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”