A Review of Some of the Best Short Stories by Africans available online.
The one thing that makes a short story good is what it makes you feel after you have read that last sentence. But there are other things—the freshness of the story (nobody wants the same old stories), the finesse of the prose (who doesn’t love beautiful sentences?!), and how the story leaves you after each read.
When I read I search for something new, something fresh, and that means, I also read to learn—to see what these writers are doing right, and how they’re doing them. But often I encounter stories that force me to read and enjoy them. On such occasions, I forget about learning. I’m drawn into their world as if by a massive hand, but then—the journey is tender. The following stories fall into the category of amazing short stories that sucked me into their world of wonder.
I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
“After the Birds” by Ope Adedeji. (Published in McSweeney’s 56, available on the site)
“The smell of air and taste of water make my skin crawl this morning. I know what’s happened: I swallowed my key last night.” –from “After the Birds”.
If you haven’t read this, you’re missing out on one of the most beautiful pieces of writing to come out of Africa this year; it’s literally what you’re looking for. A story packed with imageries of birds and lizards and flowers, threaded with poetry and myths/ superstition. It is a story I finished reading in one sitting. This story literally made me scream at the end.
The story follows three main characters: Arin, the narrator and protagonist (yes, protagonist); Hakeem, the man she gets married to and the man I want to punch in the face; and Isaac, the man her heart and body wants but who the birds say she won’t have as husband.
There’s a beautiful and an interesting storyline, and the story itself is well-sewn. Ope does well at making no room for doubts; everything is where it should be. An interesting thing she also does is how she makes us see what is coming (by foreshadowing) and how she makes us, just as she makes the narrator, believe that our expectations may be wrong.
How she drops little info here and there, and how all of these little info adds up in the big parts of the story is interesting, too. For example, we are not too surprised when Hakeem takes the news of what Arin did to him when it comes later in the story with gentle hands, because we know him to be the coolheaded guy from the start of things. She does this well, too, when Isaac, who is a ghost, visits Arin and is in a position that would have drowned his senses. Surprisingly, that position made Arin lost, but it didn’t make Isaac who knew to change position immediately he heard Mama come in with the kids. This sensitivity in the Isaac-of-a-long-time-after-the-naming-ceremony prepares us, though without us knowing it as such, for the news of his death. And did he not say he was attending a funeral?
The way she writes her backstory is something I admire as well, something only a few writers can do well—especially short story writers. See:
“I’d known Gloria for a few years before I met him. I’d first seen her face in a sultry Twitter display picture under the “Who to follow” list: lips black and slightly parted, face ashen, red ’fro, and eyes in a squint. Next, we swapped orange boots at National Youth Service Corps camp and took chilly 4 a.m. baths out in the open. We eventually became best friends over African and European fiction classics discussed in quiet conference rooms before staff meetings.”
What more do we need to know about the relationship that exists between those two?
However, it’s the characters in “After the Birds” that make it what it is, a piece that shuts our world in minutes and gifts us a different one—that, even after we’ve closed the tab, we still can’t bring ourselves to leave that world; we carry it in our hearts and heads. We carry them, the characters. We try to believe their story can’t be ours; that it’s not possible to desire a thing and still be unable to have it, even when it’s there in our hand; that it’s a sick man that is betrayed and still trusts.
But, somewhere, in the dark, we wish we could be like Hakeem, that we don’t end like Isaac, that we (don’t) get a lady like Arin, that we have a mother-in-law as kind as hers.
“Solutions” by Howard B. Maximus. (In The Vanguard Book of Love Stories, published by Brittle Paper)
“He liked to romanticize Mathematics. He once asked his students if they’d ever seen anything as elegant as the integration sign. Its svelte gracefulness, its elongated torso and regal uprightness, like a special species in the family of S’s that had been groomed to always stand up straight. To always walk tall.” –from “Solutions”.
…I want to ask, Who describes an integration sign as if it were a princess? The same guy who writes about something he never had as if he did.
The thing that tears my mouth open every time I read this story is that I was there when he wrote it, in one night—not two—and it’s good.
A piece about romanticizing Mathematics, it follows a teacher, Papa V., who loses his wife and decides not to remarry, who then falls in love with one of the students he taught in evening school (also adults school). But then there is a problem: Grief has deadened Papa V.’s doing power.
The piece succeeds in not just its storyline, but in the way the story is told in Mathematical language, and in the way Howard sees the world, through the eyes of Papa V. After reading “Solutions”, it would surprise you how mathematical everything—from adding salt to a pot of soup, to describing a woman, to the thing we call love and our significance on earth—is.
And, have you read Howard? Does he write beautiful sentences? Come and see.
“Math had come to them suddenly years ago, implementing himself in the equation of their marriage: Method of Elimination, and poof, his wife was gone like a pun snatched from a chessboard.”
“If you asked him, Papa V. would tell you this about his marriage: it had been an interesting equation cut short, before all the parameters could align—a beautiful equation, even in its incompleteness.”
Moreover, Howard does know how to be funny—even when writing about some of the most painful things in the world, humor never eludes him. He brings humor to this story, sprinkles it everywhere in the story.
Here, Love + maths language + humor + a beautiful voice – boring sentences – boring characters = Solutions.
“Some Days” by Tochukwu Emmanuel. (Published in No Tokens Issue 5, but published on the journal’s site this year)
“THERE ARE FIVE OF us in the car: Chima, Musa, Boye, Mary, and me. Boye is our driver. His stubby fingers circle the steering wheel, and he goes, “Vrooom. Vrooom.” His eyes tear through the windshield, into the meat-coloured yard with an avocado tree standing in the middle, like they are about to jump out of their sockets anytime soon. Like he truly believes he is driving. “Vrooom. Vrooom,” he goes again like a mad dog—his teeth clenched, his back straightened.” –from “Some Days”.
I bet no one picks a story from where Tochukwu picks his. He takes the ordinary and makes it fresh, in a way that we begin to desire the ordinary. And the way he takes these stories that we know so well, these stories that are ours, that are so familiar we believe we don’t need anyone telling them to us—is what makes him that one short story writer I’d read anything he publishes.
This story begins in a spoilt bus, where some children are playing driver and passenger, and it moves on till we get to a boy’s house and learn that “some days… are… like this.”
The piece’s narrator is a small boy of twelve, but his maturity and keen eyes is something—which is not surprising. Why? We know the boy lives, and probably grew up, somewhere close to Bariga, since there’s a reference to Abule market and an abattoir in that market. Or, it could be anywhere else in mainland Lagos.
His voice, the narrator’s, is so moving, it’d keep you in the piece, and when you reach the end of the story, you’d see that, just like the small agbero boys in Lagos who we feel do not have hearts or are way too hard and smart for their age, a child would always be a child, would always be soft somewhere on the inside—and that a child would always need to be safe.
More than that, “Some Days” is a story about what it means to be a child in the other side of Lagos that does not have the tall buildings and fine houses, about the class structure in the ghetto, about shame, about the things a woman does to make not just ends, but also beginnings, meet. And of the places we run to to be safe when home is “kram kram breaking of bottles on the wall” and “the dull thump of heavy objects falling.”
I hope you enjoy reading these stories. I’ll be reviewing and recommending more interesting short stories in the coming weeks.
Did you enjoy these stories as much as I did? Please leave your comments below.
Ernest O. Ogunyemi enjoys playing with words to express what he feels within, or wants to feel. His stories have appeared in magazines and blogs such as Tuck Magazine, Naija Stories, Poetry Soup and his poetry is forthcoming in Acumen91 (out in May) and African Writing. Currently, he is working on a short story collection: Weaving Fine Rhythms from Broken Tunes.