Crossing boundariesBy Temitayo olofinlua
Review of The Length of Light By Unoma Azuah
In The Length of Light, a collection of fourteen short stories written between 1997 and 2009, Unoma Azuah succeeds in telling tales that cross borders. From the very traditional setting to the contemporary Lagos life of survival, to the life of loneliness and longing for belonging in foreign lands. With themes definite to time and place, yet, reminiscent of more collective realities, the writer stays true to changing times as she takes us into her world of fiction.
She takes on a variety of themes: culture and religious clashes; migration and social acceptance; poverty and its effects on the human mind; lesbianism, marital infidelity, forced marriage, and the helplessness of man. Azuah strikes a chord with the first story, "The Sacred Lake," with the interplay of religious beliefs and blood ties.
It focuses on a sister's allegiance to a river goddess and her brother's devotion to Christ; it's a battle of superiority and ego that's reminiscent of Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God. Suspense-filled "Walking Into My Groom" centres on reincarnation and takes us into the ethereal. The story revolves around a woman, who falls in love with a man; marries him and has to solve the puzzle of his roots.
Somehow, as the story unfolds, there is a part of the reader that seems to know what is happening, but the suspense is so strong that one wants to know how the story will end-you hold on, take a breath and maybe like the main character; you are holding on to some dead things that are in the past.
Lagos also features in its darkness and mystery in a couple of the stories as a play of tricks and gimmicks. In "Ma Own Don Finish" a policeman is mysteriously implicated in the death of a colleague after a "sexcapade" with a mad woman; in "The Bulging Bag," Mr. Akpan, a drug vendor, quarrels with two men over the ownership of a bag found in a molue bus, leading to a macabre find. "Obtained by Trick" reveals how a young lady is duped by a trickster; the trickster is also an ex-boyfriend.
Azuah's writing is very controlled: she carefully describes her scenes; puts words in the voices of her characters in conversations; makes each word flow into the other, each character seen as unique even as each story evolves.
The writer's feminist leanings are revealed as most of her female characters fight for their freedom in a patriarchal society; whether for sexual choices, marital decisions, economic independence or social acceptance. In "Rebel," Alice, the protagonist, makes a difficult choice between a man and her love for another woman; and in "Season of Scorch," a young girl runs from an imposed marriage to an older man. In "Lady Chatterley's Mansion" history is revisited as the ghost of an enslaved African woman haunts the mansion of her slave owner; it takes the memories of an immigrant African student to exorcise the ghost.
The characters are neither comic nor tragic; they are not heroes: they are either victims of fate, cultural beliefs or social realities trying to strangle their humanity out of them. Despite these, they are fearless and they have a certain quality that makes them human and enduring: they keep trying at life even as they take us on a stroll into worlds that exist via other people.
The language used is accessible and realistic with each tongue sitting well with each character in dialogues. The language is determined by the character in focus-from the street slangs and use of pidgin English as seen in "Ma Own Don Finish"; Americanisms in "Sirens" to the free use of Igbo in "Sacred Lake"-as they reflect the times, moods and drive the plot of the stories.
The beauty of these stories is almost marred by typographical errors rearing their heads once in a while: scars of imperfection in an almost perfect book. I questioned how there could be "two keg" of palm wine or how money could be "countered."
However, the reader would easily forgive as the writer takes us across the yawning chasm between people and the fulfilment of their dreams into different worlds. The Length of Light shows that Unoma Azuah is a storyteller that has spent time mastering the art of writing.
Temitayo Olofinlua is a writer and editor based in Lagos.