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The night hides with a knife: Part one



This week and next I am reviewing a collection of short stories by a Nigerian author, Nduka Otiono. As the book is published in Nigeria (by New Horn Press in Lagos, 2021) it’s unlikely that many readers of thepost will be able to obtain a copy.

I’m so out of touch with Lesotho, I don’t know whether there’s a bookshop that will order books on request or whether you can do this through the internet. The exchange rate should not be a problem: the Nigerian currency, the naira, is in even more a lamentable state than the loti.

Nonetheless I thought The Night Hides would be of interest because of the sheer quality of the stories. And more especially because these are tales that combine the techniques of oral performance with those of written fiction intended for publication.

In other words, they are written and printed tales that keep behaving like oral narratives. They could, indeed, be given in oral performance, with some adjustments, as they are quite complex (in the writerly features of his work Otiono uses the experimental techniques we refer to as postmodernist).

As oral performance is such an important creative medium in Lesotho, I thought that budding Basotho authors might pick up encouragement and inspiration from Otiono’s work.

The most recent poetry and fiction I’ve read from Lesotho seem to owe very little to orality, so there would be an opening here for something ground-breaking. That’s one reason I’m writing such a detailed review, spread over two weeks.

Otiono isn’t by any means the first African author to combine oral and writerly techniques. It is especially a feature of African written poetry, for example, Song of Lawino and its successors by the great Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek.

There was the novel Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote by Cote d’Ivoirien author Ahmadou Kourouma, a brilliant satire on dictatorship, the English translation of which appeared in 2004. And in Sesotho sa Leboa, Oliver Kgadime Matsepe’s Megokgo ya Bjoko from 1968 (the English translation of which appeared as Tears of the Brain in 2018 in the African Pulse series, which I wrote about in this column many moons ago).

In that startlingly postmodernist work the narrator—or as we prefer to say nowadays, focalizer—continually puzzles over his own procedures as story-teller, which may be one explanation for the work’s title.

So, lots of predecessors (and I haven’t even mentioned, from Mali, Hampate Ba’s extraordinary The Fortunes of Wangrin—woops, I just did).

Nduka Otiono, the author of The Night Hides with a Knife, the book under review, is an associate professor of African Literature and English at Carleton University, Canada, but before embarking on an academic career he worked for fifteen years as a journalist in his home country, Nigeria; a collection of his journalism is forthcoming.

To give you an idea of how versatile and productive he is, The Night Hides is just one of four books he authored or edited that were published last year. A collection of his poetry appeared in Canada, titled DisPlace—the Poetry of Nduka Otiono, with an Introduction by eminent Namibian-born Canadian poet Peter Midgley and an Afterword by some obscure bloke called Chris Dunton.

(The title of the book is a pun, combining a Nigerian Pidgin phrase meaning “this place” and the idea of displacement—Otiono’s emigration from Nigeria to Canada).

He was co-editor of a second, expanded edition of Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing from Nigeria. This large, handsome volume contains poems, stories and other pieces by 71 authors, ranging from those who have built an international reputation, such as novelists Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila, to others who are less or much less well-known.

Getting back to Otiono’s absorption in orature, he also co-edited for a British press a volume of academic essays titled Oral Literary Performance in Africa: Beyond Text. This includes a piece by your favourite columnist (guess who?) on the use of insult in election rally songs from Lesotho and Nigeria. You see how the world gets to know about the world?

Having said all of that, by way of preliminaries, next week I shall get around to discussing The Night Hides and the very exciting way Otiono combines oral and writerly techniques.
To be concluded

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