Writing reviews as a means to understand the evolution of storytelling across Africa is critical exercise. There has been a lot of internet flurry about these two stories Grace Jones by Irenosen Okojie & Our Girl, Bimpe by Olakunle Ologunro. Irenosen won the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, 2020. Meanwhile Ologunro’s story was published by Lolwe, a new African digital magazine.
Irenosen Okojie is a Nigerian-British writer. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish won a Betty Trask award and was shortlisted for an Edinburgh International First Book Award. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian, the BBC and the Huffington Post amongst other publications. Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugral Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.
Grace Jones was a laborous read. It broached the question of whether what constitutes African writing is the scarecely accessible fantasies of a world out of reach. Throughout the read, with the help of the writer, the reader grasps for air and grapples for straws of ideas. Possibly true that the writing “challenged the author” as she explains in the Ako Caine price documentary and announcement. The documentary film was produced by the British-Nigerian filmmaker Joseph A. Adesunloye.
Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp CBE, Chair of Judges 2020 says, “In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has prompted deeply powerful questions about race, justice and equality in the world today – this story offers a salient exploration of what it can mean to embody and perform Blackness in the world. This is a story of tremendously delicate power and beauty, and one in which we recognise the tradition of African storytelling and imagination at its finest.”
However, I differ maybe because I am more of a sucker for stories that truly speak to and for the Africa I live and embody daily. I am certain the story has it’s imaginative merits. However, it seemed a little too much to lay hold on how it hopes to tell the story of what should be African. The question of identity and blackness may have been somewhere at the back of the mind of the author or the judges but they were hardly obvious except for the impersonation of Grace Jones, the Jamaican model, singer, songwriter, record producer and actress. The story wasn’t set in Africa, it explored role play and eros from the context of a European experience, but said very little about how this should bring us back to the African story. There was a lot of metaphor stuffing that gave the story a unworldly and dreamy feel. As artsy as the style was, it could very easily lose the reader on what story is being told and at what time. One would eventually get to summarize the outcomes of the story towards the end when you realize that Sidra is haunted by the ghost of her family who lived in a building haunted by the ghost of draughtsman. The story addresses the subject of the human condition properly after the first few paragraphs and as it begins to unwind into the sex orgy that is the central plot. The writing is forced, quirky and unpredictable. The sentences asides the metaphors are quite simple worthy of note but the story only fleetingly touches on Africa or the concept of blackness.
The story is “on your feet” with its pulsating ideas and it’s real to the touch. Reading Lolwe’s publication of Olakunle Ologunro’s, I felt close to the characters. The characters were straight out from our everyday social media encounters. The characters were written vividly and it made the reader quickly fit right in on the smooth ride along. The story is about Bimpe Adedeji, a young girl who wants to be more than just another “doll” playing along to banal mischief that is commonplace among young Africans. She finds a new life through literature and writing. The story explores gender, sexual abuse and violence through the lens of an African teen. These are the real experiences that Africans encounter everyday. Having to make a mental shift on encountering new knowledge through digital spaces. It x-rays the sheer ignorance that informs the social interactions of the African youth and this despite of access to technology. We are confronted with the uncomfortable truth that there is a large mass of Africa’s conversations fueled by the abuse of technology, social spaces and a gross disrespect for topics like consent. We are not expected to laugh all through the narration but the story manages to kick in some wicked humour here and there. It’s a refreshing read from Africa and gives quite an insight into critical questions about who the African is becoming. His use of social media comment sections as part of his story is something new and quite smoothly done. In a quick relay of sentences, one can easily hear the story playout through the electronic chatter of Facebook. Storytelling through these simple forms and styles brings along a huge challenge for African writers. It challenges us to create stories that can truly represent us without unnecessarily disturbing or making a fetish out of the African experience. Being African is not always about dark ancient juju, spirits and dying cultures.
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