Sunday, August 2, 2020

Review of "Grace Jones" by Irenosen Okojie

Grace Jones is an experimental short story written by British-Nigerian writer, Irenosen Okojiewhich won the 2020 Ako Caine Prize for African writing. It is a genre bending work of fiction which is inspired by Jamaican model, singer, cross dresser and fashion icon, Grace Jones in both its title and the prose. The story is a voicy and dense work of dark fantasy which is not plot drivenso trying to understand it entirely from the plot angle maybe a little too tasking for a reader. “Grace Jones” mostly projects a unique voiceexperimental style and hybrid of two plot forms – the modernist and traditional plots. The story also plays with logic, time and place, moving effortlessly between dimensions. As such, it is so layered, which makes it wide open to multiple interpretations. 

The first observation about it is that it is written in a sole, long stanza form, as if it is a poem. In fact, the story’s deep lyricism and radical nature transform it into a long, surrealist prose poem. It also clinically employs the usage of sublime prose, instead of Aristotelian narrative prose. As such, “Grace Jones” transports, astounds, enthralls and enchants the reader to create a heretofore - a strange reality and unique sensibility, instead of recording, depicting, reflecting and reporting, which Aristotelian narrative prose does. A second observation is that, the dialogue in the beginning doesn't make use of inverted commas, so as to maximize its poetic effect, although it uses inverted commas laterwhen its narrative verve kicks in a little.  

“Grace Jones” is a hybrid story which is written in memory of the modernist plot, as well as the traditional plot. There is narration at some pointswhich is action based, although the story generally halts and delves into lengthy streams of consciousness and very beautiful visceral descriptions of objects, surroundings, tasks, events and even memories in "a painting an image with a brush" style. The language is beautiful on the line levelwhich makes most of the sentences such a sight to behold. The story also mixes up action as rescue in the traditional plot and delay of action as rescue in the modern plot - more of the latter even, especially with regards to the actions of the draughtsman throughout the story.  

At its core, the story is about impersonationescape of oneself and therefore escape of trauma by inhabiting another body, another status and another dimension. Secondly, it is a keen exploration of the unknown by reveling in it. The story captures a character, Sidra's long streams of consciousness about her similarities with Grace Jones and yearning to meet the Jamaican singer. When it is not capturing Sidra's stream of thoughts, it is capturing her musings about Jones and everything else in a very jagged fashion, like staring through a broken carnival fun house mirror. There is very little Aristotelian logic in "Grace Jones". There is only dream logic, which doesn't quite follow cause and effect. Things just happen and the narrator doesn't really say the rationale why they happen, yet the reader experiences the effects. 

The story starts with Hassan inviting the main character from the French island, Martinique, probably a young peasant girl whose age is not mentioned called Sidra to a party. Hassan later does it again. Sidra goes on streams of consciousness for the first seven pages or so, moving seamlessly from place to place, London and even Paris. Her chores are captured rather beautifully on the page. She takes a cab to a place where she performs a massage on a man and there is some sexual tension between them. She also seems to feed off her masseuse work, but we're not told much, except that there is a draughtsman in the bathtub wearing Sidra's silver cape who starts a fire, a burning theme which rings throughout the story. Nobody knows why he burns things at first. Sidra doesn't do anything about the burning. She does not even report it.

Later, Sidra attends a bourgeois party where she impersonates Grace Jones and meets a Marilyn Monroe look alike who greets her and impersonates Monroe herself. Sidra also meets a man, Luigi who is the host of the party. She then has a recollection of another party near the French presidency where her ass was licked by a man in a mask that she thought was Hassan and she had sex with him, before he left abruptly. Again, she chooses to get lost in lust with a masked man she believes is Hassan even though it may not be him. She escapes into another impersonation with a man under a mask as she enjoys sexual pleasure, another theme in the story. When the reverie stops, the concert she is attending quickly transforms into a sex party, just like in her memoryand she is in the thick of it. Okojie is in a constant flux with place and time in that part of the narrative especially. However, the theme of pleasure - both sex and partying are constant. 
Towards the end of the story, the reader learnof a character called Alrik and how he came to start all the fire accidents. Then the concert starts burning. The slow reveal about what is in Sidra’s perfume bottle, (petrol) is a great way of showing the use of everyday items to mask something deadly, how s(he) burns her workplace down for reasons best known to her/himIt is also mentioned that Sidra had seen Alrik when she had sex with Hassan, but somehow felt powerless to act or report himSidra does nothing about the draughtsman. There is no action as rescue, which is a feature of the traditional plot. There is only rescue passion, which is a feature of the modern plot. 

Luigi's interaction with Sidra portrays such toxic masculinity and scares her. It is the same for most of the male characters in this story. They all portray toxic, hyper masculinity and perhaps it is commentary about the powerlessness of a black girl from Martinique in this toxic space, a "have not" impersonating a have in a bourgeois world in London and Paris. Sidra cannot report the abuse and injustices against her to the people in that worldwho are the perpetrators themselves, and who are like shadows and masks to herYet, instead of dealing with her pain and trauma from all that, she decides to subvert that pain by masking it under an impersonation of Grace Jones, a black girl from a little island, Jamaica, who became a powerful black woman in the world. Sidra, just like Jones, a black girl from Martinique ‘acquires’ power in a toxic space by 'becoming' Grace Jones. It is a kind of psychological independence which whips in optimism and hope into Okojie’s dark and poignant story.  

It is also very reminiscent of Simba in The Lion King. When Scar kills Mufassa, he blames young Simba for it and Simba is so gullible that he swallows the lie and runs away. He doesn't only grow up with his new friends, Timon and Pumbaa, he equally 'becomes' Timon and Pumbaa by eating grubs and singing “Hakuna Matata” like them - no worries, when he actually has a thousand worries and wahalas in his life - the loss of his fatherthe fake guilt, the loneliness he feels away from home, the deep fear of his manipulative uncle and returning to confront him etc. Simba simply refuses to deal with all that and impersonates his friends until he is confronted by Nala who makes him to face the truth and persuades him to deal with his pain and his uncle the perpetrator of his traumatic experience 

It is the same with Sidra, who like Simba, does not even have the courage to deal with her pain and chooses to be another person. She cannot even report to the haves about the propagator of a fire that is growing in front of their eyes because of her own trauma. It is also a metaphor which signifies that their lifestyle will trigger their burning to death, and she will win at the end by being Grace Jones, even though she cannot really see anyone clearly behind their masks and shadows. She can only see objects, tasks, chores and memories clearly. The other characters just flip in and out of the story too, especially the draughtsman, almost in dream like state. It is even possible that the draughtsman could be aapparition or ghost that haunted Sidra and could move things himself. For instance, taking out the fire extinguishers from the flat Sidra’s family lived inthus prompting their deaths. He may have even influenced Sidra to start the fires where she worked, instead of starting them himself. 

It seems to be an intentional move on the author's part, which also contributed in making “Grace Jones” very layered and dense storyIt also prompts the question, “What is real and what is not in this  narrative?” Sidra's point of view is so subjective that she is clearly an unreliable narrator. She also makes the reader to ponder about her emotional reality, leaving a strange imprint on the reader's mind who is compelled to think deeply about her, even if they don’t care much about Sidra as a character.