By Anote Ajeluorou
Chuma Nwokolo is a lawyer, but a consummate writer, whose short stories have a huge appeal, especially with a natural humour built into them that beguiles. He has written many works, but his two most recent, Diaries of a Dead African and The Ghost of Sanni Abacha explore the many contradictions that character Nigeria’s modern-day society. In this online conversation, he gives an insight into the short fiction and how he has deplored it to analyse what he termed Post-Autocratic Stress Syndrome (PASS) among Nigeria’s political elite.
IT is simple really: I looked for a rational explanation for our contradictions. We have an open, democratic society but autocratic election heists like 'June 12' are still rampant. We have a society governed by the Rule of Law, but well-connected plutocrats routinely get away with murder. We have a society where constitutionally guaranteed human rights are aborted every time 'Might' collides with 'Right' — or a soldier pulls out another citizen from a car for a public flogging.
The Post Autocratic Stress Syndrome explains it to my mind. I am obviously paralleling the well-known Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSDs), which are anxiety disorders that often cause behavioural problems. So soldiers, for instance, could suffer PTSD after leaving a war zone, making them unable to fit properly into normal society.
In a similar way, I am suggesting that as a society, we have emerged from three decades of dictatorship with serious problems. Our society's Post Autocratic Stress Syndrome affects different people in different ways. A politician with a bad case of PASS will play the dictator lording it over his subjects. He will think that ordinary laws do not apply to him, that he is above the constitution.
As a governor, he might go a bit mental — try to steal more than the dictators themselves. He will forget he is a servant who is accountable to his employers. Individuals suffering from PASS will meekly accept all manner of humiliations from 'public servants'. They have a 'head knowledge' of their constitutional rights, but they are so psychologically damaged by their lives under the dictators that they have a permanent inferiority complex. They have no heart knowledge of their own authority.
It is a whole spectrum of dysfunction and it is possible to locate sufferers on the scale, based on their behaviour. Yet, by focusing on appropriate behaviour, we can also begin to turn things around.
So in my book, The Ghost of Sani Abacha, I present a collection of 26 stories set in the aftermath of dictatorship. They are today's stories; so they are not dominated by politics and oppression and dictatorships… Politics is there in the background alright, but our characters live and love in a free society, with varying shades of that emasculation that is the legacy of the Post Autocratic Stress Syndrome.
The short story magic
I do love the short story format. I think it is closest to the folktale, the bedtime story, the barbershop anecdote. I love the small canvass, and the discipline required to elaborate a competent tale within its petite frame. I have a natural instinct for concision. I don't always achieve it, but a great story emerges from the tension between the few words you do use and the mood evoked in the worlds between your words.
Picking up a short story is no guarantee that you will read a 'short' story, or that the story you are about to read will be told in the most succinct, attractive and striking manner. That, I think, is the challenge of a short story writer: to take a single idea and polish it to perfection; to practice almost poetic economy with language, such that the story cannot be boiled down further without damage to the fabric of the tale, or the felicity of the telling.
Frankly, it is the challenge of every literary writer.
I have also benefited from, well, writing the short story. The actual process of writing is the writer's best training school. So you gain your equivalent of a degree in the Short Story by creating a library of decent enough stories, which you will never publish, in much the same way that a Marathoner chalks up practice Marathons before his actual competitions.
The short story is a vast territory on its own: from flash fiction to novella, it can be read in a minute or a couple of hours. It can be written in a day or a couple of months of furious rewrites. It also has a diverse audience — from children to egg-heads, from house-wives, through literary types, to the business executive — the short story seems best adapted to our modern lifestyle.
However fast-paced your day is, you can restore your cultural balance with a good story consumed over dinner or just before bed. Not a chapter of a book... but the complete universe of a tale fully told at a sitting.
(Okay, now I'm sounding like a bad short story commercial!) That is the short story for you.
There is also another facet to the short story and that is its relationship to the oral tale. We have a powerful story telling tradition in Nigeria which is often misused when we put traditional inspiration into the strictures of 'literature' that are alien to that tradition. So, our oratorical forms: the songs, the narrative poems, the oral tales and the legends… they are often discomfited by the written page whereas they are re-energized as you rise to address a waiting audience.
The short story bridges that, and not just in its brevity. So you have on one hand, the story teller and on the other hand, the story writer. The true story teller does not read his story to his audience. He 'performs' it. Neither does he memorize a story, which he recites to his listeners. He 'tells' it, with his notebooks, Ipads and notepads packed away, so that each telling is different from the last… each rendition, performance has a life of its own...
Such a tale has its roots in orature. Such a tale is different from the short story, which has its roots in literature. Some stories are more visual than others… designed to be read, others are optimised by a hearing. But the short story writer, I think, stands there at the cusp of both forms, doesn't he? While catering to a hopeful audience of hundreds of thousands, his stories are often consumed at a session, like the storyteller's fare. Striving for the spontaneity of oral delivery, the stories are also frozen in text — and now, in e-books and audio-books as well. And the versatile practitioner of the short story can aspire, to be both writer, and teller!
Political engagement in Nigeria’s literature
THE story, Accidental Man, features politicians who delegate violence to their followers and push the community into a bloodbath, while keeping their own families safe and their lace babarigas white. But it does end on a hopeful note, with a one-time political thug bringing peace to his community by breaking with his erstwhile boss. This is the story that ends the collection.
At the other end of the collection is the political story, Bullfight, where the uncommon courage of a young lad brings a previously 'PASSified' community out to the picket lines. These species of stories engage the reader from an inspirational angle. They show their protagonists not merely as victims, but as change agents engaging their political crises head on, and making a realistic sort of headway.
Other stories, such as The Ghost of Sani Abacha, and The Provocation of Jay Galamba are political satires. We will have a laugh at the circumstances of our hapless protagonists, and leave it at that. So there is this 'realistic' depiction of political anomy on the one hand in The Ghost of Sani Abacha and The Provocation of Jay Galamba and the feel-good tales that empower the little man at the expense of the entrenched big man - tales like Accidental Man and Bullfight.
I suspect that we have enough 'literary engagement' of the first variety, not quite enough of the latter. You might ask what difference it makes - these are all political stories after all? I'd say that a generation that grows up on a relentless diet of 'realistic' political tales that reiterate the miserable, relentless status quo will bring that resignation to their interface with their body politics.
Translation: no change agents. Whereas a generation weaned on a staple of up-beat literature will wear their can-do optimism everywhere. That is an outcome worth writing about!
I’d say it depends on the ambitions of those who write the literature. Literature is part of our cultural furniture, and so it is exceptionally powerful in shaping both our sense of self as a people, and our perception of others. But like most cultural changes, it often takes time. Literature (unless it is of the statutory variety of a Decree No. 1 that sacks a parliament!) is rarely the axe that brings down the tree. It is more usually the water that wears a river down into a waterfall.
Often, the change is imperceptible, and happens over decades, even generations.
But having said that, where our literary producers match their abilities to towering ambition, change - transformative change - can certainly be midwifed within a revolutionary season. For literature to midwife change in Nigeria on a revolutionary scale, a few things have to fall into place. A transformational book that arrives in Nigerian literature today will be rather like a 'Crocodile Warning' sign written in Chinese and nailed up by a river full of English speakers.
For signal literature to transform people, it has to be read and consumed in the first place. So this brings us to that old chestnut - the broken book-chain. We have to finesse every step of our book chain: writer-editor-publisher-distributor-library-bookseller-bookclub-reader...'
In the absence of a revamped system, Literature must align itself with the personal charisma of its creators or change agents. Under such circumstances, it can have transformational impact.
On Prof. Kole Omotoso charge that Nigerian writers are not doing enough of taking on political issues in their writing, I plead guilty as charged. - But I would be pleading guilty to a far wider charge than the one framed by Prof. Omotoso. We are not creatively engaging the political, social, economic, cultural issues at the appropriate depth. Besides, it is one thing to bore the hapless reader to tears with political screed after screeds, with tomes that will not be read, and which will gather dust after de rigueur launch events. What is required is for us to widen the literary space by writing our themes so engagingly, so creatively that we capture the imagination of our publics.
Humour as vehicle
THERE is, of course, only so much deliberation one can put into the development of a personal style.
I think that the reader I had in mind when I started to write was... myself. There were many years in which I did not send out any work to publishers, but through them all, I continued to write compulsively. Throughout those periods, my only consumer was myself. As every writer knows, the hardest audience for a joke is... yourself. That makes sense: since you know the joke already it is harder to make yourself laugh just by reading it.
So, in order for my writing to remain funny on the twentieth reread or revision, the humour had to be that more savage, the timing that more ruthless. That much was a deliberate goal.
As to the purpose of the humour, well, I think that entertainment is a principal purpose for writing, and not just genre or literary writing for that matter. You only need to read the Psalms, for instance, to appreciate the poetry of the lines, and to see that though the plainness of a verse cannot detract from its holiness, the writers of the Bible seemed to feel that the Holy Book should also be read for its beauty.
Which brings me to the deliberation of my humour. I think that the level of sedation that a surgeon uses during surgery will determine just how deeply he can dig into a patient's body. With local anaesthesia perhaps he can take out a mole or two. To open up a stomach and bring out an appendix he had better use a general anaesthesia. Beyond sheer pleasure, humour, I think, plays a similar ‘sedative’ role in literature. Humour becomes 'black' when the subject veers into the grim.
A writer with grim subjects on his mind can utilise the anaesthesia of humour to probe deeper into a reader's psyche, or conscience, or emotions without unduly distressing him. Like the surgery patient, a properly humorous book will keep the reader in the writer's 'surgery' until the book is done. Of course, the anaesthesia eventually wears off - the book is closed, the patient is roused - and we can find out if the surgeon, or writer, was any good at all.
Beyond the grimness
OF course; I am a Naijoptimist. If you look at the basic themes of the three diarists in Diaries of a Dead African, you will see that their issues are easily solved. Meme wanted a more caring society; a society in which people looked out for each other. A society in which a broken man will be healed, nurtured, mentored, by his fellows. Our society is getting richer everyday.
For all the anomy, as a country, we are richer now than we have ever been before. You only need to count the cars, the houses, the roads - even the satellite dishes sticking out of our shanty towns - and extrapolate. Yet, I doubt that we are, for all our greater wealth, as caring as the generations before us. It would seem instead that the richer we get as a people, the more self-centred, self-indulgent and narcissistic we are. And I think that this cultural change, from self-centredness to selflessness is something that we can easily begin to address. We don't need to wait for a billion naira government contract award. This is primarily the province of civil society.
Meme's sons, our second and third diarists, were living a lie. The first son graduated from prison, but was living the lie of a first class university graduate. Naturally, his job prospects are permanently in conflict with his actual qualifications. The second son passed off his sexual incompetence as a blanket disdain of women. The day of exposure shook him to his roots.
Most of our social vices in Nigeria can be eliminated in one fell swoop if we began to level, one with another, to strip off artifice and the false, unsustainable lifestyles. Most of our middle-class criminality, and the endemic corruption appurtenant to the public services can be linked to the servicing of the various lies that we live as a people.
So to avoid the grim realities of the protagonists of Diaries of a Dead African, I think that we have a cultural work that is by no means impossible. On the contrary, I am excited by the transformational potential of that work, bearing in mind the youthful component of our population.