Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Roses for Betty and Other Stories: Ode to the Journey


By Tinuke Adeyi

  • Title: Roses for Betty and Other Stories
  • Editors: Emmanuel Sigauke and Sumayya Lee
  • Publisher: Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE)
  • Number of pages: 119
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Fiction

The writing of a short story demands a skill set that is unique and quite different from that required in writing a novel. A lot of the choices available to the novelist in the art of creation are simply off-limits to the short story writer, who has to contend with limitations of space in delivering their message, no matter how impassioned, important or controversial.

A short story is not an amputated novel; in much the same way as a baby is not just a little adult human. A short story just is. The failure to understand this simple fact has been central in undermining the efforts of many a proponent of the short story form.

Partly owing to the incredible advent of social media, times have changed, and with it the reading and writing culture among African literary enthusiasts. Social media provides platforms that are more easily accessible, on which creative writing is displayed and consumed. These platforms typically place restrictions on character and space usage, but a lot of users are devising increasingly creative ways of passing across their messages within the bounds.

The short story writer is finally beginning to get due credit for what is undoubtedly a remarkable mastery, however slowly. Short story competitions have been receiving more entries in the past few years than was the case a decade or two ago, and the quality of output reflects an artistic commitment to constantly pushing limits and redefining boundaries.

The annual, pan-African Writivism Short Story Competition offers writers from across Africa the opportunity to showcase talent and commitment to their craft. Roses for Betty is the 2015 anthology of select stories adjudged to have distinguished themselves among the year’s competition entries. The publication of this anthology is a come-on that no true enthusiast can resist.

For this enthusiast, however, Roses for Betty comes across as a literary tease. Like a sexy but inexperienced lover, it promises explosions and sweetness and orgasmic heights that it just never quite delivers in its 119 pages. ‘We pushed the writers to the highest limit’, writes editor Emmanuel Sigauke in the anthology’s foreword, unwittingly misleading this reader into anticipating a buffet of stories not to be forgotten in a hurry.

He was ‘a tad’ over-enthusiastic.

Admittedly, the anthology focuses on important, even urgent, societal issues whose telling fulfills a need that may be at once personal and patriotic. That much is not in question. What remains in question, to this reader, is whether the eventual output was actually the best of each writer, for every contributor showed such promise

The 13 stories are divided into five from the competition shortlist and eight others from the long list. If Emmanuel Sigauke had a leg to stand on with his assertions in the foreword, it is probably skin, muscle, sinew and bone from six stories in the anthology: the five shortlisted ones and Oyebisi Dairo’s ‘The Crusade’. While staying true to the tenets of short story writing, the six present believable characters and well-developed plots.

Perhaps the competition’s judges were partial to first person narratives as only Saaleha Bhamjee’s ‘Dream’, of the five shortlisted stories, is written in the third person. This might also explain why Dairo’s ‘The Crusade’ did not make the competition’s shortlist.

The opening story, ‘Being a Man’, is written by Adeola Opeyemi, an editor at WriteHouse Collective whose name is misspelt ‘Opeyeme’ in the anthology. It chronicles the existence of a child soldier in a Nigeria still ravaged by the acts of domestic terrorism perpetrated by insurgent groups. In the face of gruesome murders and the horrific ugliness of war, innocence is quickly lost and the making of a man is redefined. This is an important story as it showcases the self-perpetuating nature of terrorism.

Exploring the same theme, Dayo Adewunmi Ntwari sets his speculative fiction, ‘Devil’s Village’, in a near-future Northern Nigeria that is still firmly in the grip of insurgency. Counterinsurgency has also morphed into the terror it was created to combat. Child survivors of government-sanctioned bombings of villages believed to house key figures of the terrorist organisation have reorganised themselves and settled somewhat in an outpost in the woods. The young survivors are themselves soon demonised by the Nigerian government and army, who wish to score political points. It is up to the group’s leader, 16-year-old Issa Musa to defend and protect the Devil’s Village from its own government, a prospect that the narrator, a tech-savvy female gun-for-hire, is convinced spells doom for the children. If this theme is a recurrent one in the anthology, the writer’s style definitely is not. The story succeeds in bringing to fore the dark side of counterinsurgency in Nigeria, and it is told with a self-assured air that defends its place well in the shortlisted category.

That these two aforementioned stories already explore the theme of terrorism might have counted against longlisted entrant Vivian Ogbonna. However, the greatest undoing of ‘A Ball of Thread’ is that its writer seems to intermittently forget she is writing a short story and not a novel. Aiming to depict what life might be like for women and girl-children kidnapped by terrorists, sexually exploited and used for suicide bombings, Ogbonna mainly succeeds in drawing attention to the many moving but ineffectual parts of what could have been a gripping story. Unnecessary and tedious descriptions leave little opportunity for proper character development.

‘Caterer, Caterer’ by Nigeria’s Pemi Aguda is the year’s winning entry. Writing in the first person gives Aguda a certain freedom in the use of colloquial expressions. Her subject is a refreshing departure from the pervasive themes of the anthology though no less important. The deeply religious Nigerian society is presented here for what it is – communities steeped in imported religions, whose underbellies are still rich with indigenous traditional beliefs, mythology and rituals. Lured by the promise of economic freedom, which would come from the execution of a new contract, a caterer comes face to face with the unsavoury and horrific secrets behind instant wealth, and realises too late that the grass is always greener over the sewer. Aguda’s work deserves its accolades.

Oyebisi Dairo’s ‘The Crusade’ employs an approach that none of the other writers in Roses for Betty use. On the surface, her subject appears to share a similarity with Aguda’s – the centrality of religion in the life of the typical Nigerian, irrespective of tribe, sex and socio-econmomic standing. A deeper look however reveals her point: fault lines in societies are artificial. Where it really matters, we are first human beings with similar needs. The struggling single mother, the unhappy career woman battling infertility, the poverty-stricken labourer fleeing from home to escape domestic terror, the conflicted and hyper-sexualised female student with daddy issues, and His Holiness, the prophet, to whose crusade each of the others have come for instant answers – all are seekers whose journeys will only receive direction when they look inward and turn to one another.

Saaleha Bhamjee’s ‘Dream’ is the only one of the shortlisted stories not written as a first person narrative, yet it reads like a chronicle of personal experience. The writer’s bio announces she is ‘working on the God-knows-how-many-eth draft of her novel’. The protagonist is a writer in the throes of a bout of writer’s block, and is on a quiet ‘getaway’ in the hopes of recapturing the elusive muse of creativity. Sexual infidelity proves to be all he needs to regain his mojo and bring him to a realisation of the symmetry between his life and his craft. In a way, the story is reminiscent of the Mills and Boon series in its depiction of sex as omnipotent. The struggle feels real, but the telling somewhat contrived. The writer’s delightful culinary interests are carefully baked into the body of the story – not an unpleasant touch.

The anatomy of a fractured family unit is explored in the entry by Nnedinma Jane Kalu, aptly titled ‘Social Studies’. The reader is given a painful account of the effects that cracks in the structure of a certain family have on the psyche and moral rectitude of its members through the eyes of the youngest one. An absent father is known to the female, child narrator only by his portrait in the living room. The circumstances surrounding his absence are unclear. The child’s aunt assures her that her older brother will inevitably leave too, once he becomes a man. It comes as no surprise when the mother’s boyfriend sexually molests the child narrator, who keeps the matter to herself until her observant class teacher elicits the truth from her. Her disbelieving, enraged mother subsequently beats her to within an inch of her life before suddenly realising that she has become everything she hated about the absent father: a coward. Channeled through the perception of a child, there is a gut wrenching sadness in the story that insistently clung to this reader.

The struggles of the LGBT community are the focus of Walter Ude’s ‘A Perfect Marriage’. Two childhood friends – the one a lesbian, the other a marriage-averse heterosexual male – devise an escape from the restrictive grip of society’s prejudices and pressures by getting married. What society does not know is unlikely to harm it. Marriage ironically provides a refuge for the lesbian and her lover, and for the Casanova and his horde of lovers. While ‘A Perfect Marriage’ may not be the most original tale of the anthology, the relatable dialogue between the male protagonist and his mother make up for its other failings.

As a short story, ‘Blues for Absalom’ is most guilty of rambling. Perhaps it would have been better had writer Erica Sugo Anyadike decided to divide the story in two, for by the time one is through reading, one is likely to have lost the thread that connects the tale’s genesis to its conclusion. The writer comes across as indecisive at critical points in the story such that its conclusion felt like an annex from another tale. Set in Tanzania’s largest city of Dar es Salaam, a conman gets more than he bargains for when he initiates an affair with the girlfriend of a murderous and notorious criminal. There is nothing more for Baraka, the conman, to do than run for his life. A different adventure begins when he meets another conman and the two strike up what should have been a successful partnership. The past manages to catch up with Baraka in an unlikely twist, leading to a fatal gun battle. Incredibly, it all ends well for our fearless protagonist. The telling is not as seamless as it could have been and the reflection on the writer is not flattering.

The Tanzanian author Sima Mittal tells a tale of love, commitment, selflessness and respect for differing opinions in ‘Dying Gracefully’. It centres on the final two months of Isro’s life. Her husband of 41 years flinches from the prospect of life without her as well as her utterly outrageous dying wish to be an organ donor, which goes against his religious beliefs. Interminably soppy, as at least one story must be in such an anthology, ‘Dying Gracefully’ does not kick you in the guts though it might leave you with a warm feeling.

Apartheid South Africa is the setting for the bloodlust of a white supremacist in Muthi Bentley David Nhlema’s ‘Legacy’. The child Lindani is an unwilling witness to the emasculation and eventual murder of his father. His life receives its definition from that singular trauma, from which a terrible thirst is born which only the bloodiest revenge can slake.

In ‘Voices’ by Priscillar Matara, a child narrator chronicles her mother’s mental health issues and the terrible strain that caring for the mentally ill has on the family.

Sneha Shibu’s story provides the title of the anthology. It is an account of a trauma survivor on the path to restoration and recovery, but more importantly it is the seldom-told story of the suffering borne by the caregivers of such survivors. Betty uses the pain of her physical disfigurement as both a shield and a crutch. She does not want pity from her sister, Linda, and resents Linda’s quiet kindness mainly because she cannot return it. Betty concludes that kindness and love hurt a lot, especially when moving in a single direction with no chance for the recipient to repay. The story portrays human beings as capacitors who need not only to receive but also to give.

Home-grown short story competitions are essential to the continued growth of the African literary scene, and their existence assures us of writers and readers who will shape the African narrative. To this extent, Roses for Betty gets full marks. More than the stories themselves, it is the commitment of the writers to the evolution of the craft, and the willingness of some of them to explore new themes that warms the heart. Sometimes, the journey is as important as the destination.

Photograph: Emergency Aid in Mellit

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Tinuke Adeyi
Tinuke Adeyi
Books and writing saved Tinuke Adeyi from the life she was born into. For this reason, she is in a lifelong relationship with reading. She is a medical practitioner and lives with her husband in Lagos.

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