AiW Guest: Temitayo Olofinlua
Prof, a pro-democracy activist, has just returned from prison after years of incarceration. And now he chooses to sit in darkness. Whenever he goes out, he is shrouded from head to toe in a dark cloak. That is how Jumoke Verissimo’s novel A Small Silence, recently published by Cassava Republic Press, starts. While Prof has left the prison, the prison remains in him; the memory of the past sneaks up on him, even in the shadows of the present. Through the character of Prof, Verissimo powerfully uses memory to re-enact personal and, maybe, national trauma.
Wallowing in darkness with Prof, one realises how much seeing can be done by looking through the dark. A Small Silence then is able to cast light on a dark part of Nigerian history — that pre-dawn stage after the military era, when there was indeed more darkness than light — reminding us how the trauma of the “military past” continues to haunt our “democratic present”. It is notable that the first democratic ruler in 1999 was a past military ruler; even today, our military past still sneaks up on us as a nation. As Prof asks: Obasanjo of the 70s contesting against Buhari of the 80s, and this is 2005! … How can this country move forward when it seeks the dead to bring revival?
While several Nigerian writers have focused on the military rule (Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel, Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come), few writers have set their stories during the period immediately after the military rule, when democracy was a toddler struggling to walk, rising and falling in the process. Verissimo borrows from history — there are some recognisable names (Ken Saro Wiwa, Muhammadu Buhari, Olusegun Obasanjo) and events (Ogoni 9, the demolition of Maroko) — yet the book cannot be boxed as historical fiction. Known previously primarily for her critically acclaimed poetry, Verissimo in her first novel very successfully works to blend individual experience with the national as she tackles big issues — mental health, relationships, fatherhood, freedom, activist struggles and more — ultimately showing how trauma connects us all.
While Prof has been in prison for a decade, the country has moved on. Once he is released, his family members expect him to move on as well. Yet, how do you move when trauma clogs your feet heavy with the mud of terror? How do you move when the past torture continues to crawl on your flesh? So, he decides to stay smug in the dark. In his darkness, Prof meets Desire — a LASU student who knew him in his activist days. She is meeting her hero. He is in need of someone to just sit with him, in the silence, in the darkness, without any pressures to act for the camera. Desire becomes that person and a listening ear, not only for Prof but also for her friend Remilekun. She is that angel that saves and continues to save. Each of these individual characters have complex interwoven back stories. It is the way Verissimo wields her pen, picking and connecting string after string of each story, that makes this novel such a delight. These back stories are like hidden gems of possibilities, enriching the characters with life, beautifying the narrative.
Several parallels or shared points of suffering emerge in the narrative. Prof does not feel the presence of a father until the man is on his deathbed. And he rues that fact, it is the reason he decides not to have children — he is afraid of being just like his father, absent. Desire has an abusive father who later dies in mysterious circumstances. Remilekun’s father is also absent. Ireti does not know his father. This absence of fathers in the lives of the novel’s characters is so pervasive that it makes one wonder: is this a metaphor for our fatherland that births us but is absent from our lives? The parallels in the lives of the many characters, though well done, also leaves nagging questions: how is it possible for them all to go through such similar issues at the same time?
Through a series of flashbacks, the novel takes the reader back and forth, through Prof’s life — before, during and after his prison experience. Having engaged this book at different times in its production process, it has been fascinating to watch the evolution of Prof’s character. Verissimo takes us from the city to the village, from the university campus to prison, from the past to the present. By doing this, one sees how things change but remain the same. One also gets a better insight into the kind of man he is, his values and character, and even starts to understand his fascination with darkness. In fact, you begin to empathize with him as the appearance of light brings back memories of pain from prison. For Prof, there is no difference between prison and freedom. He has become so used to his bondage that when he is free, it feels the same. In this Verissimo evokes the sentiment of Fela’s song “Beasts of No Nation”, equating outside prison with prison life. One realizes that while the physical chains might be off, the mental chains still hold Prof’s mind captive.
A Small Silence, can be described as a “campus novel”, as it captures the realities of students in 80s/90s Nigeria. Aside from a sprinkling of Nigerian novels like Eghosa Imasuen’s Fine Boys and Lola Akande’s What it Takes this is a genre hardly explored by Nigerian writers despite our campuses brimming with stories waiting to be written, despite the gown-town relationship being so important to the evolution of societies. In detail, Verissimo chronicles the contributions of student activists to ending the military regime. She also parallels the evolution of new challenges even as civilian rule begins: cultism, poor studying conditions, terrible living conditions and more. The accurate depiction of the jargon of student unionists is nostalgic, transporting me once again to my Aluta Continua, Victoria Ascerta days at the Obafemi Awolowo University:
My fellow comrades, friends, students and highly esteemed associates from other universities, here today. Just as you are here for me, I am here for you. My diaphanous resolution is to protect my fellow students from the incorrigible political campus philistines who want to mortgage and imperil our dream by selling our birthright for a mess of pottage! We, my dear students, will not accept the floccinaucinihilipilification process of our future.
“Just as you are here for me, I am here for you,” can be transliterated into Yoruba and read just fine. In this novel, English on the lips of each character is distinct in their unique sounds and many times is a reflection of the age, ethnicity as well as social class of the speaker. Prof’s mother channels the emotions of a mother’s loss of her child — even though he isn’t dead — through Yoruba songs, wise sayings and proverbs: Eniolorunda Durotimi Akanni, whatever you are, you are still my son. They may call you Professor. They may call you activity … or is it activist. These breasts fed you! Mama T’s “r-factor” — a corruption of the pronunciation of the letter “r” that is associated with being a real Lagosian — is a delight to hear: God will kuku pwotect you fwom all these childwen bwinging their afflicted heads fwom home to the campus. The soldiers in the torture chamber speak in English that reflects they are from Northern Nigeria: Provezor Idiot! Provezor Enemy-of-progress! Kai! Provezor Stupid! Bloody civilian! Officer! Officer! Come. Come now and see what this bastard is reading. Paper! Shege! Basira “murders” English, yet she speaks it anyhow blending it with Pidgin that seems to have a Yoruba rhythm: God give, God take. It is God that take pregnancy that spoil that will give pregnancy that will give baby. Anyway, to have baby you fuck, you lose baby you fuck. In fact, it seems as though the writer might even be speaking through Basira, on her varied “Nigerian” use of English language, when she says: Oshisko, Professor and Dr Madam, I will talk the English I can talk-o. With her language, Verissimo does something inventive by writing the musical “o”, almost always present at the end of many Nigerians’ sentences, adding a new rhythm and verve to the reading. By making the different inflections of these varieties of “Nigerian Englishes” dance on the pages, Verissimo clinically dissects conversations and issues, making her characters easier to connect to and the story more familiar. These many “Nigerian Englishes” as well as Yoruba language are in an embrace with English language through the novel, albeit an awkward embrace given her firm resolve that many of these Yoruba and Pidgin English should be italicised.
2019 marks twenty years since Nigeria’s return to democracy. A Small Silence takes us on a ride through post-military Nigerian history, showing us close up how in over 20 years not much has changed for Nigerians and how the nation continues to bleed. Activists are still being picked off the streets by the Department of State Security (DSS). Protesters are still shot during protests — Islamic Movement of Nigeria a case in point. Innocent citizens killed by police for the flimsiest of reasons gain immortality through social media — #justiceforchinedu, #EndSARS, #KoladeJohnson. In the end, like Verissimo’s protagonist, we are left wandering, wondering: is this again an allegory for Nigeria, going round and round searching for herself, for something that is not missing? Perhaps, it is time for Nigerians to have a small silence in the dark. Maybe then, we will begin to find our way through this maze of a country.
Temitayo Olofinlua is an award-winning creative writer and editor who calls herself a content busybody. Her first and second degrees are in Literature-in-English. She is currently a PhD student at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan.
Jumoke Verissimo’s A Small Silence is published by Cassava Republic Press and available to buy here.
Categories: Reviews - Books