The Balance of Our Stories

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Reprinted for archival purposes only. First published December 2007

I wake up to dawn in America and our preteen daughter Ominira is peering at me, needing my attention, hankering after my wallet. I need money for my cafeteria account daddy! I get up praying that I can find a check book in this house and that said check will find money in our bank account. I wander around the house looking for the brief bag that houses my cluttered existence – there must be a check book in there somewhere. Writing checks! That is so analog. I hardly ever write checks preferring a digital fiscal existence through my trusty laptop Cecelia. I wander around this house of rooms each with its own name. It is not a big house, but America allows the living poor to dream about things that others really have, like rooms with their own names. Why do we have a sun room? I don’t know. What happens when the sun goes down, do we flee the sun room for the breakfast nook? And what if it is lunch time? Ah, there is the family room! But I am not feeling like family right now. My family is fleecing me penniless, they want checks! We are at the breakfast nook; Ominira grabs the check from me, and she points to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Purple Hibiscus leaning on Cecelia at the breakfast table. “I am reading that,” she says matter-of-factly. She is ready for school draped in my favorite wind jacket (note to myself, buy a really ugly jacket next time!). I walk her to the door – she is weighed down with my jacket, too many clothes, a monstrous book bag, her iPod, and her cell phone and she is miraculously clutching Purple Hibiscus. Bye daddy! I open the door to America and Ominira clatters out all the way to the school bus like an American soldier with too many weapons.

It is good that Ominira is reading Purple Hibiscus. It is a good book. It is not as sure-footed as Adichie’s second book, the epic Half of a Yellow Sun but it is a good first effort and I heartily recommend it to anyone. My children love to read books. Just like their father. I pray that they don’t grow up enjoying cognac. Just like their father. Some pleasures turn to burdens soon enough. It is a great time to be a connoisseur of Nigerian literature. There are all these Nigerian writers doing some really exciting work and there are not enough hours in the day to consume all their wares. While I can practically count the Nigerian writers of my childhood on my ten fingers, I am afraid to list all of Nigeria’s contemporary writers whose works I have come across in books and on the Internet because I just know that I will leave someone out. And quite a number of these writers are doing us proud judging by the international awards they are garnering for their works. More importantly, these writers are extremely influential because their stories are fast becoming the literary prism by which Nigeria, certainly Africa is judged by the Western world. It is therefore critically important to examine their works to ensure that there is indeed a balance to their stories. I have had occasion in the past to express vigorous objections to the prejudiced slant of the stories being told about Africa in books written by Westerners like Tony D’Souza (Whiteman).[1] I am afraid however, that reading Nigerian writers, especially those writing from places far away from Nigeria, one also observes the same worrisome trend – of disrespect for Nigeria and a tendency to project Nigeria using dated and tired images. Interestingly, most of these writers have been away from Nigeria for a very long time but their themes return again and again to the Nigeria of their fading memories. In that respect, I just finished reading Chris Abani’s Graceland a story set in the Nigeria of the seventies and the eighties and this is one book I pray my children never read. From the perspective of this Nigerian, it is a dreadful book and when I am done with it I shall return it to the good friend that loaned it to me. This is one book that will never grace my book shelf. Some books are better off not read.

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that by all literary standards it is a well written book and in certain parts of the book, Abani’s muscular talents are on display. In fact, I became a fan of Abani’s after reading his book, The Virgin of Flames, a book similar in theme to Graceland, but this time based in Los Angeles, America. Thanks to a delightful experience with that book, I jumped at the opportunity to load up on more of Abani’s crisp prose. Unfortunately, reading Graceland was a traumatic experience for me; the book made me very sad. Abani, that son of Africa with a brain on steroids takes his immense literary gifts and markets a nightmarish Nigeria to an adoring West. Reading the book one imagines Nigeria as one huge filthy latrine. We are not talking about mere squalor here; we are talking about an irredeemable Nigeria, of inchoate characters babbling even more inchoate sentences.

And the Western world loves this book. The first thing that the reader notices is that Graceland is garlanded with fawning blurbs from Western literary heavyweights; there is absolutely no comment from any African literary practitioner. It is perhaps a smart marketing move by Abani, albeit at Nigeria’s expense. And Abani hits pay dirt. The blurbs drip with saccharine praise for a body of work that confirms the West’s prejudice of Africa – one huge disease ridden latrine that houses people who somehow survive the filth and the degradation by moping around their nuclear zone and muttering half-sentences. Hear the legendary Harold Pinter struggling to outdo the other blurb writers with his praise-song: “Abani’s poems are the most naked, harrowing expressions of prison life and political torture imaginable. Reading them is like being singed by a red-hot iron.” The stench of rotting flesh assaulting your nostrils is Abani’s Nigeria. Nigeria has done nothing to deserve the ire of Abani’s boundless imagination. Ah, yes, his imagination is boundless.

As an aside, in terms of structure, and content, Graceland is a puzzling book; it seesaws between the seventies and the early eighties, telling a story, or several stories, that go nowhere, perhaps a deliberate metaphor for Nigeria’s fortunes. We follow this strange “Nigerian” boy Elvis, who when he is not dreaming of making it big in America like his namesake Elvis Presley, surrounds himself with a sad, sad cast of subhuman caricatures posing as Nigerians. Throw in filth and squalor, rape, incest, reams of death and destruction, awful, inchoate, contrived dialogue and the recipe is complete for the making of the African writer to be adored by a fawning West. And the contrived language – an infuriating mix of American slang and half sentences gets in the way of making sense of the book. For heaven’s sake, who in Nigeria speaks like this?

“But as soon as he go, my hand was on de cage and suddenly de weaver was in de air. It beat its wings against my face and was gone. I was surprise to hear myself laughing. I was free and I stood in de small rain dat began to fall again. I was powerful, aagh.[2]”

The dialogue – and the imagery are contrived. From my perspective, this is unnecessary and unfortunate. As another aside, in the book Abani obsesses nonstop about hidden meanings trapped inside the lobes of the mystical kolanut and several chapters start with some esoteric psychobabble about the revered kola nut as in: “We do not define kola or life. It defines us.” The book’s one redeeming feature is its inventory of Nigerian recipes. Buy this book if you need a good cookbook of Nigerian dishes. I have no need for the recipes though; I have a copy of Nigerian Cookbook (Riverside Publications) by Miriam Isoun and H.O. Antonio. Find a copy and buy that instead of Graceland, it is a better cookbook.

My point is that it is hard to imagine Abani’s Nigeria of the 70’s and the 80’s. I would know; I lived through those years in Nigeria and while Abani’s perspective may be true of the slums of Maroko, it overwhelms the totality of what Nigeria was like in those days. There is absolutely no balance to his stories of the Nigeria of that era. Instead, there is a near-obsession with tragedy and irredeemable despair, sexual abuse and associated depravities, child abuse, sexuality issues, rapes filth and death in its most ghoulish and ghastly form. What is it with Abani and hooks, sexual depravity, handcuffs and bodily secretions? Abani’s fantasy world is populated by mumbling individuals with scant control over their surroundings, their bodily functions, and their sexual urges. Graceland is a pit bull of a book tearing at Nigeria with steely teeth housed in muscular literary jaws. It is a deliberate production, one that was carefully marketed to a gullible West by a brilliant but narcissistic son of Africa. If this book was written by a white man, we would all be asking for a pound of flesh.

I propose however that we all turn our rage inwards and acknowledge our contribution to the frustrating disrespect that Africa endures in the world today. Some of our writers may not know it but they are unwittingly helping to reduce Africa to ridicule and irrelevance in the global community. Abani is not the only culprit in this new rush to pawn off Africa’s dignity in the capitalist markets of the West. I think that many of us living abroad (and I include myself in this criticism) who claim to be writing about Africa’s issues are culpable to varying degrees. There is enough blame to go around. The world has finally calmed down from its righteous indignation and apoplexy induced by Professor James Watson’s quiet ruminations about the intelligence quotient (or lack thereof) of black folks. As far as I am concerned, the resulting dust storm has been insincere; it is hard to see what the fuss is all about regarding Professor Watson’s commentary. He has only said what many of our own thinkers say out loud and for great profit. Different strokes for different folks. Consider this: For Watson’s utterances, he has been stripped of several perks including his livelihood (don’t worry, he won’t die of hunger). But for saying worse things albeit in muscular prose, V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidadian who fancies himself a Briton, was awarded the Nobel Prize. Go read Chinua Achebe’s methodical deconstruction of the troubled mind that is V.S. Naipaul in the book Home and Exile, specifically the essay, Today, the Balance of Stories. In that essay, Achebe takes Naipaul to task over his African novel A Bend in the River and he quotes this particularly obnoxious passage from the book:

“he first time, that in colonial days the hotel boys had been chosen for their small size, and the ease with which they could be manhandled. That was no doubt why the region had provided so many slaves in the old days: slave peoples are physically wretched, half-men in everything except in their capacity to breed the next generation.”[3]

Achebe’s response to Naipaul’s unnecessary roughness is a thunder clap of unalloyed fury and he roars: “That is no longer merely troubling. I think it is downright outrageous. And it is also pompous rubbish.”[4] Now comes another Nobel Prize Winner of African descent, Nigeria’s very own Wole Soyinka in his book You Must Set Forth at Dawn. In the following passage eerily similar to the above by Naipaul, Soyinka describes a whimpering obsequious old man struggling to serve him in a rest house somewhere in Nigeria:

“I … sometimes gratefully enjoyed the courtesy of rest houses built for the colonial district officers, where the uniformed waiter, immaculate in standard attire, service-conditioned from colonial days would pad in gently in the morning with a tea tray…. But I did not ask for tea! Yes, master, he (old enough to be my father or even grandfather) replies, setting down the tray and pulling back he curtains…. No! Leave that alone, I’m not awake…. Yes, master, he replies, pulling the curtain open all the way…. Will master like me to make fried or scrambled eggs with the toast? Oh, you house-trained antiquated robot, master would like to scramble Papa’s head for breakfast!”[5]

One can almost hear Achebe cursing the darkness and saying of Soyinka’s prose: “That is no longer merely troubling. I think it is downright outrageous. And it is also pompous rubbish.” Now, if these hurtful words had been written by Watson, we would be asking for his head. My point is that if the world took us seriously, they would be insisting on the same standards for our very best. Perhaps, the Western world truly believes that Africans are children of a lesser god. And our very best thinkers seem to agree with them. For our words, our writers’ stories, drip with the self-loathing that confirms the worst hiding in other people’s dark hearts.

There is some hope that the Western world is getting fed up with our tales of woe. Some of our writers protest too much and even for a gullible readership there is such a thing as too much misery. In April 2006, Nathan Ihara reviewed Abani’s book Becoming Abigail in the LA Weekly and he pronounced himself fed up with Abani’s fare. He courageously protested the all-you-can-eat buffet of unnecessary suffering and deprivation served up by Abani thus:

“[s]tarvation, torture, AIDS and murder have become the background noise of our entertainments, the wallpaper pattern of our newspapers. We are so inured to tales/images/instances of pain that a direct assault on our cauterized nerve endings no longer works. Literature must come upon us athwart, enter the heart by sneak attack. Peter’s debasement of Abigail — “Filth. Hunger. And drinking from the plate of rancid water. Bent forward like a dog” — is disturbing yet remote. The staccato rhythm and the graphic language are so direct, so lurid, that they fail to pierce the skin. The scene is grimly fascinating, but lacks emotional resonance. Suffering in literature must be more oblique, more sideways; it must be a void into which the reader falls.” [6]

A recent copy of the literary magazine Granta features short stories from Adichie and Helon Habila, two of Nigeria’s star writers.[7] In the midst of several robust offerings by other writers, we read the same tired overcooked gruel from two of our very best – of victims being thrown out of storey buildings by over-sexed generals, etc, etc. Why are we so depressed? Is there no joy in our existence? Why do our writers peddle the same tired stories, all the while ignoring fresh palm wine frothing in the sunlight? How is it that our best and brightest are not mindful of the end of the machete that hurts our motherland?

There may be hope but from strange quarters. The July 2007 edition of Vanity Fair, guest edited by the musician Bono, was a bumper issue devoted solely to Africa. It was a beautiful edition and all those who truly love Africa, should find a copy and keep it for posterity. For once Africa was in the limelight and it was not all about disease, war, famine, corruption and associated clichés. Bono’s Vanity Fair made the point that generations of award-winning African writers have failed to make – that Africa is not a lost cause, lost to disease, war, famine, ceaseless despair and hopelessness. Rather, just like Africa, the magazine was a comforting collage of some of Africa’s success stories, some of whom had been carefully rescued from Africa, by the West. We saw literary jewels from the very young and talented Nigerian writers Uzodinma Iweala and Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie to aging lions like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. One gets goose bumps from seeing in living color all these beautiful people, irreplaceable offspring of Africa’s loins luxuriating in the adulation that has eluded them in their own Africa.

No doubt war has been hard on African writers. It would appear, for instance, that in terms of abuse and suffering, Abani has paid his dues. Ihara points out that Abani was imprisoned several times in Nigeria for his literary works, and tortured as a political prisoner: he apparently endured beatings, electrical shocks and solitary confinement. There needs to be closure – a Truth Commission that invites people with claims of horrid abuse to come testify – and for the perpetrators to publicly apologize once and for all. Regardless, our writers have every reason to be worried about the situation in Africa. The question becomes: What are they doing about it? Many of our writers spend a lot of time painting gory pictures of Africa’s sorry state and selling the result to Westerners. When Westerners gasp from shock, they complain that Westerners are being patronizing and racist. Right after posing for Bono’s Vanity Fair, Iweala penned an indignant editorial in the Washington Post decrying the tendency of Westerners to “promote the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of disease and death.” He was unhappy that “news reports focus on the continent’s corrupt leaders, warlords, “tribal” conflicts, child laborers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation.[8] Is this the same author that posed for Vanity Fair’s bumper Edition on Africa, the same African who wrote the best-selling book Beast of No Nations a novel about child soldiers?

Iweala’s editorial comes across as the protests of one who wishes to eat his cake and have it. At the very least, he is guilty of being overly sensitive. Fresh from posing prominently in the Africa issue of Vanity Fair, he rushes to the Washington Post to chide Western superstars like Bono and Bob Geldof and presumably the entire West for a patronizing attitude towards Africa’s challenges. He makes the profound point that a lot of humanitarian efforts from the West directed at Africa are driven by less than altruistic motives. But those who read Bono’s Vanity Fair will be forever haunted by the before-and- after images of African AIDS patients who have been miraculously rescued by the anti-retroviral drug that is now available in African countries thanks to the Lazarus Project and the efforts of Westerners like Bono. Those pictures in Vanity Fair are the most graphic reminders of what can happen to Africa if the world stopped for a second and paid her much needed attention. Iweala’s rage is sadly misplaced. Instead, Iweala and the rest of us should erupt in lusty songs of protest against African leaders who continue to loot Africa’s treasures and deposit them in the West even as they loudly berate the white man for all of Africa’s problems. According to Vanity Fair, the United States has quadrupled aid to Africa over the last six years under President George W. Bush. Once you get over that shock, a rising rage wells up in you because you have your suspicions as to what happened to all that money. Nigeria is a wealthy county. She should not be receiving aid and sympathy from any country.

One can only hope that the horrible images of Africa as one giant beggar-continent will someday be erased when Africa’s intellectuals and writers like Iweala direct their rage inwards. The first step is for African writers and intellectuals to stop feeding the West stories of irredeemable despair that turn Africa into a caricature continent. Ironically, Iweala has risen to international prominence by penning a best-selling fiction of a drug-crazed child-soldier who runs around a barely fictitious African country killing people and babbling in an inchoate form of English that is at best contrived. If a Western writer had written such a story, Iweala would be up in arms decrying the racism inherent in such a caricature of Africa. There is another young writer from Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah who is making a killing selling his story, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, a chronicle of his life as a child soldier.[9] A good deal of this may be reality; however it gets a lot of play in the West because it sells. And African writers have been only too willing to play along for riches and fame.

Where are our writers’ loyalties to be found? It is an important question. Compare Abani’s Graceland to The Virgin of Flames and one wonders where the author’s interests lie. For one thing, where Graceland is stale in its message, The Virgin of Flames is current and reflects an immediacy depicted by someone who truly knows Los Angeles as it is today. Should our writers, especially those abroad be oblivious to their current dispensation because it is easier to mine the stories of the past? It is an important question. Westerners fawn with delight over Iweala’s book, Beasts of No Nation and they should; it was written exclusively for them by an expatriate offspring of Africa. But the book does Africa no good. I have to take the reader back to Achebe’s essay in his book Home and Exile – The Balance of the Stories. Where the main character in Joyce Cary’s Mr. Johnson was a bumbling buffoon dreamt up by a racist author, the African characters in books by our Iwealas and Abanis are bumbling buffoons incapable of putting together complete sentences. And we are in the 21st century.

I ask the gentle reader: Where is the outrage? Never mind that these are talented writers in their natural elements. In a recent edition of the magazine Granta, Iweala shines as an American author.[10] This edition of Granta features works by, as the magazine bills them, the “best of young American novelists. From America’s perspective, Iweala is an American writer. In his short story Dance Cadaverous, Iweala shines as an American telling a wholesome all-American story of two boys, lips locked in love and in lust and Iweala takes us through scenery that only an American would portray – with love and caring. It is not great literature; chased perhaps by the demons of an editor’s deadline, the story gallops to an undignified end and claims its rightful place in the pantheon of enjoyable but forgettable stories. But it is told nonetheless by an American. Iweala is a Nigerian. Iweala is an American. Iweala is the sum of his experiences. And this illuminates issues in a debate raging rather savagely in my head. Who are we? And, who are we writing for?

What to do? It is a good question. We have been talking about books written mostly by Nigerians abroad and I still say the book is dying. We must look also for fresh thinking in the new e-books thrilling us on that wondrous playground called the Internet. The written essay of our childhood is now roaming free and happy out there, crackling free and fresh on the Internet – in blogs, websites and on YouTube. Our new thinkers are talking up a storm about the new Africa. No one is listening for now because we are still attached to the book. I propose that the astute reader should look to the new medium of ideas called the Internet. The dreams of Africa lurk quietly in e-places where there is a total surrender to a return of the oral tradition of our forefathers and foremothers. Take YouTube for instance. The Western world calls that technological innovation. Our people say YouTube was Africa’s theater from the beginning of time. The more things change the more things stay the same. Every day history is made. But if the West insists on making up history to suit its own agenda, it must not be with the willing cooperation of our thinkers. It is time to correct course.

We must return to Achebe who again reminds us of the East African proverb: Until the lion tells the story of the hunt, the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter. We must tell the truth, nothing but the absolute truth in our own stories. It is a great time for the lion to tell his story because the essay is born again, live, as dying alphabets, former myrmidons of the Empire, flee, shoved out of YouTube by the agents of change. There is hope, because there is a return to the oral tradition of storytelling by our ancestors and they call this change. Long live Africa. Let us continue to remind our writers of this: Cannon-balls of joy and hope are booming clear across the valleys and our thinkers must listen past the smell of dollars and euros for the triumph of song over grief. For now, our thinkers are, backs turned, fawning over alien booms. And there is no balance to our stories. Our stories are unrelentingly Naipaulitan, to coin a perversion from the name of V.S. Naipaul. In our stories, Naipaulitan verse after Naipaulitan verse is hurled, like mean bricks, through Africa’s dainty windows. And strangers peek in to the devastation and spit on what is left and we are outraged.

Finally, I write this in memory of one of Nigeria’s great story tellers, Cyprian Ekwensi, anyi, loyal teacher, who just moved on to the pantheon of our ancestors. I celebrate the life of a great soul, Cyprian Ekwensi, rising one last time in joyful defiance of the call of the sokugo. I also salute Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Odia Ofeimun, Gabriel Okara, Zulu Sofola, Elechi Amadi, Ola Rotimi, Chukwuemeka Ike, Kenule Saro-Wiwa, James Ene Henshaw, T.M. Aluko, Okogbule Wonodi, Ogali A. Ogali, Wole Soyinka and J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, seer-poets with a deep abiding love for and pride in our people. It was probably a function of their time – you just knew you were not going to be rich from writing books but in the name of our ancestors you were going to enjoy doing it. These visionaries wrote for a precocious generation that went through books with the same intensity with which today’s children surf the pages of the Internet. The pressures on these writers were enormous; readers were impatient for entertainment and education and they just could not get enough of their stories. And their voices never stopped singing, they delivered story after story, as they painstakingly but lovingly transferred their stories long-hand from foolscap papers onto the typewriter. And this was all before the gods cooked up the wonder that we now call the Internet. And as children, we sat at the foot of these teachers and listened with rapt attention, in awe, to the stories of these gentle warriors.

As a devotee of this generation of writers, I learnt that there is a clear distinction between the products of words merely put together even if effectively, and a labor of love by the genuinely gifted and committed. As you read their works, you feel the passion and the love for the word, pulsating through every word; there is a near obsession for perfection that borders on a disability. If you think of the writer as a wordsmith, you can visualize her seated before a canvas, surrounded by all these words buzzing around the workshop. The wordsmith picks one word up, examines it closely, like a practiced shopper would a mango, looks at her canvas for just the right placement, finding none, shakes her head, flings the blighted word over her shoulder and resumes the search for the perfect word, the perfect phrase and the perfect placement. Part of the joy of reading the resulting product is feeling the spirit of the artist wandering around the words like a proud farmer tending her crops, watering a plant here, trimming a tendril to health over there. The presence of the writer’s spirit among the words fills the reader with something and the reader holds the words with respect, and depending on the gifts of the writer, gently leads the reader to approach the written word with reverence. Now, that, my people, is a gift. I propose that there has to be a higher purpose to writing, one that is definitely not self-serving. The Nigerian writer must return to focusing on the true condition of the land without reducing the land and her people to ridicule.

Stories of the past remind us that, like the sokugo, even today is all about change. The sokugo? Ah, if you have never read Ekwensi’s Burning Grass, find a copy and read of Mai Sunsaye’s restless journey under the arresting spell of that mesmerizing wandering disease, the sokugo. There is a message in Burning Grass. The sokugo is a metaphor for the constancy of change even as we endure the daily rituals of living, teaching, learning and loving. The world we live in is a different world from that inhabited by the youths of Achebe, Ekwensi and Soyinka. It is a world at once large and small – there is an impish deity up there re-arranging our world and relationships. In the beginning the gods created walls, clans and villages. There was too much order and then they created sea-faring vessels and air-faring vessels. And there was still too much order. And then they created the radio, television, telephone and faxes. And there was still too much order. And then they created the Internet and all hell broke loose. What will the gods think of next? I don’t know. They are too busy rolling on the floor laughing their impish heads off. How do we manage change today, as the thinkers before us did? I believe that the first step is for the writer to accept some ownership for the circumstances Africa finds itself. We need to begin to show some respect for Africa, actually model respect for Africa and everything African. Immersing ourselves in a contrived culture of despair may earn us fame and fortune but the damage to Africa is permanent and incalculable. We must not be like the Stepin Fetchit character that occupies a prominent place in contemporary African American folklore. It is all about investing in self-respect and dignity. It will pay off in the long run; it certainly won’t hurt Africa. John Whitehead says children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see. Our stories like Things Fall Apart and Burning Grass are like our children. What messages are we sending off to the future? Long live Africa.

Notes:

[1] Tony D’Souza, Whiteman (Harcourt)

[2] Chris Abani, Graceland (Picador), p. 49

[3] V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 3

[4] Chinua Achebe, Home and Exile ( Oxford University Press), p. 87

[5] Wole Soyinka, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (Random House), p 47

[6] http://www.powells.com/review/2006_04_30.html

[7] Granta 99, Fall 2007, pp 31-37, pp 225-238

[8] The Washington Post (Uzodinma Iweala, Stop Trying to “Save” Africa, July 15, 2007)

[9] Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Sarah Crichton Books)

[10] Granta 97 Spring 2007, pp 195-211