A Tiny Place Called Happiness
Author: Bura Bari Nwilo
Country of Publication: Nigeria
Publisher: Fairchild Media
Year of Publication: 2016
Pages : 117
The reader will not doubt agree with Caine prize winner E.C Osondu who says that Bura Bari Nwilo “is a vibrant new voice in Nigerian literature.” Nwilo is the voice of the millennial. He is one of the voices of a generation full of energy, restlessness and impatience. He is part of a generation that has seen the wonders of technology and thus are full of hopes and dreams, a generation, which through its continuous access to information from all over the world, is able to develop rich and diverse experiences that enable them to reimagine their world, their place in it and by extension the way they write about it. They are a generation that is not afraid to experiment and do away with old literary traditions that no longer fit modern realities. The generation that is working hard to take literature out of its ivory tower to the streets.
In that respect, perhaps, A Tiny Place Called Happiness can draw some comparisons with Bunmi Familoni’s Smithereens of Death, Ayo Sogunro’s The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and Other Sorry Tales or with Nwachukwu Egbunike’s Blazing Moon (which is a work of poetry but can still be situated within that same tradition). But the work that A Tiny Place Called Happiness is most reminiscent of is Chuma Nwokolo’s 2013 How to Spell Naija collection. Both works share that same irreverence for and inversion of established social norms and values, as well as the casual use of language. They also use the same storytelling style. Like the aforementioned collections of literary pieces A Tiny Place… has an urban feel to it, written for a population of Afropolitans who find themselves having to deal with the realities of an increasingly urbanized and digitized space.
The good thing therefore about the collection is that it is a piece of work that young urbane people like him will find extremely interesting to read. The stories are short, simple and straightforward. The setting is in the South South region of the country which seems to be the immediate reality of the writer. The characters are everyday people that the reader can see around themselves and into which the reader can immerse themselves, itinerant preachers, madmen, street traders, beggars, Houseboys, writer and all the assorted actors that can be found in an urban setting all make appearances. The themes are also varied yet are all focused on the problems that the youth urban dweller has to face daily, ranging from the of infidelity, to homosexuality, to madness to crime to itinerant street preaching. All the issues are tackled with the awareness of a writer who realizes correctly that the human experience is not one long coherent narrative, with heroes and villains, instead it is a vignette of random diverse experiences where the reader has to draw the bones of each story out, flesh it out with their own experience and interprete it based on how it vibes with their own reality. As if to underscore that point, the writer uses the Third Person Omniscient narrator for most of the stories in the collection. It is an interesting narrative style and it gives the work the feel of an observer who is learning from watching the world, but taking care not to flesh his story beyond what the readers need to situate the story within the framework of their own experience.
Even though the tone and style and length of the stories in the collection are similar to that of Chuma Nwokolo, a major point of difference between the two writers is that Nwilo’s style is a little more neutral and has does not have the desire for societal behavioral change that often drives Nwokolo’s heavy-handed satire. Even when Nwilo criticizes, his style is more subtle. For example the non-committal caricaturing and dismissal of the eponymous preacher by the ‘I’ narrator in The Preacher (pg. 104) may be a sort of metaphorical explanation of how the writer sees himself in the society he is in, where he is being forced to conform to a convention that he has not much of an interest in. it is that tone of neutral, casual observation that pervades the atmosphere of the collection.
Unfortunately writing for a group of people who have little patience and a disdain for old literary traditions has its downsides as much as it has benefits. One of the weaknesses of the collection is that the writer casualness borders on neglecting his craft. As much as the writer is not allowed to invest too much of himself into the work so that it doesn’t look like an ego trip, the reader wants to see the writer invest some of himself in the work. If a storyteller, who the writer is in this case, seems disinterested in and casual about his own story, it is difficult to get any readers interested in it at all. There is the fear that because of Nwilo’s efforts to seem neutral and subtle, unlike some other writers in his genre, A Tiny Place Called Happiness will read from its beginning to its end in the same casual dull and flat monotone that allows the stories to just flash past the reader without having anyone of them being compelling enough to hold the reader’s attention. If indeed one agrees with Jumoke Verissimo, Author of I Am Memory, that “…his voice desires to try many things…” and that he is a “writer with many stories to tell” One can take it further that like a Jack of All Trades, this writer who desires to tell many stories, ends up telling far too many for the listener/reader to find any of them convincing enough, or worth listening to. The experienced reader can straight away see the incoherent excitement of a child trying to tell so many stories at once and ends up losing his audience because he cannot tie together the loose threads his conversation diverges into. The collection at certain feels like so much waffling around over nothing. The immediate culprit that comes to mind is the subplot of Aanu in “A Day Gone Wrong” (Pg. 112) it could have been a fascinating story in itself, but it writer decided to drop it into the main thread abruptly and then terminated it abruptly again leaving the reader wondering why he put itin in the first place. In World People (pg 78) the same thing happens with the writer starting out with a potentially interesting story about getting chicken pox, and then waffling into a story about sibling rivalry and family life that nobody wants to read.
Dialogue is the soul of every story, for any story to be truly called that, there must be conversations going on between the characters or if it is a stream of consciousness or even a monologue, within or outside the character himself/herself. The dialogue must not just be ordinary either; it should be compelling and memorable for the reader to remember long after they have put down the book. The ability to write good dialogue is a skill that writers like Nwokolo uses to good effect. Nwokolo understands how to deploy witty dialogue which means in stories like “The Sugar Mummy Contract” in his How to Spell Naija Collection,(2013) there are no quotes and the reader can only see one character doing all of the talking, said reader can still see that a conversation is undoubtedly going on. Nwilo, on the other hand, decided to go the introspective, narrator’s thoughts route with little or no dialogue to be seen. It is not as if making all the stories come out of the narrators’ thoughts and reflections is bad, because writers with similar styles to him like Familoni, Sogunro, Egbunike, even Nwokolo also tend to use the same narrative style, but once you literally have your whole collection follow the pattern, the stories begin to acquire the dull, soulless monotony and the one-dimensionality of only seeing the story from a narrator’s limited point of view. Even where he does attempt to infuse some dialogue in some of the stories in the collection, they are far from compelling and falls flat. A classic case being in Port Harcourt (pg.10.)
In the fashion of any story told, this story is far from perfect in its manner of telling, but the storyteller has shown to have the imagination to be able to tell a story that his listeners can enjoy. At the moment the listener can agree that at this point in his literary soujourn, Nwilo is still turning the stories over in his mind. Perhaps in time, like the child in the title story of the collection, A Tiny Place Called Happiness (Pg. 95) He will learn to open his mouth and his mind and tell the stories to another. Then his journey as a writer and storyteller will be complete.