In This Bedlam of a Nation
(A Review of Sumaila Umaisha’s Hoodlums)
Title of Book: Hoodlums
Author: Sumaila Umaisha
Number of Pages: 110
Publishers: Hybun Publication International
Date of Publication: 2010
Price: Not Stated.
Reviewer: Gimba Kakanda
When fiction romances history and honours its milieu, a realistic portraiture of theme old or contemporary is perceived with entertaining believability as in this 17-story book that puts the curtain off the entrails of the physical, mental and emotional bricks that hold the fragile foundation of a troubled nation. An undisclosed nation that is Nigeria except in The Godfather (p. 67)- there where a Mayor administers.
Opening with Militants (p. 9) where ‘Little Tene and her friends were on the way to their favourite playground behind the classrooms when a loud explosion shattered the peaceful atmosphere…’ (par. 1). This ‘shattered atmosphere’ is witnessed in the second story, After the Riot (12), an aftermath of the regular ethno-religious unrest that destabilizes the nation. Hoodlums (p. 16) takes us into the centre of such unrests. However, militancy paves way for human interrelations viz a viz psychological incoherence that begins in The Last Hiding Place (p. 31), on the odd relationship between Professor Ameh Deen and Amelia; here the latter, an actress, is married by the writer who fears his secret- being inspired by happenings in the night- would ‘affect’ their marriage only to be thrown a shocker by the wife, too; her secret- drug addiction. The Outcast (p. 39) is a “daughter’s” attempt to discover her paternity from her unspeaking mother, realizing at last, that her ‘mother’ isn’t her mother but a stranger that rescued her infant self from rubbish dumb. Another inspection of the human psychology comes in The King Himself (p. 46) where a madman parades self as sane and casting doubt upon the sanity of others. Exploration of myth comes in: The Forbidden Path (p. 54)- an old woman is torn in lonesome life on charge of witchcraft; Seat of Power (p. 58)- a scientific fiction forged in mythical presentation of man’s discontentment and greed with the clutch of power; this power-tussling is continued in The Godfather (p. 67). The Magic (p. 77) tells a man’s disbelief in the ‘magic’ of good acts but requisition of talisman which, unknown to him, is the former. Soul Mate (p. 80) carries us into the psyche of Lilian, introducing the reader to aggravation of the girl’s degeneration into seeking succor in ruinous hedonism as a way of escaping realities. The Honourable Minister (p. 87) is a caricaturized portrayal of ‘untold’ reality of the nation’s leaders through a stage performance by some radically inclined students. The Black Cat (p. 93) is a telepathic transportation to the past of the protagonist, an old woman, ruined by her wayward past. The President’s Portrait (p. 96) portrays the life of an artist tasked with the challenge of submitting his craft, a portrait of the nation’s incumbent president, to the leader at a ceremony. The Riot (p. 99) captures the doom that befalls a capitalist and his friends, whose selfish ventures in business put them a-grinning over the cause of a riot that breaks over the fuel price hike. The last two stories Roadblock (p. 103) and Do or Die (p. 106) carry the recurring motif of insecurity in the nation. While Roadblock unfolds how withdrawal of police roadblocks on the highways paves way for the armed robbers to mount their ‘roadblock’, Do or Die comes from the background of politics- a politician pays an assassin to eliminate his opponent only to be served the boomerang of his intention.
In Hoodlums, the Nation is morbid, insecure, derelict and falling. The Militants in Militants (p. 9) would not stop, the soldiers must launch attacks and reprisals; 6-year-old Tene is thrown into grief with the explosion that ‘shatters’ her mother’s life; so also her peers in ‘another loud explosion that rent the air’. The rioters in After the Riot (p. 12) have forced Zabi into madness- he gets himself naked, feigns insanity to escape the ‘calamity’; now, he’s ‘mad’- looking for his wife and kids but he never sees them again… in this bedlam of a nation. The hoodlums in the title-story, Hoodlums (p. 16), slaughter one another to pronounce their difference; Muslims against Christians, Christians against Muslims, and the Police too could not curtail the restlessness so they join the hoodlums to kill the ‘unethical’ journalists who do not know, between religion and ethnicity, what stirs the riot… in this bedlam of a nation. Chief (Dr.) Odaudu Okpetu, the godfather in The Godfather (p. 67) employs ‘hefty and agile young men ready to kill at the slightest suspicion, in his dangerous resolve to remain the only ‘vote’ that elects; his old boy, the mayor, is upstaged, and his new boy who rescinds on pre-election accord ‘staggered backward and collapsed amidst gunshots’… in this bedlam of a nation. The hoodlums in The Riot (p. 99) go frenzy in attacking the poor citizens and cars while the rich Alhaji Ibrahim gloats over their madness only to pale on return of his unexpected wife from a trip, killed… in this bedlam of a nation. The policemen in Roadblock (p. 103) aren’t different from the armed robbers, plunged in extortions that throw Habila and co-drivers in applause of their withdrawal in the Burukutu joint. The Assassin, Kill-and-Go in Do or Die (P. 106) must kill to live, the politicians would blind his conscience with money to eliminate the opponents. The Senator threatens, and awaits the bloodshed… in this bedlam of a nation.
Still in the Bedlam
While the bedlam tears the nation apart, the people still struggle to tread their life, dream and hope as they see it. Ben in Hoodlums (p. 16) throws away his father’s plan of a better life- abandons medical practice for Journalism- and, as Christian, befriends a Muslim lady, Mairo. Amelia in The Last Hiding Place (p. 31) defies her friends’ dissuasion to marry Professor Ameh- considered insane by them- and yet, remains unmoved by her discovery. King, the madman in The King Himself (P. 46) wallows in dubious sanity with majesty. Onkwo, the tainted witch in The Forbidden Path (p. 54) battles identity crisis- the undesired evil label forced on her by the community. Bologi in The Magic believes in talisman to break the yore of retrogression in this bedlam of a nation. Lilian in Soul Mate (p. 80) finds no soul in her attempts to toe a calmer lifestyle. The Drama Group of Federal Government College Jarawa in The Honourable Minister (p. 87) spit the truths of the nation in the Minister’s face with amusing creativity unafraid. Amedu, the painter in The President’s Portrait (p. 96) would not compromise his art in searching for apt aesthetics to portray the nation’s president, and his wife and daughter, too, bare their minds unto real portrayal of the ‘ugly’ and ‘guilty’ president even though ‘… The family had been going through hard times and she had hoped the portrait would fetch them something from the president.’ (par. 9). Chief Emeka in The Riot (p. 96) grieves over ‘insecurity’ of his goods in the shops while people die in the riot. Alhaji Hamza in Do or Die (p. 106) maneuvers his way to the Senate unaware of his opponent’s ploy to assassinate him… in this bedlam of a nation.
The greatest triumph attained in the stories is the masterfulness with which they were ended- occasionally taciturn and forged in overt cogency.
One disrespectful trait exhibited by many writers of prose is attempts to express beyond the borders of creativity, passing judgments and drawing the readers spoon-fed by illogical expressions and homilies embedded in their narratives. This is rather unthinkable, for any work of art shall gather gullibility only if it regards the reader’s intelligence. In Hoodlums, the author opens and ends the stories with caution, leaving them where the reader’s imagination could weave the conclusion.
Many a writer that takes after journalism often suffers dilution of their creative language; lost of the figurative language and more lamentably verbosity. This is evident in this collection.
Sumaila Umaisha in Hoodlums lacks the linguistic mastery of say Ahmed Maiwada (Musdoki, 2010) or playfulness of Helon Habila (Waiting for an Angel, 2006). In the opening story we read: ‘…loud expression shattered the peaceful atmosphere into fragments…’ and then ‘…of confusion.’ The second paragraph reads: ‘The whole town was in disarray…’ A shattered atmosphere is evidently torn in confusion and yes, disarray! This is a verbose expression. Again read, in the same story:
‘Many civilians also lost lives in the crossfire. But, having become used to such incidents, after so many years of the conflict, originating from government’s neglect of the oil-rich region, the people soon resumed their normal businesses despite the continued military presence. The unconditional ceasefire recently declared by all factions of the militants and the amnesty granted the detained members of the militants by the federal government the previous week added to the general feeling that all was now well. Therefore, no one took the rumoured militants’ planned attack seriously, till this sudden explosion.’ (par. 5). This is journalistic.
Aside the paucity of linguistic figurativeness, another gaffe is the endless redundant sentences and phrases that smudge the stories: ‘Zabi ran….and abruptly turned left’ After the Riot (p. 12). Yes, a running-Zabi must undertake ‘abrupt’ ‘turn’. In The Last Hiding Place (p. 31), we read: ‘As Amelia drowsily adjusted her head on the pillow, she subconsciously reached..’. This expression is overly written, for a drowsy Amelia must perform actions in sub-consciousness. The beautiful way to achieve excellence in these two instances is when the colliding words aren’t merged in a sentence. As for Zabi, a further description of his actions ought to be apt with the ‘abrupt’ tag. In Amelia’s case, an introduction of her mental state (drowsiness) shouldn’t have been elaborated by another mental state (sub-consciousness). Aesthetic grace would set in if the later phrase is of her physical action- of the tempo of her moving hand, and not an influence of her mental state again.
The third trait that smudges the stories is how little a reader gets suspended in ‘what next?’ as a result of the writer’s many overwritten expressions even though the plots aren’t all tightly woven. Loose plots become inevitable in almost all the stories, driven to clarity with flashbacks. A climax of the writer’s impromptu narration is in The Honourable Minister (87), where one feels the element of imminent surprise from opening of the story- with the ‘excellent drama group’, the ‘restive’ and ‘eager’ audience, with the anxious ‘personalities on the high table’, with the ‘exceptional’ Mr John- the Drama teacher with ‘crazy ideas’…. So, no perceptive reader gets mortified at the end!
A more worrying trait is inaccuracy of time and chronology in The Outcast (p. 39) where Ilema is read in her hostel, pondering her paternity, having been in school for the past two months (p. 42, par. 1), yet she’s portrayed to have met someone-an old man who calls her ‘a forsaken child’- on her way to the stream, just a week(!) ago (p. 40, par. 4). The crisis here is: the setting of this encounter is more of a village- her village- than the school. And even if the writer argues otherwise, his inexpressiveness where necessary demolishes his facts.
Even with those crises, Hoodlums is laced with simplicity that becomes complex on deeper perusal. The writer achieves a symbolist garb with craftiness in various stories. After the Riot (p. 12) depicts Zabi after a woman that resembles his wife in red only to realize that she’s in black. A man in black! This red – black symbol depicts the love – doom or hope - forlornness situation set upon Zabi. And yet, puts a question-mark on his sanity even though he claims it’s a feigned insanity put on to escape the rioters’ butchering. In The Outcast (p. 39), Ilema’s brooding holds amidst hooting of the owls, depicting an imminent death- of her foster-mother, perhaps, or hers! (The ambiguous end of this story- like the others- doesn’t elaborate their fate.) A most symbolic depiction of a life comes in Irebu village through the myth of Edah clan around the life of Onkwo- an old woman branded a witch in the community (The Forbidden Path, p. 54).; ‘why should the lightning take the blame for the thunder?’ occupies her mind as she drifts toward a quest to resolve her worry only to be distracted by a child of about ten to her own expiration; a mythic karma that seeks to authenticate the maxim that nothing reigns in permanence. Close to The Forbidden Road in excellent portraiture of reality through myth is The Black Cat (p. 92) where, through mystiques of a cat, an old woman relives her past, how the halo of youth gives her the ‘wing’ to ‘…dissolves herself into worldly glamour, moving from one city to another and from hotel to hotel, selling… selling to the highest bidders’. Her womanhood, of course!
Hoodlums and the Contemporary Nigerian Fiction
Coming from the Northern part of the country bedeviled by drought of crafty writers, Sumaila Umaisha has let loose a number of critical, cultural, religious, social, political and psychological issues that beckon immediate comparative analyses and discourses.
First is the characterization, though short stories- particularly short short stories as in Hoodlums- aren’t extensive enough for desired character development, true genius of the sub-genre still attains mastery of characterization painting homo fictus- fictional character according to E. M. Forster’s Aspect of the Novel- that equates the semblances of homo sapiens. To heed to Arnold Bennett’s: ‘The foundation of good fiction is character-creation and nothing else… Style counts; plot counts; originality of outlook counts. But none counts anything like so much as the convincingness of the characters.’, Hoodlums neglects minute details that paint the atmosphere and psyche of a developed character (and setting); it attains believability in portrayal of a ‘sensitive’ character, Ben- the doctor-turned-journalist- that courts a Muslim lady, Mairo (Hoodlums, p. 16). Practically, marriage of a Muslim woman to a Christian is almost impossible in a fundamentalist grasp, except a fiction writer unveils the forces that bind them. Umaisha’s success first comes from Ben’s angle; he rebels his father’s decision to practise medicine, and adopts a go-getting trait in pursuit of his forte in journalism. Mairo’s comes in her western education that shows her liberal plane as a leader of the law students and a co-organizer of a dinner where they met, and then, indisputable love for the male character, charmed by his honesty.
Classical example of flawed characterization comes in that extraordinary novel, Musdoki (Mazariyya, 2010) by Ahmed Maiwada. The novelist portrays a character, Musdoki, as ambitious lad who grows to become a lawyer, but resistance of the antagonist, Rita/Christine’s coquetries and offers of a future dreamed is implausible. Quite unconvincing! First, she has him sexed on the first day of their encounter- this portends that his morality isn’t wall on the temptress Rita; second, he’s desperately in quest of a future as footballer- this again she offers. Third, she possesses frightening spiritual power- this could scare him on discovery having been frightened by her mere emergence in the opening of the novel. The only link that would’ve soldered the story is if he too is portrayed with some wand of supernatural might or strong moral background. Generally, exciting marriage of fantasy and realism as depicted in Musdoki makes an adventurous tale.
Another celebrated trait in a perceptive creative writer is the gift of wading through the dangerous thicket of culture or religion without a deliberate foray into ethnocentricism, blasphemy, profanity or tribalism. A typical example of such caution is exuded by Umaisha in After the Riot (p. 12) where Zabi is borne in oblivion of what stirred the riot. “The Difference.” He’s told. Again the bewildered Zabi of unnamed religion and culture is read, brooding: ‘How could they visit such tragedy on me when I did not know what the fight was all about? How could they, when I had nothing to do with the contentious difference?’ This is the psyche of an average person torn in the womb of restlessness- Muslim or Christian, Hausa or Ibo. Sumaila Umaisha writes for Nigerians, for those that perceive what he says, for all. It’s sickening for a Nigerian writer to target outside audience fictionalizing lies and inverted truths for the ignorant foreigners, seen in many writers in Diaspora. The tone of Sefi Atta’s Every Good Will Come targets the Non-Nigerian audience.
Not all folks of opposing sides shore up the idea of rivalry or disputes in culture and religion. In Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, an unclear separation of art from propaganda is horribly obvious- a sheer celebration of Igbo nationalism! The novel, even as she strives to escape the tag, dresses her in the frock of tribalism. Writing against existing traditions ought to be an acre to be treaded with perceptive grasp as does Sumaila Umaisha. To write against an existing tradition, create an anti-hero/heroine (not antagonist!) and let the readers’ findings climax in mastery of the tradition engaged from the plots. The cannibalistic portraiture of Northern Nigeria by Chimamanda is a pure betrayal of art where North plays the devil; and the only Northerners encountered by character Olanna are beast of a kind- Mohammed, her boyfriend, an educated Northern prince, is only lustfully attached to her (not her Igboness), and her Uncle’s friend in Kano, Abdulmalik is seen in vampirism, killing her Igbo folks, during the Kano riot. Even Mohammed’s parcel to Olanna during the war is a satire.
Arguably, the most brilliant treatment of Muslim – Christian dichotomy ever by a Nigerian writer comes in Musdoki- here, character Mudoki is abandoned by Muslim co-travellers on a stop-over at Jebba, on realizing that he’s non-Muslim. But, the writer- brilliant and crafty- dodges indulgence in the cause of the abandonment. The readers decrypt this; a clear lesson for the Chimamandas of Nigerian literature.
Also of note is the call to revisit the psychology of humankind portrayed in Hoodlums; a streak of incoherence and dubious introduction of characters’ psyche is recurring motif in this collection as we could not investigate but ponder the sanity of the characters: Zabi who broods that he feigns insanity to escape lynching during the riot yet mistakes a black frock for black (p. 12); Professor Ameh Deen who’s taken for an insane by the people but confides in wife that his odd lifestyle inspires his writing (p. 31); King, the madman, who in boastful tone, declares that every millionaire is insane (p. 46), leaving us to look beyond the millionaires, and ourselves. A pathetic example is preview of Lilian’s psyche where we perceive how indulgence in hedonism becomes the psychological ghost that haunts the future. Umaisha has more of this encrypted theme: Bologi in The Magic (p. 77) could not do good- that that enhances his success except in the directorate of a talisman; this shows a man’s subjection to ‘supreme’ object or ‘being’ to live, judged from followership of religions, cults and any union that promises The Magic of life; apparent weakness of a mortal. The talisman’s potency is put to doubt at the end of the story by the marabout as the behavioral change is the magic behind Bologi’s success.
Hoodlums and the Portraiture of Contemporary Northern Nigeria
In his speech of welcome at the first Northern Nigerian Writers’ Summit held in Minna, frontline Northern writer, Abubakar Gimba, quipped that ‘…a Northern Nigerian writer is that writer who shares the dreams, vision and aspirations of the North and its peoples with a passion, while he feels with agonizing pains, the afflictions and failures of the region…’ Sumaila Umaisha’s literary tentacles fork these demands, from the havocs of the still-haunting Kaduna riot (Hoodlums, p. 16) to the private agony of a depressed Lilian that prods us into her partying life in Jos (Soul Mate, p. 80).
By Abubakar Gimba’s classification, another exceptional Northern Nigerian writer that lost the grasp of his ancestry is Helon Habila; Helon exudes ignorance of Islamic cosmology in Waiting for an Angel which apparently demolishes the core of his story, mistakes Azra’il- the angel of death for angel Israfael (phonetically, Israfil or Israfeel)- the hornblower. Again, in his two novels, justification of the Northern Nigeria’s position on the Biafra War is feeble. In Waiting for an Angel, we see an Auntie Rachel emotionally destroyed on the killing of her husband- a good non-Northerner- by the North-led soldiers of the Biafra war. Equally, in tow of Chimamanda Adichie, we see in his second novel, Measuring Time, Northern Nigeria’s veterans of the war, gloating over their exploits in the war with childish reminiscences, and further elaboration of the region’s insensitivity in approaching the war, recruiting teenagers, and swindling them with shillings and a promise of more to have them conscripted. Either Habila belongs to the literary South of Nigeria where his writing career took its first pace or belongs to the group that includes Cyprian Ekwensi and Ben Okri disqualified as Northern writers in the said speech by Abubakar Gimba for he lacks the ‘… heavy responsibilities imposed upon him by the circumstances of his physical environment, cultural milieu, historical development….’
Generally, the creative steam emanating from the Northern Nigeria now would gather to desired river that will launder its image in depiction of the truth gagged in her throat by the drought of literary thinkers, if the growing voices train their art to measure up with the brawns of literary gigantism anywhere in the world. Yes, fiction is truer than history! E. M. Forster blares this. And I believe him.
And yes, in a wade with Sumaila Umaisha, through the bedlam of this nation, I return to the prologue- a poem- to begin again:
‘We live here
where love comes
in wrapped words…
yes, we live
Labels: Gimba Kakanda, Hoodlums, Nigeria, Sumaila Umaisha