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Resuming duty

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My sincerest apologies to the readers and followers of MissOjikutu blog for being AWOL the last few months. Many waters have passed under the bridge since I last put up a post. A wedding, some travel, some re-evaluation and new writing opportunities have kept me away.

I am riding the changes now, and am back to make up for lost time. I will be continuing with my literary interviews, reviews and news. Recently, I began writing a blog for Wasafiri Magazine, so I will be publishing my Wasafiri posts on MissOjikutu for you all to enjoy.

Many thanks to all those who have continued visiting or leaving comments while I have been absent.

 

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Nigerian Rotimi Babatunde Wins 2012 Caine Prize

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Nigerian writer, Rotimi Babatunde, was last night announced by the Chair of the Caine Prize judges panel, Bernadine Evaristo, as the winner of this year’s prize in a dinner ceremony held at the Bodelaine Library, Oxford. Babatunde’s story, “Bombay’s Republic” was shortlisted with four others from a total of 122 short stories entered for the competition.

“Bombay’s Republic” was described  by Evaristo as “ambitious, darkly humorous, and in soaring, scorching prose (it) exposes the exploitative nature of the colonial project and the psychology of Independence.” It tells the story of a Nigerian man who drafted to fight in World War 2, and who subsequently became a member of the Forgotten Army. Bombay returned to his country, with his illusions and sense of identity shifted by the illuminating as well as traumatic nature of war, to effect changes never been dared before. See below, the passage read by 2004 Caine Prize shortlister, Chika Unigwe, at the award dinner:

“Bombay was deeply shocked by the Captain’s fate. he remembered the white-jacketed District Officer back home with his manicured nails and the imperious airs of one in absolute control of the cosmos, the white man oozing superiority over the khaki clad native police constables as if merely exercising his natural birthright. That the Captain, a country man of the colonial administrator, had degenerated to a condition that pitiful meant the impeccable District Officer could likewise descend to the same animal depths. Bombay had seen a lot in war. Diarrhoeic Europeans pestered by irreverent flies while the men shat like domestic livestock in the open. Blue eyes rolling in mortal fear as another enemy shell whistled past. But never before had he imagined one of his imperial masters degenerating into a state so wretched. He found it good to know that it was also possible.”

Read the complete story

Review: Voice of America by EC Osondu

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Voice of America by EC Osondu

215 pp

Granta Books (2010)

Rating: 3/5

The thing about a short story collection is that, unless you are Jumpha Lahiri, it’s a gamble. African novelists like Chimamanda Adichie and Helon Habila have staked their reputation on writing or editing a collection in short form to mixed reactions. And EC Osondu, though so far unburdened by previous acclaim for long work, again illustrates the peril of the short story with his debut collection, Voice of America.

Published by Granta Books, Osondu’s collection of eighteen stories focuses mostly on the immigrant life in America, and culls, no doubt, from his own experiences. Like Uwem Akpan’s Say You Are One of Them, the stories in the collection favour child protagonists or narrators, and use this as an avenue for satire, but also, somewhat like childlike natter, they yo-yo from the inspired to the passable to the dreadful.

Osondu is a master of openings and sequences but closings are an entirely different matter, as he appears to lose his way in the anecdotes he copiously works through his stories, and then hurries to take the first exit he chances by when needless, but nonetheless enjoyable, digressions have blinded him to plot.

But it isn’t all bad, Osondu uses a language that doesn’t aspire to anything but its  most important function: communication; with its crisp, simple language, this book is one of the easiest books to read. Also, this collection can lay claim to structure – at least regarding story length – and I was quite content knowing that each story would be tidily set between eleven and eighteen pages. It is something that other collections like The Granta Book of the African Short Story could emulate next time. But knowing, with most of the stories in Voice of America that the end is bearing down when a story still has a ways to go, and finding, as you read a hasty conclusion, that you are right does not quite make for sated reading.

Osondu opens the collection, fittingly, with ‘Waiting’, the story that earned him the 2009 Caine Prize, and the recognition that might have afforded Voice of America publication by Granta. ‘Waiting’ is a quiet story of war, told in a child’s matter of fact, yet understated voice.  He introduces us to the world of refugee camps, where children are named after their relief donation clothing, and where survival itself is a waiting – for food, for water, for adoption – and a struggle against others as desperate as you when it does arrive. This story showcases the harrowing effects of war on children with subtlety, and as it reads like a novel excerpt, it possesses potential to be expanded.

After this great start, Voice of America promptly goes into hiatus, with stories like ‘Bar Beach Show’, which while rich in historical resource, gets lost in jagged dialogue and a hurried climax. We experience this same brilliant set off followed by a settling into triviality with our ‘Our First American’ and ‘Jimmy Carter’s Eyes’ until finally ‘A Letter from Home’, which I would rank the best piece of the collection. ‘A Letter…’ is a monologue by a mother who tries to persuade her son, amid threats and exhortations, to return home to Nigeria, like his peers in the village, with the riches of America. It is no wonder that in 2006 it was said to be among the top ten most popular stories on the internet. And the only thing I might have enjoyed as well as this piece, would be the son’s own reply to his mother.

There are other brilliant stories too: ‘Welcome to America’ is about that time when one is newly arrived in a country, like the new kid in school  before he begins to know which cafeteria seats are taken even when they are vacant, and which cliques to avoid if he isn’t after instant initiation into the ‘loser’ club. It is a story that every immigrant will identify with. ‘The Men They Married’, in four short parts, explores the desperation and resignation of Nigerian women who realise that being a wife in America isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. ‘Miracle Baby’ –  about a woman’s desire for a child, driven by her mother in-law’s expectations – explores in hilarious detail Osondu’s disdain for religiosity as is obtainable in Nigeria. Osondu’s baby market scene is brilliant: “Are you married to a white man? Don’t worry, we have many half-castes among us here who can give you a very yellow baby… or is it the money that you are worried about? We accept instalment payment.”

The weakest story of the lot is ‘Stars in My Mother’s Eyes, Stripes on My Back’. I’ll summarise: A normally frugal father (with a proclivity for domestic violence) takes his son to a departmental store, he tells the boy he can have whatever catches his eye, and gets embarrassingly talkative when the substantial bill comes up at the till. Luckily, the woman behind him on the queue is gracious enough to come to his rescue, vouching for him as she picks up the tab, “I know you’ll do it for someone else”. Father then pats son on the back for this imagined victory as they saunter home with the freebies [End]. Is this story about subtle trickery? Was this supermarket run the manhood-test for the son as earlier proposed in the story? Perhaps Osondu himself understands this story, but he doesn’t do a great job of telling it.

The strength of this collection is in the range of the themes that are harnessed from the immigrant experience. ‘Janjaweed Wife’, ‘Jimmy Carter’s Eyes’ and ‘Waiting’ are a few stories different in setting and subject but which help break the monotony of shuttling between the two predominant settings.

Voice of America is a marriage of the Nigerian and American cultures and climes, and the stranglehold in which this tug of war between old ties and the new vistas hold those caught within their bounds. Osondu’s collection is funny and perceptive, yet it could have offered more than it does with greater dedication to structure and idea.

Nonetheless, this collection is a reminder of the reasons why the short story remains my favourite form of literature – brevity, impact, and the knowing that one can be transported to a myriad of places and situations, in the time it takes to go through one novel. And Osondu achieves these admirably.

Author Q&A Series: Chika Unigwe

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Chika Unigwe is the author of On Black Sisters’ Street, which has enjoyed wide acclaim since its release in 2009. She won the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition for her short story “Borrowed Smile”, and a Commonwealth Short Story Award for “Weathered Smiles”. Chika lives with her husband and four children in Belgium. She talks about nostalgia for youth, her chocolate-bar dilemma and Alastair Campbell’s endorsement.

Which of your major characters would you like to be trapped on a desert island with?

Probably Ama from On Black Sisters’ Street. She seems like the most resourceful, the most fun but I’d probably have to watch out for her acerbic tongue.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

A poem about children playing.

Where/when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

I’ve had a few fortunate run-ins with people whose works I really admire telling me they enjoyed my work. When Alastair Campbell tweeted that my novel was his best book of the summer, I was well chuffed.

What one book by another author do you wish you’d written?

Lots. I go through book-envy a lot.

Name one author that you consider overrated.

Hmmmm…can’t think of one at the moment. There probably are a few of those.

Achebe or Soyinka?

They fulfill different reading needs in me. It’s like asking me “Mars bar or Bounty?” I couldn’t choose.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?

Easy! Win the Nobel. That’d be getting both prestige and wealth.

Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?

Can’t I have both?? Maybe sustained career of good books. I could not imagine doing anything else but write so if I were to write the one book and retire I’d die of boredom.

Best perk of being a writer?

Having a legitimate reason for getting out of doing the ironing.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Tired eyes.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

I have been very lucky with On Black Sisters’ Street. Got loads of good high profile reviews. Worst? a four liner in the Wall Street Journal, but I was in good company.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

Nothing. I’m enjoying all the discoveries I am making.

How much would you say the characters in your books are based on real people?

I am sure there are people like the ones I write about, but I do not base them on any one person I know.

What book are you ashamed to admit that you haven’t read?

None. I never apologize for two things: my taste in books and my taste in films.

What is your guilty reading?

Women’s magazines with lots of gossip, outlandish stories and crosswords that make me feel intelligent.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Writing that first sentence.

And the most pleasurable?

Writing that last sentence.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Language.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

My youth (but only on some days).

What’s next?

I have a novel out in June 2012 – Nightdancer, and I am just finishing another one.

Read my review of  OBSS, and visit her website for more on her writing.

Read others in the Author Q&A series

Theatre Review: “Speechless”

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In what should have been the already anticipated climax – we’d after all waited all of 90 minutes for this – June and Jennifer Gibbons, trapped in a haze of smoke, reported their own crime of arson. Instead, it caught us by surprise and left us uncertain for the few seconds before the curtain call

Staged by Shared Experiences at the Arcola Theatre, Speechless is adapted from Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 book The Silent Twins reviewed here. The book tells the poignant story of identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, who at about the age of four, became “elective mutes” – inseparable and refusing to speak to anyone but each other.

Their journey towards this outburst – and their eventual confinement in Broadmoor Hospital – is, in Speechless, told in painstakingly choreographed sequences. The play employs a small cast and minimal set design and costuming, and is replete instead with socio-political innuedo and criticism.

It begins with the twins’ school being frustrated with their refusal to speak, and convinced that this encouraged, if not warranted bullying. The twins are then transferred to a special needs school much to their mother’s disappointment. Their new teacher commences a student led programme that records some level of success – several stuttered hellos from June to the initial chagrin of Jennifer.

Earlier on, the play opens with a monologue while the twins stalk each other around a bunk bed, the audience get a glimpse of the kind of love and devotion that can coagulate into hate and turn inwards on itself. Then Jennifer is immediately identified as the more dominant twin, who by some natural arrangement enforces the twins’ muteness and punishes her twin for any attempts to break away from what for ten years had become their norm.

But this stage adaptation by Polly Teale and Linda Brogan is more than an examination of the dark side of a bond that many may envy from the outside. It is about the human need to be acknowledged as an individual, to be seen as well as heard. And the twins enthralled as they are by a white society that would often flagellate them for being different find fulfilment for this all-important need in the privacy of their bedroom where they enact role-plays of ‘The Queen’s Silver Jubilee’ and ‘Princess Diana’s wedding’, write poetry and take tutorials on “the art of conversation.”

But even though June seeks a release from her twin that she herself hardly acknowledges herself, her infrequent attempts at freedom are often quelled by Jennifer’s chants of “You are Jennifer, you are me…”; their family, whose denial of their problem unwittingly keeps them leg shackled, and to whom they will never be June or Jennifer but “the twinnies”; and the British society of the 80s, with its antagonism towards immigrant blacks, that further forced them together. Were they co-joined, theycould not have been more irrevocably bound.

The intriguing thing about Speechless is its agelessness. Set thirty years ago, it still reflects today’s reality – the race riots in Brixton have been replaced by 2011’s London riots triggered by the police killing of Mark Duggan. The UK’s lip service to welcoming its former colonies has given way to widespread political hostility towards immigrants, economic crises and high unemployment of the Thatcher administration is mirrored in the present day’s recession, while the backdrop of popular engagement with the monarchy is replicated in the recent surge of anglophilia inspired by yet another royal wedding.

We never get to know why Jennifer starts out in confinement for violent behaviour, or why the twins are alternatively jejune (being bribed with jelly beans) and mature (sending manuscripts to publishers), or why being bullied by a white male transports the twins into episodes of erotic delight. Rather than tell us the whys or hows, Speechless reinforces the strength of the invisible ties that bind us not only to our tormentors (June to Jennifer, Gloria Gibbons to the RAF Base wives, and shabbily treated immigrants to their ‘Mother Country’) but also to our unique circumstances, and our need to wallow in them.

The overly synchronised and measured motions of June and Jennifer and the extensive role-play begin to wear thin after the first few times, while the introduction of Kennedy is salvaged only by his employment as a means to shoe-horn yet more significance into the play – juxtaposing the nuptials of the virginal, white, royal bride with the sullying of under aged, drunken, somewhat under-privileged black girls.

The play appears to have missed its cue to wrap up or to move on – probably in attempts to end it on better note than sexual exploitation or insulate the audience from the subsequent sorrows that culminate in the death of one of the twins. Nevertheless, this performance by Speechless’ cast of five, especially the twins, played by Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran, is nothing if not compelling.

Speechless will be showing at the Arcola Theatre until November 19

NBC Bans D’banj’s ‘Oliver Twist’

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Mohits yesterday (1 September) received news that D’banj’s new hit single, “Oliver Twist” has been banned by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission for its “lewd lyrics”. This happened two days after a succesful London concert by the record label, which took place on August 29 at the HMV Apollo Hammersmith, and featured Kanye West, on whose record label D’banj and Don Jazzy are now signed.

Don Jazzy claims to have himself heard the news via twitter; tweeting his bewilderment at the development: “LEWD LYRICS??? Na this our 10 10 kobo A 4 Apple B for Ball lyrics dem take big grammar ban sha.”

Reports say that communique have been issued by NBC to all Nigerian broadcasting outfits to desist from playing the track forthwith. And predictions are rife about the ruckus this move will create – something, perhaps, akin to reactions to the ban of Femi Kuti’s “Beng Beng Beng” some years ago.

Expectedly, the last has not been heard of the hit song which is presently making club rounds in Nigeria and Western diaspora communities. 

Don Jazzy expresses this widely shared sentiment: “The truth is that the person that banned this song will hear it until he is sick of it. He will hear it at almost every party he goes. he will hear it from the cars that will drive past him. he will hum the melody in his sleep. He’ll probably record his own version of the Oliver video sef. He’s doing his job so let’s allow him exercise his power. May God bless him and his hustle. No long thing.”

Little has been heard from D’banj concerning this.

Flirting with the dark

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On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe

Pp 296

Published by Vintage (2010)

Paperback £7.99

If there is one adjective to describe Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street, it would be ‘coquettish’. The book flirts around the dark subject of human trafficking and prostitution, and yet manages to remain remarkably decorous.

The lives of four young African girls trafficked to Belgium for prostitution are interminably entwined in this novel that examines the situations and ambitions that lead them to the booths on the Vingerlingstraat where they attempt to make the most of the “trump card that God had wedged between their legs”.

On Black Sisters’ Street is a peculiar book, misleading in its honesty; therefore, one never quite appreciates the subtle significance of events that begin the book until a second read. And it is not that Unigwe has not given her readers a reason to: She hints early on at the death of her main character but her cavalier mention of it, belies the fact.

All that Sisi, Efe, Ama and Joyce have in common is their African origin, and the man, Dele who is the point that connects them. All four bear their different pasts stoically until the need for communal ties in the desperate situation that they have resignedly convinced themselves to be “the good life” forces them out of the pact of silence they have sworn with their past.

Sisi is a university graduate, who haunted by failure- “an ineluctable destiny that she had contracted from her parents”- sought the fortune that had been prophesied at her birth. Efe, driven under by her mother’s death, her father’s alcohol addiction and an unwanted pregnancy thinks tacit agreement to Dele’s proposition is the only way back to life. Ama is angry at the world, bearing wounds sustained from childhood rape experiences; and employing a calculated cruelty as her shield. Joyce is the ungrateful survivor of a war that wipes out her family, resigned to whatever else life hurls her way.

The house on the Zwartezusterstraat – filled with the noise of Ama’s quarrelsome voice, Efe’s highlife music and Joyce’s relentless swish swish – is claustrophobic; made stuffy with the stench of mildewed dreams. Readers are, like the girls, hardly let out of the narrow door with the taped-over cat flap unless it is to return down memory lane, to visit with men in dingy hotel rooms and bar room toilets; or to a chance encounter with ill-advised love.

Flitting deftly between the present and the past, On Black Sister’s Street reads like a collection of tales, alighting briefly on subjects such as war, poverty, child abuse and cultural isolation while it tells of the entrapment, sullied self-worth, and the danger of un-extinguished hope borne by tens of thousands of African (especially Nigerian) prostitutes in Europe held at the mercy of pimps and public systems that care only for their own.

This novel is one of the recent myriad attempts by African authors to tell their own stories in a world made one-dimensional by the limits of the media in the developing world. It is not entirely devoid of hope either as the fate of its four protagonists affirms the time worn philosophy that there is light at the end of every dark tunnel.

First published in Vulture Magazine, May 2011