Reviews

Restless Diary: Yellow-Yellow Rivers of Dreams

August 2007. I am alive. I just shook myself off a journey that I was definitely unprepared for. Ogun has sacrificed a mangy dog on behalf of my shivering spirits and thunderous sparks of fire mark Sango’s outrage at that cursed spot on America’s highway where the cutlass, hungry metal danced pangolo on a concrete road waiting for me, bush meat for evil deities. My faithful SUV looks like the broken trap that barely missed a prize antelope. I am alive, lucky antelope, and Sopono says to Iku, a pox on all your friends and our enemies! There will be another day when that journey will begin for me. But not now. Life is short.

And so I land in August, bleary-eyed. Fela Anikulapo Kuti is glaring at me. Ten years ago, Abami Eda, the Weird One moved on, wagging his saxophone at us. The people remember Fela in song and they celebrate this meteor that came streaking by in slow motion. Christopher Okigbo is staring at Nigeria shaking his head at empty volleys of thunder. Forty years ago Christopher Okigbo moved on. We remember Okigbo and we shake our heads. What happened? And Chinua Achebe sits in chilly exile looking out across the Atlantic, Okonkwo in the winter of his life. Fifty years ago, Chinua Achebe birthed Things Fall Apart. We remember and we shake our heads. What happened?

Me, I am definitely not ready to move on. Life is too good. Even in exile. Besides, try to imagine a world without ME. Olorun ma je! I wake up born again, all sweaty in the dying heat of the August of yet another dying summer in America. What am I going to do with myself, my lawyers have given me a thorough medical examination and they say I am not fit to do anything until the insurance company of the olodo that tried to send me off settles me with oodles of useful US dollars. Medical malpractice, say hello legal malpractice.

August, and I am restless. I turn to the priest Chinua Achebe for meanings locked tight in his brooding scroll Hopes and Impediments. We should all read that book again and again. The answers that elude us are there. What is our purpose? Why are we here? What are you doing with our gifts in the service of our people? Why am I asking all these questions? Perhaps my lawyers are right; this journey that missed me really messed up my thinking cells. It shall be well with me. Pray for me, people!

My lawyers are right; I ache all over, I ache badly – to wrap my eyes around a good book, just like my daughter Ominira yearns for a good summertime cheeseburger. So as I loiter around my hut waiting to be settled, I have been reading, searching for the book that will slake my thirst. I read Sidney Poitier’s latest, The Measure of a Man.  I greatly enjoyed The Measure of a Man because I greatly enjoyed Poitier’s earlier book This Life (published in 1980). The Measure of a Man, published in 2007, is a smaller book but it pursues the same themes (the black immigrant’s experience in America) and also updates Poitier’s thoughts from the benefit of an older man. Sidney Poitier is a great man; an amazing warrior who exudes dignity, charm, grace, and genuine, unique, self-refined intelligence, traits that give me goose bumps each time he appears on the screen. There are a few truly greats that will cause the earth to wail inconsolably when they step onto that pantheon in the sky and Sidney Poitier is one of them. I would strongly recommend The Measure of a Man to anyone interested in the immigrant experience, especially from the perspective of someone of color. Sidney Poitier gets it. Read both books of his if you can get a copy of This Life. This Life is grittier than The Measure of a Man, with a delightful edge that has dissipated with age. This Life is also a bit more candid. Both books do complement each other in my view and I think that the reader would be enriched immensely from reading both.

I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s two books, Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. I simply could not put them down and do something else with my life. Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s debut book of short stories earned her a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. I don’t remember the last time I read short stories this gripping. If you enjoyed reading Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, then you must hurry to get Lahiri’s books. Like Adichie, Lahiri faithfully and with a mythical intelligence records the lives and anxieties of Bengali immigrants struggling mightily, sometimes courageously, sometimes comically to come to terms with the meaning of life the alien planet that is America.  Poignant, evocative, haunting in the desperation of the lives of the exiles, and just plain gripping is how I would describe both books. In the novel, The Namesake, Lahiri flawlessly executes the daunting transition from a writer of short stories to a novelist. Well almost, I do prefer her book of short stories. I read both books with a deep sense of envy and sadness in knowing that the books swirling around in my head have already been written by a goddess of letters. And I am left to wallow in the cloying discomfort of my alienation, with no hope of profiting from my neuroses. Read both books and you’ll never be the same again.

And so the other day, googling for Half of a Yellow Sun, I somehow came upon Kaine Agary’s Yellow-Yellow. I had never heard of Kaine Agary and the fact that the book was published in Nigeria by DTALKSHOP publishers aroused my interest. I have been trying without much success to learn about Nigerian writing published in Nigeria and I was pleased to see that I could buy the book off the Internet at amazon.com. I can only say that this is the first time that I will agree with the blurb writers of a book when I quote Rumbidzai Bwerinofa (“a truly authentic narrative of a region”) and Toni Kan (“stark and socially realistic”). Yellow-Yellow is not an easy book to write about; it is understated in an honest way and the writer’s limitations, if we call them that, ironically provide ammunition and strength to the telling of a great story. There is this spiritual defiance and attitude in Agary’s willingness to ignore traditional writing convention in order to birth a story about a phenomenon that I had never seen documented, certainly not in this fashion.

What is this book about? The main character Zilayefa or Yellow-Yellow is the half-caste product of a Port Harcourt tryst between an expatriate Greek named Plato Papadopolous and an Ijaw woman.  The father promptly abandons Yellow-Yellow and her mother and they live a life of quiet desperation in the village. In between long stretches of tedium, Yellow-Yellow dreams of finding a Prince Charming to rescue her from her colorless empty existence and take her to the city where the streets are paved with gold. It is really not as banal as that as the reader soon finds out. Yellow-Yellow is the story of the multitude of multi-racial children that are born of the liaisons between whites and Asians and the women of the Nigerian delta. Agary does a great job of tracing the history and documenting the generation (and generational differences), and subculture of these half-castes or “Yellow-Yellow” as they are popularly called.

Yellow-Yellow was evidently not written to win literary prizes, it probably will not, and from my perspective, that is refreshing and confers on it a credibility that would be sadly missing were it to be “written to the test” of the ultimate – a prize.  If you are looking for highfalutin, elegant, high-sounding prose, this book is not for you. If you are looking for a book with a strong plot pregnant with complex intrigues, this book is not for you. If you truly want to curl up with a good eminently readable book, Yellow-Yellow will not disappoint you.

Talking about technique, it is cunning how Agary avoids direct translation of indigenous Ijaw words but lets slip enough hints to keep the reader guessing about their meanings. The hints are never enough though; one yearns to go down to the delta to hunt down those words and their meanings. Agary is defiant in an understated way, politely refusing to footnote for the reader, the meanings of most of the Ijaw words in her book. Please clamber onto a canoe and go find the meanings your damn self, Agary’s prose intones, politely, ever so politely. Pretty slick and sexy, if you ask me.  Agary is good at telling heart-wrenching tragedies as if they are nothing, mocking our shocked consciences. And there is this comforting command of Pidgin English the way it should be spoken and the way I remember it. I love this writer.

Haunting is the poetry of words missing from my vocabulary

Where can I get awigiri tapes?

Wetin be “bend-down” boutique?

Kilishi? Kekefia?

Will you teach me how to play eki okoto?

Please I would love to be kongosaed!

Which one be okoso system?

In Agary’s book, the narcissistic, self-absorbed reader is reminded that there was a time when the extended family spawned a culture of service in the interest of one’s offspring and ultimately of the clan. Zilayefa’s mother’s deprivations come across as noble sacrifices to save her daughter from the despair and living death of the oil-soaked delta. The reader yearns for halcyon days of simple needs and big dreams. We also see Nigeria as an increasingly alarming society where people go to church unfailingly – to worship the dollar. Yellow-Yellow mourns the loss of community, of symbiotic kinships and a way of life raped raw by the gushing of crude oil into Nigeria’s greed. And this reader yearns for a return of the old way of life.

Even in the clutter of grinding poverty, funeral ceremonies provide much needed relief, sometimes with tragic results:

“There is usually a lot of food at funerals, especially if the family was rich, and most villagers attended these funerals solely for the food, drinks, and music. Three years earlier, at Chief Tariye’s funeral ceremony, a man was found curled up in a corner outside the house, lying dead in his own vomit. He had gorged himself with food and kainkain for two days.” (p 19).

And in the midst of the devastation, a harried people still harvest joy in unlikely places. A simple bare-bones lovers’ picnic deep in the creeks of the delta reminds us that sometimes more is not the best. Two lovers nestle in a little island armed with only a handful of plantains, iced-fish peppersoup and a couple of coconuts. The romance of it almost wants to make me go down on my knees and plead with my life’s companion to accompany me to Warri to do love me aduli!

When it comes to titillating the reader’s palate with pretty sentences, Agary is no slouch. Listen to this: “When I looked at her, I saw a petite woman with an oval face, big dreamy eyes, a nose that looked like God was running low on clay the day he made it…” (p 20) Lovely. And try this: “As we used to say in secondary school he had yams for legs, perfectly yamulous legs.” (p 23) I love this lady! And this gem: “He picked up a file from the centre table…” (p 118). Centre table! Now, that is Naija English! When Yellow-Yellow’s mother says “My back is not ready for grandchildren,” (p 23) we see a writer with great potential in mastering the art of conversation.

Agary does not pull punches as she languidly darkens a literary canvas with horrifying images of needless devastation in the Nigerian delta. She goes everywhere and methodically outs and lances everybody and every issue. We see the humanity in the prostitutes in the city, the new masquerades turning tricks in an indifferent city just to satisfy needs in their ancestral village – needs that the government of the day has ignored. We learn the pecking order for turning tricks – white men are much sought after for their generosity, followed by Asians, then “stingy locals” who work for the oil companies. We read a careful documentation of how men who were great providers have become in the new dispensation, lazy no good burdens adept only at abusing their women and children. “Cobwebs would fill the pots before the men contributed to the feeding of the household.” (p 40). Damning. But it was not always like that, certainly not in the beginning and the main character Yellow-Yellow points this out plaintively.

“My mother told me of the days of her youth when every husband was expected to give his new wife a dugout canoe that he had carved out and crafted himself. The wife would use this canoe to fish, earn a living, and help to feed the family. Those were the days when boys carved out decorative paddles that carried the legends of the Ijaws in every curve. Those were the days when the Ijaw woman could ignore the nature of the Ijaw man because she had a means of earning a living and providing the needs of her children. Those were the days when Ijaw women cooked a fresh pot of soup every day because the rivers were teeming with fish. Their farms held plantain trees so fertile that there was more plantain than anyone knew what to do with – roasted, boiled, mashed, green and yellow, the possibilities were endless. Those were the days.” (p 39). Frightening testimony to the devastation that has been wrought on the land by unfeeling oil conglomerates and conniving thieving Nigerian leaders.

In Yellow-Yellow, we see a Nigeria rotting in place as its people desperate for affirmation and survival engage in an elaborate okoso system of getting whatever they need (good grades, anything) in return for whatever they can give (sex, whatever sells).

Sure-footed from the beginning, it grows even more confident and roars in the middle of the book.  I will always remember the quiet urgency of the opening chapter – Yellow-Yellow’s mother dealing with the devastating results of crude oil spillage – on her, on her farmland, on her village, and ultimately on Nigeria’s conscience, if she has one.

“It was the first time I saw what crude oil looked like. I watched as the thick liquid spread out, covering more land and drowning small animals in its path. It just kept spreading and I wondered if it would stop, how far it would spread. Then there was the smell. I can’t describe it but it was strong – so strong it made my head hurt and turned my stomach. I bent over, and retched so hard I became dizzy.”  You read this chilling testimony from a child and you feel like screaming “someone stop the madness in the delta!” (p 4).

It goes on and on, this masterful use of simple, matter-of-fact prose to deliver sharp slaps of political consciousness onto the reader’s face.

“And so it was that, in a single day, my mother lost her main source of sustenance. However, I think she had lost that land a long time ago, because each season yielded less than the season before. Not unlike the way, she and others in the village, had gradually lost, year after year, the creatures of the river to oil spills, acid rain, gas flares and who knows what else…” (p 4). This from a child. And you feel like screaming “someone stop the madness in the delta!”

DTALKSHOP, the publishers of Agary’s book must be commended for doing a great job in terms of editing. I loved the cover design by CLAM.  By the way, go to dtalkshop.com to see the future (or shall we say the present?) of publishing in Nigeria. Looks to me like Agary is a major shareholder in the business and the business marries her legal profession with her passions to produce an enterprise. Fascinating.

I don’t mean to imply that the book is not without its flaws, far from it. It is a simple book, with little structural complexity, one that is helped immensely by the urgency or immediacy of its tale. The reader must prepare to endure an abiding aimlessness in the last four chapters of the book where Yellow-Yellow falls hard in love with a wealthy retired Admiral. Yellow-Yellow spends the rest of the book moping around this conceited unprincipled man’s space and in the process almost ruins a good book,. Agary almost falls victim to a desire to please indifferent gods willing a neat ending to a messy tale. But I could argue that the book’s aimlessness in the end is a great metaphor for Nigeria’s aimlessness in the new dispensation – an uncritical acceptance of alien cultures and values and a resulting caricature of what Nigeria once was. Not pretty but the book pulls it off nicely. I love this lady. Now if I can just get me some kilishi and dunk it in a pot of kekefia and osun, that would be yamulous!

August. The heat rises to overwhelm me. And I feel like wilted corn boiling in a peasant’s pot. Ominira, my twelve year old daughter is with me in my rental car, the one that they have given me until my SUV is changed back from an effete trapper of animals to a car. It is a nice car, red hot and as I slide into the driver’s seat, things stir in me, things that remind me of my virility. We are at the traffic lights; here comes an ambulance chasing the fire trucks racing to offer the dying the light of life. Here comes the ambulance barking, sobbing, and wailing its message of hope for a battered soul. We pull aside to make way for the ambulance, heads bowed patiently waiting, praying for the dying and waiting for the signal to for us to continue running for our lives. Ominira says to me, daddy, the ambulance is wailing. And I say to myself:  Great, my daughter is a poet, great, my daughter will not be a rich medical doctor, my daughter is a wretched over-sensitive poet! Who will take care of me in my old age, this poet? I am dead!

I slip Rex Lawson into the little slot that plays music and soon Rex Lawson lifts my spirits up and I am swaying to the beat of ancient rhythms the way my father taught me to worship with the cheerleaders of the other world. I see Kenule and his pipe on the little path to nowhere walking up to me. Isaac Adaka Boro is in his dugout swigging ogogoro from a Fanta bottle and promising fire and brimstone next time. In the rage of my condition, joy welcomes me to freedom through the call-and-respond poetry of Rex Lawson. Life is good, who wants to die? Ominira takes one look at me and attaches her ears to her ipod. Soon, father and daughter are swaying to the beat of different drums. Life is good.  And I thank Agary for helping me out this time.

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