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:
Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
Africa in Words (Lexzy Ochibejivwie)