The Year of Free Birds:
A Reinvention of Shakespeare’s Reconfiguration of Blindness
One of the functions of literature is that it amplifies the imagination, offering us valuable insight into the lives of other people. The Year of Free Birds motivates readers to become more aware of the conditions of visually impaired people as well as their immense contributions to humanity. Matt Reimnann’s erudite essay “From Homer to Borges” is a catalogue of the images of notable blind writers, an exploration of their varying responses to the reality of visual impairment. Oscar Wilde’s meditation on Homer’s blindness is seminal, for acknowledging the story as a veritable myth that exalts the imagination above the tyranny of physical blindness, privileging the artist as an embodiment of the sublime visions of life.
That The Year of Free Birds takes on an important subject like visual impairment – which to a glaring and sad extent is underrepresented in African literature – with such rare honesty and curiosity reminiscent of Shakespeare deepens my admiration for the writers, curator and editors for their collective effort. The collection features some of the most brilliant and gifted African writers, whose works transcend mythological and linguistic boundaries to demonstrate the enchantment of the muse—the smooth interplay of craft and reality. Traversing the writers’ distinctively rich prose—their intimate understanding of the subject—the collection personifies the true success of the meeting of literary aesthetics and social commitment by guiding readers to see through (while looking into) the sight of the blind. The collection, it seems, draws inspiration from Achebe’s visionary enterprise. Achebe’s insight that “every literature must pursue the things that belong unto its peace, speak of a particular place, evolve out of the necessities of its history, past and current, and the aspirations and destiny of its people” does not just permeate the collection but inspires the writers to produce an accomplished body of prose that we will inevitably return to in our search for inclusive literature.
The Year of Free Birds enables us to feel and to see. It moves us to think and to respond. It reminds us to remember. To remember is to meditate on the human condition, to reevaluate our narrow fixations, to see better, to redeem our narrative – which has ignorantly excluded the blind – and infuse newer life into it. The collection embodies that kindred spirit which often unites the writer, the character and the reader into a seamless whole. Without doubt, stories compel us to search for the truth, the thing that stands beside it to hold it firm. This collection does exactly that, affirming, as it were, that stories are most honest when they are about everyone, when everyone is given an equal opportunity to participate in the art of storytelling. So let us quickly turn our attention to the individual stories in the collection.
The wondrous quality of Snyman’s “The Centennial Game” is that it articulates, with emotional and cerebral connectivity, the reality of our mortal condition. Snyman achieves this with great mastery comparable only to the mystic insight he deploys in invoking the lure of human immortality. The pulsating rendering of Cointe’s life expresses the anxiety of a human striving to outlive life, to outwit death. Cointe’s aching desire to live blinds him to the point of apprehensive ignorance. The wit he exerts in gambling with death for longevity of life exposes his unawareness that death precedes life and that life is indeed the twin of death. Snyman’s stunning appropriation of human limitation is evocative of Shakespeare’s concerns in his profoundest tragedies. Think of King Lear and Othello. It is true that we may not completely exonerate Lear from the tragedy that befalls him as we may attempt to do for Othello, whose circumstance has a racial undercurrent, but the intense measure of both characters’ wrathful ignorance implicated them so heavily that it made their passage to a tragic end quite inevitable. Although Lear’s condition, the severe punishment he had to bear, illustrates Aristotle’s conception of the fate of the tragic hero, his impassioned enunciation of his sainthood at the height of tortuous self-search derives also from that irredeemable ignorance.
Shakespeare’s prodigy in transforming the extreme gloom of inexorable human predicaments into a purgatorial experience is exceptional. Moreover, Snyman’s enquiry into the nature of human capriciousness and the uncertainty of human destiny also calls to mind Shakespeare’s informed reconfiguration of blindness, of sight and of fate. When in “The Centennial Game” we are told that “in these mysterious gardens,” a fitting metaphor for the earth, “navigable only by the sightless, one did not require eyes to see. Only compassion,” we remember Kent imploring the incorrigible king to “see well.” Lear’s angry reply that Kent should not “come between the dragon and his wrath” terrifies us. But when we see Lear again, at his most vulnerable moment, beside the perpetually silent body of Cordelia, whose forgiveness he needed, we shudder with pity, ashamed even of our inability to mourn him well when he succumbs to the compulsions of mortality. Lear did not die in fear; he took the hand of death and led the way. St. Paul seemed to be speaking of Lear’s intention in Second Corinthians when he declared: “we know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies.” Lear’s death is an act of self-giving and a longing for the sacred. In choosing death to the contemptuous company of humans, Lear condemns human hypocrisy. He therefore renounces his ties with the mundane and seeks the profound. But in resisting the pressures of death, Cointe habitually reaffirms his desire for immortality. We can overlook Cointe’s physical blindness, but his obvious ignorance of natural laws and the reverberations of his desires build up our conviction that he is completely isolated from reality.
The opening sentence of Snyman’s story is a manifestation of towering craftsmanship, but Wilton’s story is arguably the most heart-rending in the collection. “The Woes of Hatcliffe Extension” is an emotional labour, a hallowed communion of the blind and the poor inextricably linked by the conflagration of hope, of dispossession and of trauma. Bertolt Brecht has a question for all of us: “In the dark times, will there also be singing?” Wilton answers with his sensitive story, which emphasizes the aggressiveness of our age. When you get into the story, the burdened lives of the characters arrests you; you become sensitive to their disillusionment and the fathomless tragedy that follows them about. Once you are drawn into it, you have begun a journey from the disability of physical blindness, through the cruelty of disbelief, through the rage of madness to the quiet catharsis of death. You feel wasted as you witness the relentless cruelty of the government against the people, you weep as the bulldozers overrun the people’s houses, you break down when VaBere loses his resolve. Raviro, then, offers herself to death as an escape from a brutal world that has taken everything away from her. Raviro’s experience reminds us of the permanent mutilation of the senses and vision of the Barbarian girl in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Courage sustained the Barbarian girl and tortured the magistrate, that same courage made Raviro to end her life. As the story ends, you are glad to run away from it, only to realize that by familiarizing yourself with the condition of the wretched but resilient characters, you have lost the freedom to complacency. So you begin to think of Raviro’s orphaned children and every other person who, unlike Raviro, will witness the darkness to come. Brecht also provides an answer to his own question: “Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.”
Wilton’s story sings of the dark times. It begins where the human story ends and ends where the human story begins, offering us an opportunity to reclaim our humanity, as we grapple with the cinema of human violence. It appears like Tony Benn spoke directly into Wilton’s heart, for Wilton has “two flames burning in [his] heart: the flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope [that he] can build a better world.” “The Woes of Hatcliffe Extension” is, thus, an honest representation of the life and condition of the Zimbabwean people. That 2005 order by Robert Mugabe which led to the destruction of houses and shacks in Zimbabwe was an extremely shocking experience. Even the narrator admits from the outset that “No one had believed it.” So, even with its local Zimbabwean setting, Wilton’s story has an immutable universal resonance. His impressive mining of the human experience, with its spark of mournful sympathy, largely accounts for the powerful emotions that saturate the story. It is the kind of story that compels you to own it once you read it. You feel a deep need to identify fully with the characters. This is because you, as a human being, have lived through some of their experiences. The courage of this Zimbabwean writer is the only thing more marveling than his love of language.
What does blindness and suspicion have in common? This is at the core of Maiwada’s story. “Apple Again” is a startling delineation of the subtlest and perhaps severest effect of visual impairment. To be blind, as we find in the case of the retired thief, is to acquire a stratospheric sense of insecurity capable of yielding a forceful craving for vengeance. The imbalance in the thief’s mental and emotional arrangements does not come as a surprise, it rather confirms our suspicion of his moral kinship with Othello. Recall that Othello justifies his intemperate desire to murder Desdemona as divine justice. The thief’s interpretation of his wife’s movements in the room and the smell of her perfume as evidence of her infidelity not only sharpens the similarities between him and Shakespeare’s most famous black character, but also rises as a sympathetic portrait of the chequered psychology of insecure men in love. Some men, as he demonstrates, equate the loss of sight with the loss of manhood. The thief is, using Brooks Atkinson’s expression, “a man whose dreams are at once insupportably vast and dangerously insubstantial.”
The pressure around motherhood comes alive in Maiwada’s story, and we are reminded, in a manner that sufficiently photographs the extremities of hope and doubt, of Nnu Ego’s experience in Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood. Naira’s resolve to follow the prophet blindly (anchored in her belief that his prophecy will help free her son from prison) just like Nnu Ego’s decision to raise her children reaches the height of obsession and eventually stultifies her relationship with her husband. It is terrifying that out of the beautiful city of the human heart, with its vast network of love, rises the thick bush of hate. Certainly, there is no limit to the vulnerability of an undiscerning mother in search of her son’s freedom, neither can any miracle, other than true love and genuine communication of feelings, reanimate a comatose relationship.
It is hard to read Manu Herbstein’s debut novel without being broken by the painful finality of African slavery. Ever since its publication in 2000, Ama has been recognised as a memorable account of – as well as a passionate response to – the atavistic horror of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Also, Herbstein’s sophomore novel Brave Music of a Distant Drum, 2012, is a strong reaffirmation of Ama’s tenacity to tell her story, to liberate the maligned image of her race. Ama carries within her a blazing consciousness of self, which repels the colonial injustice that confers on the colonisers the hegemony of narrative, while othering the colonised with the shadow of invisibility. Achebe tells us that “those who secure this privilege of absolute power over narrative for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much as they like [and] can bring crowds of demonstrators whenever they need them” to justify their bias. The experience of reading modified versions of these novels in the collection is truly liberating.
The story of Ama is about Ama, but it bears great resemblance with the stories of Kunta Kinte, of Othello, of Caliban and of all repressed and oppressed people of the earth, who must endlessly contend with the reality of monolithic human cruelty. Like Othello’s valour, Ama’s charm and intelligence set her beyond the possible limits of a slave woman – Zachariahs’ surprise at her literacy puts this in clear perspective, and like Othello’s impulsive temperament, Tomba’s refusal of an alternative humanity coupled with the weight of silence leaves him at the mercy of brutal and hypocritical white slave masters. Zachariahs’ appraisal of his intentions carries the same moral burden as Obierika’s apprehension of Okonkwo’s suicide in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. What Zachariahs and Obierika share in common is a full knowledge of the callousness of all invaders and conquerors, an indictment they harbour so intimately but lack the spirit to utter and challenge. Also, in The Tempest Caliban’s sub-humanity is a colonial construct, a myth challenged by Irobi in his innovative play Sycorx, a critical adaptation of The Tempest. What we know about Caliban is what Prospero tells us. But here, Ama confronts “the danger of a single story,” by insisting on telling her own story. We are only relieved at last that Zachariah’s initial naiveté, deriving from the privilege of his white upbringing, is replaced by a deep understanding of his primordial heritage. His acknowledgement of his native name, Kwame Zumbi and his decision to familiarize his daughter with the truth of her identity point us to one thing; they reaffirm that Kunta Kinte is right that the name is our “spirit and shield.”
When the physical sight is lost, something is lost; when the psychological sight is lost, something significant is lost; but when the story is lost, everything is lost. In Anthills of the Savannah Achebe identifies the story as the greatest human possession. He reveals that “the story is chief among his fellows because it is the story that outlives the sound of the war drums and the exploits of brave warriors. It is the story that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort, without it we are blind.” So it is the story that matters. Stories transcend time and shape the conscience of every generation.
Read the The Year of Free Birds here.
Darlington Chibueze Anuonye, a 2018 Cesar Edigo Serrano Foundation Ambassador of the Word for Nigeria, is the curator of Selfies and Signatures, an Anthology of Short Stories. The Nonfiction Editor of Ngiga Review and Director of Aba Creative Writing Workshop, Anuonye was longlisted for the 2018 Babishi Niwe Poetry Prize. He was shortlisted in 2016 by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency. A participant of the 2011 Longman Creative Writing Workshop, he was until recently a temporary staff of the Department of English and Literature, University of Benin, Benin-city. His short fiction, memoirs and poems have appeared in Brittle Paper, Black Boy Review, Ovis Magazine, Praxis Magazine, Coal Magazine and elsewhere.