Monday 30 January 2012

"Say You’re One of Them" by Uwem Akpan

As I went through the pages of Uwem's offerings, I could feel that Uwem has more experiences to share than what he has written on in those five stories that make up Say You're One of Them. My premise is rooted in the manner Uwem drags on in some of the stories, which individually spans almost a hundred pages, sating the reader with the superfluous details he wants the reader to know. He tends to be so compassionately biased with the way he tells some issues with brevity aided with creativity and others in a narrative that nearly makes them novellas within a collection of five short stories. What however lures the reader into Uwem's stories is in the narrative spells that can only be identified with a narrator who is not only telling his stories in vivid descriptive words, but in the smoothness of one who knows his stories well before telling them. You might be wondering what collection of five short stories really chronicles the events in Africa in picturesque sequences. You only will need to be told that each of the stories, set in five different countries of the continent and relayed in children's perspective, does not foist what should be on you but rather makes you piece meanings together for yourself from the accounts of disoriented children of nefarious abuses and violence. 

Uwem must have been aware that his piece of literature could easily be thrown off as one of the lots that appeal to the West with fixed African themes of child soldering, religious calamity, child trafficking, etc, hence he adopts the point of view that speaks with tones of innocence rather than narratives that relay events with adult confident accuracy.  Sympathy can always save flaws when stories are told by a child and one might not quickly overreact against pictures that are just too blackly painted to seek pity when it is a minor blathering about them. Say You're One of Them seems to make a reader confess and expiate on behalf of the villain in sheer empathy that grieves one so dearly after each story.  

Say You're One of Them is an afro geo-collection of short stories which unfolds in different settings of five African countries.

Five Countries; Five Short Stories

An Ex-mas Feast (kenya):  Maisha is never her family's favourite when it comes to moral standards, but she does command the greatest dignity when the family needs depend on the income she gets from prostituting as a minor. She is the sacrificial lamb that holds the family together in seeming unity until the Ex-mas Feast when she explores full time in her trade to cater for the more demanding wants of her family.

Fattening for Gabon (Benin): For Yewa and Kotchikpa, the coming of a Nanfang motorbike into their uncle's, Fofo Kpee, home is the beginning of the abysmal era that will soon ravage them apart. When the source of the Nanfang is known, it has already become too late for Fofo Kpee to remedy events and protect his cousins against the suffering he has sold them into. The story delves into the hypocrisy of religion while it still maintains its objectivity on the child-trafficking issue that majorly characterizes the story.

What Language Is That? (Ethiopia): Before the war that tears the narrator apart from her best friend, Salem, all what they know is the world they have mutually created in their own infantile simplicity. In severe suddenness, they become as guilty as the circumstance that creates a gorge between them. With the falseness of emotions that those caught in the middle of religious crisis exude, the two children go aboard to learn another language that can communicate their friendliness to each other even though the plumes of thick smoke that billows from the charred part of their houses robs the atmosphere of all harmony.

Luxurious Hearses (Nigeria):  The quietness of the hearse might not be luxurious to the dead. Maimed and mangled cadavers are never a pleasant sight even when ferried in luxurious buses. The situation that plagues the characters in this story is antithetical to the lives they must have lived at one time or the other. After Tijani’s co-Muslim faithful betray his trust during a religious war in the northern part of the country, he returns to reposing his confidence in the God of the south he knows little about. A fanatic of some sort, Tijani who calmly watches the martyring of his blood brother, who is of the Christian faith, can’t brave it to reveal his Muslim identity in the refugee bus where he seeks protection. Amidst staccato bursts of gunfire, jarred dismembered bodies and reprisal attacks from the two religions (Muslim and Christian) and ethnic groups (North and South), Tijiani almost does make it, but his chopped off hand becomes his main enemy.

My Parents' Bedroom (Rwanda): As succinct as this story is, it well re-enacts the inter-tribal carnage between the Hutu and the Tutsi brilliantly. A child can eavesdrop on the creaking bed of his parents, but when the matrimonial room of the home becomes an abattoir where the mother's head is slashed, the memory of the bedroom may become a hunting ghost. This story uses the setting of a simple Rwandan family to show how inhuman the war between the two tribes is and how the actors of the savage wear bestiality as fitting garbs.

Take this…

I am afraid this collection might turn out to be Uwem's best work; I can hardly hope he will write anything as entrancing as this. That some of the stories are almost on the whole pages of the book shows he was under pressure as to what medium to pass his messages through; a collection of short stories or a full novel. Writing about religion is one fragile issue writers seldom dwell on. Being a Jesuit priest, I thought Uwem Akpan will let prejudice guide him towards giving an imbalanced narration while stifling the views of the opposite religion in Luxurious Hearses. The diplomacy he employed in equally giving voices to the two religious sides takes Luxurious Hearses out of the packs that use literature as their controlled mock courts where cases are adjudged on emotions and microscopic reasoning.

Saturday 21 January 2012

"Voice of America" by E.C. Osondu

In Voice of America, almost everybody has an international passport, while those without it only nurture escapes from different miseries. Give some of them visas and they are bound to become Americans or at least illegal immigrants. When their African affinity and culture pressurize their new American lives, they instantly are people battling with the same immigrant pains. As a bunch of the stories fail in similitude of themes and characterizations, others excitingly add refreshing twits to common telling. In this packing contrast, there is perhaps one thing Osondu is artistically deft at; he beamingly shows the unusualness of strange realities and the hypocrisy of individual frailties in the face of societal and household evils.

I won't give a stock opinion on this collection and be quick to pass it off as one stack that is raspingly filled with Immigrant issues. My view will be broad enough and I will first say this collection is a sterling art of storytelling before any other opinion is formed. There are glaring examples of Osondu's writing confidence in the book. The simplicity of diction and plots' flexibility in Voice of America are the authentication of Osondu's storytelling prowess. However, Osondu leaves many trails in the collection which point to only one angle – Western gentrification. Only a few of the stories survive on their own without tilting to a Western outlook and ingratiating themselves with the easy comprehension of an outsider. I will forgive an author that explains in reams what Agege Bread is, but when a place as historic and cyberly found as Badagry is relatively over-tutored, I will call that lazy writing for unexcited audiences. In 'Welcome to America' for instance, the addendum on Badagry only adds more drabness to the enormous burdens the collection struggles with. Osondu is helpless in his attempt to upsell the familiar to the foreign. The proofs are in the repetition of structures that cuts across most pieces in this collection; lacing potentially creative renderings with inexcusable lethargy that stretches on. In the unreasonable lengthiness the collection is muddled in, it can still be remedied if pruned from a collection of eighteen to seven short stories. What nauseates one most isn't in the futile attempt of high numbers that unfittingly characterize this collection, but that the stories that will have been better merged or alternatively left out are exercised in the same exhausted themes explored by other pieces in the collection. The spoiling issues that confront this collection are indeed avoidable.

You will have questions after the reading. Some might likely be; after "Waiting", is there any refreshing nectar offered in "Janjaweed Wife"? "Nigerians in America", "I Will Lend You My Wife", "Stars In My Mother's Eyes Stripes On My Back" and "Miracle Baby"; aren't they all substitutive and in need of reduction to get around unthinking repetition? Until questions as these are noted and solutions provided in subsequent republications, Voice of America might remain in the lower rack of readers' choices struggling to stand out.

Some Undesirable Parallelisms

'Waiting' <> 'Janjaweed Wife': In Waiting, only the word Tsofo tells you where the geographical setting of the book may likely be. In the refugee camp where this story plays out, nothing maintains its real name. Everybody is labeled and classified according to the type of solace s/he has been given. Orlando is called by the name written on the T-Shirt given to her. Paris is only known as Paris for her T-shirt reads See Paris and Die. Chars of some war they all are at the refugee camp, only the help extended to them through Western adoption will put them back into a sane society. But how long shall they all wait for?

Concerning Janjaweed Wife, when Nur and Fur are taken out from the imagined reality of what a Janjaweed solider is really capable of, they will become refugees seeking safety in protected camps. They will suffer and scramble for supplies, kill domestic dogs for meat when Red Cross delays provisions and be subjected to barbaric abuse from the one who later comes offering shelter. In the volatile situation that surrounds Nur, Fur and their mother, escaping the molestation that lies within their ultimate rescue will be a demanding choice to make.

When reading these two pieces, note the subject matter they both hungrily share and the story they both tell without so much difference. Everything in these stories is too closely similar.

'Nigerians In America' <> 'Stars In My Mother's Eyes, Stripes On My Back': Through the perspective of Adesua, the collective sufferings of Nigerians in America are bared in her family's house. Adesua's home provides the communal platform Nigerians alike come on to discuss their woes. Uncle John complains bitterly of the problem that awaits him from the report his contracted American wife's lays against him. Uncle Siloko, her father's childhood friend, is also mired in sticky immigrant trouble. In the night Uncle Siloko begins his temporary stay with Adesua's family; Adesua is invited for the wisdom she will gather from their small talk.

'Stars In My Mother's Eyes, Stripes On My Back' is a tiff gone bitter between the narrator's parents. It must have been more than stars the narrator's mother sees when his father physically assaults his mother. They must settle their marital differences before religion is given attention to – and who cares if it is Sunday? Uncle Boateng's visit has more to do than settling a trivial squabble, the narrator must sit with Uncle Boateng and his father after the family's reunion to gain sageness from their elderly chatter.

Harvesting Some Good Ones Out

My choice of these selections is not so much based on the stereotypical setting the stories sit in as it is on their freehandedness in turning fictional mendacities into relatable instances. They are exact to the situations in the society without being forced. The power that boils from their literary functionality moves you so close to deep appreciation of their messages.  

'Voice of America': There is a good trick to this title and Osondu pulls it off to the success of the story. It is the anchor title of the collection. By the title, it is the least story you will expect anything spellbinding from. You are taken by surprise. It is the last piece in the book. The aftertaste this piece leaves you with easily makes up for the near daftness others reek of. A summary on it will upset the cart of the story. I wouldn't do that. The story is worthy to be left to the personal savor of the reader. It is that worth it.

'The Men They Married': This is a good example of how stories of the same theme can be dealt in a single combined narrative. It is the story of Ego, Uzo, Ebone and Malobi; women anguished and pained by marital un-blissfulness. Their emotions are unhinged and their stories pour out into the same trough to the reader.

'An Incident At Pat's Bar': There is this unusual excellence in every story that differently touches a matter so beaten to banality. When you read one, you wouldn't need to be told; you just know it. This is what separate essay writing from creative writing.

In Port Harcourt, Pat's Bar is more than where expatriate oil workers while away their time with sex, meat, alcohol and weeds. Charities that support different organization are constantly raised in dollars; even hypocritical preachers lick Pat's feet for dollars' support offerings for their churches. There is a show of class and Pat's Bar outshines others. But all these are before the changing time which sweeps through Pat's Bar.

'Teeth': A baby is born and nothing more is precious like the teeth he grows from the womb.


Keep trawling through; Voice of America is not totally blundered. I like collection of short stories, Voice of America has just increased my volume of them.