or scorn her heart, Faruk;

“My mother engineered the uprising in the Benue. A hundred people died there… because of me. She was jealous that I was in love… The motives are complex and I do not understand them and really, I do not want to. ” (pg. 255)
Love is an awful split; a side of it is labeled hate. Ummi al-Quassim experiences the other side of love and she is doomed for posterity to unravel, or maybe for Faruk to discover.


A Study Case


Richard Ali’s perspective on delicate matters is interesting. This book swirls discussions and struts with them. In calculated drops, Ali artfully comments on some of the issues besieging the country. Ali offers their possible causes. While you may take Ali up on some, few are closer to the truth. For instance, the book would rather have us believe, despite the complexity that is the Northern crises, that the Bigotry of religion and the deceptiveness of the elites are the root causes of the Northern carnages.  Using Eunice Pam and Ibrahim Dabirama, Ali portrays the manipulative tendency of the elites to maintain their relevance. However, this is debatable when one considers that classes are not stable and the crises in question have outspanned numerous stratifications in the past.

***

Next Book; Ali Might Do Better.


There is an urgent need to tell and balance so many things in this novel. This makes it cluttered up and the reader is the worst for it. There is also a convulsion of too many things breathing hard for expression. In cramming so many things together, some of the messages appear carelessly skewed. If City of Memories were to be better written, it would be rid of those things. The novel’s over grouchiness constrains it to handle matters that should not ordinarily mingle. I can observe Ali’s thirsty need to dissect some matters and offer the Northern view of it, even when that is not necessary. This is really short of wit.

This novel dulls one's reading with histories that never add any weight to the storyline. This book suffers greatly from the hungry inclination to de-stereotype and straighten twisted stories bordered on ethnicity, politics and religion. In the process of tackling, it mires itself. That makes the narrative labored. The overreaching attempt to rescue the telling with mashed-up flashbacks does also not help. Ali’s shoddy use of flashbacks makes the book a labyrinth, you are easily lost in it. Though poorly done, Richard Ali sustains the flashback technique to a reasonable extent. But the sustaining leaves much to be desired in an artistic work as a novel.

Powerful use of imageries enlivens words. It is not the words that speak, it is the images attached to them that excite. Ali disappointed me on many pages. Descriptive words slurred where I was expecting them to appeal to my imagination. They didn’t and I lost connection with them. An instance out of many is on pg. 160;

“Rahila would have never guessed that her mother’s revenge already lay concealed within the pleasant mountains. In the weeks Rahila had spent in torment over whether or not Faruk would return, Eunice Pam had scooped the mountain clean and placed a charge of explosives there…”
Though City of Memories showcases Ali’s ability to relate good tales, but for now, Ali certainly needs to hone upon some writing techniques. The use of effective imagery and flashback are just some of them. Ali can do better next time.

Read this book. This is mine. My views. My shelf is growing. I am still reading. More books.