A Box Full of Darkness: The Spaces of Trauma in Jumoke Verissimo’s “A Small Silence”

AiW Guest: James Yeku.

AiW note: Anticipating this review, yesterday Jumoke Verissimo, author of A Small Silence (Cassava Republic), offered us her Words on the Times, a Q&A set that offers a space for connection in the experiences of the pandemic. Today, as we publish this latest review of Verissimo’s novel, we caught up with our guest reviewer, James Yeku, with his Words on the Times  in which he shares his experiences of the Covid-19 restrictions in the African diaspora where community is key to survival. You can find his responses at the foot of the post…

Through her narrative of trauma, the Nigerian poet offers a debut novel that gives readers a paradox: how darkness can both heal and enslave the mind.

A Small Silence is a timely invigoration of the canon of African literature that articulately represents Nigeria’s postcolonial life through an exploration of the privations and personal memories of urban characters. Here is a sublime reflection by a first-time novelist on an important aspect of the country’s political history that is organized around the traumatic – as a terrifying and disturbing site of psychic abjection and personal alienation.

With evocative narration and poetically descriptive language that brings real spaces to life, Verissimo creates characters whose troubling histories intersect with the agonies of a postcolonial state traumatized by memories of political oppression. The trauma of a ‘failing’ state is made to signify at an individual realm in which singularities render visible the antinomies of communities and spaces weighed down by the dark burdens of disillusionment and despair. Despite these, the novel is a solid reiteration of the hope that emerges from the rudest loins of darkness if light—both physical and inner—is let in.

Primarily a poet, Verissimo’s experimentation with the novel as a literary form offers her a platform to gift memories of trauma and pain to an extensive imaginative form. She is the author of two collections of poetry: I am Memory, and The Birth of Illusion. The greatest accomplishment of both texts is arguably their lyrical presentation of a conscious stylistic temperament. The first collection engages the reader’s ears while the poet affectively confronts the eyes through clever reiterations and staging of the poetics of African oral traditions in The Birth of Illusion.

This sentient awareness to form and technique is carried over to A Small Silence, through strategies such as intertextuality – characters recite poetic lines by Pablo Neruda and Niyi Osundare; a narrative style that deliberately rehashes the schemas and scripts of everyday life in Lagos in a manner that renders visible the authenticity of the city’s cosmopolitanism, and an artful incorporation of poetry as a narrative agency that performs the memories of traumatic spaces.

The major triumphs of A Small Silence may also be found in the evocative rendition of the alienation and traumas of major characters whose lives and circumstances alert the reader to the hidden silences of darkness, which characters repeatedly welcome as an agency of hope in the crippling and material contexts of their pain and vulnerabilities.

Professor Eniolorunda Akanni, a human rights activist and scholar, has been imprisoned by an oppressive military junta that forbids any expression of free speech.  The temporal setting is the Abacha military dictatorship of the 1990s, notorious for its execution of another activist, Ken Saro Wiwa, and eight other Ogoni activists. Desire, an orphan and undergraduate student at the Lagos State University who has a close encounter with Prof as a child, wonders if Prof will meet a similar fate as the Ogoni leaders. He is eventually released from prison in a calculated political move on the eve of a civilian election.

However, as his carceral experiences have left him with a schizoaffective disorder, Prof embraces seclusion and darkness, literally refusing any appearance of light as he apathetically reintegrates into a much-changed society he appears to have served in vain. He ‘think[s] there’s value in the dark’ and that ‘light would swallow it’ if it came on. His apartment thus metaphorically enacts the darkness which engulfed the country during the dreary years of military rule in Nigeria, one that the text literalizes through constant power outages, the gloominess and dimness of Prof’s fraught relationship with his mother, and other post-prison experiences.

The only person he allows into his life is Desire, whom he first encounters in her hometown of Maroko, but even she fails to find normalcy with Prof. The darkness of his room is a torment that threatens a separation between them. In a nod to Neruda whom the novel actually cites, Desire cannot understand why “the blackness of night time [must] collect in the mouth of Prof, but that’s precisely the source of the novel’s aesthetic impulse: the collection of darkness in the mouths of characters who have to respond to different spaces and experiences of the traumatic in the framework of Nigeria’s postcolonial anguishes.

Many, especially Prof, accept this urge; others like Desire resist it, but when resistance is futile, they wish they would walk away from it. Desire’s resistance amplifies her centrality to the novel, even as she is used by Verissimo to imagine an alternative to noise and the troubling echoes that accompany hurt.

If there is anything readers might love about A Small Silence, it is the deployment of language in a manner that makes it central to the connections between trauma and places. I have already mentioned how poetry animates Verissimo’s prose, but there is also something to be said about her use of italics in relation to the politics of language in African literature. As an Anglophone African Novel, A Small Silence participates in the debate about whether non-English terms ought to be italicized or not for non-African audiences.

The novel innovatively uses language to respond to this tension. When Prof’s mother sings his oríkì, for example, we get a semantic sense of this Yorùbá panegyric form in the narration:

His mother stopped singing his praise song. Prof tried to continue the words, but he could not remember them. And then he tried to translate them into English to see if it would taint how the words grounded him to his childhood and his mother’s embraces. ‘Apá’ń járá, child of the horseman, who holds the king’s rein, the one who is to descend with the king into the dark place, he who delights in the innards of the fortunate. For if you are not fortunate, why do you celebrate a paunch? The child of Àgbá-sin, who saunters into the afterlife. Child of Pòràngánda, Pòràngánda who breaks the front teeth…’ He couldn’t remember the rest of the chant…

Verissimo is using the form of narrative itself as a modality of translation, without allowing explication of the italic to disrupt the meanings of these words. Her use of Yorùbá expressions and the many linguistic idioms of the street used by Desire, Mama T, and Remilekun uncovers a language not conditioned by any provincialism. Rather, her language reveals trauma as possibly narratable.

With trauma—which often struggles against representation by language, the creative process is made more arduous, and to capture the particularities of characters’ psychic and physical lifeworlds, the writer bears witness to that which sometimes resists rhetorical witnessing, namely trauma. Being true to this requires not only a realist technique, but also a language that captures most sublimely the untranslatable. Verissimo brilliantly looks beyond English to do this. Her novel is a great addition to the Global Anglophone canon.

Jumoke Verissimo writes poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. She has published two collections of poetry; I am memory  won the Carlos Idzia Ahmad Prize’s First Prize for a first book of Poetry, and the Second Prize for the Anthony Agbo Prize first book of Poetry, and The Birth of Illusion was shortlisted for the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Poetry Prize and longlisted for the NLNG Prize. She has also published a chapbook with Saraba Magazine, titled Epiphanies (2015). Her poetry has been translated into French, Chinese, Japanese, Macedonian, and Norwegian. Jumoke is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. programme in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada. A Small Silence is her debut novel.

James Yeku is an Assistant Professor of African Cultural Studies and Digital Humanities at the University of Kansas.

Jumoke Verissimo’s A Small Silence is published by Cassava Republic Press and available to buy here.

James shares his Words on the Times below where he touches on how the restrictions introduced in the wake of the pandemic have affected his work and the ways in which he has felt supported in these challenging times…

Africa in Words: Tell us a bit about your own work and the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered your plans.

James Yeku: My research is at the intersections of African cultural studies and the digital humanities. This means I typically spend much time online working on digital projects like digital Nollywood and Onitsha Market 2.0, a planned edition of pamphlets from the Onitsha market print tradition. I also track expressions of popular culture produced by netizens who use spaces like Instagram and even TikTok for self-fashioning, connecting harvested data to critical readings of state power in Nigeria.  While transitioning more fully online hasn’t been as arduous as it might have been for some, the geographies of enclosures mandated by the pandemic have meant that I am unable to travel for planned archival research this summer. Like most people, I have had cancelled opportunities to present at conferences and invited forums on African digital humanities. I was looking forward to these events because of what would have been their contributions to a relatively new area of research in African studies.

AiW: In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?

JY: Again, like most people I have been using Zoom and other similar platforms for work and events that could have benefited more from in-person interactions. To give two examples, a panel I organized to discuss Gbenga Adeoba’s new poetry collection, Exodus was scheduled to hold at the Kansas African Studies Center at KU before the Spring break. It had to be rescheduled as an online event on Zoom when the lockdown became both a necessary reality and a somewhat real necessity. Also, together with colleagues at the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities, I organized an African DH forum which brought together on Zoom digital scholars from different parts of the world to share their Africa-focused digital projects. I would have loved to have these events on campus, but I guess the now cliched new normal is something to accept.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

JY: Family. Recapturing the wonder, of loved ones that goad you when things become dull; of grading papers while changing diapers; and of stories endlessly retold when the only narrative outside stokes anxieties and fears. Of course, working from home meant some distractions at first, but ultimately knowing that my most immediate community can be part of my workspace has been empowering. I have also been moved by stories of people who have fallen in love from their balconies; stories of writers hosting reading sessions online to support kids unable to go to school, and of colleagues on Twitter offering to read a draft by junior faculty members still able to produce research. With the BLM protests around the US and other parts of the world, it’s also nice to see that many more people are speaking out against racial injustice. The connections between the pandemic and police brutality materialize as fatalities for communities already made vulnerable by structural inequalities.

AiW: How can our communities support you?

JY: I live in a city I am only just beginning to call home. Leaving Canada to start work in Lawrence has been an awesome experience. One reason for this is that I have been blessed with amazing people that look beyond self to reach out.  That is the kind of support I expect to continue to receive and also extend to others. Love in the time of Covid-19 is not some fanciful or sentimental iteration of Márquez; it is what many truly need during this season, particularly people who have lost jobs or have accepted furloughs because of the pandemic. Many in formerly precarious academic positions who may be anxious about the economic impact of this crisis need our love and support more. I am reminded of the importance of being kinder and going beyond just emails or texts to actually call friends and colleagues because voice matters too.  Hearing a person’s voice and listening to them talk about their fears (or feats) offers a different kind of social undistancing and connection—something we could use more these days.

Follow this link for Verissimo’s Words on the Times where she discusses her experiences of working through the pandemic, what she has forthcoming, kindness, and the support offered by the love of books and music… And for more responses to the Q&A set, see the blog category here.


Categories: Reviews & Spotlights on..., Words on the Times

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