[Issue 8 / February 2014]
Julian Jackson’s The New Customers won the African regional prize for the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Competition. But it didn’t make any sense to me.
It wasn’t the narrative. The imagery and the language were superb. For instance, describing a farmer the author wrote, ‘the farmer’s skin was fair, though its dry texture and sun-moles showed signs of a losing battle against the sun’. Why on earth should the award go to a story that is based on the over-used theme of racism?
For me, there was a time when this was necessary. But not now, as the world has moved on. Topics like this are not really relevant anymore.
My discomfort grew when I was reading Frankz Fanon’s, Wretched of the Earth. The book, although acclaimed by many prominent intellectual figures, didn’t speak to me. It might have been due to the fact that I had read a lot of books by black authors who wrote extensively on the topic of racism.
I needed a new topic as I didn’t find the topic of racism engaging enough. Not until I came to do my MA in Swansea University, Wales.
I had mistaken Swansea for Nigeria. To get acquainted with the environment, the first Saturday I had gone to a club to drink. But when a woman of about 30 years walked past more than three times asking people about the weird smell, looking at me, I realised what she meant. The shame made it difficult for me to continue sitting there. I left the club, went to another one, with the hope that what I had experienced was a one-off incident. Here no one complained of the smell but something else happened. After I had grabbed a drink and sat on a cushion in a corner of the club, others just stood and left. It was insane. I tried a third club the same night but had the same horrible experience. It was like they were saying it loudly, You are black, you smell.
I went back to my room and removed all my clothes. One by one I smelt each one. There was nothing wrong.
At college we were expected to write a nonfiction article as part of our assignment about our weekend’s experience. I wanted to tell my story. But I felt uncomfortable to admit the real story that the locals believed I smelt because I was black. I rearranged my thoughts and wrote a less shameful version:
I was in the school library to check my emails. A lot was junk and the rest were my friends from back home asking me whether I had settled down. I wanted to reply to that question but decided to ignore it in the end. As if I had never seen the emails.
There were other students in the computer room too. After I was done, I signed out from the email, and then logged off from the computer.
I wasn’t in a mood to return home. So I decided to pick ‘Another Country: Haiku Poetry from Wales’. But the appetite wasn’t there. I was angry and depressed. I quickly put the book back in my ash coloured bag. I knew that I had no other option but to hit the road.
I walked across the computer section to the empty reading room. It was lonely. A Chinese girl in a white shirt was reading. I walked past the security man who was busy with his computer.
There was no sunshine. There wasn’t rain either. The sky was a bit darker, more like frowning, like trying to understand my mood. The breeze was gentle though cold. I quickly tucked my palms into the pockets of my trousers.
I saw a bunch of students walking around me. A man was taking his dog for a walk at the far end of the road.
I entered my apartment. It was quiet of course. Not that I expected anything more. I recalled the first white priest I had met back home. He had complained to me that our church was full of noise. I understood his exasperation for the first time.
My mother called me when I was about to go into the kitchen. She asked me if everything was alright. I said yes but a mother always knows more. She insisted that things weren’t alright. It was all written in my voice. We dragged it out a long time.
After she hung up, everything began replaying to me, the cause of my sadness. I recalled last night at the club. I hit the Underground, nobody agreed to dance with me. “That was weird,” I thought. But not until I had tried Oxygen, and Bar Quarter did I realise that the problem was my skin. For the first time in my life, I realised what it meant to be a black man.
I was staring at the prospect of having no social life? I think I should decide against my bi-weekly clubbing.
As I said before, I had altered some of the details of the story because I was ashamed of myself and was afraid what the reaction of the class would be.
When I told a couple of my African friends in Europe, they just laughed and said, ‘Welcome to the UK’. I was shocked how lightly and normally they took it. One quickly reminded me that I should ask my President to reform my country’s educational sector so that nothing would bring people like me to Europe. One said in Igbo, ‘iha bu ihe anaewepu na anu tupu eri ya’ which means, ‘this is one of those things you remove in a meat before you eat it’.
Their response of the President to reform my country retold the story of why racism began in the first place. Since one race was more developed, they treated the less developed one as inferior. Racism was present during the time of the slave trade, continued through colonization and is relevant even now. It might have metamorphosed in shape but it has not vanished. The core metaphysical assumption guiding the thought has remained unaltered. ‘You are black, you are underdeveloped, that is why you came to my country, you are dirty, and you smell’.
Now I know, at last, what I should do as a writer.
I have been a fierce critic of those African writers who wrote only about social issues. But I see it differently now. How can I describe how beautiful a flower is when people are silently killed by racism?
I am not sure how much change my writing will bring about. But, at the moment, I am contended to have found the empathy needed to write a better future for our children.
Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso currently is an MA student in Creative Writing, Swansea University, Wales. His poems, short stories, non-fiction and literary criticism have appeared in a couple of journals, anthologies and magazines such as: The Siren, Criterion Journal, ANA Review, Ground’s Ear Anthology, Future Lovecraft, African Eyeball, Texts on SAVVY Journal for Critical Contemporary African Art, Sowetan Magazine, etc. He has been shortlisted in Ghana Poetry Prize and Quickfox Poetry Competition.