Chinelo Okparanta, “America”

Is this the only story by a woman on the Caine shortlist this year? “America” can be read here.

First, just for the prose this is the best of the finalists.

I tell him that decades ago, before the pipes began to burst (or maybe even before Shell came into the area – and of course, these days, it’s hard to remember a time without Shell), Gio Creek, for example, was filled with tall, green mangroves. Birds flew and sang in the skies above the creek, and there were plenty of fish and crab and shrimp in the waters below. Now the mangroves are dead, and there is no birdsong at all. And, of course, there are no fish, no shrimp, and no crab to be caught. Instead, oil shoots up in the air, like a fountain of black water, and fishermen lament that rather than coming out of the water with fish, they are instead harvesting Shell oil on their bodies.

Not much happens in “America”, though the story jumps around in time a bit. We begin with the narrator, Nnenna, on her way to a visa interview–apparently her third. The first two have been declined.We learn of her earlier trips to the visa office, and of the development of her relationship with Gloria, who she plans to visit in America.Of their romance, of which her parents disapprove.

There’s often an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) demand that African stories, Asian stories, basically stories that aren’t European or American be about Issues (shoutout to this tweet by Nicholas Ochiel). “America” very easily could be; there’s the Issue of Being a Lesbian in Nigeria, there’s the difficulty and assorted ignominies of the visa process, there are economic and enviromental issues:

the way things were going for the Niger Delta … all that bunkering going on, criminal gangs tapping the oil straight from the pipelines and transporting it abroad to be sold illegally. The rebel militias stealing the oil and refining it and selling it to help pay for their weapons. All those explosions from old oil rigs that had been left abandoned by Shell.

It isn’t about any of these; they are all things that happen, but they’re not made part of a narrative. “America” insists on its own focus on the personal. Nnenna’s relationship with Gloria only causes conflict (in the form of resigned disapproval, which isn’t the worst sort of opponent) within her family; we’re told that there are “penalties … for that sort of thing” in Nigeria but we never have to face them. In the visa interview that forms the focus of the plot Nnenna talks earnestly about the possible good she could do regarding oil spills in the Niger Delta, putting herself into a larger narrative, but we have access to her internal monologue and we know that her reasons are, again, personal. (And some of us who have done visa interviews and scholarship interviews also recognise this need to make ourselves seem more earnest, more socially-minded, more useful than we really are).

There is a part of me hoping that I will find that new life much less complicated, much more trouble-free than the one here. Still, I say it confidently, because saying it so might help me to keep Mama’s  fear from becoming a reality. Because I know that it might break Mama’s heart if I were to break my promise to her. But mostly, I say it confidently because Gloria is on my mind, and if I am to be granted permission to go and be with her, then I must give the man the answer I know he wants: an emphatic vow that I will come back home.

And I think this focus on the personal also becomes, for the narrator, a sort of strategy of avoidance. There’s the version of the Jack and the Beanstalk (Nnamdi and the udara tree, in this case) story that has Nnenna thinking about putting on limits on stories that might otherwise have no end–what happens if the resources all run out after the happily ever after? That ‘easier life’ that she quite understandably wants, the life that can be considered as a thing in itself, separate from Issues that is something we all deserve; it can be difficult to accept it when the consequences of said issues are around us all the time. And so many of us with the resources to get away and live lives of our own do, and we perform acts of unseeing to make it possible.

I tell myself to continue walking, to ignore all of this foulness, just like the owners of the big houses have managed to do. Maybe it’s even their garbage that saturates these alleyways, as if the houses themselves are all that matter, and the roads leading to them inconsequential.

But for me, it is a reluctant kind of disregard that stems from a feeling of shame: shame that all that trash should even exist there, shame that empty barrels should be there, between the fancy houses, littering the roads after the oil they once contained has been made to do its own share of littering.

So if “America” is about an issue at all, it’s about trying desperately not to be about one and finding it morally difficult to do. Which I can live with.

 

The winner of the Caine prize will be announced a few days from now. This has been my second year blogging the Caine prize, and on the whole I think I preferred last year’s shortlist to this one. Last year there were three or four stories I could quite happily think of as worthy winners.

But this year “America” feels far ahead of everything else on the list (with “Bayan Layi” a probable second). I very much hope it wins.

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Other people’s thoughts on “America”

Kate Maxwell
Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
Chika Oduah
Veronica Nkwocha
Ben Laden

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