To come across arrived prose in Nigerian writing, especially in the popular space of magazines, hasty publishing and the fog of first-person and second-person narrative POVs and trauma writing, is the needle in the haystack finding. To come across neat sentences, across well-honed style, to encounter Frances Ogamba on the page, is a sentence stalker’s fulfilment.
You meet Frances Ogamba with the sentence first: “The road is a coiled wire uncurling on discovery. The tars on it have cracked in some parts and lay bare a dusty terrain. A slope and a cliff flank the track on both sides, and tall slender trees of a certain breed stick out from the slope like praying hands.”—from “The Valley of Memories.” Then you meet her style: “I sweep the view with my glance, and the sacredness intrigues me.” She invites the reader into a vision—to follow her patiently, to come to revelation, surprise, literary orgasm.
“The Valley of Memories”—her Writivism 2019 shortlisted nonfiction—is a complicated story about reincarnation. Not hers, but an uncle who must have come back through her, even as she is conscious of owning her body. But not when you live in her part of the world and have anecdotes and family members and history to enforce the myth. As she narrates her sights on the road trip to Okwueke where her body’s cohabitant once lived, and converses with the driver, the weight of the myth is temporarily lifted off the reader’s consciousness. She sits in the backseat having a discussion with the driver. When she’s not talking to him, everything else is happening in her head is recollected in travelogue.
You read and uncurl through the coiled road with her, flanked by a slope and a cliff on both sides; you also enter her thoughts. She is describing the road and sights: “Smoke rises from somewhere and shreds itself in the light . . . I look across the distance and glimpse where the gentle brushstrokes of the afternoon make a palette of gilt out of the highlands.” No clichés. She does what the poet should do—make the reader see language in new light. Where Ogamba’s prose in “The Valley of Memories” is stronger, she betrays it in her fiction piece, which she tames for storytelling.
What happens in the prose in “Ghana Boy”—shortlisted for the Writivism short story prize—is a domestication of the English language to reflect local linguistic behaviour, that in turn reflects the environment the story is set in. Something Resoketswe M. Manenzhe did so well in her short story, “Maserumo”—“. . . feeling that phlegm that was collecting in my throat,” “. . . spit it out through the corner window.” But Ogamba only really succeeds when she puts in her character’s mouths Pidgin English that melds into English without fracture—‘ “Oslo, no be ordinary Police carry Ghana Boy,” Sule says and pauses, for what reason I am not certain. I feel my heart wobble. “Na the other police – na SARS.” ’ I read in a Facebook comment thread that Nigerian writers should start writing stories with less oyinbo-ness. Perhaps, this is what the person had in mind.
“Ghana Boy” reads like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Cell One,”except for some detours. This creates a spoiler effect for the reader familiar with the latter story. Letdown is felt, too, for the trite storyline—neighbourhood villain comes to his end. But Ogamba manages to maintain her grip, moving the story with persuasive sentences, and evoking pathos as Oslo, the narrator tells how he loses his elder brother to SARS.
In the end, Oslo is haunted by a holographic memory of Ghana Boy chiding him as usual for truancy. The question lurks: would he heal? He has developed a special bond with Ghana Boy whom he envisages to be like. But G-boy’s qualities are not the kind for emulating. It is a catch for Ogamba, the thematic angle—how an environment without good role models prepares young minds for certain destruction. Nigeria, this is to you: Your suburbia looks like the projects in America breeding degeneration.
In all, “Ghana Boy” is a good sample work for a writing class. I suspect few voices of dissent if Ogamba brings the Grammys home with it or her nonfiction piece■
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. Watch this space.