Sunday 28 February 2010

Out of the Ashes Arises a Great Writer (Review of “The Phoenix” by Adrian Igoni Barrett)

This week, Critical Literature Review presents Ayodele Morocco-Clarke's review of Nigerian writer Adrian Igoni Barrett's short story titled "The Phoenix" which is published on StoryTime and in 2005 won the BBC Short Story CompetitionCritical Literature Review hopes you enjoy reading the review and hopes it encourages you to read this and other short stories on StoryTime.

I first stumbled on Igoni Barrett’s writings on Laura Hird's website a few years back and swiftly became enamoured with his style of writing after reading stories in the first edition of his short story anthology titled “From Caves of Rotten Teeth” – an almost bizarre title which he derived from a poem by Caribbean painter and poet, Leroy Clarke.

The Phoenix, the story under review, is one of the fourteen stories that comprise the short story collection From Caves of Rotten Teeth. It is also published online on the StoryTime website alongside another of Igoni Barrett’s hilarious short story entitled “Pot Pourri”.

The Phoenix was one of five stories which won the 2005 BBC Short Story Competition and was subsequently broadcast by the BBC in 2006. Reading this story, it is not impossible to see why the judges (Helen Simpson, Brian Chikwava and Romesh Gunesekera) chose it as one of that year’s winning entries.

The Phoenix traces the life of Tartius Abrachius who lost both his arms in a tribal ambush. Usually, such a fate in Nigeria has the effect of reducing the life of the double amputee to one of a beggarly existence, but the determination and resourcefulness of Tartius Abrachius was such that he decided to take on a trade to eke out a living rather than be left at the whims and mercy of oftentimes reluctant benefactors. Surprisingly, armless Tartius Abrachius chose to be a tailor. Not an easy task, but he mastered the art of wielding his scissors, and threading his sewing machine with his feet.

Tartius Abrachius’s profession and art sees him leaving his homeland behind to find better business and fortune in the big city. While there plying his trade, he gathers loyal customers ensuring his daily survival. It is there in the big city that he is reunited with a dream he once had when his limbs had been intact; a dream of playing football. Before his limbs had been severed, Tartius Abrachius could do a mean sprint. In fact it was his running skill that helped in saving his life in the massacre that had cost his companions theirs. These revivified dreams of his and his running prowess take Tartius Abrachius where he never envisaged.

Igoni Barrett delivers a red hot killer twist at the end of this story; a story which had me enthralled when I read it. There are many gems within The Pheonix – and generally within his “From Caves of Rotten Teeth” anthology – which showcase Igoni Barrett not just as an emerging writer to watch out for, but (dare I say) one of the best of the new crop of Nigerian (and indeed African) writers in recent times.

Igoni Barrett displays a visceral knack for bringing his subject-matter and characters to life. Each sentence in the story is well articulated, and apart from the first paragraph detailing Tartius Abrachius’s homeland (which I do not think adds much to the story), each sentence appears to have been pondered over carefully ensuring the overall harmony of the story. There are no sentences which fail to pull their weight; impostors masquerading as friends when indeed they are nothing but foes to the overall yarn.

Some people may describe Igoni Barrett’s style of writing as highfalutin or verbose. I however think that literary connoisseurs will appreciate that he is a writer who has honed his skill carefully, executing his craft with an ease and mastery that can only be admired and/or envied. There were some phrases and sentences that I particularly found poignant; one such line was the following:
But that was the year that destiny intervened, and as no contingency plan of man can salvage a dream that the fates have repudiated, he watched his ambition shrivel and die.”

The foregoing, alongside several visually scrumptious imageries ensures that there is a lot for the reader to enjoy in the story. It is not hard to see what so captivated the BBC Short Story Competition judges about The Phoenix that they adjudged it – above a plethora of other entries – a winner in the competition.

All I can say in conclusion is that I enjoyed reading Igoni Barrett’s The Phoenix. Immensely.

[Ayodele Morocco-Clarke is a Nigerian lawyer and writer of mixed heritage who has a passion for literature. She is the editor of Critical Literature Review and her written works have appeared in Author Africa 2009, Hackwriters (a University of Portsmouth magazine), Sphere Literary MagazineStoryTimeAuthor-Me and on The Clarity of Night blog. She also has work forthcoming in Saraba Magazine, Mimi MagazineThe Anthology of Immigrant Writing (2010) and  African Roar [2010 short story anthology, co-published by Lion Press and StoryTime]. Ayodele hopes to publish an anthology of short fiction soon and is currently working on her first novel.]

Sunday 21 February 2010

Immigrant Blues!!!!

Critical Literature Review proudly present's Damilola Ajayi's review of the 2005 Caine Prize winning author Segun Afolabi's début short story collection titled "A Life Elsewhere" which includes the Caine Prize winning short story "Monday Morning" which had previously been published in Wasafiri (Issue 41). Enjoy!

I find the title of this debut story collection A Life Elsewhere apt, for indeed what the author seeks to achieve with these seventeen stories or so is a literary embellishment of an anthropological concept.  It is notable that there is no eponymous story which lends its title to the collection as trends demand. The title seems to be grafted from the motive behind each story: an exposition into the Immigrant Experience, a thematic concern most Nigerian writers residing abroad often flirt with.

Perhaps the sudden removal from their culture and their erstwhile homeland often metes upon them the desire to pose their experience as narratives. The bulk of Adichie’s short stories in The Thing around Your Neck dwell on this theme; Habila’s The Immigrant (See also grazes this topic, although with less authorial imperialism; Chika Unigwe’s Phoenix about a Nigeria woman’s international marriage and consequences thereof…the list continues. In essence, one can make an educated guess that their accounts are partly autobiographical in their trappings (Afolabi’s short biography on the book offers a glimpse at his itinerant childhood); but more than this, they are graphic in expression and intention to attest that it is indeed not a bed of roses as people back in the home countries are often ‘misled’ to believe by the gallant display of Diaspora returnees. Hence the stories are suffused with a strong sense of setting and estrangement.

Monday Morning, the Caine-Prize winning story, chronicles the tale of a refugee family particularly of a young son; their efforts to fit into the community that their homeland wars had put them. As you grope deeper into the narrative, Mr Afolabi recruits all sort of characters. This arrangement gathers little boys, overweight adolescents, religious fanatics and delusional pensioners—the characters own interesting profiles and engaging stories to dispense. They tell their tales with varying voices and point of views, assuming voices that would best suit their predicament and temperament. So what we have is an assorted delivery of similar vignettes.

Their narratives share a lethargy and vagueness, a sort of listlessness that is either an ingenious effort of the author or his signature style that would probably balk the aesthetics of his subsequent offerings. Be that as it may, this style suits the stories and if the readers allows themselves to be absorbed, they would come away with the contagious grief that is rooted shallow in the lives of the characters.  So here is a sound off warning: detach yourself from these stories else you catch on the Immigrant blues.

However, there are some stories that leave one wondering if the manuscript ever encountered a competent editor. Some hackneyed phrases and clichés, and even warped imaginations could have been cured with the slightest editorial pruning. Unimaginative descriptions like in The Husband of My wife’s Best Friend, a character’s face was described as an “uncooked doughnut “not only appals and undermines the author’s creativity, it is a matchless evidence of the gaping hole existing in the chain of Book Publishing. But one cannot put this book down on this premise. Most, if not all, the stories of this collection have appeared in several international literary journals.

The book is indeed a panoramic survey of the Diaspora experience that leaves one with a lasting impression: that fiction is at its best when close to reality.

[Damilola Ajayi co-publishes the quarterly literary e-zine, Saraba. A penultimate medical student, his works have appeared both in print and online. He is presently working an anthology of short fiction.]