Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Three: Memory, Music, Tradition

March 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

Finished a while ago: GraceLand.

A quick catch-up post before moving on.  GraceLand is a complicated book in a lot of ways, not least in form and audience.  Its author is a Nigerian exile living in the U.S., and as such the book was first published in the U.S.  (though there may be — probably was — a simultaneous U.K. edition).  I’ve already given some examples of how the book acts as a kind of Baedeker to the Nigerian cultural and societal landscape of the author’s formative years.  It does this in well-integrated, well-written ways.  It does not in the least partake in the sort of anthropological objectification that Elvis would surely despise.

One example to add to the print and film cultural practices already described: near the book’s end, when Elvis hits the road with the King of Beggars and his band, we get a glimpse of how Nigerian concerts worked, and their parallels with past Western practices:

The evening’s show always started with a dance during which the band played all the popular tunes of the day.  The play followed, and then there was another dance afterwards.  For a big audience in a big town, the total number of songs played in one night came to about forty, not counting those played as part of the play.  Most evenings began at nine p.m. and finished at four in the morning.

It’s quite like Vaudeville, in other words.  The band members consider themselves primarily musicians, but must also act and canvass the town “displaying their instruments” to drum up interest.  The plays are mostly “didactic,” somewhat like morality plays or after-school specials.

Totally fascinating.  However, all of this is potentially fraught postcolonial ground — especially in a book that was featured as a selection of the “book club” on Today.  Who is Abani writing to/for: himself, a la Proust, as an act of memory?  The interested folk of his adopted country, who also happen to be the cultural and (in ways) economical hegemons of his homeland, and those of his homeland’s former colonizer, Great Britain?  His fellow expatriates, or those he left behind in Nigeria?

The form of the novel is interesting in light of these questions.  GraceLand is a synthetic novel, by which I mean it is made of different sorts of texts.  The vast bulk is the narrative of Elvis, a tale with incident, dialogue, and language deeply informed by Nigeria but with a form out of the Western canon (as mentioned before, it can be read as a Bildungsroman, with an interesting parallel plot with an Igbo twist in the tale of Sunday’s own possible spiritual maturation and transformation at the novel’s end).  I speculate that it is especially influenced by Invisible Man and Things Fall Apart: one American, one Nigerian.

But there are also interstitial bits of text, loosely connected to the narrative.  Between chapters we get recipes, descriptions and definitions of Nigerian herbs and plants, and pieces of different texts like the Bible and the aforementioned Onitsha Market pamphlets.  Many of these are (or at least could be) extracts from Elvis’s mother’s journal, we are led to infer from the description Elvis provides of the journal.  With this narrative connection, we, the Americans-ignorant-of-Nigeria, can read them as the cultural primer they clearly are, but can also read them through Elvis’s eyes, and/or Abani’s.  They can be read as expressions of  Elvis’s longing for and estrangement from the homelands of his mother and his country, added after the events of the novel.  The formal heterodoxy is a powerful tool to convey information to the ignorant, but also to reveal the novel’s meaning — its soul.

In addition, each chapter begins with two brief passages about the Igbo ritual of the kola nut, a powerful ceremony important in divination rites but also in hospitality customs and religion more generally.  The first of each of these passages, in regular type, is from the Igbo point of view and often contains a kind of mystical or oracular language.  The second, in italics, is rather more anthropological, talking about the Igbo rituals as objects of study and anthropological data.  Again, we see the dual consciousness of the expatriate.  But more than that, these passages are epigrammatic, and often indicative of the content of the chapter to follow.   This could suggest to the reader either that Abani wants to convey that the form of the narrative follows a persistent path in Igbo mythology, or that Abani has deliberately structured the events of the novel to do so.  The dual epigrams, perhaps, allow for both interpretations at once.  Joycean.  Ingenious.

Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Two: Film Culture

February 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand.

Reading next: Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, and Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace.

Movies are everywhere in this book.  Just for one memorable example: when 10-year-old Elvis gets hooked on going to the latest Bollywood movies with his cousin Efua, he starts stealing the money his grandmother gives him to mail letters to her pen pals around the world.  But he needs to keep giving her responses so she doesn’t catch on, so “scenes from Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Gone with the Wind were rewritten to fit his letters.”  But movies — mostly American — are woven into casual dialogue, the thoughts of the characters, everyday life.

An important scene occurs at the movies in chapter thirteen, when the rebellious, enigmatic King of Beggars (yes, this book involves characters named Elvis, the King, and the Colonel) takes Elvis to the new theater to see a Yugoslavian art film entitled Love Film.  (Possibly this, but then it might not be a real film at all.)  He’s trying to show Elvis an “alternative” to the world of violence and self-interest that threatens to swallow him.  And Elvis loves the movie; he loves its first line, “People are important.”  This qualifies as a major breakthrough in a world as debased, as corrupted, as nightmarish, as his can be.

But the most interesting scene involving the movies comes in chapter fourteen.  Elvis, now thirteen, goes to “the local motor park, where silent westerns and Indian films with badly translated English subtitles were shown after dark.”  These, as it turns out, are “shown courtesy of an American tobacco company” which also gives out free cigarettes “irrespective of age.”  In this case, the film is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  It’s no glamorous spectacle, though: the screen’s a torn, dirty bedsheet and the old projector often eats films and jitters the picture from side to side, for which the crowd has learned to compensate by “sway[ing] from side to side while squinting off to the left.”

But this is not the best part.  The best part is that the films are made into a live performance, based on a kind of new folklore.  The projectionist narrates the action on the screen, creating a whole new story out of the images.  These narrations mostly involve the exploits of a mythological “John Wayne” and “Actor,” the principles in a recurring good-versus-evil storyline across many kinds of films.  As the narrator explains, “John Wayne acting as the villain in a film was Actor, and Clint Eastwood as sheriff was John Wayne.”

I have not yet been able to verify whether this is or was actual practice in Nigeria, but I strongly suspect it was.  It’s not even as simple as it seems, either.   Elvis walks into an argument between teenagers over whether John Wayne or Actor is superior — which is “the true hero.”  And Elvis prefers the figure of Actor, too, as “part villain, part hero,” and explains here:

Women preferred him to John Wayne and men wanted to be him.  His evil was caddish, not malicious, and Elvis knew that though most people dared not step out of the strict lines of this culture, they adored Actor.  He was the embodiment of the stored-up rebellions in their souls.

Actor, in other words, is a trickster to John Wayne’s ideal.  But the narration of the films also allows for audience participation, especially when the projectionist is drunk or annoying or misses something: here, the audience gets going on something and ends up arguing about which person on the screen is Actor and which is John Wayne.  (Particularly appropriate, actually, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.)  That this is taking place in the late ’70s, during the emergence of the antihero (and even the black antihero — Shaft is referred to in this chapter) in American cinema, in the Nigeria of corrupt officials and in Elvis’s world with a drunk, abusive father and even worse uncle, makes perfect sense.  And of course, Actor is still alive and well (as one of the debaters argues, he cannot be killed): the Joker in The Dark Knight springs to mind as a prime example.

Various Nigerian Narratives, Part 1: Print Culture

February 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand.

Sprinkled throughout this book are these fascinating little glimpses into Nigerian pop culture of the ’70s and ’80s.  Because of my work, I’m especially interested in the print culture in evidence here: the interesting uses and kinds of books that Elvis comes across in Lagos.  And I initially meant to write just about these, but so many fascinating little memes about movies, memories, and music kept popping up that I had to expand my vision of narrative to include these, and will address them in future posts.  But to begin with print culture:

References to Elvis’s reading pop up again and again throughout the book: it is in part a Bildungsroman, and a very interesting one, though I think it’s also more than that.  Elvis reads Rilke, the Koran, Gibran’s The Prophet, and many other books.  There are two book-focused episodes in particular that stand out.

The first is in chapter five, where we get a glimpse of Elvis’s library use.  We find that he has been using the United States Information Service Library on Victoria Island, which carries “the show-biz magazine Entertainment” among many other things.  Here’s what he has to say about the local library:

Apart from the endless old tomes on chemistry, physics, electronics and philosophy, the local library had an anthropology section that only had books with the word “Bantu” in their titles… Something about the word “Bantu” bothered him and made him think it was pejorative.  Maybe it had something to do with not ever hearing that word used outside of that section in the library.  The only other books there were treatises on Russian and Chinese culture and politics.  These came either printed in bold glossy colors or in badly bound volumes with the fading print slanted on the page as if set by a drunken printer or as though, tired of the lies, the words were trying to run off the page.

This is fascinating in a number of ways: Elvis’s preference for the US-sponsored library, his distrust of his own local library’s labeling and categorization of African people as “anthropological,” the shelves of “endless old tomes” and propaganda that are supposed to edify but have no interest for him.  The USIS library is a propaganda tool, too, but an attractive, useful, well-stocked one, with the products (however curated and propagandized) of a free press.  In a culture with an American pop-culture obsession, access to an American library for a kid like Elvis is a real treasure.  I think Abani is interrogating that America obsession throughout the novel, but more so with mass-media products like movies and magazines than with books.  I think he presents the USIS library as a good thing, however Elvis chooses to use it.  (The USIS was actually disbanded in 1999, another Cold-War casualty.)

The second is in chapter eleven, when Elvis visits the huge Tejuosho Market to buy some clothes.  It’s a very evocative scene, with Elvis threading his way through the open-air stalls viewing the fruits and vegetables for sale, hearing the cries of kids selling Cokes, the crowded bustle of people about their business.  And then he stops at a used bookseller’s cart: Abani’s descriptions of the Western-canonical paperbacks (Dickens) and West-African novels (Achebe, but also “thrillers like Kalu Okpi’s The Road“) give you the true feel for the cart and for the market.  It has the ring of truth, this mix of used books, at least to someone who’s never set foot in Africa.  Elvis buys two books, slyly symbolic of the crossroads he’s facing: “a torn copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and a near-pristine copy of James Baldwin’s Another Country.”  There it is, in a nutshell: will Elvis turn to the life of crime, corruption, and self-interest, of masculine posturing and violence, or will he follow his artistic dream, his desire to help and support his people and his country, and (perhaps) his homosexual inclinations?  But the books are not just symbols or signifiers of Elvis’s identity crisis; they’re possible pathways out of that crisis.  In other words, it’s not just important that we the readers get the significance; it’s also important that he get it — that he read the books.  That he’s buying them in the first place, when he’s dropped out of school and has very little access to books in general, adds important complexity to his personality.

Then Elvis hears another bookseller calling out from an adjacent stall, and we’re introduced to another fascinating aspect of Nigeria’s print culture: the Onitsha Market pamphlets.  As the bookseller sells them, they are “de books written by our people for de people.”  Here’s Abani’s description:

These pamphlets, written between 1910 and 1970, were produced on small presses in the eastern market town of Onitsha, hence their name.  They were the Nigerian equivalent of dime drugstore pulp fiction crossed with pulp pop self-help books.  They were morality tales with their subject matter and tone translated straight out of the oral culture…. The covers mirrored American pulp fiction with luscious, full-breasted Sophia Loren look-alike white women.  Elvis had read a lot of them, though he wouldn’t admit it publicly.

Elvis scans one that the bookseller suggests for an “educated man,” called Beware of Harlots and Many Friends. He turns it down, though, opting for the more narrative-driven Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away. These are, apparently, real Onitsha pamphlets: Abani gives their full citations in his acknowledgments.  And if you’re really curious, you can see a bibliography of over 100 and 21 digitized examples from the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas here.  Elvis hides his pamphlet between the Dostoyevsky and the Baldwin, and this too signifies, I think, in some way: the indigenous culture Elvis is embarrassed of, but that Abani celebrates — giving us an excerpt from Mabel between this chapter and the next.

I’ll have more to say later about the use of Elvis’s mother’s journal and other excerpts from written works later on.  For now, I hope I’ve given a taste of the complex, intricate ways that Abani is using books and Nigeria’s print culture in the text.  It reminds me a little of Joyce, in Ulysses, with the various books and pamphlets and scraps of culture that Bloom and Stephen come across and mull over in their heads.  (Not a huge stretch.  This is a really, really good book.)

Xerox City

February 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand, by Chris Abani.

“Name it and Lagos had a copy of it, earning it the nickname “One Copy.”

Our narrator, Elvis, is a copy of sorts himself: named after Elvis Presley, and in love with dancing, he makes the logical choice to become an Elvis impersonator.  He’s growing up in ’70s and ’80s Nigeria, in the slums of Lagos, having moved with his father from a smaller town after his father loses an election.

But there’s no such thing as an exact copy or a perfect impersonation, and therein lies the interest.  Wearing a wig and “white shoes and trousers,” covering his face with talcum powder when he runs out of “sparkle spray” — but still aware that “this was not how white people looked” — he sings “Hound Dog” and dances for tourists at expensive hotels.  Humiliatingly, in the encounter we witness at the beginning of the novel, the tourists try to get him to stop with chocolate, then pay him a pittance to go away.  And when he goes back to the bus after this embarrassment, a woman getting off asks him, laughing, “Who do dis to you?”

If Elvis took it all as a joke, just bilking tourists out of their money with a minstrel show of one of their Western heroes, it would be one thing.  But he grew up listening to Presley, his hero.  His identity is intertwined with the white American’s.  And he takes his act very seriously: it is what he loves to do.  It is an act of art.  Constrained by his inability to use makeup (so as not to be confused with a prostitute or homosexual), confused with a beggar or huckster, he is stuck with his existence like a cheap copy.

Abani weaves these threads of cultural cross-pollination, post-colonialism, and skewed facsimile through the beginning of his narrative quite skillfully: songs on the radio (American, Caribbean, African), the movies Elvis becomes addicted to (the cheapest old silents, the newer Bollywood films), the snacks he eats watching them (American soft drinks), many other subtle asides.  It’s not simple symbol or allusion, though: there’s nothing forced or artificial about these references, just a portrait of lived life in Nigeria at the time.  A cool example that made me laugh in delighted surprise: the girls and women of Elvis’s family plaiting their hair into elaborate patterns and shapes, as Al Green plays on the radio in 1976.  “Aunt Felicia had invented a plait called Concorde, complete with a Concorde-shaped aircraft taxiing down the crown of the head to the nape.”  Even the dialogue of  Elvis’s grandmother Oye, who speaks with a kind of Scottish accent and idiom she picked up from missionaries, is utterly believable in a strange way.

Is Abani playing with one of the great themes of world (especially European) literature in the 20th century, the Double?  Is Lagos a doppelganger of sorts for a western city, a kind of distorted mirror image, with its massive disparity between large numbers of  millionaires in mansions and hotels and a huge impoverished population in swampy shanty-towns built on stilts?  I think there’s more to this than that; I think Abani’s novel is shaping up to be rather distinctively its own thing, just as his Lagos seems like quite its own thing despite its “One Copy” of everything; but I also think he’s keenly aware of and interested in traditions, literary and cultural.  Elvis reads a lot of western literature (which I hope to talk about in the next post), and before most of the chapters there are descriptions of Igbo rituals and recipes.  This novel’s blazing a trail between canon and experiment.

Just for the hell of it, and because it’s pretty great and I’d never heard of it, here’s one of the greatest music hits from Nigeria in the ’70s, mentioned in the novel, “Sweet Mother” by Prince Nico Mbarga:

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