Thursday, June 3, 2010

I Did Not Come to Read You By Chance

I Did Not Come to Read You by Chance

A Review of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You by Chance
Cassava Republic, 339 pages.
Chris Ihidero

Two recommendations need to be done with utmost care: a book and a spouse. If the wrong recommendations are made, a long hiss may follow your future recommendations. As a rule, I hesitate greatly before recommending either.

A friend of mine certainly does not apply the same rule. With all the enthusiasm she could muster, she recently declared to me that she had just read a certain book and she literally laughed her ass off and she loved the book because the writer was not ‘writerly’ at all and the book was such an easy read blah blah blah. I immediately asked for the author and name of the book as such books appeal to me greatly. I have no patience for authors of books that scream I AM A WRITER at you on every page. I also tend to love books that contain a fair chunk of wit. So I rushed to the Silverbird media store and bought Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You By Chance.

I began to worry by the 3rd page of the prologue when I encountered this sentence: “He was as handsome as paint.” I paused and looked around my room, seeking the handsomeness of the paint on the wall. I didn’t see it. I stepped outside and sought handsome paint somewhere, anywhere. I asked myself, is there some irony to this statement? But the person being described is actually supposed to be handsome! I am not one to give up easily so I continued, hoping that the statement was an oversight. I encountered flashes of brilliance along the way and was about to dislodge the nagging query about handsome paint when I arrived at page 28 and discovered this statement: “Her voice sounded like a beautiful flower.” I didn’t have a beautiful flower anywhere close so I sat up and thought long and hard of the last time I heard the voice of a beautiful flower? Never! Why these pedestrian similes, I asked loudly.
The novel attempts to chronicle the realities that lead people into a life of crime. Kingsley Ibe, a recent graduate can’t find employment and the love of his life, Ola, leaves him for a man who can buy her Versace bags and Gucci shoes. His father, highly educated, principled and poor dies in penury and his masters degree holder mother’s dying sewing business can’t sustain them. A burdensome sense of responsibility takes hold of Kingsley and he decides to join the 419 business of his Uncle Boniface who has reincarnated as Cash Daddy. The first 144 pages (Part 1) of this novel are therefore dedicated to explaining how Kingsley came to such a decision. I have a few problems with this unnecessarily elongated ‘back-grounding’. This could have been done in a couple of chapters. We knew from very early on that he was going to make that decision. Also, probably because of this elongation, the decision comes across as escapist as he could have chosen otherwise. They lived in a flat; could afford the luxury of two house-helps (though relatives); he was a brilliant student and could have got a job if he looked elsewhere, rather than insisting on oil companies. This early part of the book falls flat loudly on this account, especially since it wasn’t as if they were so poor that they were munching sand and sipping gutter water.

We finally arrived at the novel’s thrust in Part Two and something becomes obvious immediately: this actually is where the story starts. This probably is the story the writer wanted to write all along. Her words began to come together beautifully and I actually laughed out loud at some lines: “He stepped out of the shower and yanked a large towel to start drying his body. Once again I wondered how the scrawny urchin, who lived with my family all those years ago, had metamorphosed into this fleshy edifice...I half expected his bloated belly to wriggle free of his body and start break-dancing on the tiled floor in front of me. It seemed to have a life of its own.” Over the next 186 pages, we are taken through the modus operandi of 419 and the accompanying lifestyle. Kingsley moves up in society, amasses wealth, globe-trots, frolics with girls and becomes the bread-winner of his family. Meanwhile, Cash Daddy, tired of just making money, dabbles into politics and gets himself killed. Kingsley refuses to take over the reins of leadership of the organisation and, basically the story ends. Because such an ending is untidy, an 8page epilogue follows and we see that Kingsley has set up his own organisation where his ever-admonishing mother pays him a visit, showing her acceptance of his new, seemingly legit, status. In reality, it’s a cover up as we see him take a call from a former mugu and it’s business as usual.

A couple of friends have whispered to me that the only reason this book won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (African region) was because of the issue it deals with, Advance Fee Fraud, 419 and aggressive campaign by Cassava Republic, the Nigerian publishers. This, they say, is the kind of ‘agenda writing’ that the West is always quick to celebrate (the book was first published in the US) to satisfy their conditioned imagination concerning Africa and its people. Seriously, I don’t care. I don’t mind any author playing the politics of writing, as long as the writing is good. What writing isn’t political, really? I have also given up on questioning why a certain book wins any award. Some of the best books in literary history never won awards and sometimes those who give out these awards actually breathe something other than air. My worry is that (with aggressive PR, hype and the award), this novel could become representative of new voices, new writing. It could suggest to young writers that this is all you need to do to get all the hype and awards.

To sum up, this is a book that tells a familiar story in no new manner; it has a faulty beginning, a fair midsection and a rushed ending. Also, at 339 pages, it is unnecessarily long for the issues it addresses without new perspectives. I do not doubt Adaobi Nwaubani’s talent and this isn’t a terribly bad first novel; it is also not one I’ll rush to read again.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Of Death, Dagrin and the Appropriate Police

The recent death of Oladapo Olaitan Olaoniupekun, Dagrin, has reinforced some of my misgivings about our general tendency to climb the moral high horse as soon as someone is seen to have ‘erred’ and got caught in the act.

I do not usually ascribe intelligence freely, seeing that a lot of people cannot recognise it even if it fell on their heads at noon in Lagos traffic. It was no less gut-wrenching however, to read the tweets and Facebook posts of some nitwits who took it upon themselves to educate those of us that are apparently incapable of proper judgement, whatever that is.

According to these latter-day saints, Dagrin was drunk while driving; therefore we were encouraging irresponsibility and pissing in the face of personal responsibility be mourning his death. Rather than mourn him, they insist, we should all use his death as an example of how dreams can be cut shot by irresponsible behaviour, as if he had a pressing death wish.

Who died and made these people judges?! I cannot, for all the guns in Sicily, fathom how anyone can be magisterial while a dead young man’s body lay cold in the morgue. What do you seek to gain by parading your warped sense of appropriateness? So you drink and have never driven while tipsy? Or you don’t drink at all? So you have never had sex without a condom? So your life is lived without blemish, without occasional (or even frequent) wrongdoings?! Congratulations! Now, take your holier-than-thou attitudes and stick them where the sun don’t shine.

While you are at it, I suppose you’ve never heard of anyone who stood in front of his/her house and was crushed to death by a car driven by an overworked body? You certainly never heard of bystanders crushed to death by a lorry with failed breaks, or people who went to bed in ‘perfect’ health and just didn’t wake up? In your perfect life, none of these would happen.

If you and other members of the appropriate police had an ounce of common sense, then you would have realised that at a time like this, in the face of a loss that shook many and drew a river of tears, apportioning blame to a departed soul is the exclusive preserve of idiots. When a young man who had only broken through realms of adversity dies, under whatever circumstances, what his fans and family members want to hear is not how he wasted his life. Actually, you don’t have to say anything; it’s not exactly as if not saying anything would kill you. Actually, maybe it would!

Go on Street Soldier, God rest your great soul. Thank you for the great songs, for fulfilling your cosmic mission by putting your talent to great use. It is unimportant to me how you died; I am honoured to have shared in the joy and happiness you brought to many through your music and your humility.

Hey, while we are at it, can you give your world famous goat-laugh to all those appropriate people who live appropriate lives and are going to die appropriate deaths, yet never measure up to an ounce of your greatness?


Thursday, April 15, 2010

One sunny afternoon in 2005, I boarded a bus at a bus-stop by the ever-busy Oyingbo market and sat at the back. As is common with buses at such places, the bus was filled with buyers and sellers from the market and a few office types. The discussions, naturally, were centred on how expensive things had become and how it was not the fault of the sellers as they were only selling as they bought. One particular young market woman caught my attention: she had an empty basket on her laps, her shawl was placed on the edge, her head was bowed and her hands held a book; the book was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. It was an intriguing sight.

The Thing around your Neck, her third book, is a collection of twelve short stories written over about seven years, with some of the stories written as far back as 2002. All but one of the stories had been previously published. Woven around themes of displacement, racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, tragic sibling rivalry, arranged marriages, interrogation of the construction of history, lust, infidelity and unrequited love, life, death and other realms of existence, the book comes with a subtle but discernable urgency, a seeming need to get stuff off the author’s chest. With a steady hand that is devoid of unnecessary digressions and distractions, the author takes us in and out of the lives of her characters as they find and lose love, become free only to lose hope; discover how things are never as they seem and the helplessness that comes with knowing that sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it. In other cases, some characters take actions that have tragic consequences that will hunt them for as long as they live.

In “A Private Experience,” as a market goes up in flames and blood flows on the streets Kano, a medical student who is Igbo and Christian hides in a small store besides a Muslim Hausa woman. While senseless violence rages outside, they discover the sameness of humanity within the confined space of a small store. Nnamabia’s truancy grows as a result of his father’s silence and his mother’s quick defences in “Cell One”. But when he his arrested on suspicion of being a cult member, he redeems himself by standing up to the police as they ridiculed as old man. The need for Africa to tell its own stories is examined in “Jumping Monkey Hill”. The title is leading and it’s no surprise then that the attempts of an Oxford trained facilitator of a writing workshop to tell the participants how and what to write about Africa while lusting after some the female participants ends in a rage. Her description of Edward, the Oxford trained British ‘authority’ on African Literature, is telling: “She could not tell his age from his face; it was pleasant but unformed, as though God, having created him, had slapped him flat against a wall and smeared his features all over his face.” In “Ghosts,” a retired mathematics professor, who, by his training, is used to logical conclusions, is stunned by the reappearance of a colleague everyone thought had died during the war. However shocked he was at that return, it was a story he could tell. The story he cannot tell, especially to his Americana daughter, is that the ghost of his dead wife visits often, and he has come to look forward to the opening and closing of doors at night.

In a recent interview the author confesses her love for dark spaces: “My vision is a dark one -- I am sort of more drawn to dark than I am to light, both in my writing and my reading.” Little wonder then that the strongest stories in the collection, in this reviewer’s opinion, are also the darkest ones. The title story, The Thing around your Neck and Tomorrow is too Far resonate with Adichie’s signature calmness as she delivers a shocking tale. In The Thing...a young Nigerian woman finds herself in America after wining the Green Card Lottery. Her uncle and custodian attempts to have sex with her and because she refused sends her out of the house. While subsisting on a waiter’s wage, she meets and falls in love with a middle-class white American at the restaurant where she works. As they discover each other and cultures clash, loneliness becomes the thing around her neck, even while in a relationship with someone who seems to have an expanded worldview. While she is suspended between situations, her father dies at the steering wheel in Lagos and she decides to go home. She knows not what she’s going to and while she’s sure she would come back, she knows not what to come back to. Told in the second person, this story grips and grabs and doesn’t let go even after a painful ending. In Tomorrow is too Far, sibling rivalry takes a tragic turn when a young girl tricks her elder brother into climbing to the top of an avocado tree. She goes ahead to scream that the poisonous snake whose bit kills in ten minutes was nearby and he loses his grip and lands with thud. She calmly stands and watches him die, all the while holding on to the hands of her cousin Dozie, whom she was in love with. It was, to her mind, a necessary fight for survival, a need to reclaim some of the space that Nonso had occupied by being the only son of their father. Sibling rivalry is commonplace and this story paints a haunting reality.

To a critical eye, some of the stories will seem dated, especially the ones that deal with racial issues and cultural clashes. The collection needs to be understood in the context of how it is a collection of works done over time. Also, a few stories, like “Imitation”, fall flat and do not reflect the artistry we have come to associate the author with. What is however never in doubt throughout the collection is that Adichie’s maturity, willingness to take on issues, however controversial, and consistent subtle advocacy has placed her among Nigeria’s, nay Africa’s indispensable writers.

In many ways, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is still unravelling. This inspired and inspiring writer is best positioned to be the pearl among her peers, the one who is daily becoming the reference point.