Bev is Blogging the Caine, America by Chinelo Okparanta
(PHOTO FROM INTERNET)
As part of the Caine Blogathon, Aarn Bady, who blogs at The New Inquiry and several other writers have been blogging the Caine prize shortlisted stories of 2013. Amercia is the last one on the list as we await to hear the winner.
America is an extremely well-told story. It is layered with hope, Foreign policy, destiny, and two worlds. It is a compact story, complete, circular and entertaining with a few Geography and Environment lessons there and there. While the desire to live and study in America may not be intriguing since we read it in Foreign Aid and Miracle and also because that novelty has worn off, it is the character’s journey to attaining her visa which is the essence of the story. Her family’s involvement, bus-rides to the visa office and blossoming friendship with Gloria and her life as a school teacher. There is so much going on but each scene is interesting.
Nnenna, whose name we hear of once, is a captivating person to follow. She is a proud teacher of Federal Government Girls’ College in Abuloma, a proud teacher with a wealth of knowledge. The meeting with Gloria Oke, a Curriculum Development visiting expert to the school, is an intrusion to Nnenna’s otherwise routine but noble existence. Gloria and Nnenna become fast friends and before long, their friendship escalates to sleepovers and eventually a lesbian affair. It is a gradual development, from licking icing from cake and feeling under each others’ blouses.
Nnenna’s mother, though not religious admonishes her only child warning against this relationship that is criminal in Nigeria. Her father is calmer about it. As a reader, I feel there is authorial intrusion where the development of the reaction of parents has been summarized too quickly without us feeling the enormity of this affair. Secondly, while Nnenna appears to come from an enlightened family, her description of the snow reflects a more naïve person.
And I think of Gloria playing in the snow-like I imagine Americans do, lying in it-forming now angels on the ground. I think of Papa suggesting that perhaps America would be the best place for me and my kind of love. (Page 18)
Gloria represents a desired future. She is the love of Nnenna’s life, educated on the crude oil economics of Nigeria and America and she lives in America. She is the sole reason Nnenna’s acquires a visa and also ignites her desire to leave. Her mother begs her to return and not get lost in America but Nnenna almost hopes that she actually does get lost and separate herself from the hardship of Nigeria.
The introduction of the bus ride out of Port Harcourt is a little bit touristy. An excerpt is below.
We drive through bushes. We pass the villages that rim our side of the Bonny River. There are hardly any trees in the area, and the shrubs are little more than stumps, thin and dusty, not verdant as they used to be. This, Mama has told me: that the vegetation around the Bonny River once thrived. That the trees grew tall, and from them sprang green leaves. And their flowers gave rise to fruit. Of course, this memory is hers, from a former reality, one too old to be my own.
The roads are sandy and brown, with open gutters, and with wrappers and cans and bottles strewn about (Page 1).
It is almost as if it is the protagonist’s first trip to Nigeria. I understand the need to distance herself from the filth, just like when he left the Embassy after attaining her visa, but there I nothing unique about the place because trees are expected to have leaves and flower expected to bear fruit, just as shrubs can often look like stumps. Possibly the knowledge of Bonny River would have helped, but it does not.
The knowledge of Shell’s involvement in the oil spill and the different reactions in America and Nigeria is not uncommon but an interesting tale to tell in this story. It does make it appear like too much is going on in the story though from lesbian relationships, parent to daughter relationships and this obvious important oil spill issue. I am a bit uncomfortable too with the fact that America does seem to answer everyone’s problems and has been placed on an unnecessary pedestal. The proverbial story tries to alleviate that, along with the Mother’s plea for her daughter to return. When Nnena’s father though, tells her that America is the place that will manage her kind of love, I feel that it is not the love he is talking about, but her lifestyle, it will meet her dream and hopes as compared to a more hopeless Nigeria. That again, appears to be the author’s intrusion because the parents’ characters were not developed enough for us as readers to agree with their sentiments. The readers should have been left to decide whether or not they agreed with the lesbian affair without it being prescribed to us.
The mother is by far, the most memorable character. Her reaction to the relationship is real and characteristic of a mother who cares.
On Page 111, the excerpt below shows a lot.
A woman and a woman cannot bear children, Mama says to me. That’s not the way it works. As he stomp out of the room, he says again, The wind has blown and the bottom of the fowl has been exposed.
Further along, she complains about how he will never have a grandchild. It is easy to be moved to pity for the mother and shake some sense into Nnena for breaking her mother’s heart. This bond is quite pivotal in the story and is an interesting dynamic. The love of lovers against the love of parents.
I would be interested to read other stories by Okparanta because she is obviously gifted.Thi story was first published in Granta Magazine.
Review by Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva