Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Review and Cartoon drawing of "We Need New Names" by NoViolet Bulawayo

Hitting Budapest (The Budapest Raiders, from right to left; Chipo,Sbho,Darling,Stina,Godknows,Bastard
Art by my school mate, Ebesoh Dexter)

For Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, better known as NoViolet Bulawayo. Review of her debut novel, “We Need New Names” by Nkiacha Atemnkeng.

There is a saying, “If you want to know a country, read its writers.” So for me the anchor of “We Need New Names” will always be the last paragraph of page 193 which ends overleaf.
“There are three homes inside Mother’s and Aunt Fostalina’s heads: home before independence, before I was born, when black people and white people were fighting over the country. Home after independence, when black people won the country. And then the home of things falling apart, which made Aunt Fostalina leave and come here. Home one, home two, and home three. There are four homes inside Mother of Bones’ head: home before the white people came to steal the country, and a king ruled; home when the white people came to steal the country and then there was war; home when black people got our stolen country back after independence; and then the home of now. Home one, home two, home three, home four. When somebody talks about home, you have to listen carefully so you know exactly which one the person is referring to.”

I’ll go with Mother of Bones. Her Home one was a land called Great Zimbabwe ruled by black kings like Lobengula. Her Home two was called Southern Rhodesia stolen by a white man, Cecil John Rhodes and his proxies (the colony was even named after him; Rhodesia). Then there was war spearheaded by the secretary general of ZANU called Robert Mugabe and others like Edgar Tekere who managed to yank the country back from Ian Smith’s claws in the Rhodesian bush war from bases in Mozambique. Her Home three is the country now known as Zimbabwe currently under the leadership of Robert Mugabe who won the general elections in 1980 and became Prime minister on Zimbabwe’s independence in April 1980. Contrary to what many people think, it was a thriving peaceful country after independence, the land where milk and honey flowed with good health and education policies until something snapped. Mother of Bones’ Home Four is that snapping Zimbabwe of the lost decade (2000 to 2010), the period when the economy shrunk largely due to Robert Mugabe’s land reforms. It is that Zimbabwean decade of things falling apart. So you have to be careful when citing the “country” of “We Need New Names.” It is actually the “Achebean-era-Zimbabwe,” only. That is, Home Four with respect to Mother of Bones and Home Three with respect to Mother. Even though the novel is set in an unnamed country, to me it is clearly Zimbabwe. A bunch of all these also happened in my country, Cameroon; from the pre-independence struggle in the late fifties, to independence in 1960, to the economic boom of the seventies, the stagnation of the eighties and economic crisis and political turmoil of the early nineties which led to the devaluation of our currency, the CFA Franc.

NoViolet’s debut novel parallels the media narrative of that lost decade era which peaked in 2008 perfectly. I remember following events in Zimbabwe from the news and this book is a wonderful evocation of all I heard, saw and so much more. (Well, except the juicy guavas). So it’s a blend of reality and imagination. There were media reports about hectares of farmland being seized from white farmers and handed over to black farmers, generally Mugabe’s buddies, homes seized and others destroyed. I heard of galloping inflation, hunger, no food in the stores, rigged elections, violence as a result of that, incarceration and torture of MDC opposition leaders and political activists, some to the point of death, fed up Zimbabweans running away across the border into South Africa, a few knee deep across a bridgeless, crocodile infested dangerous river, fed up Zimbabweans emigrating to America, emigrating to Europe, emigrating to Asia in droves and droves and droves.

However, not just anybody can perform such a no nonsense task of chronicling all that and more into a heartfelt story that will charm thousands of readers around the world from Armenia to Zambia, New Zealand to Iceland, Cape to Cairo and India to Indiana. Not just anybody can spur the Man Booker Prize judges to colourfully and majestically drape such a novel especially a debut one with their shortlist flag. It takes someone with real literary genius. But “yes, she can” do it like Barack Obama, that debut novelist from Zimbabwe called NoViolet Bulawayo who exploded onto the world literary scene in May 2013 like a fission bomb with her stunningly crafted novel, “We Need New Names”. NoViolet Bulawayo is a new wordsmith who smolders red hot words of prose poetry into a finely chiseled arrow and firmly pierces your heart like Cupid, such that you can do nothing else but fall in love with her banging writing even if you may not like this her debut novel. She’s simply a reincarnation of ancient itinerant storytellers and the best traditional bards, period.

She wrote beautiful poetic prose with a lyrical feel to it such that her writing sings as if she’s playing symphonies on a lyre. It is fierce, feral, unsentimental prose written in the first person narrative and child’s eyes of the protagonist, Darling. NoViolet uses simple language and her jokester voice, her funny and playful voice to give dimension to and shape the world of six children; Darling, Bastard, Godknows, Chipo, Sbho and Stina who live a life some people cannot even begin to imagine, very reminiscent of the refugee children in E.C Osundu’s 2009 Caine prize winning short story, “Waiting.” The novel starts with a Caine Prize winning short story itself, her 2011 Caine Prize winning short story, “Hitting Budapest” which is actually one of my all time favourite short stories. But it’s a slightly reworked “Hitting Budapest,” (I read it 11 times in 2011 and spotted all the new lines in this novel.) The novel is set in a shanty town, a kaka neighbourhood called…oh my God! Paradise! What a paradox! But the paradise is not nice oh! Chei! The paradise is a sprawling suburb of hell. Bulawayo’s inferno ghetto echoes with sounds of despair, reverberations of people living without any hopeful hope triggered by the repressive rule of resident president, Robert Mugabe, (Africanist stance liberation hero or Zimbabwean economy Berlin wall disintegration zero as you like.) It is a dirty smelly place full of thousands of tin shacks and no real houses.
Extreme hunger prompts the six urchins to go and steal and stuff guavas in their famished tummies in a swanky neighbourhood called Budapest. The Hungarian capital! I’m thinking she should have named the place Miami or something, since it’s a really prominent suburb with chic beautiful houses. Their eleven-year-old friend, Chipo is pregnant for her grandfather! The children stumble upon a corpse and steal the dead woman’s shoes to go and buy bread! Darling pinches a baby so she can cry in church and she’s contented about it. The children poignantly attempt a futile abortion on Chipo. It’s like every dark thing happening is normalcy to them. But more than anything, life is a game. Just like other children, they play many games; Country game, Find Bin Laden game, Funeral game in “For Real,” Adult game in “Blak Power,” since they cannot go to school, since their teachers have all left, since their homes have all been destroyed, since there’s nothing else to do than to play and eat guavas to constipate themselves and drive away hunger. Their fathers have left for greener pastures in South Africa and elsewhere. And Darling’s father returns with AIDS instead of the goodies. Elections fail and the men return to their disillusioned lives. Men are clowns and dogs in this book; a man who impregnates his granddaughter, a false prosperity preaching prophet called Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, a senselessly verbose security guard, an AIDS ravaged father, barbaric men looting from houses and writing on a wall with excrement, a mentally deranged old man called Tshaka Zulu.

Darling experiences all these horrors in her ghetto with childlike naivety but she has a deep sense of hope. “I’m going to America to live with my aunt Fostalina, it won’t be long, you’ll see.” She has a utopia view of America and doesn’t pause to think of the country’s own challenges as she dreams of it. Darling actually makes it there and is amazed by the variety of choice and food. But she also collides headfirst with America’s own problems and grapples with them a lot in silence as the writer continues to deepen and darken her world; the dysfunctional society, her illegal status, crime, American accent barrier, her estranged mannerisms, her repugnance for pop culture etc. So this also makes it a novel about emigration and the problems that also come with the illegal status of some Africans. NoViolet skyrockets on the issue in a heartfelt chapter titled “How they lived”. It can make you cry. All these cause Darling to miss home and her friends a lot but she equally feels detached and somewhat snobbish and cold to them on the phone. The cultural dislocation and dilemma creates a gaping rift in her mind as she reaches adolescence, to the extent that she doesn’t even call her own mother which brings to mind many Africans in the diaspora. She inherits habits quintessential to many American teenagers like the American accent, cruising as a group in town with the car of her friend’s mother which they drive without her knowledge, watching pornography online and texting. NoViolet’s literary techie exploits; texting, skype conversations and facebooking in the novel contributed in making it a very contemporary book and all the more impressive because it was done in a novel written by an African which was a first for me. So letter writing, faxing and telegrams in African prose, you are all dead dead.

There is the utmost conflict in the book between Chipo and Darling when the former accuses the latter of becoming Americanized and abandoning their country which she pretends to call home. The accusation angers Darling to the point that she hurls the computer to the wall. There’s also conflict between Darling and Aunt Fostalina over career choice. There is mind conflict between Aunt Fostalina and her husband, Uncle Kojo over the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe. Their marriage is also collapsing rapidly. From Aunt Fostalina’s actions, I get the impression she considers him to be a crumbled economy zero and Uncle Kojo openly declares him an African statesman hero. In my opinion, the title of the novel stems from the debate of that Mugabe longevity issue even though the phrase “we need new names” comes up only when the children are trying to choose Doctor names during their perennial playing. Here is NoViolet’s opinion during an interview, “I feel we need a constant injection of new ideas, as in new personalities. It makes any space richer…When something is not working, you need to change it. So we need really a new breed, a new culture of politics to carry us to where we need to be.” So that summarizes “We Need New Names” which ends with very little or no conflict resolution.

There are countless themes in the book; poverty, stealing, kids play, Religion, false prophecy, Politics, AIDS, destruction, death, emigration, cultural dislocation, conflict, longing, mental dysfunction, infidelity, illegality, alcohol addiction just to mention some of them. The novel is an episodic plotted one with each of the eighteen named chapters spewing forth pages and pages of something unpredictable, new, poignant but generally funny like eighteen episodes of the family series, “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Each successive chapter presented a new story that simultaneously enchanted and piqued my curiosity. The book intentionally wanders about like Early man looking for fruits as nutritional fulfillment –guavas, stumbling on a ‘wild animal’ –a corpse dangling from a tree, six cubs playing constantly –(Country game, Find Bin Laden game), humans finding steel to make fire –wire used to attempt abortion on Chipo, lightning –flash of camera lights, linguistic thunder –lethal fatal insult by a security guard, “you pathetic, fatally miscalculated biological blunder”, savage dinosaur attack –barbaric men invading homes in “Blak Power” and killing of Bornfree, flight of a bird –white plane on the book cover (my version of the book) flying Darling to the garden of Eden (America), eating of the forbidden fruit –Aunt Fostalina’s infidelity to her husband and Darling’s car cruising with her friends, lion of Africa –Robert Mugabe according to Uncle Kojo, two hens fighting –Chipo/Darling Skype confrontation…Funny uh? That’s because I’m gearing you up for the next paragraph.

NoViolet also uses sacks-full of humour to engage you in her work and get you gripped from the very first page. And that begins right from her character names; Bastard, Chipo, Sbho, Stina, Mother of Bones, Fraction, Bornfree, Nomoreproblems, Forgiveness, Godknows, (names NoViolet dug out from God-knows-where!) The book made me laugh and laugh and then laugh some more. I remember it fell off my hands thrice. It’s definitely the funniest novel I’ve ever read and being a funny young man myself, I’ll always love this book more than even some other better crafted novels. Have a look at this scene in America.
I’m supposed to start teaching him my language because he says he and his brother are going to my country so he can shoot an elephant, something he has dreamed of doing ever since he was a boy. I don’t know where my language comes in – like does he want to ask the elephant if he wants to be killed or something? (P 268)
Okay if that didn’t hit your laugh button then what about this?
The boy comes up behind her, his thing like a snake in front of him. I reach forward and click on Mute because when the real action starts we always like to be the soundtrack of the flicks. We have learned to do the noises, so when the boy starts working the woman we moan and we moan and we groan, our noise growing fiercer with each hard thrust like we have become the woman in the flick and are feeling the boy’s thing inside us, tearing us up. We stop briefly when the woman takes her leg down from the railing and bends over, still grasping the pole. Now the boy is pumping grinding digging. We imagine he is fire and we scream as if we are burning in hell. Usually Kristal is the loudest because she has a high pitched voice but today Marina surpasses us all. (P 203/204)

The porn scene has captivated many readers. But this one below is darkly humourous.
He doesn’t tell us to say cheese so we don’t. When he sees Chipo, with her stomach, he stands there so surprised I think he is going to drop the camera. Then he remembers what he came to do and starts taking away again, this time taking lots of pictures of Chipo. It’s like she has become Paris Hilton, it’s all click-flash-flash-click. When he doesn’t stop she turns around and stands at the edge of the group, frowning. Even a brick knows that Paris doesn’t like the paparazzi.
Now the cameraman pounces on Godknows’s black buttocks. Bastard points and laughs, and Godknows turns around and covers the holes of his shorts with his hands like he is that naked man in the Bible, but he cannot completely cover his nakedness. We are all laughing at Godknows. (P 54/55)

I didn’t find the above picture taking funny, it instead irritated me a lot. Someone with a good heart will ask many questions and sympathize with the children rather than just taking photographs of them. How come an eleven-year-old is pregnant? Why is the little boy wearing a torn pair of shorts? Why are the children so slovenly? The camera lady in “Hitting Budapest” does the same thing. She throws away the thing she was eating to reach for her camera and take pictures of the hungry children when they wanted to eat the thing she was eating. The writer brilliantly illustrates how many whites and Asians come to Africa with only a “tourist view” of the continent; just to see our breathtaking landscapes, fluorescent flora, exotic beasts, get many pictures of whatever they see and leave quite blind to the suffering. So poignant! But she still succeeds to make it funny. She still pulls a laugh out of you even when she is writing about a funeral. Now that is what I call a reincarnation of ancient itinerant story tellers.

The book also contains the most virtuoso prose poetry I’ve ever read in my entire life. NoViolet’s prose is like boiling water with poetry evaporating from it like water vapour. Below are my favourites,
She is wearing a yellow dress and the grass licks the tip of her red shoes…The sun squeezes through the leaves and gives everything a strange colour…blue beads, their colours screaming against the quiet brown of the skin…The sun is already frying the shacks; I feel it over my body, roasting me…our stomachs are so full they could explode…It’s light rain, the kind that just licks you…The rain stops and the sun comes out and pierces, like it wants to show the rain who is who. We sit there and get cooked in it…listening to the cough pounding the walls…He feels like dry wood in my hands, but there is a strange light in his sunken eyes, like he has swallowed the sun…his legs are so hairy you could comb them…Now mother is moaning; the man, he is panting. The bed is shuffling like a train taking them somewhere important that needs to be reached fast. Now the train stops and spits them on the bed of plastic, and the man lets out a terrific groan.

Yes, very creative. And there’s no remedy to my addictive affinity for these lovely cascade of similes,
 We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out…proud peacocks, the feathers spread out like rays…when Makhosi came back his hands were like decaying logs…we pass tiny shack after shack crammed together like hot loaves of bread…she is kicking and twitching like a fish in the sand…we are as sad as graves, sad like the adults coming back from burying the dead…their voices circle each other like crazy cocks…a fucking tsunami walks on water, like Jesus Christ, only it’s a devil…we watch the car like maybe it’s a bride…so thin, like he eats pins and wire…his voice rises like smoke, past us towards God…in America, roads are like the devil’s hands, like God’s love reaching all over…the singing is so distant it’s like the voices have been buried under the earth…Aunt Fostalina snatched the remote control from the coffee table pointed at the TV like it was a gun and shot…the calls just keep coming like maybe they heard Aunt Fostalina is married to the bank of America…staggering and bumping into stuff like a chicken with its head cut off…little kids over there riding that escalator like it would take them to heaven, their screams rising like skyscrapers…her voice sounds far away like maybe it was detained at the border or something…now they are just living together like neighbouring countries.

NoViolet’s English language is simple yet very admirable. There are also no inverted commas cloaking dialogue so the narrative marries the dialogue and they become one like husband and wife. That too was another first for me. There are a few non English words in the novel too, generally stemming from the Ndebele language and the novel has that Ndebele sensibility to it. My favourite non English word will always be “kaka” which I later learnt means “shit” in the context of the book from social media. I was again amazed to find out that my “kaka” has got links to Spanish “Caca” which is from “mierda” which means “shit.” Also, many non translated sentences written in the Ndebele language are present in “We need new names”. She leaves you hanging and triggers you to do some more research on her work.

The writing is more engaging in the Zimbabwe setting where Darling is very extroverted but as she leaves for the US which is a new environment she becomes introverted and quiet. This makes the writing to be less engaging. NoViolet’s writing also has a certain characteristic that delivers a great effect on the mind of the reader which I personally call “witty word repetition” like these…But that was not stealing-stealing because it was Stina’s Uncle’s tree…Forgiveness is not a friend-friend because her family just recently appeared in Paradise –this makes her a stranger…Paradise with its tin, tin, tin…then Father laughed, but it wasn’t a laughing-laughing laugh. You kind of understand what she means. Father laughed but it wasn’t that kind of explosive laugh that goes hahaha-hehehe-huikihuiki but a gentle sick one since it was coming from a pair of AIDS ravaged lungs.

So after writing a very flowery review about NoViolet’s novel and her writing wasn’t there anything for me to criticize in it? Definitely. I have a fat sporting problem here, Maybe my measles will be gone by the time it’s World Cup, then I can come and be Drogba. Hey, what about my compatriot, Samuel Eto’o? The most decorated African footballer of all times! Il est plus fort que ton Drogba, NoViolet! Quatre fois Ballon d’or Africain et trois fois gagnant de la ligue des champions Européenne! La légende Camerounaise du foot Africain! Qui est ton Didier? That’s just humour. On a serious note, I felt the stronger and more engaging part of the novel is the Zimbabwe setting and the narrative lost some of its appeal in the US setting. I was also a bit irritated by the misandry in the novel, men are painted in bad light a lot. There is also the time flaw between the kids playing the find Bin Laden game and Chris Brown’s walloping of Rihanna which Professor Ikhide Ikheloa raised in his brilliant review of the novel. To be honest, I don’t think I would have been as smart as brainy Papa Ikhide to spot that weakness. But then, is there any work which is error free? J.S Newman once said “nothing would be done if you waited until you could do it so well that no one would find faults.”

I’ve read about five different reviews in which the reviewers applauded NoViolet Bulawayo’s immense literary talent but projected her as a poverty porn star and accused her of writing her book in a “western-media-coverage-of-Africa” style, a CNN coverage of African anguish, “performing Africa” and including a string of clichés about African suffering which the world is already quite cognizant of. They have made their solid points and they are entitled to their opinions. But I disagree with all of them. Generally, writers get inspired to write about what moves them, from what they perceive, see, hear, feel etc. And in this particular case, “We Need New Names” was written by a young Zimbabwean woman who saw her once normal homeland where her family still resides burning and crumbling like a pack of cards from far away in the US for ten very painful years called the lost decade. She felt it was a very necessary project to write about the dystopia of that period, especially when it peaked in 2008. She says it, but I think the genius of this great woman is the fact that, she goes further to say and illustrate that the so called “single African story” is not only unique to Africa. Even America, mankind’s paradise on earth (not that kaka Paradise near Budapest) is suffering from the same condition. She also clearly shows how the so called “single African story” may very well be a universal story, the lamentable condition of all humanity. Jesus Christ! We need new names and new geniuses like NoViolet Bulawayo.
NB: I think a funny novel deserves a funny book review.

About the author: NoViolet Bulawayo was born and raised in Zimbabwe and now lives in the US. She won the 2011 Caine Prize for African writing for her short story, “Hitting Budapest” which also appears as the first chapter in her debut novel, “We Need New Names.” It was the only African novel shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and she is the first black African woman to achieve the feat. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies, Boston Review, Callaloo and Newsweek. She earned her MFA in Creative writing from Cornell University in 2010, where she was recognized with a Truman Capote Fellowship. She is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a young Cameroonian writer. His work has been published in three online journals, malawiwrite.org, www.africabookclub.com and www.thenewblackmagazine.com. He was shortlisted for the 2013 Mardibooks short story competition in London. A holder of a Curriculum Studies and Biology degree, he works as a Swissport Customer service agent at the Douala International Airport.

NoViolet Bulawayo: This and the review was awesome to see Nkiacha, made my day, thank you for everything 13 hours ago · Unlike · 1 Nkiacha Atemnkeng naaah, I have to thank you instead. this is the surprise i was telling you about. the art was done by my school mate not me oh! Ebesoh Dexter. he's a final year medical student, he's so flipping busy it took him four n a half months to draw it. i had to bully him with 1000 phone calls to get it done, lol about an hour ago · Like · 1 NoViolet Bulawayo: i was very touched and pleased young bro; do thank Dexter for me o! and you, thank you for the love always
Chinelo Okparanta: As for your review of WNNN, how wonderful. And its so kind of your friend to do the drawing despite his busy schedule. What an artist.
Lizzy Attree. Director of the Caine Prize: thanks for sending. Very lovely drawing! This is a long review Nkiacha.
Isaac Otidi Amuke: And wow! You do seriously good work with that review, and what fascinates me more is the idea of doing an accompanying cartoon relevant to it. I will sure explore more of your work and share, and I also think you should put it out there more just beyond having it on your blog. My very best wishes.
(I submitted it to two online journals, Puffin review and Aerodrome. No response yet. Maybe its because its too long or too unconventional.)
-I submitted it to Zimbabwean American online journal Munyori it got published. 

Emmauel Sigauke: Literature Teacher in the US. I notice you said my "two students" above; no; it's 105 students, all starting the discussion of the book this coming week. They have read Binyavanga's “How to write about Africa” essay, watched Chimamanda's single story video, and have gleaned the afropolitanism debates, and now this, your review! lucky students, Nkiacha.
Julie Kelly (NoViolet’s former colleague in Michigan) I read it as soon as you sent it, almost all of it. I skimmed some took me back to the book in my head
Spiwe N Harper: You are a brilliant writer yourself and literary critic. I loved your review very much.
Ayodele Morroco Clarke: Visited your blog...Really like the cartoon. Well done.
Kenneth Fomenky, my classmate: Thanks for the link. I enjoyed the review. It was excellently written, and I believe that it allows your writing style to shine right through. How's your job? I enjoyed the blog piece about the gendarmerie. Keep up the good work, brother
Nana Fredua Agyeman: Ghanaian blogger.  Yes it was good though I didn't like the short story which won the Caine and which was the cooking pot for this.
John Stewart: Great write-up and intense perspective. Can I share it with the author herself? Or have you already?....on my wall he wrote “Merci pour le perspective perceptive”

Yasmin Amico: I have written a poem after reading this. It is called: "Stand Tall." Thanks for the inspiration!
Pearl Osibu, Nigerian blogger. Lovely. Has she seen it? I could send it to her.

Farah Ghuznavi, Bangladeshi writer.
 Hi there, Happy New Year! It was nice to hear from you, and I'm sorry it's taken this long to reply, but I'm increasingly finding that my time to respond directly to correspondence or read anything other than the books on my list is squeezed thanks to my increasingly unmanageable workload. But I was really struck by the drawing on your blog, which I loved, so I decided to take a look at the review immediately, since planning to do it later never works as "later" never happens Anyway, all this to say that it was a very thoughtful and insightful review, and it's clear how much you loved the book. I haven't read the whole thing yet, partly because I found it very hard to stomach some of the subjects (not that everything I write about is a picnic either, but a grandfather who impregnates his granddaughter is a particularly vile waste of space). Your review has made me think again that perhaps I will have to grit my teeth and take on the book - because I do agree that her humour is very clever and she's undoubtedly an extremely talented writer. I love the absolutely brilliant breakdown of the four "phases" of the precolonial African territory/Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. It makes so much sense, and gives the reader of your review a real insight into the country(ies). Two of the other things you said particularly struck me. I made my first trip to Africa, Uganda, to be precise, in 1995. And during that trip I met somebody who was living in Zimbabwe in its "milk and honey" period, relatively speaking. I remember feeling desperately sad when things went downhill a few years later. It's important to remember that the first years after independence was a time of great hope and relative success in Zimbabwe. Secondly, your point about the fact that writers usually write about the things that move them, and dismissing NoViolet as a poverty porn star is disrespectful to that very notion. I've now used up all of my break time writing this message to you, but I have to thank you for taking me back to my beloved continent of Africa for a little while. I've never been to the western part of the continent, but I'm a little bit more familiar with Eastern and Southern Africa in particular. On a completely different note, I will be posting one of my short stories as a status update in the near future (free to read), so I hope you can keep a lookout, in case you are interested. With very best wishes and wishing you the best of luck with your own work. Please excuse any typos as I must send this off now and get back to work – Farah

Monday, December 30, 2013

Review of Chinelo Okparanta's New Yorker short story "Benji"

Chinelo Okparanta’s new New Yorker short story “Benji” is fiction a good reader shouldn’t miss out on. To me, it is even more powerful than her 2013 Caine prize shortlisted story, “America”. What I first noticed about it, is the sharp contrast between the story and the stories of her fiction debut, “Happiness, Like Water”. The story focuses on the same issues that she already addressed in her previous stories, but she addressed them as they relate to a male protagonist instead of a female one. Itbegins with the introduction of her main character, Benji, who is the only remaining male in his family after his father passed away. He is wealthy after having been bequeathed an expansive estate. But Benji’s oddity is that, he is forty two and not married, Mrs, Anyaogu, his mother tells her new friend, Alare. And with no evidence of lovers even at that age, people will begin to suspect. It was not normal. Alare who was in her fifties, had got married fairly late, in her thirties to a man who was about Benji’s age. Benji also had light-brown skin, the kind that under bright light had the tendency to glow a little yellow. Alare had not married a wealthy man, the lowliness of his job spurred her to make it a point never to discuss her marriage in public. She had cautioned him never to bring up her name at his workplace. But after some persistent questioning by Mrs. Anyaogu, Alare said he was a gardener and lied a little that he does some construction work too. Alare was also a God fearing woman, in fact so ardent in her church that when the congregation had disintegrated owing to a scandal by the pastor, she did not lose her faith and did not stop attending church services. But when the flock left one by one and the church completely crumbled, she had no choice but to leave herself. She had found this Deeper Life congregation and was lucky enough to befriend, Mrs. Anyaogu there. After church, Mrs. Anyaogu had insisted on treating Alare to lunch. Maybe their friendship could evolve out of church.

The writer brilliantly describes the ornate furniture and design of the house. And then the meal, okra soup with fufu which they eat with forks. In “Happiness, Like Water” Chinelo talks about food a lot especially Nigerian cuisine. She continues to talk about Nigerian food in this short story too. Except that in her debut, there is that Nigerian way of cooking and eating. But in this story, the eating of fufu with forks is not quintessentially Nigerian, even though the food is African. The meal discussion shifts to politics along the ethnicity tangent. In HLW, Chinelo had written all her stories from the Igbo angle where she hails. But in “Benji” she churns everything up -Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa. Mrs. Anyaogu excuses herself and tells Benji to entertain the guest, so she could give instructions to the house girls for the impending meals. (Chinelo also wrote about house girls and a fair house girl in her short story “Fairness”)  Alare notices that Benji is an akanshi, a dwarf as they walk to the beautiful garden where they meet a man called Godwin working. Benji tells Alare that he is very hardworking and loyal. As they sit, Alare in her mind, concludes that it was Benji’s size coupled with his light-yellow complexion that accounted for his being single. Most women she knew felt there was something effeminate about a man being so pale. In HLW, Chinelo’s writing focused entirely on Nigerian women’s issues where marriage is concerned. But in “Benji” she focuses on the marital issues of a Nigerian man, her main character, “Benji” How height and light skin complexion affect their ability to marry.

Benji tells her he’s travelling to Dubai to relax and Alare wonders why he has to go there and spend money to relax when he could do it in the garden. She thinks of his kindness, a genuinely nice person almost foolish in his kindness that a gold digging young girl could marry him and exploit. He sends Alare two postcards from Dubai. When she suspects Benji has returned, she meets Mrs. Anyaogu in church and invites herself again to lunch and her friend accepts. After some time, Mrs. Anyaogu has a heart attack and is rushed to hospital. Then she returns home. Naturally, she needs lots of nursing and Alare makes herself useful. This incident also really bridges the status gap between Alare and Benji’s family and increases contact between Benji and Alare who assumes the role of substitute madam giving orders to the house girls. Godwin makes sure the compound looks clean as ever. And as she administers Mrs. Anyaogu’s medication she starts sleeping with Benji and cheating on her husband. Alare makes some excuses that it was not a typical behaviour of hers and it was unchristian but God would forgive. He was always willing to forgive. Benji himself did not care much about religion. He seldom went to church. Alare continued to come everyday and told Benji that she simply told her husband a half truth that she was helping a sick friend. Her husband did not question.

Eventually things changed. Her husband began having bursts of pain in his head. He was growing thinner. Alare told Benji she did not want to tell him at first because she thought the illness would go away. But it was getting worse. Benji told her he needed to see a doctor. But where would she find the money, not everybody had the kind of money Benji had. Benji jokes that her husband is getting in the way of things but he would never watch another man die. He would provide her with the money, a few thousand naira through Godwin, if she felt uncomfortable receiving the money directly from him. She leaves for some time and returns after two weeks to report that her husband was making progress. Sadly, after a month Mrs. Anyaogu dies. Benji is so kind he still insists on sending money to Alare through Godwin to cater for her ailing husband. Alare felt strange receiving the money herself so she prefers Godwin’s deliverance. Benji starts a small convenience store in a shack nearby to keep himself busy and put his business knowledge to good use. He wasn’t seeing Alare often but she came from time to time to keep Benji company in the store and to sleep with him in a secluded space at the back. She lied to her husband that she’d found work as a cashier at a convenience store.

Early in the harmattan season, she made an announcement to Benji that her husband’s illness had taken a turn for the worse and his doctors were telling him to go abroad for treatment. After considering the issue, Benji decides to help again this time doubling the amount for treatment in London, also paying for airfare and lodging. Alare goes for a month and Benji really feels her absence. When she returned, she didn’t look too happy and said, “we have to wait and see.” They continued sleeping with each other. Sometimes she’ll leave him in bed and dress up to quickly go and administer her husband’s medication. Sometimes she’d remain with Benji when he sulked. The stents that had been put in her husband’s heart were somehow malfunctioning. Less than a year after the London trip, the doctors were recommending Zurich this time. Alare asked if Benji would once more mind doubling the money. He wasn’t under any obligation to do so anyway. Her husband’s birthday was coming up and she felt it was terrible to let him die in the month of his birth.  Benji accepted to finance the trip. Godwin was on vacation but one of the house girls were going to deliver it. He abandoned his shop because of competition from hawkers and took up painting instead. Alare returned to find him painting and told him her husband was doing much better. There wasn’t any need for overseas treatment again. Thank goodness, only maintenance check-ups, so Benji could go back to the initial amounts.  

One morning, a well dressed Godwin came to Benji and announced that he was resigning, he had found another job, not high paying like the one he was leaving behind but would suit him perfectly, Besides his daughter had graduated from university and he didn’t have the strength to be working that hard. He was very sorry. With no Godwin to deliver the money, Benji decided to do so himself. One day, his search of paintbrushes led him to her neighbourhood. He decided to go to her house and say hello. He was amazed to find a Mercedes car and a Volvo car parked on a driveway. He felt like a thief but moved forward to the door where he heard good music. He stood by the window carefully peering in, when he saw a man and a woman dancing together and kissing. He recognized her, Alare but what surprised him was that he also recognized him, the man. It was Godwin Onuoha. Disillusioned and shocked, he went back home and began contemplating on what he had seen and wondering the role Godwin had played in all of it. Wondering when exactly had Alare’s husband died. It was only the next morning that the answer settled upon him like condensation –it dawned on him that Godwin was Alare’s husband! They had been planning it all those years. He rose angrily and made to storm to Alare’s house and tell her that he had caught her at her own game. But Chinelo complicates the plot by delving into the meaning of it all, very evocative of the end of her short story “America” when Nnenna finally gets her much craved VISA. Was it what he really wanted? He thought about his mother, what she wanted for him most -a wife. Alare had not been a wife but been the closest thing to a wife in his life. She had been to Benji what money was to her. Returning, he shut the gate and went back to his breakfast.

The story builds a lot on the foundation of “Happiness. Like Water” and takes off from there like an airplane. Benji has the problem of not being married and facing pressure to do so, just like the girl in “On Ohaeto Street”, just like Nnenna in “America”, just like young Grace in “Grace”. Benji has that fairness issue, which is a minus for a man and a plus for a woman like the fair girl in “Fairness”. Benji is naïve just like the girl in “On Ohaeto Street”. But I think Benji is too, too naïve. How come he never pays a visit to see Alare’s husband in years! Or finds out anything about his condition! He just accepts every single thing Alare tells him, like he’d been charmed or something. There is that African theme of health care issues, inadequate medical facilities and people having to travel out of Nigeria to seek treatment abroad. For the new universal Chinelo themes in the story, there is money swindling, fake friendship, rift between the rich and the poor and how it sometimes causes people to rip off each other. The universality of “Benji” attempts at some cross cultural discussion. And not to forget too that “Benji” was modeled on Chinelo’s favourite Alice Munro story as she mentioned in an interview with NoViolet Bulawayo in Munyori.
NB: I’d already reviewed “Happiness, Like Water”

About the author: Chinelo Okparanta was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and moved to the US at the age of ten. A graduate of Penn State University, she has an MA from Rutgers University and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. She has taught creative writing at Iowa, been an Olive B O’Connor Fellow of Creative Writing at Colgate University and currently teaches at Purdue University. Featured as one of Granta magazine’s new voices of 2012, her stories have appeared in numerous publications. Chinelo’s debut collection of short stories, “Happiness, Like Water” was published to wide acclaim in 2013. One of the stories in the collection “America’ was also shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African writing. She’s currently completing her debut novel tentatively titled, “Under the Udara Trees”

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Finalist at the Africa book club

Dear Nkiacha Atemnkeng, 

Thank you for sending us your short story submission, titled "The Golden Baobab Tree". 

We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected as one of our finalists for the month, and we will be publishing your story on the Africa Book Club site. 

The winning submissions - selected from the list of finalists - will be announced in the next few days on our site.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Shortlisted for Mardibooks short story competition

Winners announced

Hello Nkiacha Atemnkeng
Thank you for applying for Short Story Competition. We really appreciate the time you put into your application.
The judges have now selected the winners and they've been published on the brief page. We wanted to let you know that the judges were particularly impressed with your work and felt it displayed real talent - so congratulations on making the shortlist.
We hope this will encourage you to apply for future IdeasTap briefs - we always have new additions to our Opportunities page, so keep an eye out.

Dear Short Story Writer,

Thanks for entering the Mardibooks and Ideas Tap short-story competition.
As I am sure you are aware, we had almost five hundred entries and the standard was very high.

However, although you didn’t make the final cut of 37 for the two book collections, your effort was highly regarded enough to be separated out for some constructive feedback from our main writer and judge Martin Godleman.  He has below given some feedback to you which we hope will be of use in your writing in the year ahead.

Mardibooks Feedback:

Story: Football Without A Ball
Written by: Nkiacha Atemnkeng

Dear Nkiacha,

Thank you for your entry.

As you’ll know, writing doesn’t come nearly as naturally to writers as people think, and often requires the kind of dedication that makes you sometimes wonder if it’s all worth it. Let me assure you that it is.

Before I talk about your story, I want to encourage you to keep up the writing and make a plea for you to enter our competition next year. We now have you on our recommended writers’ database, so if you are interested in attempting anything more ambitious such as a collection of short stories, a novel or some drama, please drop us a line. We acknowledge the high quality of your writing and would like you to keep at it. The next one may be the magical moment that gets you published.

As for your entry for the 2013 short story competition, what a magnificent title. I found myself speculating as to how this title might apply itself metaphorically to its subject matter. Really did, Which was as good a start as any story can have. A good title.

And it's no wonder that you write amazing stories. What a crazy job you have.

I'm not sure you mean 'slut' as a verb, incidentally. But I kind of know what you mean. It is a beautifully crafted story, right into the solar plexis of the school it describes. It has the slight sense of private language about it, which is as liberating as it is infuriating. And I love this story! But then I love football, so maybe I'm not the person to offer criticism. My conclusion is that if you could have worked a little more deftly on the metaphor, then this would have been sublime. As it is, it is merely a very clever and neat evocation of what it is about football that relates people to each other from the team member to the out and out genius. This really was a very closely run thing. I would say, take what you have, and take the story a bit more into the boys' lives and away from that game.

Thank you for letting me read your work.

Best wishes and good luck with your writing,

Martin Godleman

web     www.mardibooks.com

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ten years of the Caine Prize for African writing

This amazing short story collection of 200 pages was one of the books NoViolet Bulawayo sent to me. It contains the ten Caine prize winning short stories from the year it started in 2000 to its tenth year 2009. “Ten years of the Caine Prize for African writing” begins with three bonus short stories by the three African winners of the Booker prize. And what a cracker as the opener. Nadine Gordimer’s “The Ultimate Safari” left me speechless and breathless. What I love about the story is the way she wittily brings out the metaphor between village life in Mozambique and animal life in Kruger Park, as the characters flee from war at home and end up in a big tent in a different country. It’s such a beautifully crafted story. JM Coetzee’s short story, “Nietverloren” has that theme of a yearning for forgotten traditions. I still have to read his Booker Prize winning novel, “Disgrace.” Ben Okri’s “Incidents at the shrine” is typical Big Ben of Okri doing his thing; delving into the world of spirits, on the same wavelength with his Booker Prize winning novel “The Famished Road” which I read some months back. It’s about a man, Anderson Ofuegbu who gets sacked and returns to his village and is led to a shrine by his uncle. There at the shrine, he’s made to see spiritual images and the author brilliantly portrays his skills in magical realism.

Egyptian Sudanese writer Leila Abouleila won the maiden Caine prize in 2000 with her short story, “The Museum.” It’s set in Scotland and is about a Muslim woman, Shadia who’s getting to know a Scottish guy, Bryan. But there’s remarkable culture clash between them as she finds his wearing of an earring and his hair style very odd. Initially, there’s repulsion but she slowly gets close to him as she begs for his notes to help her understand her lessons and realizes he’s different and willing to change. She ponders separating with her fiancée back home for Bryan. When she visits a museum that prejudices Africa, she’s so hurt that she cries and ends the relationship. Helon Habila’s “Love Poems” won the Caine in 2001, a first by a Nigerian. It’s my third best Caine prize winning story. It’s about a journalist called Lomba who is in prison after being locked up for no just cause during Nigeria’s military regime. He’d gone out to do some reporting when he was arrested. In prison, he starts keeping a diary with dates and writing poems. Helon’s narrative of the story is fragmented and it also includes Lomba’s entries in the diary to portray the uncertainty of a prisoner’s life. When the warder of his cell, Muftau stumbles upon his poems and takes them home, his fiancée starts reading them and asks for more after he’s lied to her that he’s the one writing the poems. So Muftau asks Lomba to write more. And through his poems, Lomba sends coded messages to the warder’s fiancée. She eventually finds out the truth, that it’s a prisoner writing the poems and not Muftau. She calls off her relationship with Muftau and helps Lomba to get out of prison.

Binyavanga Wainana’s creative non-fiction story “Discovering Home” in 2002 beat entries by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and Ngugi’s son, Mukoma Wa Ngugi to clinch the third edition of the Caine prize. Sadly, I didn’t get the point of his short story at all. All I know is that, it is creative non-fiction set in Cape town, Nakuru in Kenya and Uganda. Binyavanga Wainana used his 10.000 pounds prize money to set up the literary journal, Kwani? in Kenya and published Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s short story “Weight of Whispers” which won the Caine prize the next year in 2003 therefore ensuring that Kenya produced back to back Caine prize wins. It’s the longest ever Caine prize winning short story at thirty six pages. It’s like a small novella, about a Rwandan man whose family got stuck in another country due to violence in his homeland. His unilingual French skills did him no good too in an English speaking country. Zimbabwe produced its first Caine prize winner in 2004 in Brian Chikwava with “Seventh Street Alchemy.” Brian uses superior English language to execute this short story about police corruption, neglect, infidelity, repression and prostitution. I admire his great dexterity with language a lot. In 2005, Segun Afolabi won the Caine prize with his entry “Monday Morning.” It’s a short tale set in Europe about a penniless African family without papers and a father who works at a construction site. The father luckily and unconsciously avoids deportation when he accepts that he has papers when he actually doesn’t really have them. He works himself off and his wife complains bitterly about it. They refuse to go back to where they came from because there’s a war.

In 2006, South Africa’s Mary Watson won the Caine with “Jungfrau.” I don’t know what “Jungfrau” means, but its a German word. The narrator is a young girl whose mother is called Annette and her mother’s adopted sister is a beautiful woman called the Virgin Jessica. She calls herself the virgin Jessica because “she’s a special person like the blessed Mary.” The narrator has a perfect character impression of the virgin Jessica -pure and chaste. But as the story progresses, she begins to doubt it when she meets Virgin Jessica eating spaghetti after claiming she is fasting. The narrator’s illusoriness of her adopted aunt is completely wiped away when she meets the virgin Jessica naked, making love to her father and they call her name as she hurries away. Uganda delivered its first Caine prize winner in the year 2007 in Monica Arac de Nyeko with “Jambula Tree.” It’s a lesbianism short story and actually the first lesbianism write up to win the Caine prize. It’s written in the first person narrative and something of an elegy by a gay girl to her rich gay lover in London. It has a slight sense of private language about it with lots of non English words. The Jambula fruits of the Jambula tree are a metaphor for breasts and their relationship is seen upon as an act of shame. Taboo. The talkative Mama Atim catches them red handed during their love making and spreads the news. Despite efforts by their parents to separate them, the girls remain together, until the narrator’s partner travels abroad.

“Poison” by South Africa’s Henrietta Rose-Innes won the Caine in 2008. It’s science fiction set in Cape town. A chemical factory has malfunctioned and there’s a huge gas cloud in the air, leaning like a genie and “poisoning” the atmosphere. The Capetonians including Lynn, the narrator of the story are fleeing. The author powerfully describes the polluted air and cloud throughout the story of Linn’s fleeing experience. Lynn is a cigarette smoker and all the vomiting she does along the way after inhaling the toxic air makes her think it’s purifying her body. She decides to quit smoking and go on a proper detox after the cloud blanket has passed. What struck me about “Poison” is Henrietta’s use of brilliant simple language. The tenth and last Caine prize winning short story in the book is titled “Waiting” by Nigerian writer E.C Osundu. It is about the displaced experience of people caused by war and narrated through the eyes of a male child and his friends in a refugee camp. It’s a touching and very funny story about a life we cannot even begin to imagine. I must admit, I had a moment of respect when I read the beautiful “Waiting.” It is easily my best Caine prize winning story despite all the poverty porn criticism about it. “Ten years of the Caine Prize for African writing” ends with an Emissary by Nadine Gordimer.

I’ve been reading the Caine prize winning stories online for a few years now, so my thoughts continue. In 2010, it was won by a Sierra Leonian for the first time, Olufemi Terry with a short story dubbed “Stickfighting days.” It’s an innovative tale about a group of boys sniffing glue and mimicking fencing, fighting with long sticks shaped like swords instead of real swords. It is set over a period of nine days and the writer describes many fights in remarkable detail. It’s a highly graphic and cinematic write up that can be summarized in just one word “ambitious.” In 2011, Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo burst onto the literary scene with “Hitting Budapest". If you’ve read her Booker prize shortlisted novel, “We Need New Names” you will easily remember that it is the first chapter in the novel. But you must also be very smart to notice that the novel’s “Hitting Budapest” has been slightly reworked. In the Caine version in 2011, it was Uncle Polite who sent sweets. In the novel’s version, it is Uncle Vusa who sent sweets. It is about a gang of famished kids, six urchins including a pregnant one, Chipo from a poor neighbourhood called Paradise who go to steal guavas in a swanky neighbourhood with big, nice houses. On their way back, they stumble upon a woman’s corpse dangling from a tree and decide to steal the corpse's shoes to sell and buy bread to eat. It is a tale with moral weight and the prose poetry in it is well executed. The language of the story is creatively messed up too. I found it to be spirited comentary about soceital classism. “Hitting Budapest” is my second best Caine prize winning short story.

In 2012, the Caine prize was won by Nigeria’s Rotimi Babatunde with his clinical entry “Bombay’s Republic.” It is a darkly humorous piece about a Nigerian soldier fighting in the Burma campaign in Asia during the second world war. What is special about the story is that, unlike many war narratives which usually end in tragedy for the characters, Rotimi’s narrative instead brings out the positive side in that soldier, by his achieving of psychological independence. Everything that he thought impossible before the war became possible after that. For instance, a superior white officer came face to face with the horrors of war in Burma to the extent that he went mad but Bombay didn't. Such experiences made Bombay to understand that, Europeans were human after all just like himself and returned to Nigeria with a certain fearlessness of Europeans that even the white District Officer in his area couldn’t tamper with him even though every other black man around feared the District Officer. But be warned, if you want to read that story you better look for a dictionary because Rotimi’s English diction is so high sounding, it’s like he has a problem with simple English words or something. Next, in 2013, Tope Folarin won the Caine with his shortie “Miracle” set in a Pentecostal church in the US. His win caused quite a stir in the African Lit world because he was born in the US but to Nigerian parents. He's technically qualified for the prize though. In his story, a young boy who is suffering from a visionary impediment and is always putting on reading glasses is ‘miraculously healed’ in a Texas church by a blind prophet. But the writer reveals that it was a fake healing at the end. This illustrates the gullibility of some of the plethora of healings in our society today. Tope Folarin’s short story, “Miracle” is an excerpt of his upcoming novel “The Proximity of Distance.”

Okwiri Oduor became the third Kenyan to win the Caine Prize in 2014 with "My Father's head". It explores the narrator's difficulty in dealing with the loss of her father and touches the themes of memory, loss and loneliness. The narrator works in an old people's home and comes into contact with a priest giving her the courage to recall her buried memories of her father. Zambia produced its first ever Caine Prize winner this year, Namwali Serpell with her shortie, "The Sack". (She had previously been shortlisted in 2010 with "Muzungu"). "The Sack" is published in the Africa 39 anthology and an excerpt of her forthcoming novel. It reads like something cut from a bigger piece. So what is her winning story about? Good question. That story eluded me. I first felt bad that my intelligence had failed me with simple comprehension. And I was like "how do you intend to win the Caine prize someday when you can't understand the meaning of a Caine winning story!" But when I read that, even the Caine Prize judges had to reread it again to get it, I felt consoled "Nobi only me one oh". But wait a minute, how did they put it onto the shortlist after a first reading when they hadn't understood it? Hmmm. Okay, its a dense, tough read, unlike other Caine winning material. And I don't want to make a mess of my intellect by commenting about it so I'll just go strictly with what was said about it on the Caine Prize website, "The Sack" explores a world where dreams and reality are both claustrophobic and dark. The relationship between two men and an absent woman are explored through troubled interactions and power relationships which jar with the views held by the characters." Wait, what the hell does the above statement mean? I still can't get that summary. I've said this thing that I personally sack "The Sack" because it is incomprehensible. It's a Gordian knob for me abeg.