By Willing Davidson on the New Yorker
In “Apollo,” your story in this week’s magazine, a young man named Okenwa visits his retired parents, who tell him about the fate of a houseboy named Raphael, whom the family employed when Okenwa was young. Okenwa’s parents have changed—when he was young, they “had about them the air of people who were quick to dismiss others,” but now they’re more credulous. Have the parents really changed so much, or is it Okenwa’s relation to them that has changed?_
Both, I think. I am fascinated by how aging can reshape a relationship with parents. How an adult child sees a parent through eyes often sharply different from the eyes of childhood.
Okenwa’s parents are bookish people, but he prefers the films of Bruce Lee. He’s joined in this by Raphael. What kind of mentorship does Raphael provide? And is there a pleasure for Okenwa in becoming friends with someone of a different social class? How much of his friendship with Raphael stems from his desire to go behind his parents’ back?
By the way, I don’t think Bruce Lee and bookishness are mutually exclusive; it just happens to be the case in the story. Bruce Lee was a cultural icon of my Nigerian childhood, and, even though it was generally considered a “boy” thing, I thought Bruce Lee was very cool. I watched all the films with my brothers.
I don’t think Okenwa being drawn to Raphael is a conscious “class rebellion.” But it’s not altogether surprising that he would long for an escape of sorts from everything his parents represented.
Raphael eventually contracts conjunctivitis. In the story, the condition is called “Apollo.” Where does this name come from?
In Nigeria—and in some other parts of Africa—Apollo is the colloquial term for conjunctivitis. I remember a friend telling me, in primary school, that it was called Apollo because the men who went to the moon had returned with the red-eyed infection. This friend and I had just had Apollo, and it was perhaps her way of making our plight seem special.
The undercurrent of attraction in the story is elegant and subtle, and yet we sense by the end the interest that Okenwa has in Raphael, and it snaps the beginning of the story into place. How do you go about constructing a story such that the ending reveals something about the beginning? Are there stories or novels you particularly like that you think do this well?
I am drawn as a reader to stories of childhood told in an adult voice, stories full of the melancholy beauty of retrospect. I am interested in the regrets we carry from our childhoods, in the idea of “what if” and “if only.” A novel I love, “The Go-Between,” by L. P. Hartley, does this very well.
I’m also drawn to brave endings that stun you and make you reconsider the beginning, and I’ve just read the recent novel “Hausfrau,” which does that very well. I think of Okenwa’s attraction to Raphael as a certain kind of first love, childhood first love, that early confusing emotional pull, that thing filled with an exquisite uncertainty because it does not know itself and cannot even name itself.
Have you read “Apollo?” can you read and send in your thoughts? We will be glad to share your thoughts. READ THE STORY HERE