Monday, December 9, 2013

The Enigmatic Nature of the Short Story: A Review of The Taste of the Tale is in the Telling by Allwell Abalogu Onukaogu et al (eds.)

By Isaac Attah Ogezi The modern short story is perhaps the most abused genre in literature today after poetry. It is not the miniature novel that many intending novelists violate on their journey to novel-writing. Though it evolved from the oral tradition of didactic moonlight tales, folklores and anecdotes in pre-television days, the modern short story is far more complex and has successfully untangled itself from such reductionist mooring save for its timeless brevity. Just like a symbolic snapshot that tells more than meets the eye, the short story has assumed such cryptic idiosyncrasy that bears a closer affinity to poetry than the novel. Little wonder that sometimes in an entire collection or anthology of stories, one can hardly find a single well-crafted story that has passed the test of the modern short story. It is not uncommon to hear a great work of a first-time novelist or poet or playwright being labelled as a ‘flash in the pan’ because of their innocence of how the virginal knot is broken, but not so for the short story when innocence wears the toga of a crime, for in any good story the writer must display his knowledge of the form beyond mere narrative. It is in this enigmatic nature of the story that The Taste of the Tale … edited by Onukaogu et al can be said to be an appreciable departure, a fresh breath in this asphyxiating corner of our literature. The Taste of the Tale … is a montage of a country on the precipice of self-destruction. It comprises forty-one stories of uneven lengths and subject matters that traverse the entire spectrum of the Nigerian society such as insecurity, greed, environmental degradation, drought, religious bigotry, poverty, women’s oppression, social relationships, and so other many existential issues that beset our polity. In Onukaogu’s ‘Smiles Were Not Enough’, the reader is impressed by the stoicism of the major character despite the fatal injury she sustains in the auto-accident. The writer achieved his desired aim of invoking pathos from the reader for the plight of the lady in question and lampoons the beastly disregard for human lives in the country. A surgeon ‘who specialized in repairing veins was needed urgently so that the rate of blood loss could be controlled’ (p. 6), what with the lower part of her anatomy a ‘chaos of mangled flesh’ (p. 6). Out of the three or four specialists, one of them ‘answered from a background of organized noise’ (p.6) that he is in church, being a Seventh-day Adventist, and cannot leave the presence of his God to attend to the emergency case at hand. This provokes the ire of the narrator who could not understand that: ‘…someone who called himself a doctor, who had a duty to humanity, would sit in church, while someone he could have saved was dying. Was saving this soul not part of serving God? Would God not understand if he quietly stepped out to defend and propagate the course [sic] of humanity, and demonstrate love, which was the central crux of the gospel of Jesus Christ?’ (p. 7) To help save this soul, desperate arrangements are made to move the lady to Port Harcourt to the only surgeon willing to help. But they had bargained without ‘the miserable road to Port Harcourt, the eminent, ever-present Port Harcourt hold-ups, even more notorious on weekends’ (p. 8). This story is reminiscent of an apocalyptic line from Saro-Wiwa’s prophetic story ‘Africa Kills her Sun’, to wit: ‘Africa kills her sun and that’s why she’s called the Dark Continent.’ Onyerionwu’s masterful ‘Guilty as Charged’ appears to thaw the gloomy mood of Onukaogu’s heart-rending story. Here a kidnapper, not more than nineteen years old, meets his waterloo when he runs into his victim in a banking hall. At first the reader sympathizes with this deceptively innocuous young man with a ‘round and smooth face’ for being pummelled by a middle-aged woman old enough to be his mother. She accuses him of raping her after his gang had kidnapped her much to the amazement of her audience who feels she is suffering from an ‘unwarranted case of transferred aggression by a disgruntled woman who was probably suffering from the psychological tremors of a shaky home’ (p. 13). To disabuse their minds, she has to show the bite mark she inflicted on his thigh in her struggle not to be raped by him. The subject of kidnapping may appear topical and trite, but the writer’s effective use of humour and suspense more than mitigates this. In an anthology dominated by dark stories of angst and pessimism, it is with a sigh of relief to find the occasional lightheartedness in Kennedy-Oti’s hilarious ‘The Campus “Aje”’ which brilliantly satirizes poor female undergraduates who try to keep up with the Joneses. Vivy, a campus ‘ajebo’ who pretends not to have ever seen cockroaches before in her life, is brought to her level when her room-mate visits her unannounced at her shanty residence in Ajegunle, a popular Lagos slum. The dexterity by which the writer handles her characters, spicing their language with the requisite campus ladies’ Pidgin English, lends verisimilitude to this story. On the other hand, Ogezi’s ‘The First Stone’ is a chilling tale of a woman condemned to death under the Sharia legal system. Set in a fictional Kasanga State in Nigeria, Ogezi examines the plight of an independent woman, Hafsat, caught in the web of a retroactive law for the offence of adultery. But who will cast the first stone? ‘Was it the men who always drank themselves to stupor at the mammy markets of Army barracks where the long arms of Sharia could not reach them? Or their sanctimonious women who always veiled themselves in the daytime like angels, but before the night spread her black muslin upon the sullen earth, would be seen going about visiting men in the unholy name of “going to Angwan?”’ (p. 233). For Hafsat, taking leave of such a puritanical world is without regret even if it means her impending death by stoning. In this blissful marriage of prose and drama, Ogezi adroitly exposes the hypocritical nature of world sexist religions. A master of the short story, Umez’s two vignettes are centred on adultery. In ‘Restaurant Conversation’, a young man’s regret of wearing his wedding band in a date with an unmarried lady is subtly and unmistakably registered in the reader’s mind. By way of contrast, a woman wins her promiscuous husband back in ‘Meltdown’ without raising hell but by simply stooping to conquer. These sketches affirm the postulation that the short story shares a closer proximity to poetry than the novel. Umez’s rather Chekhovian vignettes conform to what the editors observed about the short story genre in their introductory note, that ‘the beauty of a short story lies in the fact that, very much like an expertly constructed poem, it says so much in a little space.’ (p. v). Bala’s ‘The Blank Book’ and Bula’s ‘Three Suitors and the Lily Flower’ are equally well-crafted. However, one wonders what stories like Egbuta’s ‘Shoshoro’, Ifi’s ‘Ikenba’ and Imam’s ‘The Amigo Sisters’ would be doing in such an anthology. Worse still, it is ironic that the editors who bemoaned the inability to include other stories on the ground of ‘space constraints’ (p. vii), could allow room for Urum’s nine stories of indifferent quality. Lastly, the work could have benefited from better editing if the editors had taken their time to remove glaring errors such as ‘a quick bathe’ (p. 26), ‘I held my breathe’ (p. 32), ‘they decide our faith’ (p. 46), ‘the lightening was threatening’ (p. 104), ‘he had no qualms taking what belongs to others’ (p. 302), ‘four day’s later’ (p. 305), ‘rented the air’ (p. 319), ‘about to breath his last’ (p. 320) and ‘touchlights flashing on him’ (p. 323). Though The Taste of the Tale … is a pointer to the fact that the average Nigerian writer still flounders at the seemingly slippery terrain of the short story, there are a few strong voices who are the future Alice Munros especially those that their stories were briefly examined above. This anthology is recommended for those who want to learn the craft of the short story and, in a few instances, how not to write short stories. The taste of the tale is in the reading.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Danger of the Single Story in Yerima's Heart of Stone

By Isaac Attah Ogezi In a 2009 seminal TED Talk on “The Danger of a Single Story”, Adichie berated the Western literary establishment for reducing the African story to one definitive story, a stereotype of mindless violence and debauchery which has come to cling to Africans. In the eyes of the West, Africa is only viewed as a heart of darkness, replete with war, famine and all other indices of a Third world continent, where life is short and brutish like the Stone Age. Where this is not the intent of this review, it shall examine the danger of a writer being fixated on a single story to the point of cloning his own stories. Yerima’s recent play, Heart of Stone, is a stage dramatization of the contemporary social reality that is Nigeria today, the nebula of fear that dogs our lives, total disregard to life, terrorism and religious uprisings. It tells the sad story of an orphan, Musa, who endured the vicissitudes of life as an Almajiri, teacher in a Koranic school, political thug to being a borehole digger before joining an extremist religious sect as a terrorist to unleash violence on innocent victims. The irony of these acts of terrorism is that nobody is spared both kith and kin. They “are not trained to think” (p. 47) but to wreak havoc on a docile world in the name of defending “themselves against the infidels. The non-believers.” (p. 48) Musa’s last operation brings him to a church where a wedding is in progress between his cousin Gladys and Miri with a disastrous effect. The church is bombed to smithereens. Amina , his heartthrob, paints this gory scene with chilling images when she laments: “Everyone in the church was blown to their deaths. Kaka Vero, Gladys and her husband are all gone. Their blood splashed, their bodies strewn in tiny bits and pieces were packed in different bags and brought to our hospital… Headless bodies, Kaka, torn from limbs to limbs. We cannot even tell them apart.” (pp. 50 – 55) Vero, who is later involved in the above inferno that terminates her life, had earlier warned Musa, who upon becoming a teacher in a Koranic school, suddenly saw his non-Muslim relations as dirty pigs, unbelievers fit to be slaughtered. In a plaintive voice, she says: “Let me speak, Son. From the day I saw you as a little boy join a group of Almajiri to force a car driver to stop and with your mouths you drew fuel from his car after beating him up for refusing to recite the Fathia… In a frenzy of madness, you all ran towards our church, poured the petrol under the doors, while the other wild boys broke the church windows and threw in burning rags into it… As the church burnt, and the police and the Fire Brigade siren vehicles screamed and screeched, our eyes met ….” (p. 42) A later victim of these wild boys on rampage, Vero goes further to narrate how her cousin’s house was burnt on page 42: “When my maternal cousin’s house, Bitrus’ house, was burnt in Koghum village in Wang District of Jos, with all five members of his family burnt alive, again it was another trip of madness? Millions have died after.” The alibi of most religious terrorists of Islamic sect especially Boko Haram and Al-Shabab is that they are fighting for Allah. As the author put it into the mouth of Musa, “It was what we were told to do. The Ustaz had said Allah decreed it. We were used.” (p. 42). Fortunately, the playwright shows a ray of hope at the end of the tunnel in the fight against terrorism when Musa is eventually arrested during his last operation and brought to book. In this timely play, like his previous plays such as Hard Ground and Little Drops…, based on the Niger Delta crisis, Yerima displays his talent as a journalist-playwright chronicling every facet of our chequered lives. A social crusader, he refuses to keep mute in the face of the Boko Harm insurgency in our polity even though no mention is explicitly made about them. On the contrary, it is in this obsession with the single story in a rather recycling manner that therein lies his albatross in this play. Musa is a slavish replica of Mimi and Kuru in Yerima’s Hard Ground and Little Drops… respectively and ape their speeches with no serious effort made by the playwright to recreate a different character. For example, all these three characters in these plays have almost the same reason for taking to violence against an unfair world. Nimi posits that the politicians are behind their creation: “They created us. They gave us the reason to find our place… First, we were errand boys, and so we got guns and money. We started asking questions, they had no answers. We all knew what they looked like before they got into power. We dumped them. They gave us no respect, because of the crumbs they give us while they keep the chunk… We fight only for ourselves. Our lives in our pockets.” (p. 39, Hard Ground) Similarly, as if parroting Nimi, Kuru also says: “The amnesty could not sell. There was no consultation with us who were to be granted the amnesty. Just a few men sat in the capital and worked out a one-sided agreement… They think they are smart … But they will see. We shall destroy everything … everything… everything. Total break-up! (pp. 60 and 63, Little Drops…) Also full of angst like these two characters in the earlier plays, Musa, filled with bile and discontentment, makes the trioka when he says: “And politics came. And the new politicians like Danladi your son came. They promised to take us away from our failures, but instead they reminded us that we were failures… Jokers! That was when we proclaimed death to all … They cannot achieve anything by talking with the wrong people.” (pp. 58 and 60, Heart of Stone) This single story of youth restiveness and criminality engendered by circumstances prevalent in their societies, permeates all these three plays and cannot be excused on the ground of the playwright’s use of different locales and cultures. Though a multi-cultural dramatist, Yerima makes no spirited attempt to be a connoisseur of any like the bat in the adage, stranger to the sky and earth. In consequence, he distorts, like most of our Nollywood films, the cultures of many ethnic groups in his plays in the name of multi-culturalism. This is more glaring in the latest of the three plays, Heart of Stone. The old man character, Achief, is a pagan and drinks the locally-brewed beer called burukutu, worships in the traditional way, yet exclaims “By Allah” (p. 10) like other non-Muslim characters in the play and, as if this is not enough, he makes claim to Islamic four-wife polygamy when he says: “I take a new wife to complete the number Allah approved for me as a good Muslim soon.” (p. 15). It is not for the love of being portrayed as a schizophrenic that the author made Achief talk about the gods in the next page: “That we need a megaphone to speak with the gods?” (p. 16). Perhaps, the greatest distortion of cultures and religions in this play is the misuse of Hausa words especially where Yoruba Arabic words are used instead of Hausa’s such as “Aljenah” (p. 34) for “Aljannah”, “Shetani” (p. 38) for “Shaitan”, “Kaffirs” (p. 41) for “Kafiris”, etc. It is obvious that the playwright’s knowledge of Hausa words and their concomitant Arabic expressions is weak. Kaka Patu, a pagan who believes in wetting the throat of her dead daughter “with the burukutu offerings” (p. 13), could not restrain herself when told that Musa is involved in the killing of Vero and exclaims: “Subahanallahi!” (p.53) before fainting! Yerima will not receive any thanks from any Christian for the pastor’s prayer on page 36 as it does not reflect the Christian culture of praying whether Pentecostal or orthodox Christianity. Be that as it may, Yerima is inarguably Africa’s most prolific playwright writing today after his elder countryman, Osofisan. However, the only snag for writers of this ilk is that memorability, the enduring quality of any great work of art, could as well go hand itself, flanked on either side by sublime literary language and originality. Shakespeare is still celebrated today for close to four centuries since he passed on to glory not because of the volumes of his works but for the relentless artistry and self-denial that went into every of his works which are now timeless benchmarks for world dramatic writing. A writer who continues to churn out works without paying attention to the nitty-gritty of what makes great works tick, coupled with a narcissistic disregard to his readers, may suffer the fate of not having his name whispered in the hallowed chambers of the Swedish Academy even if he attains the record feat of a hundred works.