Jerry Chiemeke lures you with music in “Dreaming of Ways To Understand You” – Olukorede S. Yishau

He lures you in with a line from Wizkid’s song – I want your body sleeping in my bed.

And from then on, it is a cruise.

First, you meet the devil’s first son; and some pages into his story, you remember how young girls have met their deaths through friends they meet on social media and how they return from dates in body bags. You also remember the many lies peddled via social media, those lies that make you wonder if there is any truth left in the saying ‘pictures don’t lie’.

You will laugh and you may cry reading ‘Not for Long’, the window through which Jerry Chiemeke lets us into his collection of short stories Dreaming of ways to understand you.

The warning of this tale is: tread with caution because that man you meet on a social network may be a sociopath.

Its nameless narrator is a disciple of serial killer Albert Fish, American criminal and cult leader Charles Manson and nihilism promoter Frederick Nietzsche, among others.

The second of the 15 stories in Chiemeke’s book is titled ‘Coming to terms’. In it, you will meet Melvin and Sade, his fiancée due to become his wife in about three weeks. 

The trick Chiemeke plays with this story will break your heart and mercifully also mend it. You will need to find out what it is and how well he pulls it off. You may smile at the relationship between this trick and the statement of an old female character: “Person wey don kpef nor fit relate with person wey still dey tanda.”

If you are one of those at the sad end of boarding school life, the story ‘Memories in a glass of whiskey’ may bring back some sad memories. While people are made in these schools, some people have also been destroyed in such schools, especially same-sex ones, where orientations get altered.And it can be doubly sad when the one who twists your life is the one meant to give it a firm foothold. The protagonist of this story attends a reunion party and meets the ones responsible for his “curved” direction in life. This is a very heart-rending story that is capable of making you give a second thought about condemning people whose orientation is alien to what you see as right. The rhythm and the cadence of this story hum so much that despite its sad tone, it is a delight to read.

The title story ‘Dreaming of ways to understand you’ treats mental health with the care it deserves. Like Lucy Chiamaka Okwuma’s Nigeria Prize for Literature-nominated ‘Neglect’, this story breathes and screams: empathy is the best way to go about mental health issues.

The exchanges between the narrator and Martha, the lady with the mental health issue, make for interesting reading and tugs at the soul.  The story also shows how insensitive many of us are about mental health issues and how not a few still consider it strange when an African talks about being depressed and are quick to end such discussions with “we are Africans, we don’t roll like that”.

One story that you are likely going to remember for its language of rendition is ‘Ugborikoko’. It is narrated entirely in Pidgin English like Iquo DianaAbasi’s ‘Efo Riro’. It, however, takes a good understanding of this very Nigerian English to feel the beauty of this story.   

‘In the river brought us here’, the author travels back in time, specifically to 1803 and the tale he has to tell is about slavery in Igboland. It tells of how slave merchants rape and immediately lean on the holy book , how men and women are chained and fed like animals, how brothers betray brothers by turning the other into slaves to be shipped to far-away lands, and how scores of years later, the journey back to homeland takes shape.

The late Chinua Achebe once said his stories were not innocent; Chiemeke’s aren’t too. There are subtle commentaries here and there. For instance, in the third story ‘What am I supposed to say to you?’, Chiemeke has a lot to say about the Nigerian university system, which turns out graduates of engineering who are forced to work in fields far removed from their specialisation and are always looking for better opportunities.

In another tale, the famous Ajah axis gridlock that wastes man-hours and sprinting street hawkers are woven into the narrative. So is the predilection of airlines to postpone or cancel flights and the effects on passengers. And when the electricity supply lasts longer than expected, the author quips: “PHCN proved to be kind to us”.

The habit of many members of the camera-phone generation to capture breaking news on their phones rather than rescuing accident victims is condemned in these lines: “Onlookers threw themselves around the place, in a manner that seemed more out of curiosity than genuine concern. Yeah, some went on to take pictures, eager to breathe life into their social media news feeds.”

The author also gives Lagos its well-deserved knocks. From being characterised as a city that can make you go crazy, it is also described as home to people with a bit of madness in them.

The author’s love for music is unleashed and a playlist of songs by Olamide, Wizkid, Jidenna, Janelle, Lana Del Ray, Chris Martin, Callum Scott, Don William, Peter Tosh, James Blunt and others can be compiled by just reading through these stirring stories.

All in all, this collection portrays Chiemeke as a student of the William Zinsser school of writing, which hates clutters.  The motto of this school is: cut out anything that can make a reader ask: What does this mean? The author’s clarity of thought shines through all the fifteen stories, his abhorrence of ambiguity is as clear as the similarity between six and a half dozen and his syntax brims with deliberateness.

Using a variety of points of view, such as  first person, second person and third person, he treats dark themes such as mental health, serial killing, queerness, and other intricacies of contemporary living. And he handles them well.

Immersive. Evocative. Stunning. Probing. These adjectives are in order to qualify this piece of well-baked stories.

Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of In The Name of Our Father and Vaults of Secrets

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