My Favourite Lines from Ben Okri’s ‘Songs of Enchantment’

okri-songs

I just put down Songs of Enchantment (reluctantly) and I’m still itching with awe and respect for this man. I recently read the sequel, The Famished Road and found it to be an exquisite read that left me wanting more. I definitely got more with this one and from the first page I felt like I had put the phone down for a few seconds and picked it up again to continue with an uninterrupted conversation. He didn’t overdo recapping The Famished Road and at the same time he didn’t lead me into the dark without me knowing where I was coming from and where I was heading. It’s absolutely gorgeous, his prose is deep and it keeps its audience completely enchanted.

I mentioned in my previous review of The Famished Road that Okri’s work is a gold mine of quotes and meaningful lines that can be adopted as personal mantras, this one is just as wealthy with lines that can stay with you for a very long time or change your perspectives on a whole lot of aspects in life.

Here they are;

  1. “Death is everywhere, listening, waiting to jump on those who believe in his dream.”
  2. “We are all fighting to be born, fighting to have our spirits sit correctly in our bodies.”
  3. “I think we have the WHOLE UNIVERSE inside us when we are joyful and full of life.”
  4. “Madness is maybe too many lives overlapping in a single mind, it is only the mind locked in its own cupboard, with the key lost….The future holds a bold signboard which no one can read because our minds are locked in an old cupboard.”
  5. “Nothing can stop an old wound from breaking out in your brain if the wound hasn’t healed.”
  6. “Nothing creates more controversy than the truth.”
  7. “A dream can be the highest point of a life; action can be its purest manifestation.”
  8. “The freeing of one vision is the freeing of all.”
  9. “To see anew is not enough – we must also create…We must also create our new lives, every day, with will and light and love.”
  10. “Maybe one day we will see that beyond our chaos there could always be a new sunlight, and serenity.”

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Gravity

​”Set him free”

They said

So I left with the gravity
Beneath his feet
And he floated freely
Until he had nowhere to land
No grass to lay his head
No heart to call his home
Set him free, I did
I took his gravity with me-NM Seg

Things…

​They were words on crutches

Disorganized lines left untouched

Of things too raw
Of things wrapped in thorns
They were falling bricks
The cracks never sealed
The souls that always leaked
All the rights that should’ve been
Lost in words we couldn’t speak
In the sins we couldn’t forgive
And wounds that didn’t heal

They were words made of mist
Existing in chances we’d missed
-NM Seg

African Classic: The New Tribe by Buchi Emecheta

the-new-tribe

Reverend Arlington and his wife Ginny are not able to have their own children and when a baby girl is abandoned at birth and brought to their doorstep, they are happy to adopt her. A Nigerian woman living in England hears about the story and unable to look after her son, Chester, she decides that the Arlingtons would be the perfect family to provide a home for him. Chester is the only black child in the area and soon as he grows up he can tell that something about him is different. At some point the Reverend and his wife decide that it’s time to let Julia and Chester know about their adoption. Chester keeps having a recurring dream of his people in Nigeria and grows up with the images continuing to play in his head. Chester leaves St Simon without telling anyone where he’s going, driven by the need to find out about himself. While he had been working at the Clinton’s holiday place during the school vacation he had met a Nigerian man and so he heads to Liverpool to stay with them. He finds a job at the local leisure centre where he meets Esther the co-ordinator, and a Nigerian man named Jimoh. He tells him of his dream and Jimoh tells him that he has a calling to return him to find his people, with that he also convinces him to travel to Nigeria where he will be staying with his family.

Chester travels to Nigeria and the events that greet him are far from what he expected. They help him look around for an African king called Oba who had lost his son, and this son could possibly be Chester. They have no luck at all. Later on while Chester lies in hospital with Malaria, no passport and no money, back in Liverpool Esther and Julia meet. Julia has been looking for her brother and eventually tracked him down through Mr Ugwu’s details from the holiday place that he used to visit. Esther had already planned on going to Nigeria to look for Chester and had been given details of where he was by Jimoh. They return to Liverpool, finally giving in to the feelings they have had for each other all that while. Chester gets a visit from Julia and she has a lot to tell him about the death of their father, what happened to her and most importantly, about his real parents who are still very much alive. She also hands him a storybook from Ginny that she had made for him when he was a little boy, in her attempts to keep him in touch with his people. It is when Chester reads the book and sees the pictures that he discovers where what he thought was a calling to Africa actually came from.

 

It’s a quick read, in some parts the story feels rushed. Ginny’s character is my favourite, her strength as a wife and as a mother. The protagonist, however, is not that easy to get into and fall in love with, it feels as though the writer did not bring out all of him. There could have been a lot more about him that she could have given us and so a lot of him ended up being a little vague. However, the challenges that he faces as a black child are real and easy to understand, making it easy to sympathise with him. His quest for his identity also makes a lot of sense, as a black face in a pool of whites. I also liked the way Emecheta portrayed Lagos, in its real appearance and how Chester couldn’t belong. That is expected, he had grown up in a completely environment, different culture and beliefs and if he had immediately fit in like a missing puzzle piece, it would have killed the story. The New Tribe has a straightforward plot and it’s written in simple and easy language. It’s enjoyable and I would recommend it to people who enjoy African literature that does not focus on racism on heavy issues that stereotypes associate with the genre.

emecheta

Buchi Emecheta, (born Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta) is a Nigerian author, born in Lagos in 1944. When she was ten she won a Methodist Girls’ High School scholarship where she remained until she left school and was married by seventeen. She accompanied her husband to London where he was a student and at after being in an unhappy marriage, she finally left him at the age of twenty-two. While working to support her five children on her own, Emecheta took an honours degree in sociology. She worked as a library officer for the British Museum in London, then worked as a youth worker and sociologist for the Inner London Education Authority and later as a community worker. Her success as an author grew and she travelled around as a lecturer and visiting professor. Her works include The Bride Price, The Joys of Motherhood, A Kind of Marriage, Second-Class Citizen, Destination Biafra, The Slave Girl and many others. She has also written plays, articles and children’s and young adult stories.

 

Classic Review: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

the-idiot

It is better to be unhappy and know the worst, than to be happy in a fool’s paradise.”

After spending four years in a Swiss clinic where he was treated for severe epilepsy and ‘idiocy’, Prince Myshkin returns to Russia on a cold November morning. On the train he meets a man named Rogozhin who is obsessed with a fallen femme fatale, Nastasya, who was the mistress of an aristocrat, Totsky. Prince Myshkin visits the house of the Yepanchins where his only distant relation Madame Yepanchin is married to the respected and wealthy General Yepanchin. The couple have three daughters, the last being the most beautiful but haughty and capricious Aglaya who will have a significant role in the prince’s life.

The general’s assistant, Ganya is in love with Aglaya but plans to marry Nastasya, as he has been promised a large sum of money by Totsky if he does so. On the night that Nastasya holds a party where she will announce if she will marry Ganya or not, the prince tries to convince her against it and offers to marry her. Rogozhin appears at the party with his gang and it is with him that Nastasya runs off. Months later Prince Myshkin pays Rogozhin, where his epileptic seizure saves him from getting stabbed by Rogozhin. The prince’s compassion, naivety and kindness opens him to people’s manipulation and false claims to his small inheritance, yet he is always willing to help. He falls in love with Aglaya while he also holds a compassionate love for Nastasya. Aglaya is in love with him too but she won’t admit it, often mocking him. However, her family treats him like her fiancé and he is invited to a dinner party where the general’s acquaintances who rank high in society are also attending. He has a severe seizure and is thought of by the family as an unfit match for Aglaya. The love triangle does not end well for those involved; one dies, the other’s mental state crumbles and the other runs off with a count and is later abandoned.

 

The story is set in a world of moral corruption, selfishness, money as a weapon of power and manipulation, against altruism, love and beauty. This pretty much represents not only the Russian society at the time but the real world we live in. People’s mockery of the prince’s illness and labeling of it as idiocy shows an ignorance and misunderstanding of mental illness that has always existed and still does in society. His kindness and care are also taken advantage of and people do not hesitate to manipulate him for their own benefit. Humanity tends to do so with people who are selfless and openly honest. Money plays such a big role; who has the most and who can acquire things like love with it. We see this with the different amounts offered in a bid for the beautiful Nastasya. I read Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, prior to reading The Idiot and one has to give it to Dostoevsky for his clear insight into the human psyche. I love the way all the characters depict the different characteristics and the different aspects of society itself. Prince Myshkin is the ideal human form of goodness, selflessness, kindness and positivity. The reality that Dostoevsky does not hide from us is that this same man with all his good qualities, does not succeed in changing the world he enters with all these positive qualities. Instead, his life and that of those around him end up mostly in destruction. There are different types of love that we see in the characters, for example Prince Myshkin’s compassionate love for Nastassya is different from the obsessive and corrosive love that Rogozhin has for her.

Dostoevsky’s ability to represent different perspectives in equally good measure and to bring to the surface both psychological and social themes in their purest form, is absolutely praiseworthy. The story, along with many that he has written, exhibit an astounding measure of talent and boundless beauty in his style of writing. It’s a long story but worth its length. It is definitely proof of how and why Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of the most influential writers of all time. Lovers of classic literature, Russian or not, will devour this one.

A Poem: Pretty Little Bird

Pretty little bird lives in a cold nest

On a sterile tree with dead leaves

She flaunts her rainbow coloured breast

And spreads her silk and sea-glittering wings

For all the idle trees to wrestle in contest

To have her peck their stems with her silver beak

 

In the wild forest, there’s a majestic tree

With a stem as hard as the chest of a god

Branches that spread with grace and symmetry

Alluring and bewitching to one who beholds

Its august shade and its virile leaves

 

When the sun retires to an unknown land

And the moon stretches out across the sky

Pretty little bird finds the tree without help

Singing sweet songs into the amorous nights

All the flowers the tree gives into her lap

Until the bark dries and all the green dies

 

Right where the tree stands, deep in the earth

Lies the strong arms of its nurturing roots

That feed the beating of the tree’s heart

And tailors the strength in the fibre of its wood

The power to the branches that hold the little bird

 

The soils whisper the secrets of the darkness

Of clandestine pecks and romantic coos

The moon can no longer keep it all in silence

Of rattling leaves and the fruits’ flowing juices

The wise forest details the night’s affairs

When the tree learns of the death of its roots

And fails at the attempt of a late resurrection

Pretty little bird flies off for another tree to woo

Short Story: Two Birds

Her knees were cement sacks and each step she took needed a prayer. Her heart stood thick in her throat, the very reason she had to make her way to the bar not so long after the morning birds had sung their early song. The heat was so ill-behaved, it felt as though the devil had couriered it specially to burn the life out of her. But what kind of person have I become? She kept asking herself on the way. Her thoughts were burdened with both fear and relief, leaving her jumping from one emotion to another.

The pub wasn’t yet open for business and only the workers were busying around with beer crates, wet mops and buckets and the clinking of glasses being washed at the back. Lulu was not exactly an employee but she occasionally helped out with the cleaning and so the owner let her come in the morning to wet her ashy throat. It wasn’t just her dry throat that drove her to the place so early but life itself had a way of navigating her throat, bladder and liver to that one place where she could intoxicate her senses.

“So you are alive? Ha! After the way you left last night without telling us you were retiring, I thought something terrible had happened to you,” spoke one of the regulars who was also an early attendee of the bar. Her tone was not that of concern, merely wanting to lead the conversation to finding where exactly Lulu had disappeared to, for the sake of gossip. This Balbina woman had thighs that could swallow a man and never let him out. She wore tights that showed the heavy sack of cellulite in all its dimpled formation. Her bosom was a set of two mountains that could baptise a nation of infants with milk. Her behind could not be mentioned as there was not much but a flat plank that connected waist to legs in a linear form. Her face was patches of blemishes and scars from fights with angry girlfriends and wives, and jealous boyfriends.

Lulu didn’t answer her but went to order a drink, returning with a cheap bottle of brandy and two beers.

Seeing the brandy, which was far better than the two weak bottles of cider that sat at her feet, Balbina’s mouth watered, “Friend of mine, my friend. You bring us the good stuff. You must have scored a pair of golden nuts last night.”

“Nah. This is my last bit of money but if I don’t spend it on this medicine of ours how will I be able to deal with this virus called life?” she said with hunched shoulders and a weary voice.

When Lulu sat down her bottom burned as if she sat on hot coals, it burned all the way through her rectal passage. Two days ago her boyfriend, Stanley had gone all out on his beating and had finished her off with endless kicks to her backside, sometimes his sharp pointed shoe landing right at the exit in the middle of her buttocks. Lulu had somehow found a way to accept the beatings but on that day he had shown her hell. The disgust and hatred that gathered inside her, in concentrated form and intensity had led her to where she was now. While Balbina was busy relating the events of her night and who she had lain with this time, Lulu’s thoughts travelled back to her childhood and how she had ended up sitting at the bar in the morning with a flaming backside and a heart clothed in sharp needles.

 

*

Anna had beauty that was known to everyone in the neighbourhood and in the surrounding neighbourhoods. She was popular for the face that arrested its beholder at first sight and the rest about her became unnecessary to know about her. Her dream was to be known all over the world, she wanted her beauty to take her places – television, billboards and posters everywhere. She wanted to win all pageants and be a successful model somewhere in lands she had never seen where she heard people were rich and happy. Her sister Suzie, on the other hand, had been robbed of such a gift and had the face of a creature that lived under a rock. With all the attention given to her sister and the constant reminder in the mirror that she was far from being noticed or paid any compliment, her bitterness grew to tremendous heights.

Anna may have been an ambitious and determined girl but her one weakness was not separating her beauty from the value between her legs. She used her beauty to lure men and the cave between her spread legs was one of the most popular destinations all around. One of her lovers left her pregnant and disappeared into thin air, leaving her to give birth to a girl as beautiful as her, Lulu. Even through the burden of being a single parent, having to leave high school and work at a supermarket she never let go of her dreams. Sadly, at those times AIDS was such a taboo that if people were to find out she would have seen the wrath of prejudice, and so she let it consume her in silence and her death was quick. Her parents later followed her to the grave and Lulu was left in the hands of Suzie who was going to make sure that all the accumulated hatred would rain down on the child.

From the age of ten, Lulu was to learn how being showered with love and affection all her life could instantly turn to being kicked like the dirt on the ground. She was her aunt’s slave and at times she would overwork her and leave her to starve for a day. If any of their relatives were to visit, Suzie would make sure that she had warned Lulu of the consequences that she’d face if she so much as let her tongue slip about the way they lived.

“Listen here, you animal that has neither mother nor father. If you dare complain to anyone I will make sure that you go live with your parents in the land of the dead,” she warned her. Lulu had experienced the brutality of her aunt’s flogging that she did not want to provoke her in any way.

To them she was a happy child whose selfless aunt had taken her and was raising her as her own with love and no complaint. However, neighbours were not blind to what was happening but not wanting to add any more burdens to what they already had on their plates, they pretended not to see or hear anything. All they did was occasionally offer the child morsels of food when the aunt was not around. Lulu’s school performance was dismal and before she even got to high school, she quit. Her aunt couldn’t have been happier because it meant the child, without an education, would be at her mercy.

“You are nothing and you’ll always be that way, just like your mother. Just because you have her looks does not mean the world will kiss your feet.”

Unlike her mother, Lulu had always been oblivious to the power of her looks. She was told by many but she had so much darkness in her that it blinded her from seeing her own beauty. She did odd jobs here and there, cleaning and washing people’s clothes and all the chores at home were hers. All her aunt did was go to work, return and demand food and bring her ex-convict boyfriend home. Eventually the man moved in and that coincided with Lulu meeting Stanley who praised her beauty in a way that she found comfort in. She left home and they moved into a rented shack in a close neighbourhood. Suzie never bothered to look for her niece – good riddance it was.

Their shack needed all powers of some deity to balance it; the structure was as weak as her influence in the household. Whatever Stanley said went for he was the provider and his power over her rose with each reminder that he was all she had. Cockroaches and rats felt more at home than she did. Stanley kept her on her toes and reminded her that he could kick her out if he wanted to, and so she was at his mercy. The beatings were regular and whenever she ran into a corner and covered her face, waiting for him to finish she would repeat in her head that it was better than being in the streets. She had left one hell for another but to her it was better to be treated this way by an outsider than family.

The day that sent her to the pub with a heavy heart came when Paul wanted to go out but had nothing in his pockets. He had been working like a donkey at the factory and had run out of money before month-end, and had the loan shark making threats. It only took an act of offering him water to set him off. The glass had landed on her back after she had placed it on the small table in front of him, then the slaps had melted on her, he kicked and punched and threw things at her. That was the moment she knew she had to find a way out of that hell.

*

 

“Balbina, your voice can be nauseating at times, can’t you just shut up and drink?” Lulu stood up and limped off to the toilet. She was trying hard to contain the physical pain that burned all over her. The guilt and fear in her mind throbbed her head and everything spun uncontrollably. She made it just in time to throw up in the right place. When she returned, Balbina had drunk most of the booze and it infuriated Lulu even more but as much as she felt like pouncing on her, her body wouldn’t allow it. Balbina would sit on her and that was all it would take to finish her off.

“If you ever speak to me like that I will show you your mother’s inner thighs, you hear me?” threatened Balbina. Lulu waved her off.

It didn’t take long for Balbina to resume her gossip and didn’t care if she had an audience or not. Lulu’s hands were trembling and her eyes stung. She was just hoping that everything would go according to plan and that as soon as the next day she would finally have her freedom. The owner came and placed her thick hand on Lulu’s shoulder, “I am sorry to hear about your aunt. You know, I cannot believe that that little boy she lived with for so long just left her like that. Ha! Men, when you have something to give they stick around but as soon as you’re useless to them they disappear. Anyway, so are you going to look after her?” she carried on without paying attention to Lulu’s confusion. “Lulu I know she treated you badly but now that she had a stroke and has no one, you’re her only hope, and it’s not like she can abuse you in her state, now at least you can have a decent home and not have to put up with that man.”

She didn’t bother to go to Stanley’s place for her things, she went straight to the taxi stop and she was on her way to her aunt’s house. Suzie was as good as a vegetable that not even a beggar would eat. She lay on the bed with a contorted face, a shrunken figure in a room that reeked of a decaying soul. Two women from church were busy trying to feed her soup when Lulu came in and on realising that someone had come to take the duties of care off their hands they were on their way.

“She needs you, child. Leave the past to God and focus on doing what’s right. You hear me?” the thin one with a stale breath whispered to her.

Lulu saw them out and went back to the room to find Suzie lying face up, choking. She rolled her to her side and watched as the yellow oozed from the corner of her mouth onto the sticky pillow that needed to see the garbage bin. She went straight to work, fed her, changed the bedding and gave her a bath and gave her meds. While her aunt slept, Lulu needed time to think through how things would proceed from then on.

Over the week her aunt’s condition worsened and less people came to visit. When they asked if she didn’t need to see the doctor, Lulu would let them know that the doctor’s instructions were that she finish her course of medicine first to give them time to work on her.

“You know how these things take time, but with prayer they will work miracles, I know that for sure.” With that, they left her at peace.

Sunday afternoon, and the few church ladies that were used to coming had just left after only less than half an hour of asking the same questions, repeating the same prayer of healing for the sick and strength for the selfless child who carried the load on her young shoulders. In the evening a knock on the door startled her as she was not expecting anyone at all. As she looked out the window the police van almost sent urine down her legs.

Once they had sat down she offered tea but after taking a look at the piled up dishes, the stained walls, the dead bugs near the fridge and the grime stained tiles, they declined and went straight to business.
“When was the last time you saw Stanley? We understand that you were living with him for a while,” asked one police officer who was raining sweat underneath his unbearably tight shirt. The chair he sat on prayed for mercy.

“I…uh, I can’t remember. It must have been a few weeks ago. He disappeared after beating me up and…I don’t know, he just left and didn’t say where he was going. Why? Is there something wrong? Is he looking for me? Is there…”

“Okay, so when you left he wasn’t at home?”

She shook her head and worry filled her expressions. The questions continues, about their lifestyle, if they were having domestic problems, why she never reported the beatings, if he was the only one bringing the bacon home, if there was anything she wanted to add and so on.

Stanley had been found dead in his shack, he must have been dead for a week or more. They said he had taken poison and were suspecting suicide, considering the cup of tea next to the bed and the bottle of rat poison next to it. There was powder on his fingers and on the floor beside the bed.

After the police left, Lulu sat there fighting the storm that shook inside her. There were too many what ifs playing in her mind but after however long she had sat there, a feeling of relief took over her and she could feel freedom sewing wings on her back. What she didn’t know was that in that time while she sat in the kitchen with the police, digesting it all after their departure, the person lying in bed in the next room and had breathed her last. The pills had worked faster than she had expected.

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