Monday, April 21, 2014

290. How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories Vol. 1 by Chuma Nwokolo

Chuma Nwokolo may not be a household name. But those who have listened to him read or have read his books have come to appreciate his stories. To such fortunate folks Chuma remains an excellent author with a keen sense of observation and of humour. Recently the author of Diaries of a Dead African and The Ghost of Sani Abacha released another collection of short stories titled How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories to mark the centenary anniversary of the amalgamation of the pre-Nigerian states and the formation of the country Nigeria.

Those who have read Chuma have come to appreciate his unique writing styles and his prodigiousness. First, according to the author his attention span is too short for a novel, so that even the novel-like DOADA is really three interlinked novellas. Consequently, the author has resorted to the short story genre to tell his stories and over time has mastered the rudiments of this genre. The Ghost of Sani Abacha contained twenty-six short stories, almost twice the number one is likely to find in most anthologies. It is therefore not surprising that Chuma would set himself the huge task of putting together hundred (100) short stories. The first volume of this two part publications contains fifty short stories and it is expected that the second volume would have the other fifty.

How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories (Gwandustan, 2013; 289) is a compendium of vistas of everyday occurrences in Nigeria, Africa, and the world at large, delivered through different writing styles. The stories are taken from life through keen observations and acute deductions and served to the reader in a way that will make them seem obvious upon reading, creating that retrospective and reflective epiphany or the aha! moment. Sometimes the stories capture the reader's situation so perfectly that he wonders how the author got it so right. They are so true to life and to our daily experiences that some of them do not even qualify to be described as stories anymore. They have moved beyond the realms of fiction, of fact-based fiction, of historical fiction, into something else. They are more of essays or treatises on societal issues than fiction. They could be easily quoted and referenced in any work of scholarship.

One that fits these descriptions perfectly is The Ten Commandments of Nigerian Politics. There is nothing in this story that is completely fictitious or that is not, or could not, be true. Even the way Chuma chose to begin the story caused me to question its presence in a work of fiction. The author begins the short story with a disclaimer:
As you will understand when you finish reading these commandments, I did not actually write them. I found a small, black notebook in the toilet cubicle as the plane approached Abuja airport. It clearly wasn't there when we left Lagos, yet nobody claimed the book when I waved it in front of the forty people on that flight. ...
This is a story about a guy - Goddy - who has been contracted by scammers to write a manual on how they could transition from scamming to politics. This guy has studied the political scene for so long - perhaps just as the author has done - that he knows and has mastered the rudiments of the game, even if he is not playing in it. According to Goddy, the first commandment of Nigerian politics is Don't Hit the Big People. Hit the Little People Ice. He refers to the little people as Nigerian mugus, those who are oblivious of the fact that they owned billions of dollars. All that the politician has to do is to strategically place himself between the billions and the people. He explains:
I know your second question: what's the point? After all, little people have no money. Wrong. Last year, 19 billion dollars entered the federal account of 140 million Nigerians. Go and multiply that. That is not a small amount of money.
The year before they budgeted 4 trillion Naira to take care of this same 140 million little people. Do you know how many zeros are behind that four? I see. Your job as a politician is to position yourself between that money and the 140 million mugus that own it.
Chuma, in this conversational writing style, explains how Nigerian (African) politicians corrupt the system and siphon public money into personal accounts. This particular behaviour of politicians and the government they form has been touched upon in most contemporary Nigerian novels. From Chinua Achebe's not-so contemporary (1966) A Man of the People to Sefi Atta's (2013) A Bit of Difference this route to wealth and recognition in Nigeria's class society has been denounced and documented. Obinze and his friends' lives are encapsulated by this in Chimamanda's (2013) Americanah. This route is so widely known and accepted among its perpetrators - past, present, and future - that as recent as the second week in April (13th) it was exhibited in all of its glory and goriness at the wedding ceremony of Goodluck Jonathan's daughter. It was so conspicuous, so showy, so plangent and deafening, that it was ugly. Anyone who has read Chuma's story will not but see the confluence between the fiction and the fact. Under Clinching the Nomination - the second command, Chuma writes:
The first thing is to get a nomination. To do that, you need a political party. Don't ask me why, that's just what our constitution says, and that is why today we have more than fifty parties. But you must not waste your time with the papa-mama-and-pickin type of political party. Go straight to the biggest and find out the local godfather. ...
Most of these godfathers have a dozen or more official children, so within six months there will be many birthdays, naming ceremonies, burials (god forbid), graduations and what have you. On each special day, if there's no party, drop your carton of champagne and envelope of money at the gate and go. Remember the golden rule for donations: If you cannot be among the top five donors, don't waste your money. (Emphasis mine)
Is it therefore strange that the President's daughter is reported to have received one hundred and seventy five (175) cars as gifts? Is this a mere act of kindness or it is as Chuma said, to gain favour in the eyes of the godfather and facilitate future considerations from the president? Or were they given as appreciation to a past favour from him? The motive is as clear as daylight (forget the cliche).

Chuma further discussed how to win the election, give victory speech, 'eat' the (public) money, react when Nigerians stir from their slumber, and how to play the ethnic card and manage the police. As much as this story is funny, it is also saddening because it is the absolute truth. It shows how a few psychopaths could capture power and treat others in so evil a manner.

In OPM the problem of corruption that has bedevilled most countries is seen playing in the homes of the corrupt. In trying to play smart on each other, a whole country finds itself in a situation where cheating and being cheated become the norm and inherent part of peoples' lives. Yet, each person thinking that he is cheating another ends up cheating himself as the roads are not built; the schools are not built; degrees are purchased; and quack professionals end the lives of people through ignorance. In a household of a corrupt 'chief', everybody is pinching the other. Whereas the patriarch is pinching the government, the wife is pinching him, and the daughter is making deals with the housekeeping money. Even the steward is making a business out of the household's provisions with his son, who (unknown to all) was the Chief's taxi driver, by night. When the Chief discovered that his daughter was repackaging local rice as Basmati rice, he explained to her that when it comes to deals, there is a line. One should only hit Other People's Money [OPM].
Listen Alma, there's an invisible line you must never cross when you're doing business...' 'And what line is that?' ... 'The line of family, of loyalty.' 'You're the one crossing the line, Papa'... 'How? By saying the obvious? It was not the basmati rice, that's the fact.' 'What do facts have to do with loyalty? I lie for you. Last month when we travelled home on that horrible road, I knew it was your road. I knew how much you made from it, and did I say a word? Did I complain in front of the driver? That was loyalty Dad. Once we passed your road we all started complaining about the bad roads and the corruption killing Nigeria. That was loyalty. But you! Because of small rice deal you and your wife were disgracing me in front of the steward-'...
Tear Rubber alludes to the extravagance and markers of wealth in the Nigerian (African) society. A young man purchased a brand new full-leather interior, climate-control, BMW X5 Sports and, as customs demand, decided to show it to his uncle in the village. This village uncle was unimpressed and decided to have a word with his nephew. 
'What I really want to ask you is this,' he said finally, sucking his teeth when the first stick was gone, 'what are you trying do say?'
'I don't think I understand you, Pa-Dey.'
'Look,' he said, opening wide his mouth, 'this is Naija, stop beating around the bush. If you want to say something, say it ho-ha! If you have arrived you buy a Mercedes. Okay? It is simple like that. Whether it is second-hand or third-hand doesn't matter anything. Nobody is saying that you can't buy more cars later-later, the first one is a good Mercedes eh? I just said I should tell you: because there can't be old man in the house and small-small boys will be digging pit-latrine where they buried their grandpapa'
Yet, politics and class are not the only domain in which Chuma's eyes capture all the details and nuances. He is at home with domestic issues, pun intended, as he is with politics. The first story of the anthology, Letter to a Young Wife from an Old, discusses what successful marriages are made of or how some have managed to survive the turbulence. This skill set of keeping the family together, regardless of the problems it encounters, has been passed on from older women to the younger ones over generations and are delivered on the eve of marriage and throughout one's married life. However, over time they have - like everything else - been modified, enhanced, to reflect the times. They have moved from the days when women grovel before their husbands like worshippers before their gods, in absolute servility, to the period where strategic anger and violence is permitted, as long as they remain within a certain acknowledged but unspoken perimeter. It is the latter, or rather the ingredients or methodology of the latter, that Chuma discusses in this epistolary story. A woman is entitled to react violently - measuredly and methodically - to her husband's misdemeanours, especially if it is adultery. If carried out properly, this reaction will elicit the required shame from the offending husband and lead to a significant (even if short-lived) change or to a better way of hiding his crime in future. Whichever way he chooses, there is bliss - even if from ignorance.

In this story, a young woman has perhaps gone overboard in her reaction and is being advised by an experienced wife on how to manage her anger; how to show it and hurt her husband, bring tears to his eyes and still not get him angry.
Thou art a young wife, so I shall open all my mouth. On that first day that his adultery comes to light, the whole world is right behind you, so let the force of your fury be known. Be natural, let it all hang out. The plates, the frame photographs of your wedding, his suits even, these are the legitimate, the expected casualties of his embarrassing sex. Noise the scandal to whom you may, what more do you have to hide? ... Tell your friends, the groundnut hawker, his own friends even. Let the world feel the pain of his betrayal of you. Pain shared = pain halved, and all that.
According to the old wife, this violence is justified if it is limited to selected items and kept within two days. On the third day, calm is suppose to reign. The snivelling must stop. If not, her friends (wives of his husband's friends) will begin to get annoyed with her for all the care she is receiving from their husbands, who are  no saints themselves.
Nobody wants their husband to be holding and comforting another weeping woman for days on end, even if they are best of friends. Besides, all your married friends have horror tales of their own, and it is in bad taste to complain to a doctor about your pimple, when he is sitting on a scrotum engorged by elephantiasis. ...
[T]he clever wife's rage is entirely premeditated. Nothing is ever done in the heat of the moment. She goes through her house carefully, determining the casualties of his next misbehaviour. When I fly through my house breaking things I might look quite mad, but my eyes are very discriminating I tell you. I remember an aquarium I hated so much, but it was a gift from my mother-in-law, and you know how that breaks down... anyway it took three years before he gave me an excuse to break it. Poor fish. Anyway, nothing, nothing, will provoke me to raise my hand against my own car. Am I mad? That's the point you forgot, isn't it? The car may be in his name but it belongs to you. Just like the plates and photographs and old suits... these are impressive victims of your rage, but they don't cost too much.
Anyone who has read Chuma's stories, will quickly realise that he has a knack for understanding relationships. He sees things no one else does. His stories of relationships are different from what one is likely to read everyday. They open up recesses and expose details one rarely sees. This is observed in The Tranquil of Sukosu and Wife and Phonesurfing. In the former, a man and his wife had been living a quiet and unquestioning life; safe in their ignorance of each other and in the love they had been professing to each for thirty years. Then one day the man asked his wife if he was his first love. A negative response nibbled at his curiosity: who was he, he asked; but when the response began with a 'she...' they both settled quickly into silence, into their safe unquestioning lives, after a brief discomfiture. The latter is about a married couple who were surfing each other's phone secretly for traces of secret relationships.

These stories have the quintessential Chuma flavour of insight and humour. His writings seem to indicate that life is one whole string of humorous and insane events, if one observes closely enough. Otherwise, how could the failure of an electricity company to cut power cause anxiety and depression in a man? In The End of Failure the negative is the norm. In a country where power supply is intermittent and load-shedding is the norm, an extended power supply is received with fear and anxiety and anticipation of an extended power cut. This added to the man's frustrations. Here Chuma's skills as a storyteller is clear. How he used just a power failure to express, in all its detailed ugliness, the frustrations and tensions of the lower middle class is indeed amazing and fantastic.

Most of Chuma's stories are about the lives of ordinary people. However, none represents the working class - the proletarians - than Envy. The story seems to suggest that happiness is not in things but in us. It has often been said of the working class that they are a happy class because they do not suffer the pain and non-satiation that accompany the wanton possessiveness of the upper class. That they are free from the clutches of the fear of suddenly losing their wealth. But this perceived and ascribed lower-class-working-class satisfaction is a deprecative and overly romanticised view. It does not exist. For though they do not suffer what the wealthy folks do, they also suffer from envy and jealousy. Therefore, there is a sort of cyclical envy flowing among the classes. The wealthy folks wishing for the superficial happiness of the poor and the poor the wealth of the wealthy. In Envy, the Eye has been watching people all through eternity. It is ancient and all-seeing. One day it sighted half a dozen men who had closed from a day's work of chiselling granite under a difficult supervisor. In their rags and poverty, these men found it within themselves to laugh into complete abandon. The Eye became envious, for he who had seen a lot in life could not comprehend how these men with virtually nothing could be this happy.

Chuma's stories are far from the Hut-and-Thatch, Calabash-and-Palm-wine, Poverty-and-Death stories most African stories have come to be known. They are contemporary. Even those that dealt with religion. Religion forms an important part of the life of an African. Over time, the African has moved from his native religion, referred to as traditional religion, to Christianity. However, the distinction between the two is blurring with pastors accusing each other of occultism. What people refuse to acknowledge is the gradual assimilation of traditional religious beliefs into Christianity facilitated by the similarities between the two. In Mama Makancha's Kitchen a witch-doctor who converted to Christianity and, as is characteristic of all such conversions, threw away his gods was surprised that his miracle-performing pastor had gone to his witch-doctor friend for supernatural powers. On hearing this from his friend, he sought to locate and retrieve his gods only to find out that the weeping grindstone Mama Makancha had invited him to exorcise was his long-lost god. He began to find a way to whisk the god-grindstone away from Mama Makancha who was unwilling to let go of her grindstone. 

Facebookland is another contemporary story. Who is a friend? Is it the one you meet everyday in real life? Or those you share your life's intimate moments with on the virtual world? Or both? What if you fell sick and no one commented on your page and you mistakenly posted that you were sick and some questioned the veracity of your post and asked that you stopped joking, and others expressed their hollow sympathies? Are they friends? Is the virtual world of social media full of phonies? What happens if one of such friends - those you only know on that platform - thousands of miles away, txt to ask you how you felt and whether you were doing well, is he not a true friend? This story presents the dilemma of social media - the positives and negatives of living on the virtual world.

Chuma has mastered several methods of arresting his readers attention. His first lines and paragraphs are catchy. They draw the reader in and deliver the knockout one blow at a time. In addition to this he creates interest by indirectly raising suspicions or questions and leaving them unanswered. These nibble at the reader's mind, demanding to be answered. In Spouseplay one is likely to question whether the newly married woman cheated (on her husband) on the first day of entering her husband's house with the taxi driver who brought them, or not. This is a story of a man who was morbidly (even psychologically) afraid of women. This morbid fear coupled with his unproven existence of a girlfriend led his mother to marry for him. The story is set on the first day he arrived home with his wife - his prevarications and confusions of what to do or say. When the woman sent him on errands to buy difficult-to-get items only to come and meet the taxi of the driver who had brought them home parked in his front yard. He became suspicious. When he was met at the door by a seemingly furtive wife who once again sent him to get an even more elusive item, his suspicions grew. But when he finally got entry into his house through the back door, he met the taxi driver scrubbing the floor and asking for another bottle of beer. Did something happen between the two? Maybe yes. Maybe no. There are indications to both answers.

Another method is leaving parts of the stories nebulous for the reader to disentangle, if he can. An example of this is in Just Add Spice. When a bride-groom saw his immediate ex-girlfriend - a woman who had financed him - at his wedding he raised an alarm for her to be arrested. It did not help that this ex-girlfriend had shared to the guests turkey sandwiches. Suddenly, all those who had eaten the sandwiches began to vomit and the woman was arrested. A toxicology test proved negative. Why would a woman who claimed she never truly loved this man, and that she was preparing to jilt him, attend and destroy his wedding? The same method was used in The Police Masseur, where a woman prevented her husband from being investigated by throwing a police officer off his search duties in her home. After the incident, with promises of non-disclosure on both sides (police and woman), Chuma dropped a hint that some of the woman's ex-husbands were languishing in jail - one for trying to sell the country's embassy in Congo. Is it not the woman who is the brain behind her husbands dealings? Similarly in Replacement, a Kafkaesque story, a man who responded to a call to walk at midnight returned to find that his position in his home had been taken over by his other self. Unlike Henry in The Time Traveler's Wife, this new self did not know the old one. This man had entered into a deal we are not told and by his acceptance had suddenly been transformed and replaced.

There are several other interesting and resonating stories. In Ancestral Stone a woman crippled her son to prevent slave raiders from kidnapping him. This is similar to what Sethe did to Beloved in that eponymous Morrison novel. When the man survived the raid, he did same to his children and none was taken by the slave raiders. There is the story of a man who spared a child he had caught stealing a radio only to meet him later as an armed robber (Spared Child); there is also the story of a gatekeeper who was sponsored to Mecca by his Madam and when upon his return this Madam did not add the necessary Alhaji title to his name he became morose and he who took initiatives froze in his work (The Pilgrim's Address). 

Chuma's stories are not culturally closed or limiting. One does not require local knowledge to understand or appreciate them, or at least some of them. In Bloody Benjy he shows that more often than not a work of art is famous only because of the name of the artiste embossed on the work and that work itself is of no relevance. It is explained in relation to the artiste so that if the name changes the enthusiasm will change. This idea is carried into Poetic Justice - one of the longest short stories in the collection. The story suggests that mostly the same people win awards not because they are consistently good but because their reputations go ahead of them. It suggests that most awards are flawed and rigged so that even when they tell you that entries are sent to judges without the authors' names, it is usually fallacious.

The author employed different writing styles to tell his stories. There are dialogues, monologues, interviews, epistolary, and others. There is definitely something to love in a collection of fifty short stories - this being the anthology with the largest collection of short stories (single- or multiple-authored) I have ever read - and definitely something not to like. For though Chuma's stories are wonderful, insightful, relevant, and varied, in such a huge collection there were always going to be wide variances in their likability. Regardless, the likes outnumber the not-likes. The latter are usually stories one felt the author could have fleshed up. They begin on an interesting note and before the reader is aware they have ended, suddenly.

To say that Chuma Nwokolo is a great writer is an understatement. He is an author whose works have souls. They speak to the reader. They are both 'novel' and familiar. In a sense, he presents everyday issues with a different insight; one that illuminates the reader's mind and brings to him that wonderful epiphanic aha! moment. He is able to turn everyday events into stories worth the read. Will he end up as one of the great authors the mainstream never met, never read? To those who have read him, it is our joy; to the industry their loss. However, let it not be said that he was 'undiscovered'. By whom? This is recommended to all.

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