“Sacks tied around our necks”: Joshua Chizoma’s ‘Collector of Memories’ – AKO Caine Prize shortlist 2022 reviews

AiW Guest: Innocent Akilimale Ngulube (Malawi)

AiW note: The penultimate in our annual guest reviews of the 2022 AKO Caine Prize 5 shortlisted stories runs today. We’ll also be publishing Q&As with authors and others working with this year’s Prize, all to be featured in the run-up to the winner announcement on Monday 18th July, part of our series of longer critical conversations around the work of the Caine Prize, now the AKO Caine Prize.

Today, Innocent Akilimale Ngulube, lecturer in the English Department at the University of Malawi, reviews “Collector of Memories” by Joshua Chizoma, published in the 2021 Afritondo Prize Anthology, Afritondo, Nigeria.

NB: Our reviews may contain spoilers and as Chizoma’s “Collector of Memories” revolves around the revelation of secrets, if you haven’t already yet, you can read the story in full, available via the shortlisted stories page on the AKO Caine Prize website, or direct here.

Set in the Nigerian city of Aba and narrated from the first-person point of view, “Collector of Memories” by Joshua Chizoma is, as the title indicates, a short story in the form of an extended flashback, which traces the protagonist’s intimate memories from childhood to adulthood. Chizoma is a budding Nigerian writer and Law student, who won the 2020 Awele Creative Trust Award for his short story titled “Their Boy,” a story that revolves around a marital conflict between an estranged couple and the socio-psychological effects thereof on their son’s childhood. What becomes intertextually apparent, then, is that “Collector of Memories” extends Chizoma’s preoccupation with themes of childhood, family, and love.

The protagonist, who also doubles as omniscient narrator, is Chibusonma, an Igbo name meaning “God is awesome”. By the time she is narrating the story, Chibusonma is a young woman working as a bank teller and dating Chike, who is a customer care agent at a mobile phone company. The narrative’s driving conflict arises from the revelation that Chibusonma’s earliest and most formative memories are a story, a collected fiction supplied by her mother, a primary school teacher by the name of Florence, and upheld with the help of Florence’s two older sisters – Rhoda who runs a hairdressing salon, and Chidinma who sells recharge cards and phone accessories – both of whom help to raise Chibusonma, as co-authors in the tale:

“Mother made me a collector of memories. She taught me that we carry our histories in sacks tied around our necks, adding to their burdens as years lengthen our lives. Each time she told me about the night she found me, she added to my collection. We’d be in the middle of watching a movie and she’d go, ‘Do you know you did not cry the first two weeks I brought you home? […]’ She’d then launch into a narrative punctuated by laughter, pausing only to confirm some detail from her sisters or to disagree with them over one.”

From this opening paragraph and through to the gradual revelation of the consequences in the falsity of Chibusonma’s memory “collection”, Florence’s confession exposes the romance of the founding lie she has told and re-told, in more ways than one. It is both a lie directly about Chibusonma’s biological mother, and it puts lie to the protection that the invention was supposed to offer, as well as who that protective veil was actually for, thereby leading to the narrator’s filial ambivalence. 

A related conflict emerges through a parallel thread when the protagonist’s general ambivalence precludes her from marrying Chike. In this regard, she confesses that “Every time he mentioned marriage, I packed my bags and went to Binez hotels down the street” (19). She regards their relationship as a distraction and notably frames it on the terms of another narrative construction, as a “puerile drama we were intent on performing” (19). Not surprisingly, Chike runs out of patience to the verge of breaking up with her: “My people have found a woman for me. Since you are not ready” (26).  

In fact, Chibusonma fails to overcome this dilemma, for the story ends in suspense over whether Chike ultimately leaves her or not, as well as whether her adoptive mother will recover from the sudden mysterious sickness she ascribes to a curse put on her by a “madwoman”, Chibusonma’s biological mother. 

It is the remarkable handling of this suspense throughout this stylistic connection that constitutes one of the major strengths of “Collector of Memories.” The author expertly withholds some exposition details: one is nearly 4 full pages in – detailing the other characters, their employment, and interrelationships – before knowing that the protagonist’s name is Chibusonma (16); the setting, as Aba city, is not inferred until 3 pages after that (page 19), an inference which comes only from the mention of Binez hotels.

This withholding also informs the two conflicts at the centre of the story, where we also become subject to the effects of erasure and redaction in the act of storytelling, as is evident in the following conversation between Chibusonma and her adoptive mother:

“Your mother was a madwoman. She was not by the dump, really. She had a small shack that she stayed in.”
“I see,” I said. “So, you lied to me?”
“I am sorry,” Mother said.
“You erased my mother? What am I supposed to do with this information now?”  (21-22)

What this confrontation later makes clear is that the confession is motivated by Florence’s fear of death, following the renewed manifestation of the curse. What is not clear, though, is the former’s real motivation for abducting the protagonist in the first place, which remains hidden behind the words that outline the “new” facts. A similar argument can be mounted against the lack of knowledge we have in the real reason for Chibusonma’s resistance to commit to Chike. While the reader expects a deeper delve into the dynamics of their relationship beyond the sensual details of their lovemaking, omniscience and the first-person positioning of the narrative telling are undercut by unreliability, the limits of the perspective it is told from. Without us learning why, Chike remains undeveloped as a character, particularly as one of the important figures in the narrator’s life, and their relationship begs more questions than provides tell-tale answers. 

In other words, the reader is left with no choice but to speculate and fill in with other stories of their own: perhaps the motivation behind the baby kidnapping is the barrenness of the adoptive mother and her sisters, for there is no mention of Chibusonma’s cousins; there is no mention of her paternity and, indeed, there is a striking lack of male figures in the story, with the reasons why not made explicit; beyond the disconnected one between Chike and Chibusonma, with the problems in it perhaps being down to Chibusonma’s murky genealogy, there are no relationships for any of the women beyond the tight web threaded by the initial secret that binds them around it.

 Another notable strength of “Collector of Memories” is how it locates its broad themes in its settings, such as the indigenization of English through pidgin and Igbo, which lends the short story a popular culture appeal in accordance with the city background, and puts the readers’ speculation and storifying into that space. We also see this in the journeys of the text and who “owns” the associated narratives. Towards the end of the story, for example, Chibusonma makes the trip to reunite with her biological mother, who now resides with her family members in Nkwerre town, South East of Imo State, where she is receiving care for something she is learning to medicalise and call “dementia”; Chibusonma notes that her life revolves “around the church, maybe a little too much” and that she speaks without asking her birth daughter any questions (25). Moreover, Chibusonma meets her birth mother because she is driven there by Rhoda and Chidinma to mediate the peace talks that they hope will lift the curse. It becomes clear that the ritualised forgiveness she is granted from this unnamed stranger on behalf of her sick mother is another performance, based on something her biological mother has no memory of, another revelation of another painful truth that Chibusonma must reckon with. 

Chizoma’s “Collector of Memories” makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding of how parental irresponsibility ultimately engenders childhood trauma, dysfunctional family relations, and courtship problems, not only in Nigeria, but also in Africa as a whole. Moreover, the topicality of these postcolonial problems and Chizoma’s burgeoning visibility as an award-winning writer reinforce the development of the African short story, and its significance as a genre among the continent’s established and upcoming authors.

Dr. Innocent Akili Ngulube holds a PhD in English from Rhodes University, South Africa. He is currently a lecturer and postgraduate coordinator in the English Department at the University of Malawi. His research interests include African literatures, postmodernism, Afropolitanism, African popular culture, and cultural studies. His book chapter entitled “Pan-Africanism and Its Contradictions: Rethinking the Nativist Idea of Egyptology in Ayi Kwei Armah’s KMT” is published in Xenophobia, Nativism and Pan-Africanism in 21st Century Africa. His article titled “Beyond Self-Recognition: Fragmented Subjectivity in Alain Mabanckou’s Blue White Red and African Psycho” is due for publication in Research in African Literatures.

Images and text below c. of the AKO Caine Prize website…

Joshua Chizoma is a Nigerian writer. His works have been published or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Lolwe, AFREADA, Entropy Magazine, Anathema Magazine, Agbowo Magazine, and Prachya Review. His story, ‘A House Called Joy’ won the 2018 Kreative Diadem Prize in the flash fiction category. He won the 2020 Awele Creative Trust Short Story Prize with his short story “Their Boy” and was shortlisted for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize. He is an alumnus of the 2019 Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Joshua’s short story, ‘Collector of Memories’, has been shortlisted for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize. Read ‘Collector of Memories’ here.

“Collector of Memories” is published in the 2021 Afritondo Prize Anthology, The Hope, The Prayer, The Anthem – see Afritondo.

The Hope, The Prayer, The Anthem, is a collection of short stories on identity, love, hope, and self-discovery. Told by rising and award-winning writers from across the African continent and beyond, the stories are a rich blend of suspense, humour, drama, and romance.

Please follow this link to read more from our AKO Caine Prize series, including our 2022 shortlist reviews from our Guest Authors: Joseph Kwanya (Kenya); Megan Brume (South Africa); and Nnaemeka Ezema (Nigeria).

The 2022 AKO Caine Prize winner will be announced on July 18th. Head to the AKO Caine Prize website – http://www.caineprize.com/ – for more, and for details of the line-up of related events and author/publisher appearances.

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