Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Blahging, or the Wonders of Nigerian Ferry Literature

Blahging, or the Wonders of Nigerian Ferry Literature

I’ve been feeling rather blah about blogging.  Last year, with the crazy adrenaline that the presidential race mainlined into the clogged arteries of the U.S. body politic, it was easy to find things to write about.  In fact, the daily doses of mendaciousness and sheer insanity made it impossible NOT to respond – for me, to respond via writing a blog. 

But then the elections were over.  Holiday season, with its happy bustle, ensued.  College basketball entered full-court press mode.  The seriatim financial crises were either depressing or boring.  I received a Kindle for Christmas and discovered the treasury of free books available, so it seemed a good idea to laze in front of a fire and read obscure out-of-real-print works like “The Cannibal Queen of West Africa” (disappointingly, a Victorian missionary tract), “Confessions of a Thug” (a pretty interesting but impossibly prolix fictionalized account of Thugee during the Raj) or “A Taxonomy of Indian Religions” (a stellar example of the impenetrable ‘scientific’ prose generated during the high colonial period). 

Earlier this year, I was chatting about my blogging hiatus with my sister. 

            “I’m tired of politics,” I said.  “So I have nothing to write about.” 
            “That’s not true.”  I could hear her measure her words over the phone; she always prefers being supportive to being critical.  “You know about many things.  Why not write about other issues that interest you?”
            I lit a cigarette and scowled at the phone.  “Like what?  And so what?” 
            My sister is a woman of remarkable patience.  “Well, you’ve already written about art.  And Africa.  And sports.  And religion.  Why not write more about these subjects?”
            “I could,” I grudged.  “But who’d care?”
            My sister’s patience is remarkable, but not infinite.  “Why do you think anyone cared about what you wrote concerning politics?  You write because you like to write, you’ve spent your life writing, and it’s just part of who you are.”

Hmmm.  I’ve spent my life writing, liking to write, and making my living by doing it.  One of my first jobs, at sixteen, was writing ad copy for a hometown radio station.  As a young adult, I wrote for local magazines and city newspapers and advertising agencies of various sizes.  As an academic, I wrote books and articles and scholarly papers.  As I retired academic, I’ve written for the North Carolina Museum of Art and continue to write for a web development firm.

Nevertheless, acknowledging that writing is what one has always done, and is thus an important part of one’s identity, is not the same as rediscovering and re-embracing writing’s peculiar joys and seductions.  That happened, or started to happen, a little while ago when I was cruising about for a non-Kindle book that I could actually go to bed with without fearing it would fall to the floor and break.  I settled on a book I’ve owned for over forty years, “Africa in Prose,” an early collection of stories and essays from the African continent.  At one time, I’m sure, I read everything in it, but that time was decades ago.  Maybe its yellowed pages and fragile paperback binding would offer something newly interesting:  my subsequent study of postcolonial literature, if nothing else, would urge me to look at these pieces  (from the 1960s and earlier) in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I was in college.

And there it was.  I’d like to quote the whole thing, but here are some excerpts from ‘Rosemary and the Taxi Driver’ (date unspecified, but apparently mid 1960s) by the Nigerian writer Miller O. Albert.  From the initial descriptions of the heroine:

            The sun flickered over her canon-ball head, with the hairs on her forehead, heightened like onboard type of shaving.  She resoluted to follow the train at the earliest declining hour of the day. [. . .] She had got all the zests of the West and mettled her sense, to bolster up alertly, to crack love, romance and joke, up to their highest mediocre of acme.  It was a day for love maniacs to some and a day for Rosemary to travel too.

About meeting her love object:

            The man she cloistered at first flush of her sight was a romantic virile odd, who introduced himself Okoro.  After they made a nice little smile, they raged a torrential down pour of speeches, each trying to exhaust the querulous tone God had suffered to give out, free of charge to every individual.  Soon they felt an impression of bigness in themselves, glaring at nature as super love maker.

It turns out that Rosemary is the femme fatale, with taxi-driver Okoro the dopey victim.  He pretends his brother’s house is his in order to impress his seductress.  Ultimately exposed as a poseur, he decides to cut his losses:

            He soon sighed and got depressed.  After many odd remarks, the full automobile of his spirit, compelled him to leave everything, threatening him with pretty tough smiles, of tremor.
            After his liberation, he trotted off with his craggy legs, jumping into the minor with a mad stampede, hoping to finish the speedometre, within an active time.

This is a stunningly splendid story.  One might think that it was written by a Nigerian James Joyce, exulting in the possibilities of recording and enhancing an aspiring working-class Nigerian English soon after the country’s independence, a time when people were caught between honoring the colonial language as a marker of class prestige and freeing themselves from its cultural hegemony, a task made overwhelmingly difficult by the country’s embarrassment of linguistic riches – more than 400 indigenous languages – and the attendant need to have some sort of common tongue in which to converse and do business with fellow citizens.

The Onitsha Ferry, 1960s

But it’s not a calculatedly daring linguistic experiment.  It’s a specimen of what’s called ‘Nigerian Ferry Literature’ – cheap pamphlets, usually centered on sex, violence, and redemption, produced for a specific market: workers who used the Onitsha ferry to commute from the countryside to the then-capital city, Lagos. (There’s now a bridge, and this mini-genre has disappeared.) 

Most ‘Ferry Literature’ was written in less baroque prose, although plots were similar, and more explicitly salacious and moral.  For example, ‘How Mabel Learnt,’ by the pseudonymous Speedy Eric, depicts the man/woman encounter and the woman’s ensnaring and duplicitous lustfulness this way:

            ‘Okay, juicy baby if you won’t allow me eat you, then give me some eba and meat stew,’ he dipped his hand in his pocket and brought out two shillings.  Privately Mabel was wishing to hold that young man in her arms.  That was the very man who had made her toss and twist in bed last night.

What’s missing in Speedy Eric’s story is the joyful linguistic chaos that, in Miller O. Albert’s narrative, transforms a predictable cautionary tale about excessive appetite into a mad celebration of unfettered language – a celebration that seems, at least in retrospect, corollary to the vertiginous hopes of a newly emancipated citizenry, hopes bound up in desire to occupy and reshape the language of power, hopes undaunted by lack of official mastery.  The astonishing contortions of Albert’s prose may have appealed to his readers not as critique but as evidence that even common people can appropriate ruling language regimes in newly empowering ways.  As these ways could be worthy of respect  (what an impressive vocabulary!) or, at least, worthy of paying for, they theoretically could open channels for ordinary folk to enter yet-uncharted seas of postcolonial capitalism.

I doubt whether Miller O. Albert was trying to explore – or explode -- the boundaries of Nigerian linguistic expression.  That would fall to more sophisticated and subtle Nigerian writers like Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinke.  Or, perhaps most pointedly, to the oil wars martyr Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose “Sozaboy:  A Novel in Rotten English” mapped the landmines of post-independence Nigeria by creating a literary pidgen (1986) bent to political protest and artistic display. (Nor do such tour-de-forces need be written by ‘third-world’ authors:  I recommend the U.S. writer Chuck Palahniuk’s “Pygmy (2009),” for example, to those interested in radical language experimentation.)

Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1941 – 1995
Writer and activist, summarily executed  for ‘inceitement by a Nigerian military tribunal

I’ve gone into such detail here, apart from my long interest in African literature, because the English language – particularly (to me) in its written forms – is a truly wondrous thing, a thing that re-reading Miller O. Albert’s story brought back to mind, in full force, cracking my canon-ball head with pretty tough smiles, of tremor.  English’s uncommonly rich vocabulary and global dissemination make it a marvelous instrument for expressing cultural and historical nuances that transcend its narrative, expository, or argumentative capacities.  It’s a language always and ever in transit.

Which is why I love writing. About just about anything.  In English. And why I think I’ll resume writing blogs.  It’s a privilege to muck around with such amazing, and sometimes troubling, raw materials as are provided by this (first-, co-, second-, third-) language that so many of us share.

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