The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Emezi’s Freshwater was an incredible read and a real insight into a cultural perspective, taking you inside it and experiencing it, so I was very much looking forward to this next work.

Akwaeke Emezi trans literatureThough we learn that Vivek is dead from the cover and in the opening pages, the novel is in a sense a mystery as the details around the death are not revealed until the end. The novel is set in Nigeria, in a community of mostly mixed race families.

The narrative is multi perspective, told through the voice of Vivek, his cousin and close friend Osita and a third-person omniscient narrator. The first chapter is one sentence:

They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.

The market burning down provides a beginning, a middle and an ending, it features in exactly those places, here as a marker or a clue, in the middle as an observation by a previously unknown character whose wife runs a stall in the middle of the market and at the end, when Vivek’s final day is shared.

The first half of the book we get to know the families, Chika, his brother Ekene, married to Mary, then later Chika’s Indian wife Kavita, mother to Vivek. The narrative tells the story of their marriage, of how they try to raise their only child. Kavita is part of a group of women referred to as the Nigerwives.

She had learned to cook Nigerian food from her friends – a group of women, foreign like her, who were married to Nigerian men and were aunties to each other’s children. They belonged to an organisation called Nigerwives, which helped them assimilate into these new lives so far away from the countries they’d come from. They weren’t wealthy expats, at least not the ones we knew. They didn’t come to work for oil companies; they simply came for their husbands, for their families.

The Death of Vivek Oji Awaeke Emezi

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Through the friendships of the mothers, Osita and Vivek become friends with JuJu and Elisabeth. Among themselves, away from school or family and outside of society, they are already a group who is different, and with each other, they are accepting, able to express themselves, though they have each inherited varying degrees of conditioning from their mixed parentage.

Vivek is sent away to school, about which we learn very little, we know he is unhappy and bears scars.

The narrative explores the development of their friendships and sexuality, interspersed with the present day obsession of Kavita, determined to find out how her son’s body mysteriously turned up on their front veranda wrapped in a fabric.

Chika didn’t want to ask any question. Kavita, though, was made of nothing but questions, hungry questions bending her into a shape that was starving for answers.

Maybe it was intentional, but in creating the element of mystery, much about the character of Vivek is held back, perhaps to recreate the effect of what the parent might have experienced, but for me personally, I found it disappointing that the character of Vivek was compromised and an opportunity missed to inhabit that character more.

The deliberate obscuring heightens the effect of the reveal, but sacrifices the opportunity to share something more profound with readers. It’s difficult to develop empathy for a character, when so much is held back and when the potential is clearly there.

That was why they’d kept it from their parents, to protect Vivek from those who didn’t understand him. They barely understood him themselves, but they loved him, and that had been enough.

It’s a novel of secrets and lies and the debate of truth versus respect, in that belief that the two can’t coexist. And the safety inherent within a fear of judgement by some, versus the danger of a lack of fear in others. A theme that is likely to continue to be explored by Emezi.

“Look,” she said, “eventually all secrets come out. It’s just a matter of time. And the longer it takes, the worse it is in the end.”

As I read, I can feel what I am bringing to the narrative, where I want the author to go and by the end they do go some of the way, but not all. And that is on me, it is asking an already courageous writer to go further, to places that us readers, like sports fans, might never go ourselves, but from the benches we shout in encouragement. So I leave the last words to the author, as a reminder to us all of what this is.

I had to remember why I was making this work. I wasn’t making it for institutional validation. I was making this work for specific people — all the people living in these realities feeling lonely and wanting to die because they’re like, this world thinks I’m crazy and I don’t belong here. All the little trans babies who are just like, there is no world in which my parents will love me and accept me. There’s a mission to all of this. Akwaeke Emezi

Further Reading

My review of Freshwater by Awaeke Emezi

N.B. This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo #BaileysPrize

Stay With Me is the meaning of the Yoruba, Nigerian first name Rotimi, which in itself is the short version of Oluwarotimi.

“Still they named her Rotimi, a name that implied she was an Abiku child who had come into the world intending to die as soon as she could. Rotimi – stay with me.”

I’m guessing that Ayobami Adebayo uses it as the title to her novel, because it relates to the twin desires of the main characters in the book, Yejide in her yearning to become pregnant and to keep a child, to be the mother she was denied, having been raised by less than kind stepmothers after her mother died in childbirth; and her husband Akin, in his desire to try to keep his wife happy and with him, despite succumbing to the pressures of the stepmothers and his own family, he being the first-born son of the first wife, to produce a son and heir.

“Before I got married I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough it couldn’t bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

Torn between the love of his wife and meeting the expectations of his family, for two years he would resist their suggestions, until the day they came knocking at his door, to inform Yejide that matters had been taken into their hands, that there was nothing she could do but accept it, suggesting it may even help.

“For a while, I did not accept the fact that I had become a first wife, an iyale. Iya Martha was my father’s first wife. When I was a child, I believed she was the unhappiest wife in the family. My opinion did not change as I grew older. At my father’s funeral, she stood beside the freshly dug grave with her narrow eyes narrowed even further and showered curses on every woman my father had made his wife after he had married her. She had begun as always with my long-dead mother, since she was the second woman he had married, the one who had made Iya Martha a first among not-so-equals.”

The narrative is split into five parts and moves between a present in 2008 when Yejide is returning to her husbands hometown for the funeral of his father, and the past which traverses the various stages of their marriage and their attempts to create a family and the effect of the secrets, lies, interferences and silences on their relationship.

The narrative voice moves from first person accounts of both Yejide and Akin, ensuring the reader gains twin perspectives on what is happening (and making us a little unsure of reality) and the more intimate second person narrative in the present day, as each character addresses the other with that more personal “you” voice, they are not in each other’s presence, but they carry on a conversation in their minds, addressing each other, asking questions that will not be answered, wondering what the coming together after all these years will reveal.

The portrayal of the pressures on this couple to meet expectations and the effect of the past on the present are brilliantly conveyed in this engaging novel, which provides a rare insight into a culture and people who live simultaneously in a modern world that hasn’t yet let go of its patriarchal traditions. Denial plays a lead part and when the knowledge it suppresses is at risk of being exposed, violence erupts.

Simultaneously the country is in the midst of a military coup, which also threatens to destabilise the country and puts its citizens in fear for their lives.

The novel also addresses the significant presence of the sickle-cell gene on people’s lives, something that is perhaps little known in the West, but in Nigeria with a population of 112 million people, 25% of adults have or carry the sickle-cell trait, which can cause high infant mortality and problems in later life. It is a genetic blood disorder that affects the haemoglobin within the red blood cells and the recurring pain and complications caused by the disease (for which there is no cure) can interfere with many aspects of a person’s life.

Stay With Me has been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, a worthy contender in my opinion and a unique social perspective on issues that are both universal to us all illustrating how in particular they impact the Nigerian culture.

Buy A Copy of Stay With Me via Book Depository

 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My big fat summer read and it was just what I like, to get lost within pages that will attempt to navigate the slightly messy lives of flawed characters that feel like they could be real. And most of them here come close to attaining that reality.

Americanah (2)Ifemula and Obinze are university sweethearts who slip into a relationship that seems to have it all, though they have yet to conquer the career survival path of their simple lives thus they are separated in Nigeria during their studies and then by the continents of  North America and Europe as they try to establish their careers. Hardship is the one thing they seem not able to share and it drives them apart like the distance of the ocean that separates them, spanning a distance they seem unable to traverse.

Just as many young people have been doing so and continue to today, they eventually return to their home country and their roots and will re encounter each other.  Although they find their way home, will  they be able to ignore those untravelled waters they did not share? This is one of the themes the book explores.

“Somewhere in a faraway part of her mind, she wanted to lose weight before she saw Obinze again. She had not called him; she would wait until she was back to her slender self.”

I loved the book for many reasons, firstly because I remember reading and enjoying her first book Purple Hibiscus, enhanced by seeing her speak in person at a Readers Festival in Auckland where she talked about the next book she was planning to write, about a subject few at the time seemed to want to talk about – the Biafran War – that research and effort to understand a chapter in Nigerian history manifested in her Orange prize-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which has since been made into a film (not yet released). Since then I have looked forward to reading her other work and interviews, as she is more than just a writer of stories.

Secondly, having a good friend from Nigeria, who made the move back after a similar number of years living abroad, who did so successfully and visiting there, participating in her marriage ceremony makes me even more curious to read the work of those who have attempted the same. There is something universal about the experience and yet unique at the same time.

Chimamanda Nogozi Adichie easily engages an audience with her observations, insights and view of the world and with Americanah it is as if she sends out another version of herself, Ifemulu, a young woman who grows up in urban Nigeria and through her studies has an opportunity to live, work and study in America.

Ifemulu’s disappointments distance her from her closest relationship because she doesn’t share them. In an effort to be heard she writes an anonymous blog and shares her experiences and observations both in America and again on her initial return to Nigeria.

She tries to remain an impartial observer, though those who know she is the author challenge her and she discovers that life often finds a way to throw at us, that which we condemn in others. But therein the greatest lessons lie and Ifemulu will do much soul-searching on her journey to fulfillment. The blog posts are interesting to read and provocative and it is great to see the form being represented in a novel, and a WordPress blog at that.

In a Lagos cafe

In a Lagos cafe

For me, books whose characters cross cultures are always interesting, just as travelling in another country and witnessing the different ways people live and interact and perceive is interesting. Whilst I could never begin to know what it would be like for a young Nigerian woman to move to live in America, I enjoyed the experience of inhabiting Adichie’s imagination, viewing Ifemulu’s life and how she tries to interpret the foreign culture she and many others have long dreamed of.

My visit to Nigeria was too short to gain any real perspective about what it might be like to live there, but the challenges are undoubtedly equally great, though completely different in nature.

It doesn’t matter which country we grow up in to think of as our own, almost any other country we immigrate to or spend time living in will invoke a feeling of strangeness, of being an outsider.

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

Twice whilst reading this novel, I felt tears well up, surprising myself at how deeply this character got under my skin, some of the burdens she carries, only gaining full recognition in the moment they are healed and those moments are powerful when they come off the page. Surprising and brilliant.

Related Reads

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay