By Obinna Udenwe
Title: Son of Man
Author: Amara Nicole Okolo
Length: 118 pages
Genre: Fiction, African Literature, Short Fiction
Publisher/Year: Parresia Publishers Ltd (2016)
Literature and indeed art, the world over, continues to grow robust through experimentation. African literature is not an exception. Many African writers have tried to tweak the novel or short story form to suit their creative ideas. Chinua Achebe succeeded in shaping the English language to read like spoken Igbo in his acclaimed debut, Things Fall Apart. Emmanuel Iduma succeeded in linking together the lives of characters in different stories in his short story collection, Farad, into one central whole. And recently, Igoni Barret attempted and succeeded in experimenting with the novel form in Black Ass where his character Furo was made to metamorphose from black to white, overnight.
Amara Nicole Okolo’s Son of Man – a collection of six short stories – tries an experiment in the short story form by animating life-less objects such as a shoe, a machete, rosary, a ‘plan’ in someone’s head etc., and using them as characters to tell her stories— a very ambitious attempt, but it is an experiment that isn’t fully realised.
Son of Man tells the story of six men against the backdrop of social, political, cultural and economic turmoil in Nigeria. In The Talking Shoes, Andrew will lose his wife while striving to get a job to be able to take care of his family. The woman’s patience runs out when all Andrew’s attempts seem to fail and he cannot ‘provide for her incessant lust for things he could not afford’. The Machete of Retribution follows the life of Ejiofor, an Igbo farmer whose only hope of escaping poverty is his son. He has saved up for his education but sickness comes knocking and the failures in Nigeria’s medical services poke sticks in Ejiofor’s hopes. In Lost Ones, a story as nostalgic as it is disturbing, Gabriel’s ‘plan’ of finding a new accommodation for his family so as to lift them from their current squalor of a neighbourhood lands him in jail and in there, he comes face to face with the evil that is the Nigerian security system.
But no story in Son of Man is as rich as 500 Dreams and a Letter – in this story, Pa Odion fools his children when he leaves them a will that cuts out his last child, Esosa. But is there something else the others don’t know? Speak, We Are Listening tells of Kola, a journalist-turned-activist who struggles with exposing the ills of a military regime whilst battling with the disappearance of his beloved niece. And finally, in That Fine Madness, we follow the life of Achike – a young Nigerian Youth Corp member serving in a school in Jos where he falls in love with the wrong woman and there will be consequences.
In all, the six stories in Son of Man are carefully researched, with strong plots that stick to the mind. But in The Machete of Retribution, Ejiofor’s machete is wrongly used as a narrator. Ejiofor returns from the farm to find that his only son is sick. He DROPS the machete at home, and takes the son to the hospital where he is denied medical attention. By the time he is attended to the boy is dead. He returns home picks the machete and goes on rampage. But since the story is written in first-person point of view, the narrator (the Machete) could not have known what happened at the hospital (since it was dropped at home earlier). It should not have been able to narrate how Ejiofor’s son was denied medical services and the circumstances surrounding it. The author could have made the farmer go to the hospital with the narrator or the narrator should have narrated the story as a report – as if it heard from a second person what transpired at the hospital.
In Lost Ones, the plan in Gabriel’s head tells the story but narrates as if the author is writing in third person. 500 Dreams & A Letter is the only story in the collection where a human narrator is used, yet even this isn’t well realised – Pa Odion, a billionaire widower tells the story in first person point of view, but he dies somewhere in the middle of the story and the author switches to third person to finish the story. The character, Pa Odion should not have been used to narrate the story in the first place and if the author wanted to use him, before the character died, Pa Odion probably could have given his daughter, Esosa a letter and the reader could have followed the concluding part of the story through Pa Odion’s voice. Alternatively, the ‘letter’, the ‘will’ or the ‘framed portrait’ could have narrated the entire story. If the author had chosen this path, the ‘inanimate narrator’ would have detailed to Esosa the things Pa Odion had willed to his other children, informed her that she would be getting nothing, but point her towards the framed portrait where she would find her own inheritance.
In Speak, We Are Listening, the narrator is a ‘written story’, an article by a journalist. This Story tells of how Kola loses his job for failing to drop ‘it’ (the story) which he had written against the military government. It follows Kola’s life as he hooks up with some activists who eventually write expository articles against the government. It reads,
“I am the story he wanted to publish. Each sentence simmered in bowls of wrath. The letters fiery, their message scalding. I was eager to be read, thirsty for attention. But as with every fateful story, I was rejected and put away because of my honesty, because I spoke the truth. . . .” Page 61.
But after this prelude, the work reads like it is following the life of Kola in third person. Amara Nicole Okolo also writes this particular story such that it spans a considerable length of time. While reading, we find things like Two Months Earlier, One Month Later, Present Day and Now – these help the reader keep track of the timeline but facilitates the story’s failure in meeting up with the essentialities of a traditional short story. While reading, one gets the feeling that Speak, We Are Listening is a novel cut short.
A similar thing happens in That Fine Madness, the ‘Rosary’ on Achike’s neck is the character narrating this beautifully poignant story, but the story drags on and on leaving out the narrator, perhaps in a bid to incorporate many themes in one story: that of mental illness, early marriage, cultural attachment and societal dysfunction. We find the story lacking energy. Moreover since the narrator is a Rosary, the author fails to get the reader to understand this character and why it’s important to the story. It is important to note that, with the exception of the ‘Shoe’ in The Talking Shoe, all other characters that narrated a story in Son of Man failed to actualise the objective of the short story form.
What Son of Man has given us however are didactic stories. Stories that expose the ills in the society and open our eyes to the everyday happenings in the lives of people, and make us realise that we are not alone in our afflictions. Son of Man emboldens African writers to dare to ‘experiment’ with the short story or novel form (case in point: inanimate objects could play pivotal roles in story characterisation).
Perhaps the author tried to experiment – consciously or unconsciously, with the genre of speculative fiction, sadly, it wasn’t a successful experiment.
Obinna Udenwe is the author of ‘Satans & Shaitans’ and ‘Holy Sex’.