AiW Guest: John Uwa
In reviewing Segun Afolabi’s ‘The Folded Leaf’, a short story shortlisted for Caine Prize 2015, one must resist the temptation to mounting up praises on the text. It is certainly a well-articulated and thematically focused text; and its shortness is symptomatic of its urgency to address burning contemporary issues in Nigeria. However, this review will approach ‘The Folded Leaf’ by looking at Segun Afolabi’s ability to explore formal elements of the genre to achieve meaning; that is, his artistic blend of matter and manner.
The story is about a Christian community comprising of various family members who in spite of health challenges have had to contend with the reality of their being, and to live a normal communal Christian life. But when after a strong resolve of collective contributions, they set out on a journey to Lagos in search of healing, from a man of God who doesn’t seem to have answers to their questions, a new reality which will alter or question the basis of their Christian faith and practice is unfolded. In the first two pages of ‘The Folded Leaf’, Bunmi’s voice introduces most of the characters through whom the narrative will move forward. While characters like Bunmi, Samuel, Tunde and Mrs Kekere are introduced with peculiar health challenges, others like Bola, Papa and the Ejiofohs accompany them; and together, they will form the narrative backbone with Bunmi as the main narrator.
The kernel of the story which is about search for healing and self-aggrandizement is perhaps the hallmark of the Christian encounter in Nigeria, especially Pentecostalism. In this way, Afolabi’s story represents the new face of pseudo-Christian practice in Nigeria, which is hinged on the gospel of healing (miracles) and prosperity (11). This is in sharp contrast with the orthodox teaching of judgement or punishment for vice, and reward for virtue. Afolabi’s representation of Pentecostalism resonates with the biblical account of Apostle Peter in 2nd Peter 2: 3:
… in covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you.
One of the spectacles Afolabi crafts is the vulnerability of Christian adherents, which makes them too blind to see the materialist and exploitative instinct of those who feign to ‘act’ on God’s behalf, resulting in a blindly sentimental Christian practice or religiosity. Those whom Afolabi portrays to have been placed on a high pedestal, owning aircraft and luxurious houses just for acting on God’s behalf, are represented as demigods. What appears to be a live spiritual performance is a stage-managed act, implying that both the pastor and his adherents are only communing with a ‘God’ of spectacle.
But Afolabi suggests that there are multiple ways of looking at his story (and indeed every work of art) by using the narrative voice of the blind narrator Bunmi to elaborate on the theme of perception:
How they appear to me, and my own understanding of myself, might not compare with other people’s perceptions. But do any of us identify the same thing in exactly the same way? The shape of an egg, the colour blue, the smell of a leaf? That’s what Bola says sometimes. So don’t worry, he says. And Bola’s right about most things (8).
In trying to avoid authorial interference, Afolabi tells his story through this blind twelve-year-old whose narrative power inheres in her strong stimulus, curiosity, perception and scepticism; a narrator who relies on interviewing skills like probing, prompting, scooping and interrogation to account for the plot’s progression.
From a structuralist perspective, there are two sources of meaning in Afolabi’s narrative. The first is use of cultural and religious metaphors, and languages whose meaning is located in the African context; the second is Afolabi’s deployment of narrative codes to achieve meaning. Narrative code is here referred to as the dialogic sequence, and is saddled with the narrative responsibilities in the text. For instance, Afolabi understands that the instinct, perception and scepticism of a blind narrator may not be enough to guarantee a reliable narrator, so he moves the narrative responsibility to other centres (characters) of the story who are in a better position to give a reliable account. His main narrator prompts the other characters to visualise each situation, while she analyses them. A good example is Bunmi’s description of a boy begging without a leg, but still able to manoeuvre his way in the traffic of Lagos (10). Bunmi is able to create an imaginative picture of this beggar after extracting sufficient information from those whose vision she has had to rely upon.
When Afolabi’s narrative voice introduces the “servant of God” as Pastor Fayemi (11), a paradox is established. The name Fayemi has a connection with Yoruba oracle called “Ifa”; thus, it becomes paradoxical that a Pastor of such repute could so be addressed. By using such a name, Afolabi readily qualifies the Pastor as a charlatan. Afolabi thus uses ‘The Folded Leaf’ and the name Fayemi to show that the structural elements which give meaning in African literature are deeply enshrined in the understanding of African cultural codes, and their metonymic and metaphorical elements. With a language that is basically formal English, alongside a blend of Yoruba and pidgin, Afolabi’s style embodies the paradox of human existence. Like a leaf which is folded, the narrative encapsulates man’s desperate search for the meaning of his existence, against the reality of his being. The title of the story speaks of the division between who we are, and what or who we want to be.
Another strength of the text hinges on Afolabi’s power to embrace other thematic concerns as he takes us from a location outside Lagos to the city of Lagos. By dealing with transportation, housing, environment, street-life, traffic and the politics of religion, Afolabi gives us a picture of what urban encounter is all about. Lagos, from the narrative spectacle, becomes a land of desperate quest for survival.
While the narrative brilliance of Afolabi cannot be shooed away, one wonders why he would want to saddle a 12 year old narrator with such narrative responsibility, especially since Bunmi, the blind narrator, must rely on the information of other characters to tell us her story. Notwithstanding, with the artistic deployment of language, especially figurative language, sequential progression of plot, artistic blend of characters and setting, and carefully selected themes, Afolabi can legitimately lay claim to his nomination for the 2015 Caine Prize.
John Uwa is both a Cultural Archivist, and a Media/Com. Researcher with DirtPol, an ERC funded project in UK and Nigeria, interrogating the varying perceptions of dirt in Africa. His training in qualitative research by NatCen Social Research Institute, at the University of Sussex, and background knowledge in Nvivo research methods, has prepared him for the task of a cutting edge research which involves collecting, interpreting, transcribing and translating data within the context of usage and perception. As a PhD researcher in the Department of English, University of Lagos, his research interests are in literary theories, cultural studies, interdisciplinary studies, gender studies, popular theatre and comparative literature.
For the last two years Africa in Words has been blogging the Caine Prize for African writing. As Kate Haines wrote in Africa in Words’ first piece about the Caine Prize, we acknowledge that “it is a ‘good thing, but it isn’t the thing’, and yet conversation about whether it is or is claiming to be ‘the thing’ is important and will still continue. The prize has undoubtedly played a significant part in shaping the production and reception of post-millennial African writing in the UK and beyond, and this needs to be recognised and explored critically.”As such, Africa in Words will be sharing a review or comment piece each week on one of the five Caine Prize shortlisted short stories, by different contributors, some regular, some new. The shortlisted stories are:
- Segun Afolabi (Nigeria) for “The Folded Leaf” in Wasafiri Read “The Folded Leaf”
- Elnathan John (Nigeria) for “Flying” in Per Contra Read “Flying”
- F. T. Kola (South Africa) for “A Party for the Colonel” in One Story Read “A Party for the Colonel”
- Masande Ntshanga (South Africa) for “Space” in Twenty in 20 Read “Space”
- Namwali Serpell (Zambia) for “The Sack” in Africa39 Read “The Sack”
The stories are all available to download and read for free via the above links and on the Caine Prize website. Read them, our reviews and others, and let us know what you think.