I Do Not Come to You by Chance
by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Exile is a fitting metaphor for alienation. It is akin to the biblical purgatory. Nothing is quite right; one feels neither here nor there, trapped in a dispensation that is not quite alien, not quite home. And all your senses rebel to the death against the changes that you need to embrace in order to enjoy, well, purgatory. I guess it makes sense, this disconcerting feeling of constantly being out-of-sorts, like a gentle but persistent hangover. It wouldn’t be purgatory otherwise. It is the assault or the rebellion of your senses that hurts the most. Nothing tastes, smells, looks the same and everywhere you go you hear voices of impish vendors selling fake reminders of home because there is money in selling the weary traveler a mirage. And it is not for lack of trying; exiles go through a million hoops to replicate the bread of their childhood. There is a multibillion dollar industry out here in America devoted to soothing our collective angst. If you no longer know how to tie your gele head-tie, there are shops that will do the honors for you – for a modest fee of course. There are “African markets” that sell stale desiccated and preserved replicas of what one misses the most about home. It is not the same, but it is better than nothing.
Every now and then the exile gets a reprieve from the purgatory of dislocation – in the form of an authentic treat – straight from home. Visiting relatives and friends from Nigeria know now not to knock on my door without the requisite offerings – Open Sesame to my hearth and my heart – bottles of groundnuts, fresh ground ogbono, egusi, snails the size of an elephant’s ears, etc. And if they really want to open the iroko doors to my rugged heart, they come bearing books written by Nigerians in Nigeria and published in Nigeria. Prolonged exile burdens the memory to the point of vital literary loss and no amount of poetic license can stem this loss. Most books about Nigeria written by Nigerians abroad tend to suffer the indignity of loss. This deficit is from prolonged absence by the writer’s muse from the scene of the crime (Nigeria). I look to Nigerian writers actually stationed in Nigeria to sate my hunger for a real literary taste of home. And writers like Kaine Agary and Ike Oguine have delivered big on that expectation.
I am glad to say that despite (perhaps because of) the challenges of living in Nigeria (some of these challenges appear fictitious judging from the ruddy cheeks of my Nigerian-based relatives on Facebook!) these writers have been up to the task. In this respect, I ask you to run, don’t walk, just run to the nearest wherever-people-buy-books-these-days and grab you a copy of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s peppy book I Do Not Come to You By Chance. I have racked my brains, thought about it, and come to the possibly audacious conclusion that this writer may have just written one of the most comprehensive documentation in prose-song of the ravages of the locust of materialism on our people’s way of life. Using the scourge of 419 as evidence number one, Nwaubani’s Nigeria gently explodes into a sea of caricatures and spills out onto the pages of our consciousness. I am literally in awe of the audacity of this writer’s muse.
How do I describe this little book that could? O yes, imagine, O gentle reader, imagine a frying pan, rich with all sorts of orisi risi, sizzling, all these delicacies jumping about for joy waiting to clamber into your waiting mouth. The book is funny in unexpected places: “He brought out an it-was-white handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wiped the sweat from his brows.” (p 59) And it is caustic in all the right places: “Although his position on the family tree could not be described in anything less than seven sentences, Odinkemmelu was introduced to us as our cousin.” (p 24) Using enthusiastic and lively prose, Nwaubani offers a chilling documentation of greed and rampant materialism replicated from city to city, village to village and generation to generation. This is a cancer that is eating at the nation called Nigeria. This sounds crazy, but I would love to see this book in a high quality movie. It definitely reads like an exquisite movie expertly set to print. Nwaubani writes with the confidence of one with an insider’s knowledge if 419 activities. The book actually takes its title from the beginning of a “419” letter to an unsuspecting wealthy foreigner or “mugu.”: “Dear Friend, I do not come to you by chance. Upon my quest for a trusted and reliable foreign business man or company I was given your contact by the Nigerian chamber of Commerce and Industry, I hope that you can be trusted to handle a transaction of this magnitude.” (p 178)
So now, you know what the book is all about. The main character Kingsley loses his idealism and joins his uncle Boniface aka Cash Daddy in a lucrative crime syndicate that shakes down gullible foreigners (mostly white) from the safety of the cyber-cafes that litter Nigeria’s urban centers. The story of “419” is now familiar to the point of it being a cliché. The foreigner is lured into paying various “fees” for the (empty) promise of reaping huge sums of money allegedly stashed somewhere in a bank vault. This scam has so affected Nigeria’s international reputation, the country has a penal code numbered “419” that attempts to deal with the issue.
Overwhelming and dismaying to the senses is Nwaubani’s faithful chronicle of the changing of the same seasons of anomie (apologies Soyinka). The prose grabs you like Nigeria and never lets go. Listen to the book’s opening sentence: “My taste buds had been hearing the smell of my mother’s cooking and my stomach had started talking.” Nice. Repeat that to yourself and watch Nigeria parade itself before your eyes. You don’t learn that from an MFA program. As I read this book, the laughter came in liquid fistfuls of sobs. This writer almost turned me into an immobile lunatic, sitting in my living room grinning like a domesticated idiot. I exaggerate slightly; I did not move from my living room until I finished reading this book. I sat grinning, my heart and soul yelling for more. I would not part with this precious book; the shower came to me and gave me a bath. The book was that good. Ah, the poetry in the conversations was authentically Nigerian and that takes confidence and skill. Man, I love Nwaubani’s writing. She breaks down complex truths into simple edible morsels of well, joy. What a treat. If you are looking for an unpretentious little story that will engage you, this one will do the trick.
Nwaubani is a truly unique and authentic voice. There is so much wisdom in her voice; it is young and fresh, bearing tart, plump and delightful attitudes, pregnant with truths untold and re-told. In this book one learns quickly that poverty comes in many forms. Nwaubani’s Nigeria has become really poor in ways that famous Nigerian writers have not been able to convey in several dense books about the subject. The reader comes face to face with the ravages of materialism in the pretense of the new evangelical religion, willing faux wealth on the dispossessed (for a modest tithe of course). The book tracks the flight of purposeful existence and provides the reader a concise, succinct, deep commentary on so many social issues – the extended family system, corruption, the scourge of materialism, etc. Nwaubani’s Nigeria reeks of rampant anti-intellectualism. Hear Kingsley’s uncle Cash Daddy berating him for wearing his idealism and intellect on his tattered sleeves: “Is honesty an achievement? Personality is one thing, achievement is another thing. So what has your father achieved? How much money is he leaving for you when he dies? Or is it his textbooks that you’ll collect and pass on to your own children?” (p 153)
Priceless was the Onitsha-Market-Literature style love letter (p 72). Original and scrumptious turns of phrases open your mouth wide in wonder and awe. This is unapologetic prose – you either get it or you don’t – there is no appendix or index explaining what eba means. It takes confidence to have that attitude. “At age seven, when it was confirmed that her right hand could reach across her head and touch her left ear, Augustina moved back to her father’s house and started attending primary school. Being long and skinny had worked to her advantage.” I love Nwaubani; she wields her words expertly, sometimes like an accurate missile or sometimes like a soothing balm. “Odinkemmelu took his body odor away to the kitchen and returned with a teaspoon of salt.” (p 17). Sweet. Her prose even gives voice to inanimate objects: “My tender triceps started grumbling” (p 19)
And if I could, I would sing a lusty oriki to the prodigious industry of the editors; the book is edited just right and it retains the author’s signature voice. It takes great skill to edit a book of this sort and still keep it chock full of crisp rollicking prose. “My father was a walking encyclopedia, and he flipped his pages with the zeal and precision of a magician.” (p 22) The furtiveness of the sentence before your eyes holds your attention captive as it hands you over to the next sentence. Brilliant. The writing reminds me so much of Ike Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale; maybe also, Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Potter’s Wheel.
There are all these delightful characters with colorful names like World Bank, Protocol Officer and Wizard. The book expertly showcases the caricature as real life and out of the pages of this book; Nigeria simply spills out into the streets of my part of America. For Nwaubani uses every bit of a conversation and simply drops it in the book. Nwaubani’s descriptive powers are fueled by a dark delicious imagination. “Cash Daddy’s cheeks were puffy, his neck was chunky, his five limbs were thick and long.” (p 213) Five limbs! Lawd have mercy! And her Pidgin English is impeccable: “Make una come see o, Graveyard don begin dey use perfume.” (p 29) One nice fringe benefit: I learnt a new fable about why the tortoise’s shell is cracked in several places. I won’t tell you; you will have to read the book yourself!
As a first novel, the book does show its flaws gently, ever so gently. The book is fairly autobiographical in parts. For the most part Nwaubani pulled off the tough trick of disengaging from the characters. However, the reader keeps seeing the writer in the main character Kingsley (Interesting enough, Kingsley is also named Opara – first son, and Adaobi, Nwaubani’s name means first daughter). The research that went into writing this book must have been considerable and it shows in the quality of the book. Finally, I offer the criticism that the book does come off as a morality tale that begins too neatly and ends too tidily, Life is a lot messier than that. But who cares? It was pure fun looking at Nigeria’s myriad issues through this mirror of a thousand delights.