In July 2009, E.C. Osondu won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing for ‘Waiting’, a short story about war refugees set in an unnamed country or time. The book has recently been published by Farafina Books in Nigeria. Over the next few days, E.C. Osondu will be reading from his Voice of America, a collection of stories, in Lagos and Port Harcourt as follows:
Friday July 22nd: Abule Book Club, The Life House, 33 Sinari Daranijo Victoria Island, Lagos, 6pm
Saturday July 23rd: Patabah Bookshop, Shoprite Mall, Surulere, Lagos, 3pm
Sunday July 24th: Rainbow Book Club, Le Meridien Hotel, Ogeyi Place, Port Harcourt, 4pm
Saturday July 30th: Terra Kulture, Tiamiyu Savage St., Victoria Island, Lagos, 3pm
Below is Myne Whitman’s review of the American edition of the book autographed for by the author during a reading in Seattle.
The first short story in this collection is the award winning waiting. And with it, Osondu starts this collection of short stories that span some universal human themes, and some not so universal. Issues of deprivation, hope, belonging, marriage, loss, family, acceptance and love, are all tackled, better in some stories than in others. ‘Waiting’ is a supposed-to-be-stirring tale about a young boy who lives in a refugee camp run by the Red Cross and who hopes to be adopted by new parents from America. I found it not so stirring and a bit contrived; maybe it is because I have not seen that many T-shirts that have place names on them.
‘Our First American’ and ‘A Simple Case’ are cityscapes, telling of the not so obvious parts of Lagos and how the people in them survive or die. ‘Going Back West’ tells about deported Uncle Dele whose activities in his desperation to return to America does not end well. There’s one word for ‘Miracle Baby’, stupefying! You have to read it to believe it. While these stories are not so remarkable in themselves, some of the settings and scenarios used in the narrative are quite engaging and at times, informative. ‘Jimmy Carter’s Eyes’ is the fascinating tale of a young girl who goes blind and becomes her village oracle, whereby elders prevent her from taking advantage of eye treatment courtesy of the former American president.
‘Letter from Home’ is a plea from an aging mother to her America-based son, asking for money, houses, cars, or his return. While it’s perplexing that some Nigerian parents think like this, what I found very engaging was the use of an anecdote, a story within a story, to buttress the message. Two girls are saved from the refugee camp when their widowed mother marries again in ‘Janjaweed Wife’ but in the truncated ending, Osondu bears out my impatience with short stories. ‘Welcome to America’ is a more straightforward tale of an immigrant’s early years in America, and his family’s ironically carefree experience of living in a seedy side of town, and ‘Teeth’ is a humorous story with echoes of ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’.
In ‘The Men they Married’ and a few other stories, a bright light is shone on marriages contracted under the shadow of the almighty green card, or laboring with the burden of the immigrant experience. Separate lives, distrust, abandonment, and unfaithfulness are some of the skeletons found in that closet, with ‘Stars in my mother’s eyes, Stripes on my back’ and ‘Nigerians in America’ being told from the perspective of the children caught in such marriages. The last paragraph of the latter story, where an untrustworthy character we had just read about returned to Nigeria to run for chairman in his LG elections, saddened me.
There were a number of very good stories out of the 18 that make up Voice of America. EC Osondu has a graceful narrative voice and it echoes across all stories, making the book a smooth read. In ‘Bar Beach Show’, we are served up a slice of history with some superstition thrown in. I liked this story and it is the one I think that has the most local flavor. I found out that Bar Beach, formerly known as Victoria Beach, not only hosts a wish-granting mermaid every seventh month of the year but also that a strange animal lands on the beach and soon disappears as mysteriously as it came. Does anyone remember the mysterious fish/whale from last year? Curiousity has had me browsing to see if there are reports on how it was finished by butchers or perhaps washed out back to sea. Anybody have an idea?
Moving on, I also liked ‘Pilgrimage’, where Osondu gently explores the connection between African-Americans and Africa through the prism of religious tourism. A visitor to TB Joshua is not healed by him but by a coven of traditionalist sisterhood in the market. It was also a pleasant surprise that the recent rash of expatriate kidnappings in the Niger Delta was tackled over a tapestry of the local club girl culture in ‘An incidence in Pat’s Bar’. The bar owner asks, “Who is going to help the cow with no tail to drive away flies?” when an unemployed American is kidnapped. My overall favorite however, is the title story and the last in the book, where Osondu employs simplicity to poignantly tell the story of a young man in need of a pen pal.