Photo credit: Anni Roenkae, from Pexels

On Eugene Yakubu’s “How to Wear Your Body”

by Carl Terver, Agboola Timi Israel and Joshua Tyovenda

A thread runs through the 3 shortlisted nonfiction pieces of the Writivism (2019) Koffi Addo Prize for CNF. They are all personal narratives where each narrator deals with their affinity with another individual. (Speak of UnBreakable Bonds.) In Kanyinsola’s “The Comedian,” it is grief over the loss of a father. Frances Ogamba’s “The Valley of Memories” deals with the cohabitation of her body with a reincarnated soul. In Yakubu’s “How to Wear Your Body,” a girl, to herself and her mother, ruminates on how the multiplication of cancer cells destroys the human tissue that is the body. Coincidence? This relatedness of the stories raises the gossip that Prizes, sometimes, look for certain narratives.  

“How to Wear Your Body” is a piercingly personal narrative of disease, perturbation and, most memorably, a passive kind of confusion. It follows a young adult woman in northern Nigeria struggling with the debilitating impact of terminal cancer in her family from teenage-hood into adulthood. The theme is tightly wound around the body, dealing with the changes it undergoes over time.

Relatively terse in its entirety, Eugene Yakubu inserts his reader effectively enough in it, with measured and haltingly long and short descriptive sentences. An effort maintained throughout the piece:

“Patients lurching around with tubes, wires, drips loosely hanging by their sides and organs held together by the mercy of God. The asphalt knew your faint footsteps. A newsman’s voice from a TV on the white-painted wall filled the reception. Your mother was inside the consultation room tormented by the smell of medicines and the phony smiles of doctors thinking of the subtlest way to tell her that her heart was calling it a day. You stood. You sat. Then stood again. Then squatted. Then leant on the pillar in the waiting room . . .” 

As already gleaned, the prose is written in a confessional second person POV with the gender of the narrator in conflict with the writer, raising the brow of the reader—what is happening here? The narrator is female yet the writer is male. Eugene does not give an author’s note or any hint why this is so. There are two things involved: it is either he is crossing the “creative” side of nonfiction into new lines or risking his piece to sound like fiction. A third involvement: a certain kind of over-ambition defined by recently-clichéd narratives of identity and the self.

The grades come in, as well as the non-grades. Eugene Yakubu deals aptly with the narrative of loss, between the girl and her mother as the sentences tell. “Dr Okafor placed her on medication to heal the stiffness but instead it made her breast swell. It continued to hurt when she walked so she stayed in bed like a pillow.” So her mother’s breast gets amputated. Her mother certainly resembles a cyborg in this way: one mound present on the torso, the other absent. This is what she—the daughter—may have to go through, too. Hereon the story forms, thus, how to wear one’s body, as the lady reflects on a haunting, yet tender, excavation of tragedy, her mother the subject. She re-imagines the road forward for herself.

Insert elements to push this story: trauma, a brief history on medication, mastectomy bras and Africa. A fourth involvement of Eugene in his piece is a pacified pandering to trauma tale, dissolving a little into yet another Image of Africa. On the flatness of the chest of the narrator’s mother, he writes: “You knew hers were little, but a woman parading an empty chest around here carries a stigma. Africa has never had the stomach for anything queer, you told her.” On whether or not this same mother can carry her empty chest with pride, he writes: “But you forgot too soon you were in Africa, where gender roles circumscribed bodies were policed into orthodoxy and binaries.” (sic) Stereotypes, Adichie says, are not untrue, but incomplete. While we are still decrying, “Africa is not a country,” we shouldn’t appropriate it now. (“Africa” has not always been insensitive or insular.)

In “A Conversation With Aleksandar Hemon,” the authors Aleksandar Hemon and Teju Cole discuss the odd Anglo-American literary distinction of fiction and nonfiction. Hemon admits to finding this literary classification annoying and troubling, as it makes an attempt to draw a line between writing using an idea of a stable truth. For Cole, this distinction is not natural and, by extension, unnecessary, as even the most scrupulous New Yorker articles carry a degree of framing that would make them not as nonfictional as we would want to think them to be.

Reading Eugene’s “How To Wear Your Body” prompts the question: how does a male writer tell a nonfictional narrative where the first person is female, has natural breasts and wears skirts? One thinks, perhaps, the “you” in the piece is a second person, a female person that is not the narrator. But it raises an even weightier question: who is the narrator—this omniscient narrator that has exact details of the thoughts of the protagonist, who knows what she thinks about when she looks at her mother’s picture and remembers her words 12 years ago? So as it reads with these tiltable questions, it begins to morph into a fictional piece, swamping the reader with a volley of connotations so intrusive it leaves him with indecision over a curiously important matter: Have I strayed into the fiction section of the Writivism shortlist?

To Jo Deurbrouck, “[w]riting nonfiction means I tell people’s stories for them, not because they’re special but because we all are.” Should Eugene Yakubu be praised for daring Jo Deurbrouck’s words, even if the attempt feels queasy to stomach for a work of nonfiction? 

For the individual reader, the arbitrary bifurcation of fiction or non- is secondary; he simply wants to, as Teju Cole observes, “be dragged down a narrative space he has never been before.” However, for the literary establishment, especially when it considers this difference so much to set up separate prizes for them, it burdens on it to at least examine and confirm that an entry is true enough a nonfictional piece before it is shortlisted. 

Or perhaps: Eugene is writing someone else’s story. In that, it is the true tale of the protagonist narrated to him by her and rendered into creative form by him. The points of contemplation—her experiences, feelings, the way her body metamorphoses, are creative written presentations of her experience, which would explain his interjections as his and the rest as hers. (Most of us render life stories into fiction. But there’s no literary code, in principle, that stipulates that nonfiction must be accounts of ourselves.)

In their conversation, Hemon who is Bosnian, tells us that there is no fiction-nonfiction binary—especially in storytelling—in Bosnia. His words: “In Bosnian, there are no words that are equivalent to ‘fiction’ and ‘nonfiction’, or that convey the distinction between them. This is not to say that there is no truth or falsehood. Rather, the stress is on storytelling. The closest translation of ‘nonfiction’ would really be ‘true stories’.”

Reading Eugene’s “How To Wear Your Body” (which one feels is fiction), one can’t help but feel that all roads lead to Bosnia. And if Writivism was looking for the unbreakable bonds between fiction and nonfiction, we say, they have their cake. 

Bosnia or not “How to Wear Your Body” remains a rewarding read. To the critic, a clear picture emerges of talented writing requiring discipline. But, after all, aren’t the Writivism prizes about unearthing the latest crop of fresh African talent? Even if some sentences are needlessly in the story to beat word count? Eugene Yakubu engages; one looks out for where his talent takes him■

Praxis Magazine is in partnership with Writivism this year (2019) and brings you reviews of the Writivism shortlisted works of fiction and the Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. This review marks our last review of the shortlisted works. Follow the links below to read our previous reviews.  

A Review of Vuyelwa Maluleke’s Writivism 2019 Shortlisted Story, Tale

Frances Ogamba With the Sentences

Kanyinsola’s “The Comedian” is an inverted portrayal of grief

Manenzhe’s “Maserumo”: a brief history of several deaths 

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