A Review of Voice of America, a collection of short stories by E.C. Osondu
The downside to approaching award-winning writing with too much expectation can sometimes be disappointment at the author’s under-performance. That was the case with E.C. Osondu’s first book, a short story collection titled ‘Voice of America’.
Refugees are a constant feature in this selection. Prostitutes, militants, armed robbers, corrupt civil servants, ‘married’ widows, rebels, street beggars/traders, disgruntled been-tos, and deportees desperate to return abroad, make up a panoply of unenviable stereotypes of African literature.
In the mix with seventeen other stories is ‘Waiting,’ which won Osondu the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing. A story of refugees and their loss of identity in times of crisis, none of the picaros in ‘Waiting’ has a name except for identities they acquire, thanks to donations from the Red Cross. Rather like the characters in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot,’ all they do is wait, hope and fight.
“How is it possible for Osondu to have a set of stories on contemporary African existence – both at home and in Diaspora – and nearly always have the negative outshine the positive?”
The tableaux here is not encouraging and sets the pace for many of the stories that follow. The author’s role as isolated observer in most of the stories signalled a sardonically true look at man’s folly and our reactions, given certain circumstances.
One of such examples is found in ‘Jimmy Carter’s Eyes’, a story about a girl who loses her sight then gains psychic powers. The story’s supporting characters consistently make excuses to suit their faults: whatever happens, they never accept that they are to blame for the consequences of their actions, even if it costs the little girl a chance at regaining her sight. Ability to see visions after all is some kind of vision.
A few other stories in the collection also make it worth reading. In ‘Our First American,’ a community is surprised to find a Caucasian residing with a prostitute in their dilapidated area. An unexpected turn of events soon takes him out of the communes onto ‘better’ things. The reader will find the consequences for his host and the conclusion of this story both humorous and tragic.
‘A Letter from Home,’ is a jeremiad from a mother abandoned at home by her son who has discovered a better life abroad. The mother’s threats, pleas, and cajoling for her son’s attention achieve both comical and emotional reactions.
In ‘Teeth,’ a childless couple eventually have their prayers for a child answered, albeit with a strange twist which both parents are forced to reckon with.
One of the kidnapped foreigners in ‘An Incident at Pat’s Bar’ plays an amusing mind game called ‘Why this country is fucked up?’
And in ‘A Simple Case,’ the protagonist learns the hard way that dating a prostitute is not a profitable business, especially when the police get involved.
Osondu’s cast of characters are almost on parallel with those in Uwem Akpan’s ‘Say you are one of Them,’ but while the latter makes up for his scums of the earth with a fluid and vivid writing style, Osondu is not as enthralling. His attempt at balancing the bad African guys with cameos from paedophiles, junkies and gullible believers in America is not at par.
How is it possible for Osondu to have a set of stories on contemporary African existence – both at home and in Diaspora – and nearly always have the negative outshine the positive?
It is not all bad news from ‘Voice of America’ though, as the author shows occasional sense of humour that does not try too hard to be obvious. His subtle way of portraying women as responsible for maintaining domestic order is also laudable. Such flashes of genius were enough to spur reading till the book’s last pages. These tiny sparks, however, do not save the book from its inconsistencies. Most of the stories have catchy beginnings, but their conclusions ultimately give way to dissatisfaction.
One can understand the shared themes of childlessness, displacement, sham marriages, desolation and anguish running through the work. However, with the unending repetition of scenarios, jokes, proverbs, and characters running across the collection, Osondu could very well have made a novel out of some of the stories rather than present a selection of similar pieces.
At other times, some stories call for pause and raise a question for the author on what purpose they were intended to serve in this collection. Perhaps they were included just to bulk up the pages. Unfortunately, ‘Voice of America’, the title story about an overseas romance that never was, falls into this category.
All in all, the author of ‘Voice of America’ attempts little towards validating positive voices from Africa and the Diaspora.
For obvious reasons, reading ‘Voice of America’ was not a totally exciting nor enjoyable experience. Add to this the frustration of having to read the entire compilation in American English.
Since it was published for a Nigerian audience, it mattered that the stories were not in the British English many readers might be used to. Going by the book’s title, one wonders if this might have been deliberate.
Like everything else about the collection, it is unavoidable to harbour the likelihood of the hand of Africa doing the bidding of the voice of America.