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). 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.
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:
I asked for a cup of coffee…. It was a tiny old man who served me. And I thought, not for the 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.
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.” 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!