American 419 and Other Stories
Author: Adetokunbo Abiola
Adetokunbo Abiola’s short story collection American 419 charts a constellation of characters living in Africa from all walks of life as they struggle with social and political forces. The collection provides a variety of narrators and protagonists, ranging from a small child in “The Anniversary” to a harried husband in “Abednego’s Solution” to a burn victim in “Before the Trip.” It is a large collection as far as the number of stories goes, but the read is surprisingly quick. The prose feels light and pushes the stories along with an urgency akin to Jamila’s hunger in “Firewood Girl.” Abiola’s confrontation of the Nigerian Internet scammer stereotype in the titular story is refreshingly told, and marks a shift in the collection where the stories only increase in complexity as one reads on.
One of the most memorable stories in American 419 is “In the Creek,” which describes the increasingly precarious life of a family in the village of Arunton on the Atlantic Ocean in Nigeria. The story is told from the perspective of eight-year-old Ovi, and the entire village is placed in danger not only by their war with the Ijaws, but by Chevron, whose quest for oil floods their fields and poisons their food. Ovi’s brother, Allanah, departs with other militants to fight the Ijaws, only to find that the dangers at home are just as pressing, where everyday life is upset. The narrator describes that even after causing the death of his friend Omasan, Chevron’s presence further disrupts his burial: “There was something mournful about the days that came after Omasan’s death, something painful, something so deep every sensation of distress was registered in my body. He wasn’t buried until three days after his death: the wood for the coffin couldn’t be found because the trees had been wiped out by the spills.” The factors tearing this village apart are skillfully addressed through the child narrator, no one issue more politicized than a child would naturally consider it. Abiola’s prose here is direct and straightforward, making the violence in this family’s life even more stark and haunting and showing how the violence and greed present uproots and poisons this family just as Chevron quite literally poisons the environment.
Discussions of status, money, corruption, and violence unite this collection, but beneath those darker themes lie very human characters searching for stability and equilibrium in their lives. “Jerusalem Sand,” for example, stands with “Sex Change” and “Big Backside” in highlighting how very much these characters fixate on an idea or an item that they believe will bring them happiness. In “Jerusalem Sand,” Irese and her husband have come into money and want to use it to purchase the oft-advertised Jerusalem sand to build a house that is blessed and can “drive away witches and wizards.” Irese realizes halfway through the story that she absolutely must have Jerusalem sand:
She loved Jerusalem sand because it would enable her to construct a glowing image of her family to the world. With it, she and [her husband] Juwah would be seen as successful, upwardly mobile, and destined for a brilliant future. With the Jerusalem sand, the image of the faultless family she wanted, the image of Camelot she liked, would be enhanced. If Juwah built their house with Jerusalem sand, they would have more friends, admirers, and well-wishers. Better still, Juwah might be given a traditional title in their hometown. Best of all, she would be given a traditional title as well.
Abiola’s straightforward prose shines here as well—even the repetition of the words “Jerusalem sand” throughout the story is hypnotic and fills the words with a strong sense of mythos. The ultimate effect of this is really quite lovely to read. “Sex Change” and “Big Backside” have a similar driving force—the fixation on an idea that social forces claim will make them happy. The ramifications of this are almost humorous in “Jerusalem Sand,” but in “Sex Change,” they are frightening at worst and worrisome at best, as a couple grapples with the decision to pay for a surgery on their newborn that would turn her into a boy. In “Big Backside” also, the protagonist faces a choice exacerbated by almost every person she encounters. Although as readers we can generally predict what will happen in each of these stories, the obsession of these characters with bettering their lives is consistently compelling.
Abiola’s American 419 is a great read, especially for those interested in the intersection of social and political forces. It provides readers with a fascinating look into Nigerian life from many perspectives with a solid, straightforward prose style that lends to the complexity of Abiola’s characters and adds a certain mythos to the stories themselves. Ultimately, the African setting makes this collection unique, but how the characters search for a solid footing with which to improve their lives mirrors the struggles of many on a global scale.