Osofisan’s descriptions of the lives of the Nigerian poor, – the lower classes living out a desperate existence at the fringes of the economy– are very intimate.
By Chimezie Chika
In one story in Sola Osofisan’s short story collection, The Simple Joys of Her Final Days, a man walks up to a woman who had just exited a supermarket and offers to kill anyone she chooses for a paltry sum of ten thousand Naira. This gesture is a bolt from the blue, and expectedly, such a proposition from a total stranger spooks the woman. Yet, this action is just the right nudge to set off memories of her recent marital misery, and it lays the ground for why she might take up such an unseemly offer. Readers are thus drawn into this book of fascinating tales, set between Nigeria and the United States of America.
In each of the stories, there are often two disparate but connected events. In some cases, there could be a misconception of character; in others, the event could be a missing person. Osofisan interweaves alternating pictures of the lives of Nigerian immigrants in America as well as struggling Nigerians at home. Osofisan seems most interested in capturing the life of those in need, and these needs are relative to the difficult realities of the characters’ lives.
In “Immortal,” a struggling, undocumented immigrant in America is informed by the female representative of a payments company that he has won a two-million-dollar lottery. His initial reaction is excitement, but he soon realises that he has no valid identification to claim the sudden financial largesse. His growing dismay at the possibility of losing such once-in-a-lifetime boon unwittingly turns him into a threat to the company’s payment representative. Among many things, this story shows the dynamics of the exploitation of undocumented immigrants in America who, even as they greatly contribute to their host country’s economy, are still officially termed “illegal.”
The topics and issues that Osofisan tackles in the stories are wide-ranging. In one story, “A Woman in the Corner,” a female divisional police officer in Nigeria must tackle peculiar cases and root out corruption in her new station. It is a story about parental love and loss. Osofisan has a keen eye and ear for the sights and smells surrounding his characters; it is one feature that enhances our curiosity about the characters’ lives.
Osofisan’s descriptions of the lives of the Nigerian poor, – the lower classes living out a desperate existence at the fringes of the economy– are very intimate. The author knows their yearnings, aspirations and hopes. This gives the book a certain emotional heft, a sobering reflection of the societal indignities that is common in Nigeria. The reality of poverty in the book is shown in stark details, sometimes laced with sardonic humour as is evident in the story, “A Hereditary Disease.” Here, a travelling salesman relies on his guile and wit to sell fake drugs to passengers on a “molue” bus. This story also examines issues of sales scams, ribaldry, and the denigration of women, and the author captures these with skill and panache. There is a crushing sadness in the lives of these characters. Osofisan is adept at capturing the chaos of life, the scrim and scram of daily life among the rank and file in Lagos and in other crowded cities in Nigeria.
“Rag Doll,” another story that tackles the lives of the poor, focuses on the thoughts and actions of its four-year-old narrator. This is one of the best descriptions of a madman I have ever read in fiction – a madman who bears an inextricable link to the child. Again, the descriptions here bring poverty as close and as tangible as it can ever be in fiction. Among other poignant descriptions in the story, there are pictures of derelict public housing known as “face-me-I-face-you,” where the evening shadows of refuse-strewn streets are “stretched like contortionists.”
One of the triumphs of Osofisan’s writing in The Simple Joy of Her Final Days is in how he places clues to the real concerns of each of the stories, without divulging too much. There is suspense without the forced artificiality that is sometimes evident in some works of fiction. Here, everything moves with the natural flow of life, and thus, we are often moved by these stories.
The author has an immense capacity for creating genuinely humorous scenes and it shows in many of the stories and for the most part, this humour is revealed through dialogues and situations. As we see in “A Hereditary Disease,” the humour reveals the true nature of characters who are forced to resort to swindling by privation. In “New Every Morning,” the humour comes out of the irony of a womaniser who falls into the blackmailing net of a possibly deranged woman. It also explores the idea of urban ghost tales.
Osofisan’s style is marked by a Joycean attention to minute details, which greatly enriches the stories. In each of the stories, there are pithy descriptions of slum life, immigrant life, and the struggle for survival. The stories are all connected by the interplay of survival and paranoia.
One of the best stories in the collection, “Credible Threat,” is the story of a Nigerian immigrant working as a mailman in American suburbia. Osofisan’s portrait of a Nigerian immigrant working as a mailman in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood is so finely-drawn that the experience is almost visceral. Sunday, the mailman, is mortified by the lives of the people he sees on his beat—loafers, street urchins and muggers. The jobless boys who sit around and smoke, write graffiti on the walls, or taunt him all day, or the hostile city residents.
Once, one of his mail packages falls and the thugs pick it up and play him with it for a while in an impromptu American football game. Considering how much he himself suffered as a migrant across different countries before breaking even in America, Sunday wonders, “What was their excuse for living a directionless existence in a society that offered them so much?” It is the fundamental immigrant’s question at being confronted with the decadence in certain aspects of American life. While navigating the familiar threats and hazards of his job, he encounters the real threat of American paranoia. Osofisan’s knowledge of African immigrant life in America is most acutely evident here.
The titular story, “The Simple Joys of Her Final Days,” is another great story, which emphatically deals with a Nigerian mother’s displeasure at her son’s decision to marry an American woman. This story has all the trappings of the overbearing potential mother-in-law protesting across a huge cultural gulf. Here, Banji and his Latina fiancée, Catalina, have to face their hostile families who are completely against their coupling. The dynamics of this complicated relationship are explored in Banji’s stimulating telephone conversation with his mother who had hurt his fiancée by calling her a prostitute.
In her slippery and emotionally manipulative manner, Banji’s mother tries to coerce him to abandon the idea of marrying an American, her fear being that her son might be lost forever and never be able to return again to Nigeria to claim his birthright. The nerve-wracking reality of negotiating a romantic relationship across racial divides is revealed bit by bit through Banji’s mother’s carefully orchestrated accusations. Yet, in this story, we see how love can rise above race and other human divisions.
Osofisan excels in dialogue and characterisation. His pinpoint descriptions of characters and scenes show a great understanding of people and events. One feels the characters’ different experiences and anxieties as if one has known them all one’s life. It is not easy to draw out nuanced characters in the limited pages that a short story offers, and yet this is what Osofisan does for much of this book.
There are many other issues that the book explores but at the end, in the gradual build-up of accreting details, we see how a multitude of remarkable human life is happening in millions of atomic moments. Osofisan’s collection shows that the things we overlook are significant, the lives we ignore are important, and events we see as ordinary are significant in startling ways. This is a stellar book; the work of an artist in full control of his immense gifts. It is not immediately available in Nigeria yet, but I hope it gets a Nigerian publisher soon.
Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1