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Japa Literature: Redefining Homecoming and the Pursuit of Greener Pastures

In Homecoming, Ibrahim threads together the nascent reality of emigration literature—perhaps, informally known as japa literature—that has permeated Nigerian poetry and prose in recent years. While he agrees that it is an inevitable corollary of the dysfunctionality of the Nigeria politico-socioeconomic reality, he, however, believes that family and communal life is being eroded, gradually. The candidness of the piece is as sad as it is revealing, as brief as it is sharp. It leaves an aftertaste that is not necessarily bitter but surely icky. The atmosphere also oscillates between that of resignation and hope. What is perhaps much more interesting here is how he weaves this pertinent and urgent national discourse in few lines.

The poem begins with this line: ‘In my country, this is how we celebrate a typical homecoming’ and everything after that is the opposite of what the dictionary entry of the word ‘homecoming’ is supposed to be. Homecoming suggests reunion, a coming-together, a return home, accompanied by cheers and ceremony. But the poet has contrived to turn it on its head to imply a separation and dissociation from home—home here referring to country of origin and residence. Homecoming, thus, is running away from home for better opportunities elsewhere.

This is clearly evident as the poet goes on to list long-time practices that have been ripped by the incessant migration of family members to several new localities. The poet voices:

there are no family members at the dinner table,
no loud laughter over embarrassing histories every member of the family knows too well,
no silence as the strange stories from the one who just got back take us past midnight—no reasons to lose sleep.

It’s a new focus for every relationship in the wake of these quests for a better life to invariably stay apart than to commune. These lines scour culture and tradition as the one prominent thing that has kept African families together—the existential communal living among families and neighbours—and to see it gradually taper is what the poet persona cannot bear to imagine.

Interestingly, in the next lines, the narrator fully expresses the novel meanings that can be ascribed to homecoming. He says:

Here, homecoming is the struggle to get a foreign visa as family waves goodbye at the airport— happy to see you flee—
sitting in the belly of an iron-winged bird ribcaged by questions and unpredictability.

What is significantly catchy here are these words: ‘happy to see you flee’, as if there is imminent danger to get away from. Even without the certainty that the destination headed would bring forth good tidings is not enough to deter the desire to flee. It certainly is what japa entails—to run, to escape, to seek safe haven; because no matter the effort exerted, the hard work put in, the legal path taken to make one successful, in the end, everything conspires to make one fail. It all leads back to ruin. The narrator is effusive and bullish about it; he cares less about his detractors and emphasises that everyone is only truly happy when they are in a foreign country, especially the West. But the country of destination is not necessarily hinged on the pedestrian meaning of japa. Any migration at all, given the possibility that travel is within the horizon and in ‘an iron-winged bird’, everyone is inevitably happy.

The poem ends as a summary, delineating the end goal of all the search for a new abode as it makes it evident that japa is about the whole and not the part—no one must be left behind. Like a soldier in a battlefield, he must always try to lift up and carry with him his injured comrade. The same applies here: whoever is first over the threshold must look back on his family or friends and find a way to bring them over. The poet animadverts: ‘Homecoming is a land you’ve never been—a place built with your hands and mind, and hopefully, those left at the airport might eventually be brought home.’

I find it noteworthy how home morphs into something far away and nearly gossamer but still equally palpable. To the speaker, home is no longer a place but wherever a person is. Home is constantly in motion, in flux, and where peace and happiness reside, even in the remotest or strangest of places, can become home.

It is not uncommon for people, generally, to fantasise and idolise places they have read or heard about and want to physically experience them. The idea of leaving a place and then travelling, seeking the ‘milk and honey’ in far-flung, far-fetched greener pastures underpins the very core of emigration literatures. It verily negates the devil-you-know-is-better-than-the-angel-you-don’t-know apophthegm because the tendency to seek something fresh and enticing and lucrative would almost always be the first choice. It is this deduction ultimately, that permeates the functional essence of japa which the poet echoes unashamedly. The poet here is merely a stand-in, a lone voice among louder voices, a town crier calling attention to a situation which, to the onlooker, feels more like salvation than a problem. Homecoming, thus, should be folks celebrating in their ancestral home and not on a continent distant as the stars.


Image: Mario Aranda Pixabay

Chidiebube onye Okohia
Chidiebube onye Okohia
Chidiebube is a Nigerian creative. Some of his works have appeared in Able Muse, Counterclock, The Daily Drunk, and elsewhere. He is the poetry editor of The Shallow Tales Review. He tweets @o_okohia.

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