Wet Hair by Eghosa Imasuen

“That is not dead, which can eternal lie.
Yet with strange eons, even death may die”
HP Lovecraft.


Why do you turn away from me, Papa?

Why do you ignore me? This is not like before. This is not my melancholia, not more evidence of my unhappiness.

Listen to me, Papa. Let me tell you what happened.

I ran through the bush. I ran till I felt my heart burst inside my chest. And I ran some more. My torn wrapper felt wet beneath the white shirt. Branches – canes and flogging sticks not yet plucked from the mangrove saplings – left bright wheals on my face and my arms, slapping me as I ran away from him. My blood formed a dark stain that spread from between my legs, through the wrapper and unto the outside of the shirt. This shirt, a gift from my new husband. My prince, Rafayel. The one you chose for me, Papa.

Tonye!

Pietro called after me as he pursued me through the soggy footholds of our swamps. He told me to stop; that he meant no harm; that he loved me and that everything would be alright.

Why had I been so foolish? When Pietro met me at the farm, why had I followed him? Why had I believed Rafayel had sent for me? Why had I believed anything Pietro said? When Pietro smiled at me with his brown broken teeth dancing around his tongue, like restless bats in the afternoon, why did I not remember the last time, the many times, I had seen him smile that smile? That smile of teeth stained brown by the smoke from the death-leaf that Rafayel told me his people burn and inhale. That smile that always left my stomach feeling like the devil had defecated in it.

Tonye!

Run, princess, run. He will not catch you. You are of the Ijaw. You are the daughter of warriors. 

Pietro attacked me. I followed him away from the path to where he said my Rafayel waited for me. Where he said his white hairy smelly brothers needed more of my medicine for the green fever that ate away at their faces; the green fever that left solid masses in their sides.

And I believed him. And he raped me.

Ah, but I fought him. I bit. I scratched. And then I ran. The village was not far. My father’s hamlet was not far. It was early evening yet, the full moon still fighting from behind pregnant clouds for supremacy with the red, dimming sun. I would meet the men gathered around the Amananaowei’s hut; your house, Papa, huddled and arguing loudly in the inner glow of gin-filled happiness about how to share the latest trinkets from the strangers from across the sea. Trinkets and shiny things exchanged for slaves from deeper in the bush; exchanged for nuts from the father of all trees, the palm. Yes, I would make it home. I would escape the snapping branches and the loud curses from this pale animal behind me. I would tell you what had happened. I would say what this friend of your friend had done to your daughter. I would smile when you swung your cutlass and lopped his head off. There was just the river to cross. Just the stream by whose bank my canoe lay.

But my canoe was not at the spot I had left it. I screamed. For help, for someone, for you, Papa, for Rafayel, for my brother, Dienye. But the only ones who answered back were frogs and owls and bush-babies. Pietro caught me halfway across the creek.

*

Why the screaming, Papa? Why do the women wail? I have not even told of everything? Turn away from the river and look at me, Papa.

I remember Pietro’s hands on my head pushing me into the water, deeper and deeper. I begged him. I shouted, “Please, don’t do this.” I remembered to say these words in the little I knew of his language, Portuguese. I held my breath. I tasted the mud of the creeks.

My wrapper loosened, my breasts now brushing against the white shiny shirt Rafayel gave me as a gift. The shirt now brown with water stained by the stilted roots of the mangrove. Fight him. Pull him in too. But why am I so weak.

“Please die,” he said. Through quivering lips the urgent pleading for me to depart this life. Through the miasma of dancing images – the water above my eyes, the lilies, my hair, strands stretched out by the hot comb and carried in eddies, and the mud-speckled waves of my floating white shirt – I saw his eyes. I thought I saw them smile.

*

Can you not hear me? What is this you drag out of the water? Another suicide? Is that why the women cry? Is this why you tear at your clothes, Papa? Where is Rafayel, Papa?

Pietro’s teeth were the last things I remember. And then the knives. A thousand blades of hot steel slammed into the back of my head as the water entered me and then I sank. Falling away from Pietro’s Hands, falling away from the floating roots of the hyacinth and the lilies. Then nothing.

*

I sank in darkness, seeing nothing, hearing only the rush of whispers as the water beat against the river bank, transmitted to me in waves.

Shafts of straight silver. The moon had risen. Like stripes from a horsewhip, they contorted me, arching my back, piercing pain and glorious pleasure. And I rose, not looking down, hypnotized in wonder by the moon-play on the underside of the river’s surface.

I heard voices? Indistinct, Papa, but who could mistake your voice? I came to you. I saw you with the men gathered not around your hut but at the river bank. I saw my canoe at your feet. I saw the question in your eyes. And I heard you call, I heard you all call.

“Tonye! Tonye . . .”

I heard you call, Papa. Why do you not hear me? The body you and Dienye pull out of the water distracts you. Why does Dienye cry? Who is the bloated, naked person wearing the stained-brown cloth of the foreigners?

Papa, I notice something new. Are you listening, Papa? I can swim without moving. I am waist-high in the water. My arms, slick like the oil from palm nuts, do not do any work, yet I swim. Below the surface I see nothing but the reflection of my naked breasts, and my hair, damp and strangely straight like that of the woman whose image hangs on the wall of the big room in Rafayel’s iron war-canoe. It is as though I end where the water begins.

Rafayel comes. Rafayel, thank the gods you are safe! Papa does not hear me. I come to tell you of your captain, your Pietro; of what he has stolen from me. My honour, Rafayel, my honour. Look, Rafayel, Pietro is behind you. See how he tries to hide his right hand. I choked on the chunk of flesh I bit off him.

Rafayel!

Rafayel!!

Rafayel!!!

Ah, Pietro turns. He hears me. The rapist hears me. See how the hairs on the back of his sun-burned, red neck stand like bristles on a porcupine. Oh, you are distracted too, Rafayel. By the body my people pull out of the water? Another drowning? Those have become common because of the fire-water you visitors sell. Turn the body over quickly and be done with your fascination with death. Turn the corpse over and I will give you good reason for a killing; Pietro’s death. Pietro who smiled at my pain. Pietro who thinks he has killed –

*

Is this me? Still wearing the foreigner’s shirt and cradled in the roots of the mangrove surrounded by my brother; my father, the Amananaowei; and my lover, the father of my unborn child, Rafayel? Did I die by Pietro’s hand; did I drown in the deep?

I see my white husband, tears in his eyes; I see him push my father and brother away. I see Rafayel take my face in his hands. Those hands. I see him breath into my lips, but I cannot feel him from here in the water. I rush at them all, stopping when I notice I have passed them already, drifted through them, no substance. No, it cannot be.

I stop and I see my father’s eyes. I hear what my father says, what my brother interprets for the Portuguese to understand. “It is a curse. A dark omen that one so young would take her own life. But she had always been sad, not content with what her people could give.”

That is not true. That is not true.

I see my father look at the white foreign dogs with new eyes, trusting eyes. I see that he has new sons already, to replace the daughter he has just lost. The daughter he lost when he handed me as a gift to the leader of the visitors from across the sea. There will be no Igbadai for me, no inquiry into the cause of this tragedy. I am lost.

*

Time passes.

I drift with it. What is time to my kind but the now, the present? My kind. I am joined by others. Floating spirits, some green-eyed, blazing little pots of fire behind half-closed eyelids, seductresses; others pale, tall giantesses with golden hair and golden-scaled fish tails below the waist; and the dark and lithe phantoms like me and with straightened hair like mine. They tell me stories, these women, these spectres, these undead. They tell me of the names the living call us, us wronged women. They tell me of the Rusalka of the cold north; the fish-women of Rafayel’s land; the Yemoja, goddesses of the slaves that my people sell; the Jengu from across the mountains to the east, progeny of Mojele and Moto. My sisters, my Onwuamapu, tell me of what we are meant to do. Stories of young lost men drawn into our embrace and our kisses. Stories of cold revenge and liquid fulfilment under moonlit nights. I do not want this existence so I drift, forever.

Weeks, years, decades, an age I spend on the shoreline singing my song. And I am worshipped with sacrifices and masqueraded festivals in the weeks before the full moon. Sacrifices given before the time when the silver shafts fill my veins with glorious light; when the children, receptive all, tell tales of me and my sisters. When the sensitive claim that they hear my songs. I see my people farm on dark putrid brown loam. I see the men fish. I see some of the new breed, offspring of Rafayel and his ilk. Like my unborn child would have been.

My people stand on the riverbank, a wonder-filled mixture of skin hues. Strange ashen men in white gowns, with bars of wood crossed topsy-turvy, chant inanities in my water; they bathe my people in short episodes, still speaking in their strange dead tongue. My people adopt a corruption of this high tongue. And soon I am given a new name. Mammy-Water. 

They start to forget me.

Strange new iron canoes inhabit my waters, with round sharp circular paddles churning up the surf, leaving in their wake a spray I find pleasant. I dance with these new ones. New bronze rods pierce my depths, shiny but soon scarred with barnacles from my teeth. They leak dark oil that stains my water. Kills the fish; drives away most of my sisters. But I do not care; I live only for the moonlight and I sit on the mangrove roots watching my people change. They do not farm anymore. I see no war canoes with cargo of captured slaves for the pale Potokri. I see no dark loam, only sterile white sand. I sing my songs alone. My people forget me. They forget that I am the river who feeds them. I start to dwindle into shadow, the full moon weaker and weaker in its power to revivify me. My songs dim, becoming wind blown strings dismissively interpreted by the new priests and shamans as the whistling of sussurating pines. My sisters pass me by, urging that I become what I am meant to be; but they know not to take from those I protect. I keep my promise: there shall be no vengeance for his girl. Until –

*

Rafayel, I see him alone, breathing fire and smoke from a thin reed that he kisses. How long has it been? Under the full moon he is still dark, still pale, still handsome, and still horrid. I am drawn to him. He sits alone on top of one of the platforms that the new stilts suspend, forlorn, his foot treading the water. I ignore the loud drums and strings and horns I hear from elsewhere, from where the rest of his people rejoice in revelry. I rise up with the water and he sees me.

No not Rafayel, he says, when I call his name.

No, not Rafayel. Not Pietro either. This one is paler, thicker, and with golden, almost white, hair. His eyes fascinate me, grey like the northern tribe of sisters, the Rusalka. Grey and sad. He speaks like a frog and lacks the syrupy skill of Rafayel’s tongue.

“What are you?” he asks. “What do you want?”

“You,” I say. I sing my song.

He is enthralled and reaches out to me, pulling me out of the water. His touch gives substance to my incorporeal nightmare, my fingertips form in contact with his, an effect like the moon-rise. My long wavy hair, my breasts, my heat. He wants me, this lovelorn white boy; homesick for one he calls Inga.

And I kiss him. Desire is a fever in me. I do not want him dead. No, my sisters. No soul for a soul. I want some of his heat, his essence that I see pulsing within him. He gasps and I feel it leeching into me. I laugh, trashing his face with my hair. I cannot stop, my eyes closed, my long hair caressing his shoulders as I slip down with him unto the cold metal floor.

I hear the voices.

“Hey, Köln. Where’s Dirk?”

“Not at your side? Then probably with one of the local girls in a private room on the platform.”

“Private room? That one. He is too shy. Says he’s got a lovely thing in Amsterdam.”

“Then check by the pressure pumps. The edge, where he hangs out with a ciggy, now and then.”

I turn to go but he grasps my hand. I look at him now. He is grey, now. His lips a shadow of white still wet with my water. “Who are you?” he asks.

Tell them Mammy-Water. Tell them Yemoja. Tell them LaSiren.

I look back as I slip into the water, dissolving once more into liquid death. I see his brothers rush to him, this Dirk. I see him breathe his last. And I smile. ♥

*Eghosa Imasuen was born on 19 May 1976, and grew up in Warri. He is a medical doctor, bank executive, husband of Eniye Osawe-Imasuen and father of twin boys. Fine Boys is available for purchase from the iBookstoreKindle USKindle UK (Nigerians can purchase here)Smashwords, Kachifo (via orders@kachifo.com and 08077364217, or visit our store at 253 Herbert Macaulay Way, Alagomeji, Yaba) and all major bookstores.

Stanley Azuakola: the NLNG Prize Can Be So Much Bigger and Better

But if I had the opportunity to ask the judges one question, it would be this: How on earth did Teju Cole’s Open City and Eghosa Imasuen’s Fine Boys fail to make that initial ten-man shortlist? How?

“Petty cash.”

That was how the critic Molara Wood, then an editor at the defunct newspaper 234Next, described the then $50,000 prize money, which was supposed to, but was not awarded to any winner of the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2009. Granted, she was speaking about the value of the prize to the company awarding it and not its value to a prospective winner. Since Ms. Wood wrote that article criticising what many in the literary community perceived as shabby treatment of writers during its 2009 edition, the prize has doubled in value, promising a payout of $100,000 to winners.

Even more prestigious awards like the Man Booker Prize ($50,000) or the American National Book Awards ($10,000) are not worth that much. At $100,000 (sixteen million naira), the NLNG prize money makes it the 22nd biggest literary prize in the world and the biggest in Africa. In the opinion of this writer this is welcome; and it makes no difference whether the prize is the “NLNG’s hush money.” The value of the prize is the least of its problems.

The NLNG award is a high value award, which is why it is surprising that save for a few sponsored events and pieces, not much discussion, criticism or scrutiny of it goes on. Conversations about the award – where they exist – seem contrived and are never sustained.

Congratulations to Chika Unigwe, the winner of the 2012 edition of the award for her book, On Black Sisters Street. I have read it and it is a very good book. However, it is the award itself, and not Unigwe or her book, which is the subject here. This piece raises questions which are not meant to – nor can they – take away from Unigwe’s sweet victory.

214 books were submitted for consideration this year. I’ve read four out of the ten shortlisted and seen reviews for most of the others. I particularly loved Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s witty and readable book, I Do Not Come To You By Chance, which the judges didn’t think was good enough to make the final three.

But if I had the opportunity to ask the judges one question, it would be this: How on earth did Teju Cole’sOpen City and Eghosa Imasuen’s Fine Boys fail to make that initial ten-man shortlist? How?

Tastes are different, and any literary award worth its salt would often generate controversy over which books made the cut and which didn’t. But it’s hard to look objectively at the prose fiction landscape in the past four years and not rate those two among the top ten.

Cole’s book was one of the most celebrated books in the world in 2011. You read that right – in the whole world. The Economist, Time, Slate, Ikhide Ikheloa, everyone was falling over themselves to pen flattering reviews of the book. Imasuen’s book, locally published by Farafina, is the quintessential Nigerian novel. Bold, witty and shorn of pretences, it was, in my opinion,the best locally published novel in the last four years.

One possible reason the two books were no-shows on the judges’ shortlist could be that their publishers did not send in copies for consideration. In that case, rules are rules and the rule currently states that books must be sent in. The NLNG Prize Board might however do well to borrow a leaf from the American National Book Awards, which, I think, is an excellent award to model after.

One of the rules of that award states that: “The chairpersons of each judging panel may ‘call in’ titles through the [National Book Award] Foundation office that have not been submitted by publishers. The Foundation then asks publishers to submit these titles for consideration, assuming they meet eligibility requirements. Publishers may submit at their own discretion.” In other words, the judges who must be actively aware of the goings-on in the literary scene can decide to call in a book which they believe merits consideration but which wasn’t sent by the publishers. This makes sense, especially since the ultimate aim is to ensure that the best books in the period under consideration are placed in the pot.

Even as I write this, I know that there is little or no chance the suggestion in the last paragraph would be taken. Not because the organisers are averse to accepting suggestions, but if truth be told, how many of the judges really read contemporary fiction? The organisers of the award like to boast that “all the judges appointed are professors of proven integrity and academic excellence.” In that boast lies one of the main challenges of the award. These professor judges are usually so ensconced in their ivory towers that they seldom know what’s happening in the literary world outside their universities’ recommended books. They would not even know which books to call in if they had the chance. It would be a shock to find any of the judges who’d read more than one of the shortlisted books prior to being announced as a judge.

It is time for the board to dice things up a bit. When I looked at the composition of the judges, I could see, but not accept, why Imasuen’s Fine Boys did not make the cut. The judges – conservative purveyors of orthodoxy that they are – would loathe recognising Imasuen who uses words like mumu, oyibo, yansh, play-play in his work and doesn’t bother to italicise or explain them.

I do not seek to cast doubts on the integrity of those well read gentlemen and ladies but reality calls, let’s face it. What time do they even have to read these books? One of last year’s judges wrote in her judging report that they were given only one month to read 43 books and prune to 20, and another two weeks to prune to the final three. Among the judges that year was a university vice chancellor whose own report was so sketchy that any discerning mind would know he couldn’t possibly have done a thorough job. Of course the blame for the short reading time isn’t the judges’ but that of the organisers.

Whether my reservations about the judges are unfounded or not, there’s still a good case for the judging panel to be a mixed blend. Academia alone doesn’t cut it. The Booker Prize, for instance, added an actor last year to its panel (he wasn’t just some shallow actor; he studied literature.) Other prizes have publishers, writers (who aren’t necessarily professors), and other important subgroups in their panels.

Something else worth pondering for the organisers is the rotation policy among the four genres of prose fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature. This year the award was for prose fiction; the next time that’s going to be the case would be the year of the next US presidential elections. The NLNG says the policy gives authors in any particular genre “up to four years to prepare.” In reality, the organisers are just afraid that if they start handing out yearly awards for the four genres, there might not be a consistent pool of strong books to choose from every year since Nigerian authors don’t publish that many good books. But the other side of the argument is what happens to authors who release more than one book in four years? Presently they’re expected to submit just one. Are we saying an author cannot release two or more award winning books in four years? J K Rowlings did it with her Harry Potter series; and so did Hillary Mantel, winner of the Booker prize in 2009 (Wolf Hall) and 2012 (Bring up the bodies.)

There are many more questions I’ll love to raise. Questions like: Why does the NLNG even award a literary prize for drama? Is it sensible to give awards to plays which have not yet been performed or produced in the theatre? And wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to split the $100,000 prize money, in order to also offer financial rewards to the two runner-ups? I would leave the details of these for some other time.

The NLNG Literary Prize has successfully gone through another season without the kind of outrage which followed its 2009 edition. It’s gradually stabilising as a worthy literary prize. But we know it could be so much better. ♥

This article was published with permission from YNaija.com

Editor’s Notes

Farafina Books submitted Fine Boys as an entry for the 2012 NLNG Prize and received acknowledgement from the organisers, our entry was received. Fine Boys received glowing reviews from home and abroad.

‘In Fine Boys, Imasuen writes fearlessly and beautifully of
friendship, love, loss, and betrayal.  It is thought-provoking,
perfectly paced, uniformly delightful, compassionate, full of 
humour but also heart-breaking. Eghosa Imasuen has remarkable 
gifts.’
—Chika Unigwe,
2012 NLNG Prize Winner.

 

‘Fine Boys is the first African novel I know that takes us deep into
the world of the children of IMF:  those post-Berlin wall Africans,
like myself, who came of age in the days of The Conditionalities,
those imposed tools and policies that made our countries feral;
the days that turned good people into beasts, the days that
witnessed the great implosion and scattering of the middle classes
of a whole continent. Fine Boys takes us deep into the lives of the
notorious gangs that took over universities all over Nigeria in the
1990s and early this century. We saw our universities collapse,
and we struggled to educate ourselves through very harsh times.
It is a beautifully written novel, heartfelt, deeply knowledgeable,
funny, a love story, a tragedy; an important book, a book of our
times; a book for all Africans everywhere.’
—Binyavanga Wainaina,
Author of One Day I Will Write about This Place.

 

We were surprised and very disappointed not to have made the shortlist. We invite readers to read Fine Boys and judge for themselves. Fine Boys is available for purchase from us (orders@kachifo.com, visit our store at 253 Herbert Macaulay Way, Alagomeji, Yaba, or call us on 08077364217. ) and all major bookstores.

Achebe’s Memoir: There Were Lots of Reviews

UK edition cover

by Amatesiro Dore

“I met Chinua Achebe for the first time when I was in high school, but I knew him through his works long before that. “Uncle,” as my siblings and I were told to call him, came to our house in Washington, D.C., for a tea time reception my mother had organized. She had just co-written a biography of him for children, inspired in part by my lament that there were few books about the lives of famous Africans.”  Uzodinma Iweala.

My mother wrote nothing on Achebe, she hasn’t read Things Fall Apart, but she paid for my copy. I was reading the Financial Times and I saw a 1968 picture of Biafran soldiers standing on a tugboat. I gazed and noticed it was a portrait of an armed soldier sitting on a concrete platform, he wore no uniform and his face was very easily identifiable. In the background, men in mufti, about thirty of them, posed on two tugboats on the river, only two guns were visible. I took away the memory of that picture from William Wallis’s review of Chinua Achebe’s memoir in the FT. I wondered if the armed and unnamed soldier died during that conflict or if he survived the war, and if his heirs were alive.

In Nigeria, it has become an intellectual fad to write a review of Achebe’s Biafran memoir; even by people who haven’t actually read the book. I promise not to write one. I have read too many. But I have gathered some interesting reviews of Achebe’s book and I have quoted them for your reading pleasure.

“There is an eclectic range of insights and fascinating anecdotes buried in there, but this is not a book that will add much to the understanding of the war, nor one that will go down among Achebe’s great works.” William Wallis.

“But many have waited and hoped for a memoir, for his personal take on a contested history. Now at last he has written it. Although it is subtitled ‘A Personal History of Biafra’, There Was A Country is striking for not being very personal in its account of the war. Instead it is a Nigerian nationalist lament for the failure of the giant that never was; Achebe is mourning Nigeria’s failures, the greatest and most devastating of which was Biafra.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I read Noo Saro Wiwa’s review in The Guardian. Her father wrote On the Darkling Plain, a Niger Delta narrative of the Nigerian Civil War.

“No writer is better placed than Chinua Achebe to tell the story of the Nigerian Biafran war from a cultural and political perspective. Yet, apart from an interview with Transition magazine in 1968 and a book of Biafran poems, Nigeria’s most eminent novelist has kept a literary silence about the civil war in which he played a prominent role – until now.”

Tolu Ogunlesi wrote an acclaimed review of Achebe’s memoir. Yes, some reviews were acclaimed.

One question immediately arises but remains unanswered: Why did it take Achebe 42 years to write this book? In the six years immediately preceding the war, he produced three novels, but only one in the forty-two years following. During the war poetry only, and after it, for the most part, only essays.”

Ike Anya also wrote for African Arguments.

“The book could benefit from a closer proofreading and fact-checking process by an informed editor. Irritating errors crop up like “maul over” for “mull over” “deferral” for “federal”, “Iwe Ihorin” for “Iwe Irohin” and St Elizabeth’s Hospital for Queen Elizabeth Hospital, but these do not detract from Achebe’s attempt to present, from his perspective, an account of those dark days. As he says in the book, “My aim is not to provide all the answers but to raise questions and perhaps to cause a few headaches”. It is clear that this is his book, his view and his own particular nostalgic ramble. Ultimately, it is important that he has shared it, warts, unevenness and all. In doing so, Achebe has helped bring the contents of my parents’ brown satchel back into the open.”

Chika Unigwe wrote for The New Statesman.

“Chinua Achebe’s first book in three years richly rewards his admirers’ patience. It is the work of a master storyteller, able to combine seriousness with lightness of touch, even when writing about the terrifying events of a war that cost the life of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and the lives of millions of others. There Was a Country is a candid, intimate interrogation of Nigeria.”

In summary, I hope you agree, whatever your misgivings about the book, that there indeed, was a country.

P.S

You can buy copies of There Was a Country by Chinua Achebe from Farafina Books by sending an email to orders@kachifo.com, visit our store at 253 Herbert Macaulay Way, Alagomeji Yaba or call us on 08077364217.

Prices are as follows:

Hardback: N4000

Paperback: N2000

The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets

The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets

The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets

The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets is part of the recently established African Poetry Book Fund and Series. The winner of this prize will receive USD $1000 and publication through the University of Nebraska Press and Amalion Press in Senegal.

Please note that there is no submission fee and entry closes on the 15th of November 2012.
For useful information about the prize, such as when to send a manuscript, eligibility, judging, and how to submit to the prize, click here.