As promised, a selection has been made as to which story will be selected for the review that will serve as the basis for the workshop for this week. ‘Ayoka’s Two Worlds‘ by Lawal Opeyemi Isaac has been chosen, and below is the review done by Tola Odejayi.
Again, as mentioned in the earlier announcement, we hope that everyone will take part in making comments on the story, as well as making comments on the comments that Tola made on the story. Please feel free to air your agreements/disagreements or other perspectives that you may have. We also hope that Lawal Opeyemi Isaac will be available to respond to any questions that people may have about his story; this will enable the discussion to be much more rewarding.
Lastly, if your story was not selected for review this week, or if you feel that you would like your work to be similarly reviewed, please look out for next week’s call for submissions and submit your story then.
Without further ado, the review is presented below. Comments by Tola Odejayi are in [brackets in bold], with underlining for emphasis.
If she had a choice [Insert a comma here to separate the two clauses in the sentence. Think about how you would read this; you would pause at this point, so a comma is appropriate here.] she would have waited on that plastic chair forever. [you don’t ‘wait on a plastic chair’; better to say ‘she would have sat waiting in that plastic chair…’] [I’m not sure that this sentence works by itself as an introductory paragraph, especially because it would be more at home in the related following paragraph I don’t see it as powerful enough. I think the story would be better introduced as ‘Ayoka had sat in the on the veranda that evening, expecting her father’s return… If she had had a choice, she would have sat waiting…’]
Ayoka had sat in the veranda that evening, expecting her father’s return, waiting to hear the familiar heavy thuds of his steps as he came back home. She enjoyed the light breeze, the way it tingled [this should be tingled on] her skin and made the hair on her bare arms stand at attention [I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘stand at attention’; I think you’ve done a great job of painting a serene, relaxed atmosphere, and the ‘at attention’ somehow takes away from that. Perhaps ‘hair on her bare arms shiver… ripple with a frisson…’]. She admired the setting sun as it coloured the horizon orange and made the guava trees in the compound cast beautiful long shadows on the ground. She playfully contemplated which had a deeper shade of orange – the setting sun or the Fanta her father bought her on weekends [when I read this, it looks as if you might be saying ‘She playfully contemplated, which had a deeper orange; in other words, you are saying that her contemplation had a deeper shade of orange. Of course, on reading further, it’s obvious what you mean. But rather than have me confused at the beginning, it would be better to write this as ‘She playfully contemplated whether the setting sun had a deeper shade of orange than the Fanta her father bought her on weekends’.]. As she thought [about] it, she brushed off an imaginary mote of dust from her face and smoothed her hair which had been slightly ruffled by the breeze. Down the paved walkway, hibiscus flowers with colour as red as blood [why not simply ‘hibiscus flowers as red as blood’?] led to the front of the house. Her father would come down the walkway, smiling at her and stopping by the flowers to pluck a hibiscus [I think simply ‘flower’ would work better here instead of ‘hibiscus’; it’s better to be less descriptive in further mentions of the object] which he always placed behind her right ear after hugging her. That evening, he never came back [I would use ‘he did not return’]. The news came later that a trailer had crushed him to death on the Ibadan-Ife expressway. [I would add ‘Unfortunately’ here – to indicate the significance of this event to Ayoka] The cocoa company he worked for never provided a life assurance policy. [‘had not’ is better here than ‘never’ – I used use never if I wanted to indicate that the company wasn’t in the habit of providing life assurance; but even then, I would say ‘…company he worked for never provided life assurance policies’ (for all its employees).]
Her father was the only man she loved [we use the past perfect when describing an event 1 that takes place before another event 2, where event 2 is in the past. So I assume that at this point in the story, Ayoka’s father is dead (this is event 2 in the past); but Ayoka loved him before he died (this is event 1 that happened before event 2; so we should the past perfect to describe Ayoka’s loving her father (the only man she had loved)]. He was so kind and gentle that he never forgot to bring her lot of gifts from his many travels. He never whipped her with pankere, the long slender cane her mother used on her on the few occasions she misbehaved, which always left painful red welts on her body. [I like the way you describe the father by contrasting him against other people; I think this could be improved if you put each comparison in its own paragraph, so that made each point even more emphatic.] He was not unkind like Akindele [,] her classmate at school [,] who fondled her still growing breasts and expected her to shriek with pleasure and tell him to continue. He said that was what the other girls at school did. Instead she shrieked in pain and ran away. He was not like Uncle Demola whose back was bent from the ground he tilled at [‘in’, not ‘at’] the village. His tall bent figure reminded her of the clock reading ten minutes to six [I like the image of the clock]. Uncle Demola’s hands were coarse like sandpaper and she was always afraid of him touching her as though his hand would scrape her soft skin until it bled. His fingernails were always dirty no matter how hard he washed them. They had assumed the colour of the earth he tilled. He was always chewing taba, a local tobacco and his teeth and tongue had taken on the brown colour of the substance. When she was younger, she used to wonder if the harsh tobacco had affected his heart and made him so unkind. Perhaps, that was the reason why he always insisted on her two knees touching the ground when she greeted him, or why he was always telling her father to take a second wife who would bear him sons; that her mother was now a he-goat incapable of giving birth anymore. Her father had always defended her mother. He always said that children came from God and there will [‘would’ – this happened in the past] be more if it is God’s will. It could also be the reason he insisted that everyone call her Ayoka, instead of Rachael, the biblical name her mother gave her [‘had given her’ instead of ‘gave her’ – see earlier comment about past perfect] at birth to signify the family’s deep-rooted Christianity.
[I’m wondering whether it wouldn’t have been better to structure the story so that while she waited for her father to return, she fondly reminisced about him while she compared him to her other relatives; I think that better fits the serene atmosphere that you painted. Then there could be a dramatic change of scene as she hears the news that her father has died. But that (as everything else I’ve written) is just my opinion.]
She wanted to be like Aunty Adunni, who worked in Capital Bank and lived in a mansion at Ibadan. She used to spend her holidays there and always marvelled at how Aunty Adunni’s life seemed free from troublesome men like Uncle Demola. Aunty Adunni had men who came very late in the night and left before dawn. Ayoka hardly saw their faces because most times she was asleep when they left. She never understood the groans she always heard coming from Aunty Adunni’s [you could use ‘her aunt’ instead of ‘Aunty Adunni’ to prevent too much repetition] room when she went to urinate in the adjoining toilet, which sounded like a person in pleasure and at the same time in the throes of pain. [I would have ‘urinate in the adjoining toilet; they sounded like a person…’ the current sentence feels rather long without the semicolon breaking it up] But she always looked unhurt and happy in the mornings when she wore her short skirt which revealed her flawless, pinkish thighs. [Did she feel happy because she was wearing her short skirt? Or are you saying that she was happy in the mornings, and also in the mornings, she wore her short skirt? If the latter, you could write it like this: ‘…happy in the mornings as she wore her short skirt…’ indicating that her happiness was concurrent with the wearing of the skirt, and not caused by it.] She would look in awe as Aunty Adunni gave orders to her male servants – most of them older than she – ordering them about [I think that there is some redundancy here. You can have ‘…as Aunty Adunni ordered about her male servants – most of whom were older than her’]. She wished she could transform into Aunty Adunni when she got back to the village just to stop Uncle Demola from ordering her mother around like a village slave. Aunty Adunni had told her to be studious so she could become a man for her father. [I like the expression ‘a man for her father’.]
Five weeks after her father’s burial, Uncle Demola convened a family meeting. He sat on the tall armchair at the head of the table in the living room, where her father used to sit. He was chewing tobacco and it looked like the brown of the tobacco had gone to his eyes [I liked the expression about the brown going to his eyes; it highlights how avid a chewer he is. But I’d would remove some of the repetition by writing this as ‘It looked like the brown of the tobacco he was chewing had gone to his eyes’] His back was bent at an angle, not like her father’s back which used to be aligned straight with the armchair.
‘After careful deliberations with other members of the family, we have decided to take over the estate of your husband,’ Uncle Demola said. His eyes looked pointedly at her mother, heavy with undiluted tobacco. [there’s some ambiguity here. Was her mother heavy with undiluted tobacco? Also, an eye doesn’t look; a person looks. So better to structure this as ‘His eyes, heavy with undiluted tobacco, were fixed pointedly on her mother.’]
‘What?’ her mother shouted [,] surprised. ‘My husband and I struggled to get all we have together. How can you just take everything away like that?’
‘Shut up,’ he replied, angrily. His voice rose with every word he spoke. ‘How dare you raise your voice at me, ehn? You this woman, how dare you? It is not your fault, if only my brother had listened to me…’
He went on to say other senseless things which further angered her mother. [I’m not sure if it’s a good idea for the neutral narrator to use an emotive word like ‘senseless’. Maybe ‘hurtful’, ‘harsh’…]
‘Demola, look at me,’ she said. ‘I cannot allow you to take over my husband’s properties just without any reasons.Ori e ti baje!”
Uncle Demola narrowed his frustrated [‘frustrated’? Why? It’s not obvious why he would have been frustrated as he was now in a position of power] eyes and tightened his tobacco face out of [‘in’ instead of ‘out of’] shock. ‘Did I hear you say my head is not correct?’
‘You heard me right,’ her mother insisted, clapping her hands to drive home her point. ‘In fact, your brain deserves a thorough psychiatric examination. Olori buruku, oloshi, crooked pauper that killed his younger brother to inherit his properties!’
Uncle Demola stood up and started to stomp around. ‘Your husband was childless so I deserve to inherit his properties.’
‘He was not childless,’ she countered, and straightened her neck as if to grow suddenly taller than Uncle Demola. ‘He had a daughter, Ayoka.’
‘You call Ayoka a child? She does not exist as far as I am concerned,’ he said and turned to Ayoka. ‘Henceforth, Ayoka, you’ll go and stay with your Aunt Ajitoni in Alabata village. Maybe it won’t be too late for her to instill some sense and home training in you.’
‘No, Uncle Demola, I’ll be writing final exams in the college [‘college’ instead of ‘the college’] next year and I cannot leave Ogere,’ Ayoka replied with a defiant look. The idea of going to a remote village had suddenly killed all the fear she had of him, and she didn’t know when or how the words flew out of her mouth.
‘My daughter is not going anywhere,’ her mother shouted.
‘Shut up,’ he replied in anger. ’You see, this woman is evil, and she has transferred the evil to her child. She encourages her daughter to speak back at elders. She buys her short dresses and tight trousers that show all the curves in her body. She teaches her not to greet elders with her two knees touching the ground. I can assure you, all that will stop soon.’ [Who is Uncle Demola talking to here? You should make this clearer.]
His lower lip trembled as he spoke and he looked with scorn at her mother as if daring her to say more. Ayoka looked at Uncle Demola’s mischievous [I wouldn’t use ‘mischievous’ – this signifies someone who causes harm out of fun. I would use ‘malevolent’ – indicating a much more sinister intent.] face and wished she were Aunty Adunni at that moment. She wanted to give the noisome old man a rap on the head and shut him up.
[What happened? How did Uncle Demola crush all that defiance??? This is central to the story – I wish I had read more about this.]
Three days later, Uncle Demola took her to Alabata village to live with Aunty Ajitoni, whom she knew little about, except that she had six tribal marks on each sunken cheek, arranged in three horizontal rows with three vertical strips adjoining atop. [This is a rather convoluted description – how about ‘…sunken cheek – three vertical marks above three horizontal marks’ instead?] Her mother was forced out of the house and she got herself a one-room apartment on the other side of town. Uncle Demola promised to send her a stipend every month to complement what she earned working as a teaching assistant at the local primary school; a promise he never fulfilled.
In the village, she enrolled in the local secondary school and endured the taunts of her classmates who said she sounded over-pampered and had a plastic accent from the city; and could not eat the roast grasshoppers like them. [I’d write ‘…sounded over-pampered, had a plastic accent from the city and could not eat grasshoppers like them.’ rather than having ‘a and b and c and …’]
She passed all papers in her final exams. She still clung on to hope that if she got a job and worked hard, she could still live the life that she had always wanted. [I would join this with the next paragraph, i.e. ‘…she could still live the life she wanted. But Aunty Ajitonie had other plans…’]
Aunty Ajitoni had other plans. Ayoka noticed the frequent visits of Akindele to the house, but she never suspected that he would have anything to do with her. [Is this the same Akindele who was her schoolmate?] Akindele worked in Ibadan, [the comma isn’t needed here] as a foreman in a Lebanese owned company that produced biscuits. She didn’t like him, [ or ‘…like him; she didn’t like the faint…] didn’t like the faint smell of ogogoro, a local gin that always hung on his breath; the way he seemed so cold even when he tried to be kind to her. She didn’t like his tall frame like Uncle Demola’s [or ‘…tall frame, which was like Uncle Demola’s’, to make clearer], his hairy body and the large ugly scar that covered his right hand from the elbow to the wrist. The scar was raised and hairless; it looked like a bald patch of desert in a rainforest. [I like the imagery of the desert/rainforest.] Aunty Ajitoni said it was from an accident at the factory [,] as if that information meant anything to her.
Uncle Demola came visiting one Sunday morning and told her he had agreed with Aunty Ajitoni that she would be marrying Akindele in three months. All her entreaties to him, about going to school and having a life fell on deaf ears. Uncle Demola’s excuse was that all of a woman’s education ended in a man’s kitchen, so why shouldn’t she enter the kitchen at an early part of her life and get used to it? Moreover, if a woman wanted more education after secondary school, she should get it at her husband’s house. She was married off at [in] a small traditional ceremony, where Uncle Demola took the bride price and Aunty Ajitoni and other female family members shared all the bridal gifts. Her mother wasn’t even allowed to attend the ceremony.
The couple’s first attempt at intimacy [why not just say ‘sex’? I personally find ‘intimacy’ somewhat ambiguous, but that’s just me.] was very painful, not like all the gentleness and tender touches she had read [about] in romance novels. Akindele came at her like a charged bull, reeking of sour ogogoro. The initial pain of his penetration was searing, like a knife jabbing into gangrened flesh, coursed up and down her spine. [better still ‘…gangrened flesh; it coursed up and down…’] He took her violently, not conscious of her pain and was soon snoring loudly beside her. She cried till the early morning, repulsed at the mix of warm semen and blood that stained her thighs.
Akindele lived on the outskirts of Ibadan where he brought her [Have this as ‘Akindele brought her to the outskirts of Ibadan, where he lived’]. She learnt to tolerate her illiterate neighbours, who were always gossiping or talking about the latest Yoruba home videos. Sometimes she heard them from her open window, talking about her being a recluse or perhaps having a mental condition, for [‘because’ instead of the somewhat archaic ‘for’] they couldn’t fathom how a young pretty woman would sit and brood in a dark room all day. She learnt to endure Akindele, who spent the better part of his salary drinking ogogoro and chasing little girls. She learnt to endure his sneers on nights when he wanted sex, when he complained that he wasted a lot of money on a woman who slept like a log of wood through the entire act.
The union produced Dele. Sometimes watching the boy grow and caring for him gave her some sort of happiness, most times it did not. [‘…sort of happiness, but most of the time, it did not.] The only moments she was truly happy was when she daydreamed about the life she would have loved to live, a life made possible in the other world where scarcity meant abundance. [It’s only here we get a sense of the deep sadness and disillusionment that pervades Ayoka’s life; I think this is one of the strongest points of the story, and I wish it had been expanded on more. I don’t get the ‘scarcity meant abundance’ reference, though.]
One day, as she lay on the threadbare couch in the room, she began to dream.
‘Sikirat,’ she called to one of the servants from the living room.
‘Ma,’ Sikirat answered as she hurriedly entered the living room from the kitchen, wiping her wet hands on her faded Ankara skirt. Small beads of sweat like little lakes of brownish water dotted her freshly powdered face. [Not sure if ‘lakes’ is the right word; a lake gives the impression of hollows on a surface. ‘Beads of sweat’ is enough, I think.]
‘Where is the lemonade I asked for?’ Ayoka asked, rising from the leather settee.
‘I am still clearing the dishes from the afternoon meal Ma,’ the poor servant answered, taking a few steps backwards to avoid the stinging slap that could land unannounced on her face. ‘I’ll bring it immediately I finish.’
‘Bring it right away,’ she fumed. ‘You spend all the time applying makeup on that useless face.’
She settled back against the settee and changed the channel of the big screen cable TV to the latest Hollywood movie. The TV screen was so large that watching it felt as if the rushing cars would jump out straight at her. She sank her freshly manicured feet into the Persian rug, took in long breaths of the cool air coming from the air conditioner as she expected her lemonade. [Is it realistic for Ayoka to dream this kind of dream? I thought she lived in a village? (It’s not very obvious from the initial paragraphs.) If I’m right, then she wouldn’t have this kind of exposure.]
‘Mama Dele, your pikin don shit for Mama Mulikat door.’ The voice of Sherifat, her nine-year-old neighbor’s daughter jolted her back to reality as if cold water had been poured on her. Sherifat peeped through the threadbare curtain, a wide smile on her bony face. Her stomach was visibly distended under her undersized frock and her sallow skin showed [the] early onset of kwashiorkor. [Good description of Sherifat here.]
‘Thank you Sheri,’ she answered coldly, regretting that it was just a daydream. ‘I’ll come and take care of him now.’
She moved across her one-room apartment with several potholes on the floor [Again, watch for the ambiguity; I could read this as her moving with the potholes in the floor somehow moving along with her. It’s better to say ‘She moved across the potholed floor of her one-room apartment]. She wore a fleeting smile [why was she smiling?] and searched for old newspapers under a table that stood at an awkward angle because one of its legs was broken, shorter than the rest. The table always reminded her of Uncle Demola. Her brief smile vanished. She tore out a page from an old newspaper, mumbling to herself about how useless her husband, Akindele, was [We already know her husband’s name; it’s somewhat redundant to mention it again, I think. Or did you have a reason for mentioning it here?]. He had not left money for feeding and housekeeping for three months running, and even refused to bring old newspapers home.
She walked into the dark corridor, hardly able to see. Dele, her one-year-old son, lit up with a cherubic smile on seeing her and he began waving his tiny hands. She picked him up, refused to smile back and cleaned his buttocks with the torn sheet. [I found it so sad and so moving that she was so fed up with her life that not even the smile of her son could cheer her up.] With the larger piece, she cleaned up the faeces on the floor and carefully wrapped it up. She started to walk up the corridor towards the open doorway that led into the courtyard filled with toilet flies. Femi followed her closely, tugging at her wrapper, giggling loudly.
‘Don’t follow me,’ she said. He refused to heed and kept on giggling. She looked down into his little face; his merriment annoyed her partly because his defecating brought her out of her dream world and partly because she was beginning to think that with his stubbornness, he may [‘might’, not ‘may’ – past tense] turn out heady and stonehearted like his father. The toddler continued to tug at her wrapper, yelling, ‘Mama, Mama,’ in his little voice, oblivious of the thoughts raging through his mother’s head.
Dele’s tugging made her miss a step and she crashed into the low headboard above the open doorway. Rapidly, her uncovered head and face became black with the colour of the cobwebs and soot coming from atupa – a local lantern – that had gathered on the headboard over the years. [or ‘…cobwebs and soot deposited on the headboard by atupa – local lanterns – over the years’.] by She struggled with her sight and cursed loudly as her Dunlop slippers became stuck in the mud of the courtyard. The white of the slippers and her feet became muddy red. [You can condense this as follows to avoid too much repetition: ‘…her white Dunlop slippers and feet became muddy red, stuck in the mud of the courtyard’.] She wiped her face with the back of her hand and didn’t walk further but flung the shit-filled newspaper across the fence into the bush behind the house. She felt like throwing the child over the fence, too, but his smiling face drew [or ‘softened’] her. She lifted him into her hands, smiled and whispered into his ear, ‘Dele, my son, you will become what I could have been.’ He giggled, but could not turn his mother’s daydreams into reality now – not yet anyway.
[Like I said earlier, a very sad and poignant story of unfulfilled dreams. I would probably have written it with the opening scene in Ibadan, then I would have flashed back to the circumstances that brought Ayoka to where she was today (her father’s death, her forced wedding). Well done!]
P S: Many thanks to Ifesinachi Okoli for how this story turned out.