All things black and beautiful
By Jude Dibia
Jalaa Writers’ Collective
I’ll cut to the
chase: trailblazing writer Jude Dibia has worked up a tour de force
with his latest offering, ‘Blackbird’. Coming after his debut, ‘Walking
with Shadows’, and the prize-winning ‘Unbridled’, this latest work does
well as a worthy addition to a steadily growing oeuvre.
The story is
gritty and even saucy in places, only fitting for a tale that pulsates
with the stuff of everyday relationships, one suffused with the
colouration of something ripened by the elements. It has the power to
work on the mind to see, for the first time, the rearranged prejudices
it had been fooled all along to take for thinking.
The writer did it
for me when he had the flustered oyinbo main character of the story
finally retort to his black interest of the moment, an unsung singing
marvel: “The real issue is that you Nigerians never let your guests
forget that they are foreigners.” It is he who, by this state of
things, is able to get at the hospital what she needs to save her son
from certain death.
That’s no spoiler
alert; I will not be giving away any thread of the plot of the story,
or even its arc. You will get the book and you will read it for
yourself. If I could enforce that, I would.
Dibia’s tale is a
variegated land populated by characters that are by no means
paper-thin. Rather, they are sufficiently nuanced by their maker to be
driven around by demons within and without. This they do almost
mindlessly to tackle the insufferables and ponderables of a society in
the grip of change, triggered by the lustful glare of the rich and
powerful who want more land on which to grow their tribe, even if (or,
especially) at the expense of the dregs at the neck of society.
A tragic study in contrasts
In the middle of
all the action are mixed marital fortunes caught up in the tension of
the moment. Take the white-weds-black marriage of the curious Mr Edward
Wood and the narcissistically ugly Mrs Nduesoh Wood. Each party in the
contrivance has a set of reasons for entering into the marriage,
mutually exclusive to the other. And what an institution it was for
each to live through!
It is the same
for the counterpoise couple, Maya and Omoniyi. Both pairs, taken
together, present a cocktail of a tragic study in contrasts.
Mr Wood is a
Briton with an insatiable libido and an uncontrollable weakness for
black women, whose skin he has taken liberties with to arrive at a
well-informed conclusion: They “glisten like ebony when wet.”
Very married, Mr
Wood, an hotelier, is wont to follow his nose in his quest for strange
– not pale, like his own, but hale – flesh as in of a vibrant hue; to
be had wherever it is to be found.
beyond the creepy blandness of contemporary portrayals of emotions in
relationships in fiction, Dibia instead works a blender with great
tender loving care to squeeze sweetness and tang from the “sour feel of
things left unsaid,” his take on the many marital tensions of the rich,
who are poor in ways untold, and the poor, who turn out to have been
rich in understated hues.
Also worked into
the canvas are the many unstated ways in which Africa has undersold
herself, both in colonial times past and the post-independence present.
Dibia gets ‘the other side’ to reveal how the bargain was struck to get
it institutionalised. ‘Blackbird’ even captures the irony of the
moment: though it has effectively told on itself, that and many more
tellings won’t get it undone.
And how that
state of affairs has morphed into the status quo: a master-mendicant
relationship between pale-skinned intruders and otherwise hale-skinned
ousted landowners, with the former finding they could very well wear
their pigmentation like a cloak of superiority, with which comes a
mounting sense of invincibility.
home with startling clarity the force of newfound truths: displaced
hosts now treated by the scheming, usurping guests as invisible –
except when it comes to hands and legs to run errands and other body
parts required to keep the fancy of the new landowners tickled and
‘Blackbird’ is an
authentic narrative of urban space as either utopia or nirvana, or
neither, for the hordes that throng in to either find worth in it or
give their worth to it; the artificialisation of everything on its path
as it is forced to slough off its skin to make it to a new phase.
irony and the weight of the contradictions of life, love and the lies
that bind them all together, ‘Blackbird’ is proof that the writer has
an eye for intricacies and delicacies; his powers of description are
redoubtable. It is an understatement to say that this writer is one
from whom we shall be hearing for many, many more moons to come. It is
clear that he has many clearly important and ticklish things to say to
His handling of
interior monologue is as cool as it is intriguing. I also found it
achingly accurate at many points. Even the prison notes are so
beautiful they would melt a heart of stone.
For one, he has
proven worthy of inclusion in our conversations by growing for us on
his patch a whole new array of definitions – of things like love and
kindness. But these are, really, not new; only pristine and human at a
rock-bottom fundamental level. His freshly baked similes and metaphors
– how they resonate with mere reality.
While at it, he
even pulled off many a Chekovian stunt with unassailable precision.
Don’t try to catch him placing a gun in Chapter 1 that proved handy in
Chapter 10. Just prepare to catch your breath along with their rhythm
His portrayals of
what a woman would do for love (and for her man to prove) and what she,
as a mother, would do just to keep her child alive, are almost
revelatory, even celebratory.
A celebration of ordinariness
symbolism is a throwback to the use of the raven, a large black bird of
the crow family, by the trailblazing Edgar Allan Poe, the American
writer famous as the first master of the short story form, especially
the psychological horror tale, to which ‘Blackbird’ hints in places.
Like Poe, Dibia appears to also have an obsession with death, as was
the poet John Keats before them both.
singing, stinging prose is arguably on par with that of Khaled
Hosseini, the highly renowned and important American writer originally
from Afghanistan. Dibia’s writerly senses, honed into instincts, do not
miss anything: the clock stuck… at 9:11. It’s ominous, but so is his
treatment of time in the story with its cache of anti-serendipities,
like anti-matter. Not pat but poignant.
It is obvious:
Dibia is familiar with his characters, but he does not treat them with
contempt. He cares for them; hence they could not but trust him with
their atubotan, or end — which became his beginning.
The tale ends on
a dreary but beautiful note. But it is only a false bottom to a valise.
The author isn’t quite done, not without driving home, perhaps
literally, the symbolism that is the lodestar for his inspiration.
I think the
writers’ collective that undertook the publishing of this book deserve
the flack for the copious copyediting blemishes that abound in the
book. The awkward comma that cuts into the flow of the story, again and
again, betrays a practice of poor punctuation. The ‘winner’ is a sore
thumb on page 284, a mix-up in the names of two key characters who are
Yet there is, for
the writer, a little matter of nomenclature that tells on his stylistic
finesse. One example is the use of back-masking for the name of a
place, which makes it unwieldy, rendering it everything but memorable.
Even now, trying so hard, I can’t recall the name.
Apart from the staccato of typos and formatting errors that flare
up occasionally as you move through ‘Blackbird’ country, the book
passes in flying colours as a celebration of the ordinariness that dogs
the heels of the dreaded life.