Chioma Okereke: Sweet Leaf, Bitter Taste

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Dear reader, you should read this enigmatic book, Bitter Leaf written by the poet Chioma Okereke. It is a lovely book. And a frustrating book, more on that later. I fell in love with this spunky book and Okereke’s rich mind. The book also broke my heart because like most ambitious projects, it fell apart smack in the middle of its journey and nothing the author did could bring back this derailed story. Okereke is a very good writer, with a quirky utterly different and refreshing way of looking at our world. Sadly, the book proved to be a miserable vehicle for transporting Okereke’s ideas and let her down. The book had a lot of promise but it was too ambitious for her editor and publishers. But man, can she write.

I hope Okereke returns to titillate our senses again. For one thing, she sure can write sensual stories that stir things in in strange places of the anatomy. Okereke can describe a romantic encounter and make your breathing stop without the characters as much as touching each other. Yes, she is that good. But in the end, the book goes nowhere, absolutely nowhere. Her editors and Virago Press, her publisher should hang their heads in shame. That book should have been stopped exactly half-way. And it would have been a great production without the babbling bumbling filler that the other half represented.

Still, you must read this book and watch out for Okereke, she is going to be an important thinker if she doesn’t allow this book to discourage her ambitions. I loved the book’s atmosphere, vibrant, noisy, full of life. The books pages fairly tremble with nervous energy; markets and communities come alive and the reader wants to be part of the experience. For the most part, Bitter Leaf is a feast of lovely prose starting with its very first lines:

 ”Many things distinguish a place, its rolling hills or turquoise waters. There are civilisations that wear plates in their ears and others that wear hoops of gold. There are even cultures that kill their old before they become burdens on those that remain. Rituals are carried out all over the world at any given moment; some that everyone can relate to and some as foreign as a fire-walk in lands surrounded by snow. But many things unite people universally: births and deaths, gains and losses, departures and arrivals.” (p 1)

Okereke would be a complex dinner companion; she comes across as erudite, well read and willing to bend intellectual boundaries. Reading Bitter Leaf is like reading Okri’s Famished Road with a fresh set of eyes:

“Once the traveller was knocked to the ground by the force of a parent’s embrace, their dirt was removed with the tears and saliva of all well-wishers. Immediate sustenance would have to wait, as fresh animals were killed, cleaned and cooked in a feast that would draw even those unconnected to the returnee to the compound with watering mouths. The party would carry on well into the days to come, with more and more food being cooked and consumed. People dropped in to witness a reunited family’s joy and the returnee would regale all those present with stories from their journey, embellishing achievements or making light of troubles that had befallen them.” (p 2)

It is as if Bitter Leaf is written by a spirit disembodied from the world, from the outside, looking in, touching this, touching that, oohing and aahing. Delectable prose-poetry swims in the pages, walking and weaving in and out of strangely familiar markets. Like Okri, Okereke has a thing for roads:

“The straight, planned roads from nearby towns either dwindled or came to a complete halt once they met the copper-coloured earth of Mannobe, but every local knew where they were going. Once upon a time, directions were given by a series of orders: follow the bumpy road until you see the bush with yellow flowers – not the red, spiky ones, that’s right – then turn left and walk as far as the three gigantic potholes in a row, take a left after the burnt tree stump, and the Harbens’ compound is to the east…” (p 13)

What is this book all about? I have no idea. I don’t know of anyone that could give you a definitive answer, not even Okereke. The blurb says of the book rather unhelpfully:

“Bitter Leaf is a richly textured, poetic and evocatively imagined tale about love and loss, parental and filial bonds, and everything in between that makes life bittersweet.”

I tried hard but could not identify a plot in this book. This is an unusual book of interesting names; the setting is nowhere, it is as if there is a deliberate emphasis on mapping a shared humanity on the pages of today’s memory. There is a dog named Dungu, a place called Angel. There is a man named Babylon who lives in a place called Mannobe In the village lives a colorful cast of characters, people with names like Babylon the musician who is in love with Jericho, returned to the village from the city. There are also the twin sisters Mabel and M’elle Codon and there is an old man named Allegory.

Even as the book defies definition, it is quite simply the best love story I have read in a long time, a lovely romance story that stirred my insides like an adolescent’s:

 “He gawped at the smoothness of her skin and the gentle swell of her breasts that peeked out of the top of the dress’s neckline. Honing his gaze, he saw minuscule beads of sweat that made her body glow and he felt as if someone had dropped a plate of Mabel’s fiery red beans down his shorts. His previous comment had been entirely innocent but inexplicably her eyes had dropped downwards. She noticed the telltale swelling and kicked the back of his wagon sharply with the heel of her sandal. ‘Disgusting,’ she hissed, moving away from him. ‘Sorry,’ he offered, covering himself quickly. Can I help it if I am a man?’”

There is more where that came from. Bitter Leaf is tightly packed prose brimming with energy, a rich, sumptuous festival chockfull of everything enchanting: ambiance, environment, rich colors and throbbing sensuality:

 “He didn’t even wait for her to retreat before dipping back into his tent and ripping a leg off her chicken like a starving animal.” (p 72)

Aspiring romance writers would do well to read this book; Okereke is a master at documenting the chase:

“His eyes focused on her and her entire being began to pulse, She pictured those very same hands moving at lightning speed across her body. Imagining the feeling of his warm palms and the determined pressure of his fingers as they subtly responded to her movements, she fought to keep her spirit within the confines of her earthly body.” (p 53)

In Bitter Leaf there is an abundance of fresh prose – ordinary words arranged in new patterns by a brilliant diviner displaying crystal clear vision and lush vivid imagery.  Okereke rarely editorializes but when she does it is sometimes provocative, if problematic. This is because Okereke sees her world from a unique perspective and defines it with uncommon literary courage. The setting for her book is not Africa but the sum total of her experience. It is a new and refreshing way of bearing witness to the world’s madness. She rejects these savageries as belonging to, or unique to Africa. She makes a compelling case that this is one world and we all own her joys and tribulations. Everyone can see his or her hut in the pages of this beautiful but complex story. She paints our world with broad, vibrant, intense colorful strokes and forces us to look at the world in a different way, perhaps the right way. Startling is her brilliance. She pulls off this neat trick and lays bare the ugly slips of our prejudices. The mind reels in confusion; this should be an African story. It is. It is not. We are all one.

Bitter Leaf is a lush aquarium breathing deeply colorful rich loamy prose, phrases turning and ambushing themselves merrily and delighting the reader..

“Although Penny sucked greedily on the ice as it expired in the scorching heat, Jericho ran hers down the back of her neck, allowing rivulets of cool water to run down her dark skin. She sighed then bent down to grab the bottom of her dress. Lifting up the hem, she rubbed the ice up her legs. She caught Penny looking at the boy, whose eyes were now the size of small planets, then back at her. It was only then that she became aware of the people around her and the effect she was having. Almost immediately, the chunk of ice between her fingers evaporated. The small boy immediately handed her another piece, trying to initiate an encore. Jericho pulled Penny away, laughing, oblivious to the slap the boy received from his returning mother for the unwise sale.” (p 98)

Bitter Leaf is not a perfect book. When I think of the book, I imagine an intricate food web, no, I  imagine an aquarium. This is a work of considerable prodigy. Its strength is its tragic weakness, all these character flaws. Restlessness births these constant walks, these comings and goings in and out of village catacombs. Who are all these people? There are so many comings and goings, the reader’s head hurts. Bitter Leaf is an inspired story with a disastrous design. This is one instance where I would say a classroom education in how to write a novel would have helped. Where are the MFA programs when you need them?

Okereke is here to stay.  If she keeps up her craft (I pray she does), she would be a Ben Okri protégé uniting all civilizations with evidence of their shared savagery making a compelling case that sadness and joy are universal. Teju Cole and Okereke might be the dispatch riders of a coming crop of writers fascinated but not intimidated by physical boundaries. Where Cole is bold and brilliant, Okereke is mostly bold, with luscious flashes of brilliance. I love this passage, warts and all:

“As a child she liked to break off small sections of her pounded yam and rolled (sic) them into small balls. She loved the sensation of the cooling dome against her fingertips, the tug of the yam as it threatened to stick to them for ever like glue. She would assemble the little balls around the edge of her bowl. The first ball would be dunked into the soup until her knuckles almost disappeared into the broth her mother had prepared, the heat of the soup searing her skin and softening the yam ball so that she could barely grip it. Chewing was entirely optional, depending on what the soup contained. Her favourite then had been bitter leaf soup, which was curiously the opposite of what its name suggested. The yam would slide down her throat easily like an oyster; all that remained to bite on was the meat or pieces of dried fish in the soup.” (p 48)

I can imagine Okereke at a book reading failing miserably to account for her vision – to the guffaws of her audience. It bears repeating ad nauseam, very few people will get this book. It is boundary bending and original in its conception. I can only guess at the book’s main point: Civilization is a universal curse, savagery is everywhere. I agree. But first she must fire her editor. As an itty bitty aside, the experimentation with pidgin was a spectacular failure. Okereke is here to stay. Unfortunately, the book lost its plot exactly half-way. It was virtually impossible to move past the page where the book died a sudden death. I wanted to be patient with this book. But then, I kept asking: Where is this book going? This intense book was written with everything Okereke had in her power. Too bad she ran out of steam. After this book, bitter leaf soup will never taste the same again for me. I am in mourning for an aborted dream. I should sue Okereke.