Limbe to Lagos: Young African writers and the extinction of taboo – Toni Kan

Book title: “Limbe to Lagos: Nonfiction from Cameroon and Nigeria”
Editors: Dami Ajayi, Dzekashu Macviban and Emmanuel Iduma
Publisher: Goethe-Institut Nigeria
Year of publication: 2018
Reviewer: Toni Kan

There is, in the works of young African writers (millennials) a marked tendency, one that drifts inexorably towards the urgently personal. For this new corps of writers, who belong to what one might refer to as “Generation Me”, every writing springs from a personal fount and nothing is taboo or off limits or too personal – sex, abuse, mental illness, or family dysfunction. All is cannon fodder for literature.

While the works of older writers – fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry and drama – were outward facing and driven by ideology, politics and activism, younger writers are more concerned with the ideology of self, a navel-gazing concern with, as Ben Okri once wrote, “the landscape within.”

They are intent on navigating life with an interior compass, one that seeks to understand the world by interrogating the self.

The recent non-fiction anthology, “Limbe to Lagos Nonfiction from Cameroon and Nigeria” edited by Dami Ajayi, Dzekashu Macviban and Emmanuel Iduma and facilitated by the Goethe Institut plies that trajectory.

This is a ground breaking book that curates experiences of young writers through the prism of two neighboring countries, Nigeria and Cameroun. The overwhelming sentiment is that works by African writers is undergoing a sea-change and what it makes abundantly clear is that the members of “Generation Me” will produce more memoirs and autobiographies than members of the preceding generations.

The anthology is, in many ways, a generational guide as well as a primer for the young as it riffs on subjects that are intensely personal except for Nkiacha Atemnkeng’s “Impossible nest Pas Camerounais.” Atemnkeng’s piece which dwells on the attrition of national pride by focusing on the rise and fall of Cameroon Air, clearly does not belong to this anthology in terms of subject matter and thematic pre-occupation. It is an outlier in a book defined by pronouns like ‘I’, “Me” “My” with occasional dashes of “We” and “Us”.

Loss is a big theme in this anthology featuring very evocative and deeply felt tales of love and loss. In the pages of this book, loss is both physical and psychological. There is death, movement and atrophy. And these run through almost all of the stories where something or someone is often lost.

Daddy issues are up front and center from Lucia Edafioka’s aptly titled “Daddy” to Raoul Djimeli’s “Childhood Memories” and Socrates Mbamalu’s beautifully titled “My failure started in the kitchen.”

The writers’ portraits of their fathers are not pretty. Their relationships with their fathers are conflicted love-hate interactions. Monsieur Djimeli and Miss Edafioka talk about their father’s drunkenness while for Socrates his father’s presence is magnified by his absence. For all three, love is key but especially so for Lucia and Socrates whose love for their fathers are stymied by an inability to articulate the sentiment except when they put pen to paper.

“I love my daddy. I started writing this in my small notebook after I turned 17 and the sight of my daddy began to repulse me,” (p.112) writes Lucia and it is as if she is in tandem with Socrates who writes elsewhere: “Like when my father had called me hopeless, something he did often, I’d write in my notebook I am hopeless, over and over again until my brother would stop me.” p.196

Writing for the younger generation is not just for expressing an idea it is therapy!

And it is this idea of therapy, this need to write as outlet, what Graham Green called “a way of being free” that is responsible for younger writers’ gravitation towards non-fiction, towards the confessional and the memoir.

Howard M.B Maximus provides the anthology’s most realized piece. His story, “Today, I am riding alone” about a friend’s passing is brilliantly realized, evocative, poignant and marks him out as a writer to watch. His brilliant turns of phrase are a delight.

“Even in the dry season, Mile 4 does not burn. It does not purloin another sun from Mars or Jupiter to chase its people away…it is just a quiet dry; a kind of hot just enough for drying laundry, for early morning basking, for midday swimming.” p.82

The other stand out piece is the opening essay in the collection, “I call her beloved” which is the story of a boy and girl whose friendship (which is on the cusp of becoming love) is shattered by tragedy.

Adams Adeosun sums it all up, the loss and pain in this short line – “Everyone dissolves into memory.”p.25

Lucia Edafioka and Afope Ojo are two others to watch. Lucia’s piece explores her fraught relationship with her father. A loving daughter cannot reconcile her father’s descent into decrepitude.

In “Daddy”, we read – “His shoulders were hunched. I knew he had sold his car. The new apartment is half the size of the former one and he was unable to provide anything in the house. His eyes were hollowed. The bubbly man I had known as my father was a distant memory. I looked away.” P.102

In the elegantly titled “Tough locks do not easily come undone” Afope Ojo’s relationship with an absent lover around whom the piece revolves is a conflicted one but momentary absence provides an opportunity for stock-taking. In this piece, keys become metaphors for allowing and denying access. And access is both physical and psychological.

“And then we talked, about what we were, what we were doing, where we were headed, you called it “putting your house in order” and we knew it was only right. And the consequences of losing a key, keys in the way I’d begun to think about them. How, I’d given you keys to parts of me and withheld some.” P.42

Sada Malumfashi’s “Out of the window of a train”; “Raoul Djimeli’s “Childhood Memories” and  Caleb Ajinomoh’s “I’ll rather be hard to love than easy to leave” are the least realized pieces in the collection. Socrates Mbamalu’s “My failure started from the kitchen” and Godwin Luba’s “A trip to Koto” also fail to rise to the occasion.

One is hard pressed to make sense of Sada Malumfashi’s description – “A hand knitted cardigan embroidered with an initial to the chest side: STJ.” p.178

Where exactly is the chest side?

Or to fully understand what it means to “enter the town in the morning, under the safe cover of sunlight.”p.185

Caleb Ajinomoh’s story of a young boy enthralled by a mad woman while riffing on the lure of the forbidden and power as aphrodisiac spends too much time trying to impress with purple passages: “There was a statutory air of nonchalance about her. This absence of restraint was at once a mesmerizing and terrifying spectacle to witness; powerless to question her legitimacy, you were compelled to observe her strange habits in silence.” P.48

There is less sound and fury when he keeps the purple out as we read his description of all humans as kin – “For the first time, I felt we had come to the same conclusion about Grace. Humans everywhere are, after all, related by semen and clay.” p.53.

Godwin Luba’s piece, “A Trip to Koto” seems to have lost its essence in translation. The phrasing is colloquial and often awkward evincing the difficulty often native to one whose first language may not be English. “Rowdiness around the village square creep [sic] me out. Shouts and chatters [sic] from small bars, creaking sounds of overloaded rickety vehicles transporting farm produce, blaring horns of motorbikes speeding as if in [sic] racing competition. People loitered about.” p.60.

But these writers’ failures are communal when we consider the chorus of editors who midwifed the project. This is a clear case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. The editors have done a poor job of it and blame for the colloquial awkwardness and inelegant phrasings must be laid squarely at the feet of these three. There is subject-object dissonance aplenty, transitive and intransitive verb anomalies, a plethora of typos with  the passive voice overwhelming the active while tenses run riot across the pages.

This books deserves a second print and the services of a more meticulous editor as the following make clear:

“The visiting parents’ exotic cars added colour to the campus grounds.”p.13

“I rummaged [sic] my purse till I found it.” P.29

 “They spoke in manners [sic] which heightened my suspicion.” p.68

 “A neighbor says Tee was such an energetic young man who had a great potential of being great [sic].” pp. 92-93

“In the 1970s, as oil flowed out of the creeks in the Niger Delta, millions of dollars were remitted to Aso Rock in Abuja.” p.102.

This is not exactly correct since Aso Rock did not exist in the 70s and points to the fraught relationship between millennials and history.  They have no handle on the past only a self-absorbed engagement with the present.

Finally, “Limbe to Lagos Nonfiction from Cameroon and Nigeria” is an important addition to the corpus of Nigerian-Cameroonian writing and a book that will, in time, define its generation as an augury of a new literary ferment much like Harry Guruba’s seminal Voices from the fringe: an ANA anthology of new Nigerian poetry enriched Nigerian literature with a new tribe of poets.

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