In the introduction to “The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallunt”, she wrote:
“There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I am doing it now, because I may never have another occasion. Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.”
All from Adda—two of them shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2019, the third published on the site last year—the stories I recommend this week deserve to be read just how Mavis Gallant advised: Read one. Shut the tab. Read something else. Come back later.
I hope you enjoy them.
Beautiful, funny, heartbreaking—those are the best descriptions for this ‘how-to’ story that was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2019; it was recently published on Adda.
This story is a story and a guide, and here and there, there are instructions, or say, anecdotes—all for the woman who wants to become an African President’s wife. From being a secretary who is forty years younger than the President, she becomes the First Lady. Though before her, there was a wife, and she was also married. Things happened. Her husband was given “a posting faraway” by the President and she never heard from him again; the President’s wife was sick, so she died. Soon, she gets pregnant, and we are taken through a series of things that she, secretary-turned-African-President’s-wife, becomes. She has a wedding that made headlines all over the country; she asks the President, in the subtle way a woman asks a thing, for her own house without asking (“You’ll pout and tell him how hard it is to live with his first wife’s lingering memory haunting the house.”); she goes from one country to another for shopping trips (“Tell him the wife of such a Big Man like him should be better dressed. Aren’t you a reflection of him and his largesse?”)
Erica’s short story, like every ‘how-to’ short story, seems very easy to pull off (Junot Diaz’s “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl”, Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer”, Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl”, and, though this isn’t a short story, Binyavanga Wainana’s satiric “How to Write About Africa”), but it only seems so. One of the reasons why is, in a ‘how-to’ story, there is a ‘you’, there is a series of instructions, or a guide, and most of the times, the writer is writing about a whole group of people, which makes it difficult to pull off because the character must be as dynamic as possible. If not careful, the writer could descend into the obscure and stupid. So, more than anything, this form requires mastery, which is why I haven’t read a book that uses this form all through, except of course, Elnathan John’s “Be(com)ing Nigerian: A Guide”. But, in fact, each chapter of Elnathan’s book reads like a short story.
Thankfully, in How to Marry an African President, Erica shows a level of mastery, especially in how she creates her character—flawed, wanting, human. And she deserves three thumbs up because she is writing about a whole continent, and, if not all the time, most times she is right: “If you want something, someone will be immediately dispatched to go and get it. And all you’ll have to do is immerse yourself in charity work, open a few orphanages, kiss a few babies and accompany the President to state events.”
However, what makes Erica’s story good isn’t just her accurate descriptions of what it means to be the wife of an African President, but her voice, and her use of language. While, as with the Caine Prize-winning “Fanta Blackurrant” and Efua Traore’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize-winning “True Happiness”, there is no bending of language to fit the environment—it wouldn’t have worked, because there is no particular environment—it is clear that the narrator is an African, that the English here is from an African mouth. Here: “Your reception will be a who’s who of powerful people in African politics. Paparazzi will describe your wedding as outrageous and over the top. You have arrived.” If you are Yoruba, you know that ‘a who’s who’ sounds like a translation of some Yoruba phrase: Eyan jankan jankan—and ‘You have arrived’.
Although some of her descriptions didn’t do it for me (“His skin will be pink and thin, translucent like a lizard.”), she writes very punchy sentences: “He will dispense favours like tokens at an arcade.”; “Jealous journalists will give you a nickname, something alliterative.” (note that ‘jealous journalists’ is alliterative, which is a play that implies that even the journalists desire, in the depth of their insides, this life she now has); “your fear stuck like a lump of mealie-meal in your throat.”
In this story, there is truth, and this truth is coming from a mouth that knows how to tell it well, and if anything matters, that is all that does.
It opens with one of the catchiest short story sentences I’ve come across in my reading life (Nneka Arimah’s “When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters”, from “Light”, being on top of that list):
“The man in the back seat of the powder blue Toyota RAV4 is not Dumeje Nwokeocha, the groom.
But you are the bride.”
Immediately, we are launched into a story that promises to be fun. And, coincidentally, we begin to experience what the world does to daughters, as we meet a lady whose name is Somadina, Adina for short. But even her name isn’t always her name, sometimes it is “baby, or Din Din, or the black girl, or the quiet girl, or her, or the chubby one, or bitch, depending on the mouth, or the mood.” The fact that we learn, very early into the story, that her name can change, ‘depending on the mouth, or the mood’ (of some other person, since it takes another person to call the name, which is almost always a man)—that fact is what this story builds upon. That a girl, lady, or woman must understand that whatever they are is not theirs to determine, but that society determines that for them.
However, “Today, your name is the bride, but the man in the powder blue Toyota RAV4 is not the groom.” In one sentence, the writer repeats the first two sentences of the story, probably to remind herself that this story is also about ‘the bride’ and not just about what names the society places on a woman’s head. This groom has a burn mark and scars on his arms, and one of his legs is longer than the other; unlike Dumeje who is supposed to be the groom, the original groom, whose “forehead is not just right. It is spectacularly long, or tall. It is a walking, breathing man with distinct needs and inclinations” (though I don’t get the description of the forehead as “a walking, breathing man…”, and there’s a good deal of descriptions in this story that I feel don’t work).
The thing is, while the new man is not Dumeje, he is also Dumeje. What the short story writer is driving at is, every man is not always what you thought him to be. “There is the man who is not Dumeje. His limbs are thinner and longer in this room. His lips are just as chapped as you remember them, or the man they once belonged to, or the other man”, she writes. Dumeje will always be ‘the other man’. When Adina tells her sister, “‘I don’t know him, Nono’”, she isn’t just talking about recognition; it is also a play on how a woman can never really know a man—they change.
She also makes this point earlier in the story when Dumeje, the Dumeje, asks Adina, “where do you think you’re going dressed like that?”—though the dress she is wearing is the same Herve Leger dress she wore when he met her. His comment then was, “This your dress go kill somebody, oh.”
However, she, Adina, would have that Dumeje instead of this man, but she can’t afford to stop the wedding now. One of the most brilliant dialogues, describing how parents, though they see it, too, mother’s especially—how they just won’t do what’s best for their daughters because of ‘embarrassment’.
“‘So what if the poor man’s skin is a little dull, eh?’ your mother cries, her face a crumpled note. ‘Will you now embarrass me and your father by calling off the festivities? Do you hate us this much?’
‘Ma, you don’t understand.’
‘Oh, you think I don’t see it too,’ she whispers, and her breath falls on your chest. ‘I see it all, Nne. Today, it is the color of his wrists. Tomorrow, it will be the demands he makes of you, each one harder than the next, till you are left with only those parts of you that serve his needs.’”
If there’s anything that makes this story worth the read, it is not how Adorah tries to make a joke every chance she gets in this very serious story, or her descriptions of falling saw dust as snow, or how she reminds us over and over and over and over again that “Today, your name is the bride, but the man in the powder blue Toyota RAV4 is not the groom”—what makes this story important is the theme it has taken up, and how it deals with that theme.
Opening with a description on “the two ways to enter Ajegunle”, Beautiful is a gorgeous story about the life of an Ajegunle-raised footballer, Buzuzu—from the time he scored the goal that was so ‘beautiful’ it could only be compared to the scorpion kick by Rene Higuita, through all the stories of the teams he played for, trying to get to a team in Europe to play for the Big League, and it follows him even after, like most Nigerian players, he returned back home to Ajegunle with “the single most important thing that has ever happened to me”.
In this short story, the prose is beautiful, elegant in fact, but there were parts of this story where I was thinking the narrator is a white person, writing for a white audience (“Here you measure distance in bus stops, not in minutes or hours, because a ten-minute bus ride could end up taking over an hour.”), as he spends the first six-hundred-and-thirty-nine words describing Ajegunle and life in Ajegunle—the girls selling gala and pure water, the traffic, the overcrowded bus. While I can relate to these descriptions, I felt some of them dragged reality a little bit (“Our bus is hardly moving in the deafening, chock-a-block traffic that has something almost apocalyptic about it.” Italics mine). But then again, the narrator is a journalist who works for Vanguard newspaper, who decided to become a sports journalist after seeing the ‘beautiful’ goal by Buzuzu—how will a journalist tell a story?
The success of Beautiful is in how it spans almost the lifetime of a character, how it presents a whole community and its people, their dreams, troubles, and the pride that comes with having one of us there. Additionally, there is a way the narrator holds the reins of his own emotions; he holds them in a way that they don’t even seep through the spaces between his fingers—though I would have loved to feel what he is feeling that he doesn’t show.