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A new novel, a recurrent beef and a lingering grief

My father died while I was at a Yahuza Suya Spot eating chicken with my spouse. It was on Friday, March 11, 2016. We had…

My father died while I was at a Yahuza Suya Spot eating chicken with my spouse. It was on Friday, March 11, 2016. We had just been served and had taken the first few bites when my brother called and broke the news.

In the years since, I have never been able to drive past that particular suya spot without feeling a wave of emotions. Some grief, some anger, some self-recrimination. I was eating chicken suya while my father lay dying. Not that my not eating suya would have kept him alive because he was already far gone by then and I had only a week to prepare for his passing. Still, I did not like the feelings that spot triggered in me, so I avoid that spot whenever I could and eventually moved from that part of town.

I confess I have not fully come to terms with my father’s passing. In my mind, there is a whole essay interrogating my relationship with my father, his death and navigating this grief. This essay is still on my mind, scripted with the ‘i’s dotted and the ‘t’s crossed. Perhaps someday when I am in the right place emotionally, I will actually write it.

But today, as always, I find myself reflecting on my father every time something significant happens in my life, like say the release of my new novel, ‘When We Were Fireflies’, on March 7, by my Nigerian publishers, Masobe Books, a few days short of his death anniversary.

You see, after he died and my siblings and I went through his things, I found little mementos he had kept: newspaper clippings in which I was featured, a copy of my first book signed especially for him and a bottle of perfume I had bought for him in Paris some years before. It was empty, but he kept it in a way that suggested it meant something to him.

A few months after, when I got a call informing me that my second book, ‘Season of Crimson Blossoms’, had been awarded the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature, my spontaneous reaction was to break down and cry because I wanted my father to have heard the news and shared that moment with me.

That feeling has not changed. As my fourth book is released, especially so close to the anniversary of his death. I find myself wishing I could share the moment with him, take a copy of the book to him so he could show his friends and everyone he met and say, as he did with my first, ‘see what my son has done’.

This is not a tribute to my father though. Someday I will write that when I can engage with the moving parts of my relationship with him. This is my musing about releasing a novel at such a time that my personal life intersects with a pivotal moment in my country’s history and how in a way all three intersect.

When my publishers first informed me of the publication date to release the book in bookstores nationwide, I thought it was too close to the elections. Seeing the floodgate of hate and resentment that the elections would and have elicited, and the always lingering possibility of post-election violence, of which he had precedent before, there are reasons for some concern. This is evidenced by how schools shut down for weeks around the election period, some of them rather crudely evicting students from their hostels just to avoid culpability should things go wrong. Add the naira scarcity brouhaha and you wonder what timing!

Fortunately, the violence did not happen on the scale that many feared. Even if results are still being contested and the hate and bitterness have continued. Everywhere there are videos of thugs threatening people with violence if they vote for certain parties or candidates.

The height of these was the House of Representatives majority leader, Alhassan Ado Doguwa, who went full Rambo on election day, carrying a firearm and causing mayhem. He has been arrested and arraigned for criminal conspiracy, culpable homicide, arson and illegal possession of firearms among others.

Yet we have seen dozens of videos of political thugs in various parts of the country, most especially in Lagos, making threats before, during and after the presidential elections, and those who made similar threats ahead of the gubernatorial elections are still wandering the streets, free. Why and how the police have not arrested these people and paraded them as they are fond of doing for petty criminals, not the big ones, is beyond comprehension.

Was I surprised by any of these? Not really. The irony of Nigeria is the brazenness with which impunity stumps across our streets.

And so what, you may ask, has any of these got to do with my novel?

Well, you see, Nigeria, like the character in my novel, Yarima Lalo, is trapped in a vicious circle. One that is bound or should be bound by the pursuit of something excellent and desirous—say love or good governance—but one that at every turn meets an obstacle that could break it, permanently. In the case of Nigeria, or at least this generation of Nigerians, it is the four-year circle of hate and violence and hope and its debasement.

With my father, it is the inference of death, dying and the lingering emotions that are left behind and how those sentiments shape and affect those who are left behind, as my father’s has done to me, as the events in the novel did the characters in the novel. It is all a circle, some vicious, some melancholic.

In the end, these circles need to be broken and in ‘When We Were Fireflies’, Yarima Lalo’s journey, not unlike Nigeria’s, is about reconciling these histories of love and hate and perhaps breaking the vicious circle. Would he succeed or not? Would Nigeria, if it realises that it is trapped in this vicious circle, succeed or not?

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