AiW Guest: David Borman
This week, we are featuring reviews of the five stories shortlisted for the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing. The prize winner will be announced on Monday 3 July. The fifth and final review of the week is of Nigerian author Arinze Ifeakandu’s story ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’.
You can read our previous Caine Prize 2017 reviews here:
- Bushra al-Fadil’s ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’
- Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’
- Chikodili Emelumadu’s ‘Bush Baby’
- Magogodi Makhene’s ‘The Virus’
On the surface of Arinze Ifeakandu’s ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’, nothing much happens. The second person narration—likely the protagonist looking back on his own experiences—gives an intimate and deeply moving account of one college student’s experiences coming to his own sexuality, but in terms of action, little movement really takes place. There are a few trips across Nigeria to visit family, but the protagonist—Lotanna—says and does little. This is not to say the story is somehow bare or missing points of intrigue. Rather, the sparse, almost stuttered language of the story makes us feel each moment of intrigue more precisely.
The story centers on Lotanna, a second-year university student studying history and international relations in Nsukka. He has a long-term girlfriend, Rachael, in his hometown of Kano, yet the narrative details the arc of his relationship with another male student at Nsukka: Kamsi, who studies music. Kamsi is openly gay, a fact that makes him the repeated target of other male students who tell him ‘they would have beaten the gay out of me … but that I was so cute they’ll have a little fun raping it out of me’.
Lotanna, on the other hand, feels an immediate attraction to Kamsi, understands those feelings, yet cannot articulate them until the story has nearly concluded. By that point, he has traveled back to Kano to see his ailing mother, rejected Kamsi in an attempt to reunite with Rachael, and gone through stages of grief involving his mother’s death. The action throughout is subtle—we see Lotanna struggle with his feelings about family and religious duties as well as the almost overwhelming feelings of first love he has for Kamsi.
Any summary or review of this story could linger on details, which matter in intense yet intangible ways. For instance, the first time Lotanna acts on his desires with Kamsi, the narrator describes the intimacy: ‘He stifled a giggle (you would learn later that he did that often when he was turned on, stifle a giggle, so that it sounded like a snort). He tilted his head backward to look at you, and you pressed your lips, tentatively, on his. He tasted almost of nothing’. This passage, like so many others, displays the story’s subtle aesthetic and focus on details. In an interview with Brittle Paper, Ifeakandu reaffirms the place of such intense details, saying,
By the time I started writing the story, I had walked around with the story in me for so long that I even knew what a character could or could not say. It would really please me to say that I was cold and analytical and knew all the right strings to pull—there was perhaps some of that—but much of it came from a raw place, a bleeding, sometimes seething place.
Yet, if there were one drawback to the story, it would be the choice to narrate it in second person. In a certain sense, it makes sense, particularly if it’s seen as Lotanna running through the choices he made up to that particular point in his life. But, the choice is so reminiscent of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ that lines which would otherwise come across as emotional read as reworked lines from Adichie. This is especially apparent when the narrator describes the feelings of ‘relief and love and that heavy, drumming sensation in your chest that always exploded in tears’.
This, however, is a minor complaint. In all, ‘God’s Children’ does just what a short story should. It intrigues and moves its readers while leaving them wanting more. In the case of this story, though, finding more means taking a new look at the details you’ve already seen.
David Borman is the reviews editor for Africa in Words for 2017-2018. He received his PhD from the University of Miami and teaches courses on literature and writing at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.