Book by CHIGOZIE OBIOMA
The year I left Nigeria, 1993, was a momentous one. For the first time in about a decade, there was a presidential election—a democratic process that had eluded Nigeria after at least two military leaders had ruled the country, seizing power through coups. I was 18, old enough to vote but not inclined to do so. My parents were not politically active, though my father loved to discuss current affairs with his friends at our house in northern Nigeria. That year, their discussions were filled with excitement about Nigeria’s future, about the presidential candidate, M.K.O. Abiola, whose beaming face was plastered on flimsy poster boards along busy roads. I, too, found myself swept along by the high hopes for the country despite the increasing power outages, corruption, fuel scarcity, and religious and ethnic tensions.
When the election finally occurred, on June 12, 1993, the charade that followed left us all jaded and crestfallen: the election, which Abiola won, was annulled due to unfounded accusations of rigging. An interim president was quickly instated, after which Sani Abacha took over the country and ran it with the iron hand of a despot.
Chigozie Obioma’s novel, The Fishermen, is set in this moment in Nigeria, when the wave of optimism crashed and then receded. Predictions that Nigeria would develop into thriving democracy became a fantasy at best. It is in this spirit of doom and gloom that the story of a family of eight, including five boys and a girl, living in Akure, a town in western Nigeria, unfolds. Narrated by the second youngest of the five brothers, Benjamin, now 20 years older, in an unwavering, confessional tone, the novel begins with imminent change:
I remember the night Father returned home with his transfer letter; it was on a Friday. From Friday through that Saturday, Father and Mother held whispering consultations like shrine priests. By Sunday, Mother emerged a different being. She acquired the gait of a wet mouse, averting her eyes as she went about the house. She did not go to church that day, but stayed home and washed and ironed a stack of Father’s clothes, wearing an impenetrable gloom on her face.
On Monday, Father announces his transfer to the whole family and leaves for Yola, a town farther north, to live and work for an indefinite time, returning occasionally for short visits. Mother, who runs a food store in the nearby market, is left to take care of Ben and his five siblings. But she is not suited for the role of matriarch (Father being the stricter of the two), and soon the four older boys, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Ben himself, free from their father’s rules, go in search of “a physical activity to fill up [their] after-school hours.”
This is how the boys become fishermen, “trekking the long tortuous path to Omi-Ala river … where they mostly only harvested a few palm-sized smelts, or some brown cods that were much more difficult to catch, and, rarely, some tilapia.” The Omi-Ala river is also “dreadful,” forsaken. Before the British colonists arrived and converted the people of Akure to Christians, the river had been considered a god and was worshipped by the inhabitants of Akure, who “erected shrines in the river’s name and courted the intercessions and guidance of Iyemoja, Osha, mermaids and other spirits and gods that dwelt in water bodies.” Along its banks, now largely abandoned and rumored to be the location for all kinds of rituals, also treads a sinister figure, the madman Abulu. On one of the brothers’ fishing trips, he reveals a vision to them, a disturbing tale of blood-filled violence and fratricide. He predicts that Ikenna, the oldest, will “die like a cock dies” and that one of his own brothers will kill him.
After Abulu’s prediction, Ikenna, to whom Ben defers because of his age, goes through a “metamorphosis,” becoming a vengeful, irascible boy whose heart is possessed by fear, which “robbed him of many things—his peace, his well being, his relationships, his health, and even his faith.” Once the madman’s strange but powerful vision is set forth, there appears to be no arresting it, and Ikenna destroys all in his path, including his close relationships with his brothers, and their “prized possession”: a copy of the Akure Herald with a story of how Ikenna led his brothers to safety during the 1993 political riots after the elections were annulled. The destruction of the newspaper seems to portend the end for the family as a cohesive unit. Boja, the second oldest son, develops a grudge against Ikenna, as insults and slights compound themselves, and the two boys come to frequent blows until Abulu’s prediction bears out: one morning, in a fit of rage, Boja kills Ikenna with Mother’s kitchen knife.
Father promptly returns home from Yola, and Ikenna is buried, his body in the coffin, as Ben observes, “the shape of a prolate spheroid; an ovoid, the shape of a bird. This was because he was, in fact, a sparrow; a fragile thing who did not design his own fate.” More death, more tragedy follow—Boja drowns himself in a nearby well; Ben and Obembe decide to avenge their older brothers’ death by killing the madman in an especially brutal manner; and Mother, who has simply borne too much at this point, winds up in a psychiatric hospital, “her mind exploded, and her perception of the known world … blasted to smithereens.”
Obioma’s skill as writer is evident; his descriptions are beautifully crisp, replete with intriguing analogies. Mother’s senses, he writes, became “imbued with extraordinary sensitivity so that to her ears the sound of a clock in the ward became noisier than the din of a drilling machine. The sound of a rat became to her as peals of many bells.” Such passages, often filled with curious comparisons and deceptively simple sentences, propel the narrative toward Ben’s imprisonment—punishment for his part in killing Abulu—and toward his entry into “a new and frightening world devoid of [his] brothers.”
Well-crafted and intriguing as they are, these passages, especially as applied to Mother’s thoughts and actions, belie an underlying issue in the novel. The main female characters are typecast as dramatic gossipers (“‘Biyi drunk again last night and came home naked,’ Iya Iyabo said. She put her hands on her head and began to squirm plaintively.”), or as “the greatest of sufferers,” a reference to Mother, who embarrasses herself by exposing her breasts in public, adopting country superstitions considered beneath a city woman, claiming to have seen “a presence she perceived to be that of Boja’s restless spirit,” or sitting in the house, “silent, staring wildly at nothing in particular.” Individually, these characterizations can be interesting and almost endearing at times, but as a whole, they cast women as the weaker sex, constantly on the verge of or in states of gloom, insanity, grief, and despair. This is especially striking in a novel whose plot primarily revolves around the lives of its male characters. Tragic as they may be, the writer imbues them with agency, something he doesn’t accord his female characters.
Of course, this book is a novel, an ambitiously imaginative product of a talented young writer’s mind. Born in 1986 in Akure, Nigeria, Obioma earned his MFA from the University of Michigan’s creative writing program. The Fishermen, his first novel, is still an impressive debut, casting a wide literary net and filling it, in an orderly way, chapter by chapter, with the twists and turns of a plot that keep the reader engaged. The language is accessible, though certainly not simplistic. Placed within a larger context, The Fishermen also provides useful commentary on Nigeria, its sad state of affairs in the 1990s. It’s easy to draw parallels between the brothers and Nigeria. The brothers live in a household and town that reflect in language and ethnic diversity the country as whole. The family is Igbo, primarily from the eastern region of the country, but they live in Akure, in the west, a region populated by many Yorubas. Their use of language at home reflects this: “… Mother said all else in English instead of Igbo, the language with which our parents communicated with us; while between us, we spoke Yoruba, the language in Akure.” English is the official language of Nigeria while Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa, the three main indigenous languages, are spoken in specific parts of the country.
Also, Father, the undisputed head of the house, is primarily absent, as his family disintegrates. This could be said of Nigeria’s corrupt and greedy leaders who rule, seemingly in absentia, while the majority of the people suffer in poverty and desperation. And what about that madman Abulu’s vision in the novel, in which the brothers kill each other and as a result destroy the family unit? To this day, religious and ethnic differences result in violence and bloodshed. The madman’s vision has already been realized in Nigeria, and the parallels only seem to multiply, sadly, as in a tragic myth.
In August of that election year, when I bid my parents a tearful farewell and stepped onto a plane that would take me to college in the U.S., I still felt a tinge of that optimism for Nigeria. (Perhaps it will always be with me.) Wrapped up in that feeling was also the hope that the country would give women their due, to raise them to the levels they deserved. Progress, however, has been slow, painfully so. (The missing Chibok girls come to mind.) Unfortunately, Obioma’s book, for all its lovely prose, doesn’t buck the trend. Until the fairly recent success of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose books, Americanah and Half of the Yellow Sun, explore the lives of strong and complex female characters, African literature, as it is known to the western world, has been dominated by male narrators. Have their female characters lacked complexity? Not always. Nevertheless, newer visions for Nigeria should reflect not only hope in the future generations, the egrets, as narrator Ben calls his two youngest siblings who “in the midst of the storm, … emerged, wings afloat in the air.” They should also convey the known might of its women.
Angela Ajayi is a writer living in Minneapolis. Her essays and author interviews have been published in the Star Tribune, Wild River Review, and Afroeuropa.