Book Review on Dike Okoro’s Letter to Aisha and Other Stories

Nigerian-American writer Dike Okoro’s first collection of short  stories  possesses  the spirit  and  rage  that  captures the   social   milieu   of   modern   Nigeria   and   postcolonial Africa.  Although  it  charts  its  own  course,  this  collection masterfully  mixes  realistic  and  speculative  in  the  mold  of Ben Okri.It opens with “Letter to Aisha”, an epistolary tale driven   by   nostalgic   recollections   of   childhood   by   two women, the protagonist Aisha and her bosom friend Moji. “But let us be thankful to ageing. Idris is a good man. Our country is proud of him. Gone are the days when he used to  sing  the  Pro  Africanist  anthem  of  Africa  for  Africans.  I guess his stay in the Colombian landscape has imposed on him the many facets of cultures quilted in the exotic fabric of  Latin  America.  I  remember  the  love  letters  he  shared with  you  which  you  sent  my  way.  Cherish  themall,  I remember reminding you. And never give way to grudges in  your  heart.  As  for  the  love  child’s  saga,  I  will  keep 221praying for you. As you may know, life throws its surprises at us sometimes. And the good thing about it is not one’s immediate reaction but how one handles one’s self in the middle  of  the  storm,”  says  Aisha,  encouraging  Moji  to endure the harsh realities of marriage that she’s facing. The  story  beautifully  illuminates  the  southern  climate  of Port  Harcourt,  Nigeria’s  garden city, and  is  embellished  with poetic language    that    paints    treasured moments   of   childhood.   Perhaps this story follows in the tradition of the Bildungsroman and challenges  the  reader  to  keep  up with the assortment of themes and details that converge in making the tale  itself  an  exceptional  narrative. The religions of Islam and Christianity  are  covered  in  an  engaging  way  that  informs the  reader  on  how  people  of  the  city  lived  in  harmony irrespective of religious affiliation. Okoro’s familiarity with the  society  he  writes  about  illustrates  his  keen  power  of observation and attentiveness to veracity.

The greatest effects of Okoro’ stories lay in their gripping display of pictures reminiscent of city life in Africa. In “The Cross Bearer” an innocent is picked up and detained by the  police  who  deploy  their  abusive  antics  to  get  him  to confess  to  a  crime  he  knew  nothing  about.  The  irritated man  fails to  hide  his  loathing  of the  unfair  treatment  he receives.  Written  in  the  first  person,  the  story  illustrates the frustration most city dwellers experience when dealing with impatient officers of the law whose anger at their job situation,  in  this  case  a  police  station  where  stifling  heat assaults  officers,  among  other  agencies  indirectly  implied in  the  story,  makes  a  sensitive
reader to  empathize  with the  detained  voices  in  the  cells  who  rage  at  the  men  in uniform:

“After a short while an irritated voice cursed from the cell behind the front desk:
“Stupid officers! God go  punish  all  of  una  for  not  giving  us  food  this afternoon!”
Another  voice  with  a  measure  of  anger added:
 “Officers,  I  wan  shit  o!”  More  and  more insults  and  complaints  piled  up  from  the  cell.  The afternoon   dragged   on. 
The   heat   in   the   station exacerbated. 
I   was   soon   handed   a   paper   and ordered  to  write  down  my  name,  address,
phone number  and  details  of  the  crime  that  led  to  my arrest. I drew close to the attending officer and told him  I  didn’t  understand  why  I  had  been  arrested  in the first place.
Look here, young man, I am not here to play games with you. ”

The  carceral  experience,  especially  as  it  pertains  to  the activist prisoner, is cleverly reflected in “Mene’s Song,” a story  that  metaphorically  links  the  fate  of  an  imprisoned Nigerian journalist to the travails the Ogoni environmentalist  Ken  Saro-Wiwa  experienced  before  his death. Okoro employs wit and stark realism as he captures effectively  the  environmental  and  psychology  state  of  the detained man. The references to “smoking pipe” and the name “Rex Cardinal Lawson” and “highlife” music, for any reader familiar with Nigerian history, instantly particularizes  the  experience  captured.  There’s  also  the indirect   reference   to   the   international   community,   as regards  the  cry  for  human  rights  support. Nevertheless, the  detained  journalist’s  hopes  for  his  country  never diminishes  but  is  even  made  more  pronounced  in  the Okoro’s description of his last hours:

“Mene  sat  on  the  cement  floor  of  his  cell,  knees drawn close to his  chest,

paper on his  knees, stump of  pencil  between  his  wet  fingers,

 and  laboriously printed his last written words:

Even in the hours When the call for verse Cheated the singer,

 The cry for the homeland Remained his song.”

Usually,  consistency  of  tone  and  mood  can  be  hard  to sustain in a collection of short stories, but that is precisely what  Okoro  deftly  achieves  in Letter  to  Aisha  and  Other Stories. He  is  among  those  rare  writers  who  are  able  to invoke trust and calm assurance in their readers based on the  strength  of  their  writing. Okoro’s  accessibility  and conversational  tone  often  beguiles  the  depth  of  this  work and the panoramic range of his artistic perspective.

The  eponymous  story, Letter  to  Aisha, which  leads  the collection of seventeen well-crafted stories, is written with such   empathy   and   grace   that   it   easily   enchants   and 224endears  itself  to  the  reader. It  is  at  once  a  celebration  of friendship, as Moji, a Christian, writes a wistful letter to her Moslem friend, now that they are both grown women with different  preoccupations. This  love  letter  of  sorts  is  a celebration of what is possible amid differences in a nation (and  indeed  continent)  still  bedevilled  by  religious  and other  internecine  conflicts. Of  course,  it  will  be  grave injustice  to  dwell  too  much  on  this  one  story,  for  in  this collection,  Okoro’s  dexterity  and  range  is  on  ample display.

Some  of  the  stories  are  to  be  treated  as  pieces  of  a mosaic,  needing  no  neat  ending  but  forming  part  of  a beautiful   whole. Such   narrative   beauty   is   reflected   in stories  such  as “That “Amen “and  the  troubles  of  forced neighbourliness, “Mene’s  Song” and  its  opening  of  the sutures  of  calm  to  reveal  the  military  oppression  present in  Port  Harcourt,  and “Rosemary”, in  which  a  university student  doubles  as  a  sex  worker. After  reading  these  and other   stories   such   as “Night  Lesson”, the   power   of description  draws  readers  in  so  deeply  that  they  feel  as  if they  have  ridden  with  the  characters  on  an  okada  to  a buka  to  partake  of  a  great  meal  of  jollof  rice  with  goat meat  or pounded  yam  and  egusi  soup. Then  there  is  the phantasmagoria  feeling  common  in  African  folktales  in stories  such  as “A Generous Gift “and  the  style  of  such folkloric  storytelling  in “The  Greedy  Farmer”. One  can almost  imagine  him-or  herself  at  the  feet  of  a  wizened grandparent dispensing the wisdom of the ages.

After the last story is read, Okoro’s keen eye for human behavior, kaleidoscopic range, and humor prompt an urge to  reread  these  beautiful  stories  again  and  again. Okoro situates  himself  among  the  captivating  storytellers  of  his country and continent, such as Okri and Achebe.

 About the reviewer

Benjamin Kwakye was born in Accra, Ghana. He is the author of three books of poetry: an epic poem, Scrolls of the Living Night(Issus  World Press, 2015), and the  collections Soul to Song(CWP, 2017) and Songs of the Jealous Wind (CWP, 2018). His poetry has  appeared  in We  Have  Crossed  Many  Rivers:  New  Poetry  from Africa (Malt house  Press,  2013)  and For  the  Women  in  Their  Lives(CWP), edited by Tanure Ojaide and Dike Okoro. He is the winner of  two  Commonwealth  Prize  for  Literature  Book  Awards  for  his novels The Clothes  of  Nakedness and The  Sun  by  Night.  His  other literary  awards  include   the  2011  IPPY  Gold  Award  for  Adult Multicultural Fiction. Kwakye  is also the author of  other novels, a novella   collection,   and   a   short   story   collection.   He   attended Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School. He is the director of The    Africa    Education    Initiative,    a    non-profit    organization dedicated to promoting science education in Africa.

About the author

Dr  Dike  Okoro, Sam  Walton  Fellow and  finalist  for  the 1994Iliad  Poetry  Award,  teaches  advanced  reading  and  writing poetry    and    literature    courses    at    Northwestern    University, Evanston,  USA. He  received  his  PhD  in  English  (with  research specialization  in  African Diaspora  literatures) from  the  University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, an M.A. in African American literature and an M.F.A. in poetry, both from Chicago State University. He is the  editor  and  author  of  six  books,  including Speaking  for  the Generations:  An  Anthology  of  Contemporary  African  Short  Stories, Echoes  from  the  Mountain:  New  and  Selected  Poems by  Mazisi KuneneA  Long  Dream:  Poems  by  Okogbule  Wonodi.  His  poems, essays,  short  stories,  chapters  and  articles  have  appeared  in numerous journals and anthologies.

Title: Letter to Aisha and Other Stories
Author : Dr  Dike  Okoro
Publisher: Cissus World Press
Available: Amazon

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