Art is a lie which makes us see the truth—Pablo Ruiz Picasso (1881-1973) Spanish artist
To prepare for this short essay on the short story, I have had to rescue from my home library two old local magazines that, in an earlier generation, sought to offer vibrant voice to this literary genre. First pushed out as a monthly in March 1985, one of the publications was simply called Mc.Quick Short Stories, with a cover price of N2. If you were willing to part with that ‘pittance’ for that product, you were guaranteed an animating literary excursions with some of the greats in the industry.
So, I have in front of me Vol. 1 No. 1 1985 edition of Mc.Quick Short Stories. Wale Adeniran is the Publisher. Kole Omotoso is the Editor-in-Chief, and Femi Omowumi, Odia Ofeimun, Seun Ige and Labo Yari, in tow as Associate Editors. Graphic arts and illustrations are handled by Abiodun Araba, Victor Olusa and Akin Adejuwon. As you close-up on Mc.Quick, you run into the inner world of some of the eminent short story exponents of the age. Leban Erapu, the Ugandan intellectual, has an entry he calls, Guns and Books. He looks at Africa’s political scene, and intrigued by its internal rumblings, wonders why the problems they mischievously engineer remain unresolved. There’s a sardonic take on soldiers and their civilian collaborators who pretend they can govern society when they can’t even ‘’read the title on the cover or the name of the author’’ they arrest on coup days. Kole Omotoso’s The Story of a Driving Lesson, is comical; but it ends tragically as his wife he is teaching how to drive rams into a Mercedes Benz. Instructor loses his temperament and calls his wife ‘idiot’. The woman can’t stand such abuse and leaves the scene, packing her belongings the following day from the home to stay with her parents. Its moral: you can lose what you think belongs to you if you don’t handle it with a nuanced and demanded respect. Famous folklorist Amos Tutuola is on board with Popondoro’s Beauty of Magnet. His legendary world of magic, animals, forests and evil creatures, is fully at work to outplay the fables of Aesop or the mythology which the Greeks spin from Mount Olympus. Mc.Quick also has Poet’s Corner, with Niyi Osundare’s A Song for Ajegunle, where the writer sees that Lagos community as ‘’a satanic rumble of supperless stomachs’’. Quite an imagery!
The other short story magazine I have before me is Rake. It’s the Fourth Edition of Volume One of 1991. Nnimmo Bassey, (Benin), Olusoji Owolabi, (Budapest), Ike Okonta, (Benin) and Tunde Fatunde (Lagos), are the Rake team with offices in Benin City and Lagos. They have a large army of writers including Naiwu Osahon, Ogaga Ifowoda, Wale Okediran, all of whose contributions reflect the lives and times of the day. The Crusade by Nnimmo Bassey is a relentless attack on Chief Priest Kimani Tua, who is leading throngs of hypnotized healing and miracle-seekers. “The fire of miracles is spewing from my fingertips,’’ the false prophet tells his followers. At a crusade, he appears on stage ‘’borne shoulder-high by two stocky women.’’
In the distinctive tradition of the short story (and literature broadly), these two publications ran fiction that not only told exciting tales, but also released open and subtle commentary on the society—its citizens’ and authorities’ foibles. As it makes us see ourselves in its mirror, it challenges us to laugh or weep, and follow up with remedial measures. That’s Picasso’s point about art (lie, fiction) being the compass locating the truth that liberates man and his environment.
For instance, the moral of The Necklace, by Frenchman Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), considered one of the greatest short story writers of all time, is a lampoon on a society obsessed with material possession. Slum girl Mathilde Loisel and her husband suffer for their greed and pretence in a community that slaughters the poor. Maupassant is able to do so in only 3091 words. A novel which may not be read at one sitting, would require several more thousands of words to deliver the message. It’s true both approaches do benefit mankind. But the short story is no longer honoured; it’s being killed for the novel to have all the space. It’s being ignored by publishers and top literary prize institutions like Nobel, Booker, the Commonwealth etc. But all these didn’t deter Alice Ann Munro, the Canadian. She shot her way into history in 2013 by winning the Nobel in Literature through her short stories. She also bagged the Giller and International Booker Prizes.
Other classical figures in the field over the ages include James Baldwin, Anita Desai, Anton Chekov, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and Nigeria’s own Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her new book, Mama’s Sleeping Scarf, a fiction for children, has just been presented to the public in Lagos.
Their writings keep society on their toe as they satirize us, pillory our excesses for correction and return us to civilization and fading reading cultures. We may talk of come-along commercial and entertainment perspectives; but in the long run it’s the ideological gains for society and its human constituents that count. We don’t write majorly to decongest our system of ceaselessly invading ideas. The objective of good fiction is to free mankind from political, religious, economic, and ideological serfdoms and ignorance. It is to arm man against those whose preoccupation is to keep the majority of the people under their jackboots.
We need to the popular short story live again in Nigeria. Our newspapers can help us by accepting such fiction works in their Arts and Review columns, while the radio and TV can support the project through weekly broadcasts of short stories. Our biggest patrons should be the government (federal, state and local). Let them use their efforts in this regard to return our young people to reading habits, which have given way to urban criminality dressed in numerous garbs. Our Dangotes, Otedolas, Ovias, Elumelus etc. can invest in the project to make the short story stage a comeback and wake our slumbering youth. We plead with them to unlock their treasures for the deliverance of the leaders of tomorrow. I believe such investment is far more agreeable in the weighing scales of history than throwing about capital to gain more capital in a polity ruled by unruly, uncultured and untamed army of young people.
We have a surfeit of eminent talent to churn out stuff not only to hog local and global headlines and acclaim, but also to help transform our nation and continent.
Ojewale writes from Ota, Ogun State.