Stories from a somewhat hidden Nigeria

Linda Temienor-Vincent’s Mouth Hung Open invites that most vexing of literary questions: What kind of a reader are you: Are you a lover of stories or are you a sucker for sentences?

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There are several reasons why that’s not an easy question to answer (or why, to some, it’s a needless, stupid question). But let’s take one: the question supposes there’s some distance between the two. Why can’t we just have both, eh?

Well, it seems that’s because great reserves of talent (or patience?) in both rarely turn up in one writer.

In any case, the initial question came to mind as I read the selection of stories that make up Temienor-Vincent’s collection. Take the title story, which opens with this sentence:

A wooden coffin lay on the floor in front of the three-bedroom bungalow in the premises of Jackson Jagajaga. In it lay the remains of Jackson Jagajaga, cold, motionless, dead. His face was disfigured by ugly scars from his innumerable past fights and the shock from the accident he had been involved in. His mouth hung open, revealing his dental structure that had been forcefully twisted towards the left side of his mouth.

I think that’s an engaging bit that raises some questions: what were those “innumerable past fights” about? Why were they so violent? What kind of an accident might lead to a face with a twisted buccal cavity? If you are Nigerian, you are probably thinking, what exactly might lead to someone acquiring the name “Jagajaga”?

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What these questions establish is that there is some kind of suspense embedded in the arrangement of those words. There is also some momentum to the writing; those are not boring sentences. But for the sentence sucker, there is only one question: are those great sentences? But maybe that’s too demanding. Tone it down and you get a less highfalutin question: Is there a better way parts of that can be written?

There is always a better way even for the greatest of writers, I think, but let’s work out how a part of that excerpt can be rewritten:

If one had a second to work on only one word, the work would probably be limited to switching the second “his” in the last sentence to “a”:

His mouth hung open, revealing his a dental structure that had been forcefully twisted towards the left side of his mouth.

Let’s work on other parts of the fragment:

In it lay ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶r̶e̶m̶a̶i̶n̶s̶ of Jackson Jagajaga, cold, motionless, dead, his face ̶w̶a̶s̶ disfigured by ̶u̶g̶l̶y̶ scars from ̶h̶i̶s̶ innumerable ̶p̶a̶s̶t̶ fights and ̶t̶h̶e̶ shock from the accident ̶h̶e̶ ̶h̶a̶d̶ ̶b̶e̶e̶n̶ ̶i̶n̶v̶o̶l̶v̶e̶d̶ ̶i̶n̶.

To go further, you may want to switch the order of words for some euphony and perhaps force:

In it lay Jackson Jagajaga, cold, motionless, dead, his face disfigured by the accident and by scars from innumerable fights.

Or:

In it lay Jackson Jagajaga, cold, motionless, dead, his scarred disfigured in death by the accident he had been involved in.

Or, if you like grammar and the drama of the long dash:

In it lay Jackson Jagajaga, cold, motionless, deadhis scarred face disfigured by the accident he had been involved in.

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You could also play with the last sentence:

His mouth hung open, revealing ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶d̶e̶n̶t̶a̶l̶ ̶s̶t̶r̶u̶c̶t̶u̶r̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶h̶a̶d̶ ̶b̶e̶e̶n̶ a set of even lower teeth ̶f̶o̶r̶c̶e̶f̶u̶l̶l̶y̶ twisted to̶w̶a̶r̶d̶s̶ the left ̶s̶i̶d̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶m̶o̶u̶t̶h̶.

So that you might have this:

A wooden coffin lay in front of the three-bedroom bungalow in the premises of Jackson Jagajaga. In it was Jackson Jagajaga, cold, motionless, dead, his scarred face disfigured by the accident he had been involved in. His mouth hung open, revealing a set of even lower teeth twisted to the left.

Is this better? Maybe or maybe not; it’s a matter of style. But this last version has all of the information of the excerpt and is shorter. As it is with healthcare and haute couture, so it is with prose: less fat is almost always better. I am certain there are other ways of putting down the sentence but the point here is that the prose that tells the title story of Temienor-Vincent’s book can be slimmer and/or edited better.

And yet, she has written a book that tells stories that I am happy to know exist. If only because it’s entirely possible to be caught up in the stories that are now prevalent in Nigerian films, rich people doing rich people things, and popular Nigerian books, the uber-schooled talking Nigerian corruption or the unschooled talking terrorism, that we forget that mainstream creative narratives have abandoned the major strata of people in our country. Stories about the rich and stories about war must exist but it does appear that vast segments of Nigerian life have been erased from mainstream creative narrative.

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We seem to have agreed that the average Nigerian only belongs in mainstream journalism. It is beyond the scope of this piece to discuss why this is so but the problem is tied to the failure of Nigerian education: the abandoned do not possess the conventional skill(s) to tell their own stories in the manner favoured by the mainstream. And without an educational system that favours all-comers, some stories and some characters will never be created.

And with Jackson Jagajaga, Temienor-Vincent has created a Lagos character that the mainstream has hidden but lives in plain sight. Initially named Jackson Kowope Kolawole, as Jackson Jagajaga, he becomes a leader of “the association of street urchins”. Like Macbeth, he is a man of ambition; like the famous Shakespeare hero, he becomes convinced that that ambition needs to be serviced with blood. It is the collection’s best story and the one that most clearly shows the writer’s gift for stories that, with time, care, and an expert’s guidance, could become screenplays telling stories familiar to a bulk of Nigerians.

The collection’s other stories have sprinklings of what is expansive in the titular story. As with Jackson Jagajaga, the heroine of the second story, “Ugly”, has a measure of hubris. Joyce has an intense fascination with beauty and although she wants “a man who was financially capable of meeting her needs”, she “had dreamt that he would also be handsome, just like in her novels”. Life, though, is treacherous enough to hand her a marital deal that isn’t quite ideal. The disappointment ultimately leads to tragedy. It is a story that serves a simple moral about the consequences of a fixation on the superficial. For better and for worse, the story simplifies a complicated issue. Its ending, however, is too dramatic and stretches the reader’s incredulity.

Unlike “Mouth Hung Open”, which opens with a death of the central character, suggesting a finality that will be worked towards, “Ugly”’s relative linearity seems to come to overwhelm the writer who appears desperate to find an ending for the story.

The collection’s other stories include the exercise in fantastical sleep, “Dream Holiday”, a tale about a professional training session, “Kindness Rewarded”, and the vaguely reportorial entrepreneurship semi-manual, “No need for Lies”. It reads as though the book was after some kind of symmetry: 2 time-spanning stories and 3 brief accounts consecutively. The first group is vastly more successful. And even as all of them share an impressive level of propulsive prose, they all also have cliches of phrasing and narrative philosophies that should have been excised during the rewrite or editing.

The sucker for sentences must look away. But the lover of stories of a certain type will find parts of Mouth Hung Open quite entertaining.

Read the stories here

Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer. Business: www.criticsandbylines.com.

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