Read Edible Bones, and have a smooth ride, like a professional chauffeur cruising you around town in a limousine. Only that Kaitochuckwu has taken us on a turbulent wander across America, Unoma Azuah’s delivery is exquisite, done in simple language, and a free-flowing narrative that is, for me, reminiscent of the moment with Eddie Iroh’s Without a Silver Spoon. Unoma Azuah does not try to impress. She simply tells a good story so well the intrigue and captivation would have a lot of readers continuously flipping the pages until the last page.
So have you held, for instance, your cell phone in your hand and then you go about searching for it all over? Sometimes, the things we chase after are right there with us. The joys and ambitions we seek to find in faraway places are there with us in our remote surroundings. This is what Edible Bones by award winning author, Unoma Azuah, is all about. Unoma’s book is a familiar story of life as an illegal immigrant in a country where there is no hiding place.
The book chronicles the story of Kaitochuckwu’s desperate attempts to actualizing a dream he did not prepare for; a dream he shouldn’t have thought about. It’s as plain as that. Kaito is a graduate of History from the ‘prestigious’ University of Udi somewhere in Nigeria but finds himself working as a security guard at the American Embassy in Lagos where a sudden eye for greener pastures in a land that promises all began to nurture wild dreams for this young man. Kaito soon finds himself in America on a visitor’s visa—six weeks. But for this young man, there was no going back to the land where he had seen no hope, where what you studied was not a basis for employment. It was an obstinate ambition that was as well without focus. Kaito’s problem does not begin when he lands in America and cannot make contact with the two men—Abuda and Kamalu—whose addresses his family had given him back home. It starts when he makes up his mind to overstay his visa and find his way to staying in America by all costs.
Kaito agrees to wash dishes, clean floors in America—after all, he was a security guard at the American Embassy back in Nigeria with mostly the responsibilities of violently fending off teeming visa applicants either with his koboko or the threat to use his pistol—to earn a living while constantly looking over his shoulder for law enforcement. When it becomes even tougher to hide, Amin, whom Kaito, to a greater extent, has to be grateful to for being one of his employers sold him the idea of obtaining forged documents. Kaito paid four thousand dollars he borrowed from Amin to get a bogus ID and green card. What is depressing about the actions of this young man is that he had no business in America in the first place, but then Kaito is an interesting character, though not pitiable. In him the reader finds an embodiment of wrong choices, wrong decisions and a long list of other wrongs. Kaito takes little in terms of learning from all the people that try to help him—Abuda, Kamalu, and the Main family.
Kaito has trouble and has to flee his abode for Tennessee. He is helped with a job by Abuda’s friend, Mr. Billy Main. It takes Kaito only a while to make friends with Purky Perry whom he meets at the local church. The Main family find out and warn him about Purky but Kaito does not listen. Shortly after, he moves in with Purky Perry who later arranges a marriage for him with a forty-eight-year old woman named Rosie. The marriage did not work and at the end, Kaito ends up with Purky Perry through a fight. He returns to the Mains and is arrested for assaulting Purky Perry. He was released that next night and from the station, he set forth to California. But he was nabbed on approaching New Mexico by immigration. Kaito had overstayed his visa for two years. Again I raise the question, What was Kaito doing in America? But Kaito is just one out of so many that have led this illusory life of believing America is the land of redemption where everything works for the good. Finally, Kaito manages to strike a marriage with, his third ‘sleeping’ partner, the enormous Jemima that might just as keep him for a while more in the land of freedom.
How ambitious can a man be? Kaito has shown us how most times we set our ambitions so high that they blind us of the gradual struggle that is paramount to success, the patience and the good judgment that is also essential to actualizing ambitions. Is Kaito fair to himself? I ask. Others would ask if the Nigerian condition is fair to Kaito; to majority of other Nigerians? A failed system has had everyone with an eye for greener pastures setting their sights elsewhere. The promise of satisfaction is non-existent; the prospect of survival is bleak. But then, the character, Kaito, leads it the wrong way. He lacks so much focus to a point that it is irritating. Really, what is so great about humping a white woman? When Kaito has sex with the receptionist, Beth, who agreed to accommodate him—while he determines the whereabouts of Abuda and Kamalu—in exchange for money and sex, he could not wait to tell Kamalu and his friends back in Nigeria about it. Is this what one finds more endearing about America?
On his visit to Nigeria, Kaito’s embarrassing behavior rears up again when he gets drunk. He flirts with a few ladies under the influence, and then got into a fight with his friend Bola. On their way back to Bola’s house, Kaito ends up puking in his friend’s expensive Hummer to Bola’s great displeasure. Despite his hard time in America, Kaito’s visit home was received by his friends who were, indeed, having a better life, as the one who was loaded. Why not? He just landed from America where he had spent three years. But then the magic of home does it. Slowly, Kaito reaches an epiphany. As he does so, the mirage of his illusions clear away.
Unoma writes well about the senseless struggle of Kaito. She also exposes—though subjectively—that disapproving racist behavior is still present even in 21st Century America. An immigration officer interviewing Kaito and Jemima to establish whether they were truly husband and wife provoked a rant from Jemima. She explodes, when Kaito tries to talk her down. “You don’t have to deal with this rubbish just because you’re African. You’re a human being with as much rights as they have. What nonsense!” (p.177) Could it be that Jemima came down too harsh on the officer? This could not be seen as bias by the author or an excessive exaggeration of the racist behaviors still prevalent among a few (Black soccer players in Europe would offer testament to this). But is the offended as innocent as much as the offender is guilty? A simple question of how often the couple, Kaito and Jemima had sex sets Jemima off on a rampaging rain of insinuations that are, for all the reader would want to care about, baseless. I found this interesting, too, “Take your sorry stinking African ass outta here, mothafucka!” (p.16)
All that is not up for his pleasure meets Kaito. On three occasions, men made passes at him. He got infuriated in the second instance he almost punched the man. In prison, Kaito is made to stand guard as Zulkibulu, his protector, has sex with his male partner, Taffy in the bathrooms. He was so appalled when he learnt that was what was going on and walked away. In the debate about homosexuality, the author here only shows plenty of the character’s disapproval to it. I ask, Is there a boundary between immorality, crime and sin? The liberal man would tell you there is. Because what is immoral could not necessarily be a crime, but could be a sin against belief….against God. And yet, what defines immorality?
I enjoyed Edible Bones. Unoma Azuah is a fine writer. She writes in a simple form that is not bland. But then, Edible Bones suffers from what I call the infamous Nigerian Signature—lack of painstaking eyes. The character Mma (p.206) appearing as Nma (p. 213) spells inconsistency issues. Same with this: Kaito meets friends at “Hot Spot” restaurant (p.208), then he’s coming out of “Tantalizers” (p.211) on taking his leave? And then I could pick some of these typos: “…My lon bag…” (p.191), I think, should be “…My long bag…” “…came to almost…” (p. 211), I think, should be “…came through almost…” “…more then twenty…” (p.213), should be “…more than twenty…” There is also inconsistency in language. By the time I was sure the author was narrating in American English, words chiefly from British English began mixing in. See, “torchlight” (p. 213) chiefly Britain, and “soccer” chiefly American (p.216). The generally accepted principle is one should stick to one form of language. Now here is what is embarrassing, yes, it should embarrass the publisher. On p. 132 and 155, track changes—you don’t know what ‘track changes’ is? Google it—appear in the margins. This is truly careless. These embarrassing blemishes could have been solved by a keen editor. Also, page layout is poor and personally, the font type and its large size takes a lot of seriousness away from the book considering its target audience.
Another thing I found perplexing about the book is the impression from the American characters about Africa being a wilderness full of wild animals where there are no roads, houses; where there is no development. We see reference to a Blackberry smartphone on p. 214. This among some other pointers shows the book is set in modern times, probably just about two, three years ago. Supposing that is true. How then, in this global age, information about existence in Africa would be so exclusive until one visits the land? Is Africa still remote? “O, Africa!” a man responded to Kaito when he introduced himself that he was from Nigeria. “I have a friend in South Africa. He brings home interesting tapes of the Zulu dance clan. Do you know the group?” Do people still say this kind of stuff to internationals from Africa these days? “Tapes!” That sounds dated and contradicts the seeming modern setting of the book. When Jemima arrives Nigeria, she’s actually shocked that Nigeria had buildings and looked quite beautiful. In this, I find the characters not properly reconciled with the setting.
On the whole, Edible Bones is a fulfilling read. It is also a warning for those aspiring blindly, without a bedrock, to cross the Atlantic.
“Welcome back home, Kaitochukwu.”