Ben Okri: Of Incidents, Stories, Stirrings. And a Song.

Over this past weekend, I went through one pile of books which I keeping adding to but never seem to find the time to read. I had to go through the pile because I needed to squeeze up stuff somewhere in my room(s) and I picked up Ben Okri’s Incidents at the Shrine and Bessie Head’s Tales of Tenderness and Power, both of which are collections of shorts stories. I picked these two only because I found that they are the only ones in this pile which I had not yet signature-labeled, like I do for all books which are in my possession and are mine.

There is a mound of books – mostly fiction, among a crowd of other genres as well as drafts and pamphlets and other documents. All these and more are permanently sitting, large and airily, in one armchair in my living room. And the situation on the chair is but one spillover of what had long happened to my bed and any other space which happened to be idle and unlucky enough in any other part of the room. It just has to be too bad for such a space if it happens to be in or on a piece of furniture. It will not be spared.

This is how Head and Okri’s ended up on the waiting-to-be-read mound on that armchair. And this is my first time (having) to read both writers writers – or is it to have pieces of their works? Truth is, I never planned to read any of the two. Not this soon, not yet, at least. Now, I’m on the fourth of the eight short stories in Incidents at the Shrine. Disparities is the title. And no, I’m not reading the stories in the order in which they appear in the collection.

For all the three or four I’ve read so far, I hear the voice of Chuma Nwokolo. Voice in the literal, not literary sense. Voice as in the sound, and maybe the personality – but not necessarily of persona – of it. Nwokolo’s. I am still figuring out why this is so for me, but I’m very certain it has nothing at all to do with both Okri and Nwokolo being Nigerians. Otherwise, it could have as well been the voice of Rotimi or Wole Talabi or Soyinka or Ifeoma Okoye or Achebe or Ene Heneshaw or Adichie or Adewale Maja Pearce or others. Or?

The epynomous story in Mohammed Naseehu Ali’s collection, The Prophet of Zongo, echoes the ending or how the main character ended in Okri’s Converging Cities. A major character, Monica, in Laughter Beneath the Brigde vivdly reminds me of Anowa in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Anowa a play; the setting and much of the themes resemble those of Beast of No Nations, the movie; part(s) of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart makes me appreciate how the Egungun part of Laughter Beneath the Brigde later turned out.

I am well into Disparities, a little over half-way through it. Even though the setting and strain of the themes may be distant from those of Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments (a novel), there is a lot I see of in both characterization and voice. And this time, voice as in both persona and personality. Still in this story, I find that there remains more truth, sadness and loneliness than one may be willing to tolerate, especially if one has imbibed too much of the sleek lies, divine vanities and well…the exalted follies of (what) this side of eternity (has turned and is growing into).

This also means that, I see a lot of Armah’s Baako (main character in Fragments) in Okri’s I-don’t-know-his/her-name-yet in Disparities – so far in my reading, this other character in Disparities has still not been named by Okri. Maybe this character in Disparities will also go (deliberately) not-named, like The Man, a similar character in another Armah novel, The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born.

Again, I’m on my fourth story and I can say Okri’s writing tastes like parables.

They touch on the human and the mundane but not without giving that needed, albeit eccentric glimpse – and sometimes, or a little more – of the (sur)real world(s) and or forces that inform and or define this popular side of the known and absolutes. They are as innocent and wild as they come, but with neither apology nor any claim to perfection. They are as easy as they come, but only apparently. The stories exude truths that one may think are simple and familiar, and sometimes even funny, until one finds that they are also sly and slippery and sticky, so that given even the smallest shred of thought, these stories weigh on the mind and refuse to let go…

There is Okri’s story endings, which I find natural but not exactly predictable; conclusive and yet, may as well be cyclical; and then, full and no more. No spillover of any kind, and yet lead somewhere and everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time. The endings.

I can say similar things about Okri writing in the first person voice. It drips with something so far away, beyond mere craftsmanship and empathy for its own sake.

There also is his mastery for language: it is poetic and lyrical, it is lean but generous with layers and dimensions of meaning, it is precision and prudence. Images are apt. The images jump… It is almost as if language finds Okri, rather than he arriving at it. The grit and tune do not wear. The wit and humour are so fluid, so subtle, so married that they startle and saturate at once.

One more thing I find striking…I’m wondering – thinking and learning – what it is with Okri and his use of lizards in the stories. The lizards. They appear and disappear like all lizards do in real time. However, the lizards in the stories are special in that, they hold or are tied to the structure and (some of) the themes in (some of the) stories.

At one time, the lizard motif is innocent but dramatic, and at other times, curiously funny and armed with every power to tear a character’s sanity and or dignity beyond some kind of rest or redemption. They drip with the un-nameable, the un-normal, or maybe the para-normal, bordering of the spiritual. Yes, lizards. Like in Crooked Prayer and Laughter Beneath the Bridge and Converging City. In Disparities, one may see the lizard motif (morph) in(to) something queerer. Dogshit.

Even besides the lizard-y thing-y, the spiritual and the mysterious are rife in Okri’s stories. And where love and madness – or anything in between, and in any degree or status – they never ask for one’s permission (to happen) nor for forgiveness (after happening). And they never need nor even wish for one’s pity or praise. Most of the time. Most of them. Whether as events or as characters. The love or madness or whatever is raw and real and righteous in its own right, and without any restraint whatsoever.

I can’t say I’ve discovered my love for Okri’s writing because it has been there long before I actually read him, for I’ve long been famished with his The Famished Road. This has always been more because of an inexplicable pull, a bottomless yearning for The Famished Road than because it won the Man Booker Prize in 1991. I nearly got to read The Famished Road: a friend would have lent it to me, if not that the friend, at that time, was sweetly, slowly savouring the novel and among other things, was learning something about how Okri crafted dialogue. Even though I never got to read it by borrowing and have not found a copy of The amished Road to buy for myself, I couldn’t and still won’t begrudge my friend the delight and treasures…

When it comes to reading, I am unforgivably erratic – but not reckless – and willful, yet unpredictable. Or so I think. Once, I read Nii Ayikwei Parkes‘  Tail of the Blue Bird in one day; Armah’s Fragments in more than five weeks; Mawuli Adzei’s Taboo in about two days; and I’ve read bits and chunks of several others in such and several other duration-s. So even though I know it is good to set reading  goals, I end up doing with reading goals what I usually do with ‘rules’. Because I find ‘rules’ painfully incompatible, and even antagonistic, to the way I like to think my brain works, I abhor ‘rules’ and relish in ‘breaking them’ for the simple fact that they exist or that someone decided to breathe them into being.

So?

So maybe I will know better as I grow. But right now, I know better than to go setting reading ‘rules’ for the self that is me. So I will try waa diɜŋtsɜ, but I cannot promise myself to finish reading all eight short stories in Incidents at the Shrine, despite all my longing and taste of Okri’s writing.

And I cannot promise myself I will read Tales of Tenderness and Power after Incidents at the Shrine. Yes, even though I expect to come to adore Bessie Head for just about any of her writing like I do Mariama Bâ for her So Long a Letter. Somewhere in the mound on that chair and elsewhere, there are borrowed books and personal and academic and every other reading thing for me to start or finish or start and finish.

Then there and the set texts for the IGCSE and AS and A Level Literature classes that I teach. Somewhere in the set texts are a CIE-selected collection of tonnes of poetry form different places and times and peoples; a hefty collection of hefty short stories including Thomas Hardy‘s A Son’s Veto, (Hector Hugh Munro); Saki‘s Sredni Vashtar; Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s The Phoenix and Rohinton Mistry‘s Of White Hairs and Crickets. Novels include Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and Adichie’s Americanah. For drama, besides Shakespeare and others’, there are Ama Ata Aidoo’s plays, The Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa. Thankfully, I’ve already read Adichie’s, some of the Shakespeares, Aidoo’s two, a decent number of the collected poems and a good number of the short stories and others.

At the moment though, and somewhere soft and cozy inside of my being, I feel like I can and will write (more) short stories again. Soon. This has long been coming but I think having read Okri has heaved it all into a sensible motion and dare I say, direction. I feel a re-baptism and a confirmation of that song-full, soul-ish day last year when I knew and said (a) Story is calling out to me, starting and stirring and warming and whirling up…

So I sing of the song of the river and of that some-one’s-only daughter.

So I sing in the tongue that speaks and speaks true, in folds and in stretches, whenever I speak or sing or hear It or Its essence in utterance or in song. Ga.

Mawie Ga. Mala Ga.

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ miiya e-e-e-i

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ  miiya

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ miiya e-e-e-i

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ  miiya

 

Mɔko biyoo kome too

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ miiya

Mɔko biyoo kome too

Faa lɜ kɜ lɜ miiya

*     *    *   *

The river is taking her away e-e-e-i

The river is taking her away

The river is taking her away e-e-e-i

The river is taking her away

 

Someone’s only one daughter

The river is taking her away

Someone’s only one daughter

The river is taking her away

 

Love,

AishaWrites

 

Sunday, January 10, 2015.

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