Review: A Life Elsewhere by Segun Afolabi

“Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures;

at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

– Salman Rushdie

I feel, or at least in my experience, that African literature is not held in the same regard as Western literature. I remember one day talking to a friend and her making the comment that the writing in African novels seemed ‘barbaric’. I realized that to the West, Africa has been made to seem like a dark, shrouded continent, often only communicated from that same removed Western perspective.

Literature tends to be, and is often used, as a political, cultural and historical tool. As such, African literature is powerful in the matter of identity and ownership of one’s own culture and history. The problem in postcolonial states is when they fail to have an identity and to know themselves, which often leads to disastrous situations. So, yes, I think it is valuable to read African literature, especially as an African person. And as a non-African. I have also noticed that there is a tendency to anthropologize African fiction. Whenever I ask friends what they think about it, they usually expect that African fiction exists for one thing only: to comment on the social condition of Africa. Unfortunately, publishers, reviewers, and authors often promise this. It would seem that African literature is invisible except when it is reflected on a mirror of social ills and political concerns. 

Nevertheless, African fiction deserves readers who see its value as a literary object versus readers who are drawn to it because of some imagined anthropological value. We have to stop telling the single story about African stories.

A Life Elsewhere by Segun Afolabi

A Life Elsewhere is a book that touched me in a fundamental way. It is a collection of seventeen short stories. The book begins with Afolabi’s 2005 Caine Prize for African Writing Award winning story, Monday Morning. This story is then followed by People You Don’t Know, The Wine Guitar, Arithmetic, The Visitor, Two Sisters, The Husband of Your Wife’s Best Friend, Moses, Now that I’m Back, The Long Way Home, Something in the Water, Mrs Minter, Another Woman, Mrs Mahmood, Gifted, In the Garden, and finally, Jumbo and Jacinta.

The author’s background, however, is intriguingly diverse. He was born in Nigeria but grew up in various countries, including the Congo, Canada, Japan, East Germany and Indonesia. This experience is reflected in his characters that live ‘elsewhere’, stranded in worlds whose structures, culture and habits they barely grasp. The predominant themes of the collection are loss and nostalgia, loneliness, fear and an all-pervasive sense of dislocation.

Afolabi does something with loneliness as a subject matter that I find appealing and credible. There is a stigma attached to loneliness in today’s world, but this is dispelled by his stories because if there is something we all share in common – it is indeed loneliness. There are random pockets of it in a character’s everyday life. Nonetheless, the author speaks of it not with pathos that is so often encountered in books. Rather, he makes it fresh and poignant every single time. What distinguishes his style is the beauty of his characters in the smallest things – their interactions in a scene like during dinnertime or at an outing. Each of them has their own private issues which when combined together, often set a lasting memorable scene. Another thing I found appealing is that this cluster of tales is not with happily ever after endings. Instead, they are more a reflection of real life with all of its fears, tears, worries, and regrets.

The idea of ‘home’ is fundamental to these stories with the word ‘migration’ at its very heart. His characters share a yearning to connect with their surroundings and to feel like they belong to someone. Or something. The collection describes an inner world where boundaries of distance and geography are being superseded by barriers of suspicion and mutual incomprehension. When the home you fled from is a place of danger and the refuge you have reached is a cold and confusing place, rejection is more likely than pity.

Several stories are seen through the uncomprehending yet observant eyes of children, which serve to magnify the sense of rootlessness and bewilderment. ‘Monday Morning’ tells a story of a refugee family living in a seedy hotel, condemned to wait for the next phase of their journey, struggling with the torment of memory and fear of the future. In ‘People You Don’t Know’, the reader shares a couple of weeks with a teenager, sent abroad to stay with relatives following an unspecified scandal. ‘Arithmetic’ and ‘The Husband of Your Wife’s Best Friend’ are achingly authentic glimpses of middle-aged regret for the life not lived. What I really like in ‘Arithmetic’ is when the narrator watches the doors close on the London Underground and reflects: “I’m always worried about separation; people not making it to the doors in time, watching their companions disappear as the train starts to pull away”. One of my favorites is ‘Something in the Water’, where a man makes an unhappy return to his homeland. It stands out because the protagonist’s inner turmoil is triggered by a detailed portrait of the people and the landscape, which demonstrate that Segun’s talent is not confined to sketchy portraits of the lost and the lonely.

The range of these stories is truly impressive. They are convincingly set in Africa, Asia, the Far East, North America and the UK. The situations described are varied and far from static. Above all, what impresses is the humanity and subtlety in Afolabi’s writing. His sharp insights into those untidy lives reveal his unaffected style and his genuine affection for his characters. A Life Elsewhere is a fine début from a writer of talent and exceptional promise. He is an author to keep an eye on.

***

Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University.  She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria.  Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands.  Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015.  When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.

 

Advertisements