Voice of America by EC Osondu
Granta Books (2010)
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.