In story after story Osondu presents the immigrant experience – uncluttered by dramatic narratives and over-complicated plots. He writes in a stark prose style which borders on the nondescript. The incidents he describes are presented as commonplace occurrences so that we won’t doubt the authenticity of the underlying emotions and motivations. This exercise in universal understatement creates an overall feeling of collective normalcy. For Osondu’s characters these stories are just business as usual. But for his reader he has created a minimalist environment in which hope, disappointment, courage and shame are on display like works of art on a white wall.
Set in both America and Nigeria, Voice of America is populated by a wide range of characters. We are introduced to orphans, expatriates, refugees, prostitutes, husbands and wives, parents and children. We learn that for the Nigerians at home America has become a kind of Shangri-la; a mirage built out of dreams, rumors and deceptions. “Waiting”, the first story, is about two boys in a refugee camp. They are waiting for a photographer from the Red Cross to come take pictures of them to send on to an American family who will adopt them and bring them overseas. Osondu leaves all sorts of hints as to the dire reality of the boys’ situation: a copy of Waiting for Godot given to the youngest by a nun who runs the camp; the children taking their names from the words on their t-shirts (Acapulco, Paris, Orlando); the way the boys unnecessarily fight over meals. The older boy, obviously sick and unlikely to be adopted, talks of joining the Youth Brigade – essentially becoming a child soldier. The younger boy, who narrates , is the camp favorite and seems to be the one most likely to succeed. But Osondu does an interesting and clever thing by mentioning Beckett’s play. He’s planted the seed of doubt in the reader’s mind. We share the childrens’ uncertainty as to their future.
The stories set in America provide a more realistic view (in contrast to the beliefs of refugee children) of immigrant life… and the disillusionment that must often come with it. “The Men They Married” is a cluster of anecdotes on the unhappy circumstances of some Nigerian women who follow their husbands to America. In one, a woman marries a man claiming to be an American doctor. He promises to send money and gifts to her father and to pay her brothers’ college tuitions. On joining him in America she discovers he has lied. Her husband is not a doctor, but a certified nursing assistant working in a retirement home. They live in a small, filthy apartment. Nothing was as she was told it would be. Eventually, seeing no alternative but to accept her situation, she studies to become a certified nursing assistant – and calls her mother with the news that she, too, is becoming a doctor. And so the deceived continues the deception. The resiliency of the American Dream explained.
“Welcome To America” is the story of a man reminiscing about the first home he and his family shared after arriving in this country. His memories are happy ones, though the apartment they lived in was squalid and the neighborhood sketchy. “Nigerians In America” is told by a young girl observing her parents’ relationship and their reaction to the indiscretions of an old family friend. “Our First American”, “An Incident at Pat’s Bar” and “Pilgrimage” present the flip side of the coin – Americans who go to Africa in search of adventure, money and/or spirituality. But even these stories are told through the eyes and opinions of the Nigerians – Osondu is consistent in his choice of perspective. By the time you come to the last story in Voice of America, the story which gives the book its title, Osondu has presented a comprehensive view of a relationship between two countries as experienced by one side. It’s a powerful statement – and one of the most thoughtfully conceived and skillfully executed short story collections I’ve come across in some time.
Usually I include an excerpt from the book I’m reviewing to give a taste of the writing style. Instead, here is Osondu’s 2007 introduction to his short story “Voice of America” (originally published in Vice Magazine). I did this partly because it provides some background. Mostly, though, I did it because it’s pretty damn funny. So, enjoy… and feel free to follow the link if you’d like to read the full story online.
While growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, my father converted to an American brand of Christianity that has its roots somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. A fallout of his new faith was that—unlike in other homes in Nigeria where allegiance was to the former colonial masters, Britain, and where people listened to the overseas broadcast of the BBC—we looked up to the United States. We watched Bonanza on television and sat around my father as he listened to the Voice of America. He made us listen to a program called The VOA News in Special English, a brand of English I suspect no one spoke, invented especially for retarded overseas listeners like us.On Sunday mornings we awoke to the voice of Jim Reeves singing “We Thank You Lord,” and as the day wore on we listened to Bobby Bare and Skeeter Davis. My father still considers the death of Jim Reeves a painful global tragedy—a man he never knew, from a country he never visited, a man who looked to me from his album sleeve like someone who ate only butter and milk for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Because the VOA was such a permanent fixture in our lives while growing up, I knew that I was going to write a story that featured it in some way. What shape the story would take, I had no idea, but then of course that is where the fun begins…
Read the rest at Vice Magazine: VOICE OF AMERICA – PART 1 – By E.C. Osondu – Vice Magazine
Publisher: Harper, New York (2010)
ISBN: 978 0 06 199086 1