Sometimes we look so long at a thing that we lose focus of the other beautiful things that surround us. Those unable to bear our absolute and inimical neglect drop out and disappear from the stage, their works waiting to be exhumed by a careful reader. They assume posthumous importance and their works suddenly appear on several reading lists - personal or academic. The fate of many a writer has so been determined.
Fortunately, Chuma Nwokolo's fate will not follow this posthumous line. His is a fresh voice painting the same abstract pictures, but from a unique perspective. He is a worthy name of his generation and we might lose the likes of him if we keep focusing too much on the generations above them. In Chuma we have a writer who is in love with language and the relationships between words and their meanings. Reading him is an enjoyment and the reader will not forget. He gives taste and colour to words; he brings language alive and his descriptions are superior.
The author's The Ghost of Sani Abacha (County Books, 2012; 309) is a collection of twenty-six (26) short stories covering several themes: love, politics, values, religion, and more. Whether describing the marital home, pastoral duties, the James Iboris of politics, or botched love affairs, Chuma writes from a point of knowledge that can only come from keen observation and understanding of the human condition. He understands how problems begin: asymmetric information arising from the 'I am sure' and 'Mine is true' attitudes people put on, which in itself originates from nonexistent communication lines.
Chuma's story seems to have more to say than the words on the page and after the story ends, literally as in 'My Las' Foolscap' and also figuratively as in all the others. He sends his words in one direction, taking the reader along, linking one event to another, snowballing, and finally turns the reader around. The reader then begin to ask questions 'why didn't Chuma explain?' 'Why didn't he expand?' and in this way the reader becomes part of the story. For instance in 'Ma Rebecca' a story about a woman who kept losing his husbands and to avoid shame went to the big city, stole a child and came back to the village. She was later arrested yet the child she stole kept coming back to her after she was released from prison. What might have caused this? It's up to the reader to guess, right or wrong we write our own stories. This strategy works brilliantly if the reader wants to be part of the story-writing-and-telling process; the reader can choose his or her own conclusions as best as he deems fit.
The title story The Ghost of Sani Abacha is a satirical representation of politics especially as it is practice in most African countries, where wealth, its quest and finally its accumulation, becomes the true end of politics, and politics its means. It shows how anyone, regardless of his background, but with the right connections, can become a politician, amass wealth, and rise to the status of a power-broker without advancing any course beneficial to the people. Though written long before James Ibori, the prison-to-politics governor, was arrested to the embarrassment of the Nigerian government, this story can be an apt parody of the case.
Gluttony brings out man's inherent inclination to greed. It is also about the cost of free. When a whale suddenly appeared at the beachfront of Waterside, it provided enough meat to the three villages; from roasting to frying, kebab to barbecue, whale meat became the staple food. But the abundance of meat translated directly into stomachache. The story shows how enough cannot be enough; how people will keep adding and storing even if they don't need it. In this light it exposes or explains why the rich are still corrupt; why corruption will be difficult to uproot; and the reason why the poor look for opportunities to self-aggrandise. Gluttony is more about political corruption than overeating.
The Fall of Phiri Bombai is where the nuances of Chuma's story telling come alive. The reader goes through the emotional roller-coaster Phiri goes through as he rises and fall. Here the role of politics in ensuring inefficiency in the Civil Service by promoting people who are incompetent but with the right political associations and sidelining those who are efficient. Yet it is more than that. It's also about belief and anxiety.
A Taste of Leftovers, the longest story in the collection, is a love story that didn't go well, initially, due to misinformation and asymmetric information. In this piece, and throughout the anthology, Chuma showed that he has exceptional understanding of his female characters and can easily carry their emotions to the reader.
Chuma Nwokolo's literary journey has just begun and he is one we must watch. Late last year, I did read his book Diaries of a Dead African. He is a storyteller who knows his trade, in his hands the reader his safe. The only thing about this collection is that the publisher could have done more on proofreading.
This book is recommended to all readers.