This is one of five posts on the Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Shortlist. A group as organised by Aaron Bady will be blogging about the entries (one per week) for five weeks until the prize is announced on the 8th of July. Please see the links below for details and a schedule.
My Thoughts on ‘America’ by Chinelo Okparanta
By Veronica Nkwocha
For a story so titled, perhaps it is only natural that ‘America’ will be used and viewed effusively. It is a longing for a ‘utopia’ and with every contrasting detail between the dream destination and home, the latter got darker and drearier. It set the tone for the narrative which was a last wistful glance at home whilst hoping for the future, and a berating by Nnenna Etoniru, the lonesome young lady on her way to meet her lover halfway across the world. She would have to get ‘the visa’ first.
We are told about the journey with flash backs punctuating the story. They didn’t intrude on the flow but provided insight and fleshed out the characters and the emotions that consumed her on this all important bus ride and her life in the last three years.
‘America’ came across as heavy. As though the protagonist carried this weight about her which she never put down even whilst seated on a journey. Her eyes were constantly on the lookout for yet another crack in the system, she didn’t have to look very far with her head jarring against the window with every bump caused by potholes, some the size of ‘washbasins’. Like a child telling on an older sibling to parent, it became a list of what wasn’t working. Her job wasn’t what she wanted, her relationship had to be hidden away and the view outside had children coated in the solid black of crude oil and litter everywhere. Even her parents seemed like fading photographs; a yellowing tinge of trepidation at her possible disappearance like others, absorbed by America.
Nnenna’s near fawning of America was almost clichéd, her starry eyed portrayal better suited to a character less educated and just fresh from the hinterland startled by the newness of it. The only picture she had seemed to be from the photos Gloria sent as if she did not watch any television at all and had no access to the internet.
“We became something – an item, Papa says – in February, months after Gloria’s visit to the school”.
It would have been nice to get to know ‘Papa’ better. What was it about him that made him so accepting of their relationship? He was quite different from the norm, a diametric opposite. Was it his upbringing? His total lack of concern for a grandchild unlike his wife seeing as Nnena was their only child runs contrary to their cultural expectation and there was no indication as to why.
One can imagine that Nnenna may not have made the journey in the end. Did the pull towards America come out of the perfection it occupied in her thoughts rather than an overwhelming love for Gloria? Once it was spoiled by “something like black clouds forming in waters that would usually be clear and blue”, she hesitated. It was the perfect time to study for that Masters degree in Environmental Engineering especially with the fresh information sure to be generated from the Gulf Oil spill yet she appeared to be dithering.
“What sympathy can we have for someone who, after wanting something so badly for three long years, realizes, almost as soon as she’s gotten it, that perhaps she’s been wrong in wanting it all that time? My second night at the inn, the night before I am to return to the embassy for my paperwork and passport, I think of Mama, her desire for a grandchild, and I think: Isn’t it only natural that she’d want a grandchild? I think of the small children emerging from the waters of the Delta covered in black crude. Their playground destroyed by the oil war. And I think: Who’s to say that this won’t some day be the case even in America? It all starts small by small. And then it gets out of hand. And here I am running away from one disaster, only to find myself in a place that might soon also begin to fall apart.” (Emphasis mine).
It is interesting that the fairy tale about the golden hen has no conclusion, her mother refuses to say.
Nnenna, rather than leap happily into the ‘utopia‘ of her dreams seems to be at a crossroad when the story ends,
“I force my eyes shut as if shutting them tight will prevent me from changing my mind, as if shutting them tight will keep regret from making its way to me.”
America’s sad and poignant tone mirrored a wilting of the once thriving beauty of the Niger Delta. The stoic thread that ran through, a reminder of the taboo of same sex relationships especially their secrecy in a society with a deep loathing for them.
*’America’ is on the shortlist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing.
Please click on the names below to read reviews of ‘America’ by other bloggers:
Africa in Words (Lexzy Ochibejivwie)
- Thinking through Chinelo Okparanta’s ‘America’ (lexzy565.wordpress.com)
What I did last night
By Veronica Nkwocha
Nestled on the grounds of the Guildford Castle is a gazebo framed by an oak tree. It is summer and hanging plants with pretty flowers lend colour to the evening. Garden furniture sit quietly awaiting their host. A lone bird whizzed past trees high above near empty chairs. They are set out on the lawn in a slight ‘U’, a cheeky smile withholding a secret; they have seen what is about to unfold many times before. There’s time for a quick picnic and then music lures guests to their seats.
We are here to watch ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde staged by the Guildford Shakespeare Company and directed by Anna Ledwich.
The veneer of social ‘propriety’ is circumvented by friends, John (“Jack”) Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff by their creation of fictitious characters. The muddle that came out of their pretense at being Ernest brought to the fore some of the double standards that ran like an undercurrent in conversations typically clothed with etiquette.
Algernon was an effervescent character and very difficult for Jack (Ernest) to put down with his witty comebacks. He contrasted with Jack’s stern but intelligent demeanour. Lady Bracknell was the very air of uppity charm dipped in a cutting wit constantly underlining the importance of an entrenched status quo.
Gwendolen Fairfax was the vivacious and ‘modern’ woman besotted with Ernest (Jack). She formed a rivalry and then a tentative friendship with beautiful Cecily Cardew over their shared obsession with Ernest, but which one? The object of Cecily’s affection was Algernon better suited to her flighty character. The butler‘s transformation in two different households was so dramatic I didn’t realise it was the same person.
The poor local vicar Dr Chasuble was doomed to racing between his parish and Jack’s home about a christening. He seemed to drift off at the thoughts of an inspiration for a sermon. Miss Prism was pinched like a lemon and it was apt that she squeezed out the answer to the secret of ‘the handbag’. How many more hints could a girl give and still the vicar carried on oblivious. And there was ‘Bunbury’, I could almost see him in my mind’s eye, hunched over a bowl of scents to ward away the chills.
From the very first opening of the play, it was a journey into laughter; the story was delivered with panache, a charmed performance by brilliant artists. They came to life with punch and the amount of humour crammed into one play made for a lively evening. There was uninhibited laughter and a sense of camaraderie began to build in the audience with the shared experience.
There were wistful looks as the play ended and we all walked to our exit. The Gazebo was empty. But a slight smile brought a spring to the step; laughter still is the best medicine.
My Thoughts on After Earth
By Veronica Nkwocha
‘After Earth’ opened with scenes of a latent conflict between a father and son. We follow General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and Kitai (Jaden Smith) into an adventure as they go on a journey from a new homeland in outer space urged on by Kitai’s mother. They plunge, a turbulent and unexpected journey to Man’s former home; an earth that looked lush and fertile, throbbing with life and hidden dangers.
It was an intensely emotional story. The helplessness a parent can feel was captured vividly; it was time, even if he was not prepared to release his treasured child into the unknown. A father unable to be the shield and provider, but still the power behind the ‘throne’ (using a futuristic communication device) as Kitai stepped out to make his mark and conquer the vast terrain that would be for them, the difference between life and death.
There were many heart stopping moments, was he equipped for the journey? Would he remember the most important lesson of all; to not fear? And the moments when the father has to look away from the images of his son when it seemed all would be lost.
The cinematography was crisp; one could almost touch the plants as the trembled in the silent breeze, the snowflakes drifted carefully as though they knew that rest would be their sure demise. The enemy alien was large, raged with a vengeance and frothed with hate for Man. The fallen eagle was majestic and called out a silent message that a kindred soul can be found in the most unusual of places.
A father and a son; the time together became a time apart and in all of the separation, they found a bond, tied into unbroken cords of love, respect and faith for tomorrow.
‘After Earth’ has had its share of criticism, The Hollywood News describes it;
“The clatter and booms from the doomed spacecraft in the first scene propel the film into top gear and will initially have you in awe, but it cannot escape the shifting down of gears as the film progresses from there on in. The special effects, as expected, are second to none and throughout the opening few scenes are faultless. But they become a tad laughable as we journey through to a set piece set around a waterfall two-thirds in.”
The Wall Street Journal notices a Scientology tint;
“I’ve never seen a movie that moves so slowly, or takes itself so seriously, which is why it doesn’t seem like a movie at all, but a sermon whose central subject is fear: “Danger is real,” the father tells the son, “but fear is a choice.” So a right question might be why “After Earth” was made. The sermon echoes a central theme of Scientology.”
The expectation from the beginning was that it would be a movie of a battle to survive against a back drop of a separation from home. In that regard, it got its job done although it did carry on to the point of being slightly tedious in parts.
There weren’t many moments of hope or laughter but there was an abundance of a relentless fear for the marooned duo. I wish there were more scenes showing a humorous side like the scene where Kitai kept running even after there were no more baboons in sight. His father said something like ‘son, you’re running away from nothing’ and the cinema erupted in laughter. It would have added more colour to the dark of ‘After Earth’.
By Veronica Nkwocha
Cast your eyes to the Sun
Rising from the cusp
Of inky dark
Marking its presence
With a soft morning light
Casting its shadows in cloudy sighs
A shower of blessing
Trickling through a veil
Of its flickering light
Palace of Secrets
By Veronica Nkwocha
Whispers, in the palace of secrets
Soft footsteps, in the treasured garden
Draped in a garland of pretty blossoms
Garnished with hidden sins
Put on the cherished veil of outstanding beauty
Dance on the front steps, preening and perfect
Trapped in a river flowing,
Tremors from a thinning crust
The guardian quivered, pluck the secret bow
Shoot darts of keys to unlock the box
Crumpling muddied veil and splattered tears
On a shattered vial of crippling pain
Dying blossoms gripping a fallow garden
Silence in the palace of secrets