Harmattan of desire: A review of Arinze Ifeakandu’s “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things” — Julia Lichtblau
Though I’d heard Arinze Ifeakandu read from his debut collection, God’s Children Are Little BrokenThings, at its launch at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn in June 2022, I was unprepared for the force and distinctiveness of his writing when I opened the book. Soft-voiced and diffident, Ifeakandu seemed overshadowed that night by his effusive interviewer, Brandon Taylor, who hailed his arrival as a new gay Nigerian writer and fellow graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on the literary scene. The stories in Ifeakandu’s collection merit reading for their subtle explorations of the nuances and hazards of living as a gay person in Nigeria, where open homosexuality is subject to federal criminal penalties and punishable by stoning in some states.
Beyond that, Ifeakandu deserves to be widely read for a precise, elegant, and erotic individual voice melded to a breadth of cultural material; he makes each character’s particular experiences feel universal, and the reader ache and love along with them.
Ifeakandu’s early success gives hope he will achieve broad recognition. His book was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. Ifeakandu has been nurtured by A Public Space (where he won a prestigious fellowship, and which published this book) and published in other prestigious journals. He was also a finalist for the 2017 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing.
The stories in this collection don’t plant a flag on a patch of identity; rather, each one drills down and extracts a kind of geological core in a particular place and time, exposing layers of love, sexuality, language, culture, geography, even climate. Moreover, they barely reference the non-Nigerian world, which is largely represented by international pop music, social media, TV shows, and similar brief references. Nothing is explained for the uninitiated reader. Phrases in Nigerian languages aren’t translated. A mental map of Nigeria is assumed, as is familiarity with its climates. Surreptitious lovers shiver in cars at night, students wash outside in the cold, people tell their lovers to dress warmly. There are more references to cold, it seemed to me, than heat. None of the characters in Ifeakandu’s world, naturally, need a definition of the Harmattan, a Saharan wind that spreads a cold, dusty mist over tropical West Africa between November and February and serves as a metaphor for longing, secrecy, and exclusion in this book.
It’s a convention of ambitious fiction that the narrator orients the reader, even if the characters know their way around Lagos or London or Macondo. This is one way of giving readers the illusion of being on common footing with characters and makes the narrator guide and confidant. The voice in such orientations often has a declamatory quality. (Here are two examples from Nigerian writer and Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinke’s satirical Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth: “An ancient Yoruba city known as Ibadan, a formerly self-sufficing monarchical domain without any visible signs of pregnancy…” “That artery linked the most heavily populated city on the African continent, Ibadan, to the rest of the nation.”) Ifeakandu’s approach throws the reader back on her own devices. To the extent he does orient the reader, he does it sotto voce, in an aside, giving no more information than necessary. “Where the Heart Sleeps,” for example, opens in “the house in Lekki.” There are references to Lagos and a village, but nowhere does the narrator step out from behind the curtain to announce where we are or assign significance to these locations. The university where “What the Singers Say About Love” is set is identified only in an aside (“We called it the Nsukka Gay Cathedral”). The effect is immersive, like getting off a plane in the mind of a character.
Ifeakandu’s characters variously use one language for business, another for hooking up, another for family, pidgin for banter, formal English for a death announcement. This is code-switching as multi-dimensional chess. Take the opening story, “The Dreamer’s Litany.” First stories in collections are often warm-ups. This one starts small and quiet—a pebble dropping in water, but ripples wide: “On a warm Saturday night full of starlight, the man walked into Auwal’s shop and asked for a recharge card. ‘Scratch it for me,’ he said, and then took his time tapping in the numbers.” Auwal knows that the man senses he’s gay, though they’ve never met. Married, with one child, another on the way, Auwal wants and dreads the contact. He has dreams of a big shop. He’s happy with his life, he says, though he yearns for Idris, the love of his youth. The man comes back repeatedly, buying a lot of goods. And soon Auwal is hooked, lying to his wife. The man, whom Auwal calls Chief, is wealthy. The relationship makes him feel used. Chief buys him over and over. When Auwal’s daughter needs a good doctor, Chief gets her an appointment. The humiliation is complete when Auwal finds himself in competition with a younger lover of Chief’s.
Those are the bones. Watch Ifeakandu flesh out the power imbalance between the two men. Chief asks Auwal where he’s from and Auwal lies—Cotonou, the capital of French-speaking Bénin.
“Cotonou, Cotonou.” The man looked clueless. “Cotonou, them no dey speak English?”
Auwal shook his head. “No, no. Français. Comprenez-vous le français?”
“Ah! No sell me with French o!” The man had a shrill giggle, and the way his hands fluttered to his lips, light and delicate, the rapid blinking of his eyes: Auwal thought of Idris then, lithe, fragile Idris with eyes like small pearly nuts. But this man, this man with a hairless head and an Igbo accent and air around him of something disruptive, something waiting to disrupt was not exactly like Idris.
Seven lines. Four languages. French, the language of sex. Pidgin, a Nigerian lingua franca derived from English, the colonial language. Igbo. Hausa, which Auwal doesn’t expect Chief to use for seduction, only for business, “a language to be used and discarded and reused.”
At their last encounter, Auwal shoves Chief onto the bed and fucks him. The man calls him a fool and “Ewu Hausa” [Hausa goat per Google translate]. As Auwal walks away, the windy night, the swirling debris remind him of the morning Idris was driven away to Cotonou by his father after being caught with another boy. And in that last line, we see the significance of Cotonou.
A Nigerian reader would undoubtedly pick up many more nuances in the implied Igbo/Hausa tension—Igbo being a minority Southeastern ethnic group and Hausa, the majority, mostly Northern. But even without that background, the use of language as fault line is masterful, all the more so for being so natural and central, yet unobtrusive.
The nine stories in the collection are what one might call compound love stories. As in “The Dreamer’s Litany,” where Auwal is living a kind of twilight existence, deriving light from his memory of Idris, the frame story contains multiple love stories. “Where the Heart Sleeps,” told from alternating points of view by the daughter of a man who has recently died and his lover, contains three. On the surface, it’s about the fight over the body, the man’s brothers claiming the right to bury the brother they rejected. Within are the stories of the man and his lover; the broken marriage; and the father-daughter love, marginalised by the family conflict. This is the only story that features a woman’s point of view, and it’s important because it widens Ifeakandu’s concerns beyond women as empathetic mothers and sisters or confused and deceived wives and girlfriends to fellow sufferers and challengers of traditional male dominance. The daughter, who has returned from the U.S., stays in the house and sides with the lover, who asks little—acknowledgement, a chance to see the body, to say goodbye. The daughter ends up asserting herself against her uncles, kicking them out and declaring that she will bury her father, a major act of bravery, a revolt against tradition, asserting love’s right to love, which the mother, who suffered from her husband’s abandonment, accepts, a final act of forgiveness and love. The title comes from the calligraphied inscription on a romantic photo of the father and his lover hung over their bed: “Home is where the heart sleeps.”
“Michael’s Possessions” is a kind of mobius strip of love and grief, wrapped around Adanna’s visit to collect some of his dead son’s things from his ex-wife: The two parents mourn the loss of their child; the mother also mourns their lost marriage—Adanna left her for a man—and blames his absence for the child’s death in a hit-and-run accident; and Adanna mourns his lover, who couldn’t bear the weight of his grief. The only release from this endless ronde of sorrow is acceptance, which the characters grope toward at the end.
In these stories, vibrant queer life and culture goes on barely hidden, despite draconian laws and religious condemnation in both Christian and Muslim regions. (As of this writing, it appears no one has been convicted under the 2014 law, which can lead to a 14-year prison term.) But the tenderest relationship is always in danger of sudden rupture—physical or emotional—when parents, authorities, bullies, and social media assert their prerogatives. The title story, “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things” is told in fourteen (a symbolic number?) mini-chapters (verses?) in second person, and has the quality of a love song, though “you” is the narrator and “he” the beloved, unlike love songs, where “you” is the beloved and “I” the narrator. Lotanna, a student, remembers that Kamsi was “so small, so fragile, you were dead sure he had never kicked a football.” On meeting Kamsi, Lotanna calls his girlfriend, Rachael, to say he loves her. Kamsi, who stutters, is a music student, and his strength comes out when he plays. In Part II, Lotanna turns to his straight friend Pascal for courtship advice:
I have this babe who was hurt and it’s affecting her sex life badly.
Pascal nodded. She no wan’ give you, eh?
Something like that, you said. Pascal was the perpetual lover boy in class. He had to know some stuff.
Give it some time, he said. Keep trying, small small. No force am o.
God forbid! you said. I no fit try that one na.
Lotanna has his own secret hurt—this is another compound love story—his father’s cheating, which is destroying his mother. Kamsi meanwhile presses him to stop seeing Rachael, which Lotanna resists. In each section, Lotanna expresses tenderness for Kamsi. This is what gives the story a song cycle quality. At the end of term, there’s an exquisite scene where Lotanna and Kamsi sit in the park holding hands, and cold is a metaphor for love in hiding.
You need a sweater, he said. It’s going to get cold by the time you approach Kano.
I have a sweater in my bag, you said. He had his hand in yours, hidden from view by the way you both sat so closely.
After Lotanna’s mother dies, his father asserts his authority over his son. Someone threatens to “beat the gay” out of Kamsi. Lotanna’s father orchestrates a possibly violent end to the relationship. Kamsi doesn’t go back to school. He may be dead. At the end, Lotanna dreams Kamsi walks into his room and lies down next to him. “What happened to you, Lotanna? You look so broken.” Bravado, persistence, or evasion aren’t enough. In this story, more than any other in the collection, we see the fragility of love when family, culture, and government are arrayed against you.
“What the Singers Say About Love” has the most expansive world view—opening out from the university, with its secluded, protective gay scene to Lagos, social media, national fame. We follow the rise of Kayode, a talented singer, through the eyes of his lover Somto. This is a classic “Star Is Born” narrative. A performer hits the big time with the support of a devoted lover, who falls by the wayside, replaced by professional managers, flashier lovers, the adoration of crowds. Women play an unpleasant role—exercising their heterosexual privilege to marginalize Somto. Early on, in their student days, we see the charismatic Kayode playing along with the intrusive Eunice before Somto’s eyes, provoking a confrontation:
Do you still want this Kayode, I said, calmly. Because I will not be your bi-guy’s side chick.
There is nothing I want more than this, he said. Believe me.
Then you have to let her know the boundaries.
Promise me, I said. I want to hear you say it.
I will, I promise, he said, moving uncertainly toward me.
But Kayode wants the prizes his gifts offer, though the limelight brings relentless pressure, even social media blackmail threats. Even Kayode’s accepting mother, who comes from Baltimore to celebrate his album launch, urges them to be less “obvious.” The breaking point is the after-party at a hotel where Kayode kisses a girl in full view and goes to a room with her. “Kayode was one of them,” Somto says, and leaves.
In the final lines, we learn that Kayode has “set the continent” on fire, and Somto is looking back years later, wondering if he made “the biggest mistake of my life.”
Of all the stories in this intricately crafted collection, this one has the most novelistic scope. Whether Arinze Ifeakandu makes the short story his métier à la Alice Munro or embraces a novel, readers have much to look forward to.
–Julia Lichtblau’s essays, criticism, and fiction have appeared in American Fiction, The American Scholar, Commonweal, The Common, Blackbird, Narrative, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. She was book reviews editor of The Common for seven years, taught business and economic writing at Drew University, and was a reporter and editor for BusinessWeek and Dow Jones. She has an MFA in fiction from Bennington College and has completed her first novel, set in Côte d’Ivoire and Washington, D.C.