By Noel A. Ihebuzor
What Makes a Winning Work Of Art? – A review of Okwiri Oduor’s “My Father’s Head”.
I had asked a related question in a tweet earlier today – what “distinguishes” a short story? I asked that question when I read that Oduor had won this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing. I am usually suspicious when winners of such prizes are announced. My mind goes in every direction. Was this story the best? How do you measure best? Is “best” really anything else but another manifestation of foreign cultural imperialism? Had someone written another deprecatory story about Africa in beautiful and tightly woven prose, delighting in painting ugliness and squalor with linguistic elegance and presenting no solutions, no exits and no hopes? This was the mind set with which I set about reading Okwiri Oduor’s winning story, “My Father’s Head”, and after the first five paragraphs, I felt ashamed of myself for ever having tried to put this story in such an ugly strait-jacket!
Okwiri Oduor has written a winning story by any account. The uniting thread for this powerful story of prolonged mourning is filial devotion, but this tale is laced with a generous sprinkling of hallucinations, extra-sensory perceptions, local histories, mischief, naughtiness, biting social commentaries on religion, social services, social care, death and dying. The substance for the story is simple enough – Simbi works in an old people’s home somewhere in Kenya. She loses her father in tragic circumstances – he is run over by a tractor and she is struggling to remember how his head looked like. This story is essentially a search for emotional closure. Okwiri Oduor’s creative genius lies in the ease with which she manages to craft a gripping story out of this search for closure, and how in this journey to closure, she is also able to drag in other socio-cultural issues – religious zeal, relationships, ghost hunting, care of the elderly and more into a finely woven and engaging tapestry. And she does not walk in a straight chronological line in this story she slowly tells largely through the internal recollections and reflections of Simbi – rather she zigzags and shuttles between times and places. As in real life consciousness and recall, “Simbi’s” story does not follow a linear sequential order, rather it hops and steps, either backward or forward, and in spite of all of these temporal and spatial swooshes, Oduor still manages to achieve a great measure of narrative coherence in her tale.
Language is Okwiri Oduor’s tool and ally as her command of the language is deployed to yield a tightly controlled story where the controlled narrative and the narrator move and try to move the reader too with some expressions that are difficult to forget! Just imagine the beauty but sad poignancy in this expression – “unravelling into senility”! Admire the elegance of this one – “I was stringing together images of my father, making his limbs move and his lips spew words, so that in the end, he was a marionette and my memories of him were only scenes in a theatrical display”. And there are many like these that hit you with the same punch of the aroma of well brewed strong coffee!
Most paragraphs stand out. Take paragraph two and the very effective way the human desire for dignity is presented. Take paragraph four and her depiction of rural simplicity, the instant giving of the pensioners, the generosity of the poor priest and the delight of the okada rider who brought Father Ignatius Okello to the old people’s home. Or the single sentence about the maid that gave birth and flushed the baby down the toilet – strong, tragic and difficult to forget. One incident that had me “arrested” was when Oduor presents the possible origins of father-daughter bond – the father chewing groundnut and feeding his daughter with the mush from his mouth, saliva and all. Simbi recalls this manifestation of love, what she describes as “that hot, masticated love, love that did not need to be doctrinated or measured in cough syrup caps”. Her devotion to him and her singular obsession to recall the shape of his head which drive the short story are thus perfectly understandable. Eventually, she succeeds in recalling how his head looks like but this is achieved at the great cost of hallucinating that he was now physically present in her home, dead as she knew that he was. What a gripping tale and what an unusual denouement! Are Simbi’s vision’s real or are we dealing with hallucinations induced by strong emotions? Oduor does not tell us. But such hallucinations are understandable and have been known to happen in real life.
What is not understandable are one or two of the proverbs which sit rather poorly with the flow of the story. Here is one example – Bwibo shook her head. “It is only with a light basket that someone can escape the rain.” It is difficult to understand its role in the narrative or in Simbi’s attempt to visualise the head of her later father. There are also one or two paragraphs that do not fit, paragraphs that read like they were written to display Oduor’s descriptive powers with language but which add little or nothing to the unfolding story. This paragraph is one good example:
“Later, the old people sat in drooping clumps in the yard. Bwibo and I watched from the back steps of the kitchen. In the grass, ants devoured a squirming caterpillar. The dog’s nose, a translucent pink doodled with green veins, twitched. Birds raced each other over the frangipani. One tripped over the power line and smashed its head on the moss–covered electricity pole. Wasps flew low over the grass. A lizard crawled over the lichen that choked a pile of timber. The dog licked the inside of its arm. A troupe of royal butterfly dancers flitted over the row of lilies, their colourful gauze dancing skirts trembling to the rumble of an inaudible drum beat. The dog lay on its side in the grass, smothering the squirming caterpillar and the chewing ants. The dog’s nipples were little pellets of goat shit stuck with spit onto its furry underside”.
Strong in descriptive power, it adds little or nothing to the story except perhaps to let us into Simbi’s troubled mind. But do troubled minds have the leisure for such observational acuity? A number of other paragraphs that follow this one, about six of them, have problems of cohesion with the rest of the narrative. They read like they belong to another story – a story perhaps on exile and reconciliation but not to this one about a lady trying to recall her father’s head.
But these glitches, or perhaps my own mis-readings of the short story, do not in any subtract from a tale wonderfully told, a tale of love and devotion, perhaps of love gone extreme, a story about the present struggling to unveil the past in order to find meaning and stability in an ever evolving present. A story like this certainly is deserving of such a distinguished prize as the 2014 Caine Prize.