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Books

Cross-cultural exchanges

The 18 stories, each around a dozen pages long, in E.C. Osondu’s Voice of America seem to have poured out of him like water. They have a fluency, an evenness of tone and texture, that creates an illusion of transparency and simplicity.

12 February 2011

12:00 AM

12 February 2011

12:00 AM

Voice of America E.C. Osondu

Granta, pp.256, 14.99

The 18 stories, each around a dozen pages long, in E.C. Osondu’s Voice of America seem to have poured out of him like water. They have a fluency, an evenness of tone and texture, that creates an illusion of transparency and simplicity.

The 18 stories, each around a dozen pages long, in E.C. Osondu’s Voice of America seem to have poured out of him like water. They have a fluency, an evenness of tone and texture, that creates an illusion of transparency and simplicity.

There’s great comedy — and also artistry — in this because almost every story actually describes some degree of false consciousness, wrong-headedness or pathetic illusion. Life is not transparent or legible to Osondu’s characters: it is like a series of painted cloth stage-sets which are repeatedly yanked away, punctured or torn, without ever revealing more than a fleeting glimpse of the real state of things behind.

Osondu is Nigerian. He worked as an advertising copywriter in his native country before moving to America, where he now teaches English at Providence College in Rhode Island. This is his first book, and it’s very good.

The stories hew closely to a single theme — the relations between Nigerians and America. But they elaborate, with virtuosic inventiveness, countless variations on that theme. The Nigerians feel real, whereas America, even in the stories set in the US, remains an abstraction, a magnet for many hopes and illusions.

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Osondu’s titles — ‘Our First American’, ‘Jimmy Carter’s Eyes’, ‘Nigerians in America’, ‘Welcome to America’, ‘Stars in My Mother’s Eyes, Stripes on My Back’ — reinforce the book’s thematic unity, but his characters are wonderfully miscellaneous.

In ‘Waiting’, two refugee boys, hungry and bewildered, kill time in a camp with other kids who wear donated T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like ‘Tell Me I’m Sexy’, ‘Ask Me About Jesus’, ‘Acapulco’ and ‘Got Milk?’. They cohabit with starving dogs who lick clean the buttocks of babies, and they try to survive enemy raids on the camp.

The boys wait for a photographer to come to take portraits that may lead to their adoption by American families. The narrator’s friend, ‘Acapulco’, wants to know if the family that adopts him will find a cure for his bedwetting. ‘There is a tablet for every sickness in America,’ he is told.

Some of the details, here and elsewhere in the collection, feel laid on too thickly (the camp nurse, for instance, who gives the narrator Waiting for Godot to read). But the ending is subtle. The narrator, craving privacy, sends Acapulco back to the food shack and slips away quietly.

In other stories, Osondu brushes in broad, almost folkloric scenarios before redirecting our attention to resonant nuances. They’re classic short stories, in other words. They succeed because the details have the tang of reality.

Many of them describe the lives of Nigerians living in America. One takes the form of a letter from a mother in Nigeria to her son in America, wondering why he has neglected to send money ‘through Western Union like other good Nigerian children in America do’; why he has not made a return visit to Nigeria; and why he has expressed no enthusiasm for the girl she has arranged for him to marry. She ends with a haunting parable about a migrating bird that decided to stay put rather than return across the seas with its flock. ‘My son,’ she concludes, ‘I hope you have not become like that strange Australian bird that forgot its homeland.’

‘The Men They Married’ is a wry catalogue of the dire and often Byzantine predicaments in which unlucky Nigerian women find themselves in America after being tricked, misled or mistreated by their husbands. One of them, Ebone, ‘wished she could take her problems to Oprah or Dr Phil. The guests on the shows talked about problems that sounded like trifles, so insignificant and minuscule compared to hers.’

Osondu’s best stories explore more subtle predicaments and register cross-cultural exchanges in more ironic, ambivalent ways. In ‘Stars in My Mother’s Eyes, Stripes on My Back’, a Nigerian father living with his family in America and struggling to adapt is urged by a friend to change his ways: ‘You cannot go through America without America going through you.’

Mischievously, he recreates a Nigerian coming-of-age tradition — going to the bush to catch an animal with one’s bare hands — by taking his son to an American grocery store. He tells him he can choose from the shelves whatever he likes, and the shopping trolley is duly loaded up. At the check-out — was it part of the plan? — they find themselves short of cash. An American woman offers to help. ‘I’m sure you’ll do it for somebody else,’ she says, ‘I used to have kids myself.’ The father accepts, and the two walk out of the store ‘loaded down like hunters with their kill’.

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