A Box Full of Darkness: The Language of Trauma in Jumoke Verissimo’s Debut Novel

Through her narrative of trauma, Nigerian poet offers a debut novel that presents readers with a paradox: how darkness can both heal and enslave the mind.

Jumoke Verissimo’s first novel has it all — poetic language that gushes gracefully from page to page, the intelligence of a scholar-writer casting a retrospective gaze on the politics of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, the undulating rhythms of love and sex conditioned by patriarchal affectations, a subversion of cultural norms, as well as a poignant engagement with trauma as an affective experience too visceral for words to embody.

A Small Silence is a timely invigoration of the canon of African literature that serves to show the aptness of the novel genre to articulately engage with the Nigerian condition through the privations of private memories. Here is a sublime reflection by a first-time novelist on an important aspect of Nigeria’s political history that is organized around the traumatic — as a terrifying and disturbing site of psychic abjection and personal alienation.

With evocative narration and poetically descriptive language that brings real spaces to life, Verissimo creates characters whose troubling histories intersect with the agonies of a postcolonial state traumatized by memories of political oppression. The trauma of a failing state is made to signify at an individual realm in which singularities render visible the antinomies of communities weighed down by the dark burdens of disillusionment and despair. Despite these, the novel is a solid reiteration of the hope that emerges from the rudest loins of darkness if light is let in.

Originally a poet, Verissimo’s experimentation with the novel as a literary form offers her a platform to gift personal memories of trauma and pain to an extensive imaginative form. She is the author of two collections of poetry, including I am Memory, and The Birth of Illusion. The greatest accomplishment of both texts is their lyrical presentation of a conscious stylistic temperament, with the first collection engaging the reader’s ears while the poet seeks to affect the eyes through clever reiterations and staging of the poetics of African oral traditions in The Birth of Illusion.

This sentient awareness to form and technique is carried over to A Small Silence, through forms such as intertextuality — characters recite poetic lines by Pablo Neruda and Niyi Osundare; a narrative style that deliberately rehashes the schemas and scripts of everyday life in Lagos in a manner that renders visible the authenticity of the city’s cosmopolitanism, and an artful incorporation of poetry as a mechanism of narration. At a point in the novel, a character can even be heard saying, ‘poetry is the best way to listen to the soul.’

The major triumphs of A Small Silence can also be found in the evocative rendition of the alienation and traumas of major characters whose lives and circumstances alert the reader to the hidden silences of darkness, which characters repeatedly welcome as an agency of hope in the crippling contexts of their pain and vulnerabilities.

Professor Eniolorunda Akanni, a schizophrenic human rights activist and scholar, has been imprisoned by an oppressive military juntathat forbids any expression of free speech. The temporal setting is the Abacha military dictatorship, notorious for its execution of another activist, Ken Saro Wiwa, and eight other Ogoni activists. Desire, an orphan and undergraduate student at the Lagos State University who has a close encounter with Prof as a child, wonders if Prof will meet a similar fate as the Ogoni leaders, He is eventually released from prison in a calculated political move on the eve of a civilian election.

However, as his carceral experiences have him left with a schizoaffective disorder, Prof embraces seclusion and darkness, literally refusing any form of light as he apathetically reintegrates into a much-changed society he appears to have served in vain. He “think there’s value in the dark’ and that ‘light would swallow it’ if it came on. His apartment becomes a metaphor of the darkness which engulfed the country during the dark years of military rule in Nigeria, one that is also literalized by constant power outages and the gloominess and dimness of Prof’s fraught relationship with his mother and other post-prison experiences. He pushes away friends and family, but reluctantly welcomes Desire whom she first encounters in her hometown of Maroko while he was out speaking out for a community unjustly marked for demolition.

At first, he grows to relish Desire’s nightly visit, forming a bond with her and shutting off other voices around him, including Desanya the unseen female companion that speaks to him. His mother insists he is ‘not a shadow’ and must return to ‘a normal life. To this, he offers a philosophical retort: what is a normal life?

Not even Desire can find normalcy with Prof, as the darkness of his room becomes a torment threatening a separation between them. In a nod to Neruda whom the novel actually cites, Desire cannot understand why “the blackness of night time [must] collect in the mouth of Prof, but that’s precisely the source of the novel’s aesthetic impulse: the collection of darkness in the mouth of characters who have to respond to different forms of traumatic experiences in the framework of political anguishes. Many, especially Prof, accept this urge; others like Desire resist it, but when resistance is futile, they wish they would walk away from it. Desire’s resistance amplifies her centrality to the novel, even as she is used by Verissimo to imagine an alternative to noise and the troubling echoes that accompany hurt.

If there’s anything readers would love about A Small Silence, it is its deployment of language in a manner that makes it central to the argument of the book. I have already mentioned how poetry animates Verissimo’s prose, but there is also something to be said about her use of italics in relation to the politics of language in African literature. As an Anglophone African Novel, A Small Silence participates in the debate about whether non-English terms ought to be italicized or not for non-African audiences.

The novel innovatively uses language to respond to this tension. When Prof’s mother sings his oriki, for example, we get a semantic sense of this Yoruba praise poetry from the narration:

His mother stopped singing his praise song. Prof tried to continue the words, but he could not remember them. And then he tried to translate them into English to see if it would taint how the words grounded him to his childhood and his mother’s embraces. ‘Apá’ń járá, child of the horseman, who holds the king’s rein, the one who is to descend with the king into the dark place, he who delights in the innards of the fortunate. For if you are not fortunate, why do you celebrate a paunch? The child of Àgbá-sin, who saunters into the afterlife. Child of Pòràngánda, Pòràngánda who breaks the front teeth…’ He couldn’t remember the rest of the chant…

Verissimo is using the form of narrative itself as a modality of translation, without allowing explication of the italic to disrupt the meanings of these words. Her use of Yoruba expressions and the many linguistic idioms of the street evident in discussions between Desire and her roommate, Remilekun, for instance, are not conditioned by any provincialism that marks her choice of language as political. Neither does she undermine her technique to explain the nuances of the many non-English expressions she uses.

Rather, the novel is true to the experiences of the characters she writes about, as well as to the various geographies of their socio-cultural realities, including strategic reiterations of the humorous amidst the debilitations of postcolonial trauma. For instance, Lagos and its environs come alive in a graphical and comic manner made possible by the many Nigerian Pidgin expressions in the novel. The italic is thus made to signify as a site of defamiliarization for the Nigerian audiences to whom it is essentially addressed, giving the novel an authenticity which consolidates the glocal affect of the characters and their struggles with trauma.

With Trauma — which often forcloses representation by language, the creative process is made more arduous, and to capture the particularities of characters’ psychic and physical lifeworlds, the writer bears witness to that which resists witnessing, namely trauma. Being true to this requires not only a realist technique but also a medium that captures most effectively the untranslatable. Verissimo brilliantly looks beyond English to do this. Her novel is a great addition to the Global Anglophone canon.

Diaspora Ph.D. candidates and the bias of funding in African studies

It would be nice to devote a panel at the next ASA conference in Boston or at other similar venues to the question of African diaspora doctoral students who are routinely excluded from opportunities reserved for their colleagues back at home. There is the assumption, normalized by most funding agencies/units/organizations both in African and Euro-American locations, that once a graduate student ‘escapes’ Africa, their economic fortunes naturally become better than those of their colleagues elsewhere.

That this belief is far from the truth is not my interest; what vexes me is another problematic it embeds, namely: if those at home are rendered disadvantageous by circumstances not of their own making, then they have to be extra motivated to achieve success. Herein lies the problem: the muted idea is that African doctoral students who are abroad, because of their locations, are guaranteed academic/career success. This is a curious politics of geography that gives too much agency to non-African spaces while masking the rigour, both academic and economic, most students in exilic locations must apply themselves to just to be able to succeed in academia, to travel to conferences and present a paper. The same argument can be made about the plight of postdocs.

And is there a graduate student abroad that is not gutted each time they click on a web link to a funding announcement only to discover their location already debars them from applying? In the words of the Nigerian writer Adunni Adelakun to me in a private conversation, “you are marginal here [in the West], and still marginalized [at home] and your reality does not cohere with the politics.” In other words, you cannot fathom how organizations like ASA will provide travel fund for Africa-based scholars to attend conferences here in North America, while you who live in a neighbouring city cannot attend because you can neither afford a hotel bill, or there is no provision for daycare

If you have done your graduate program in a western location in which Africa-related research is not a big deal, you know what I am talking about. You are in a frustrating limbo; your scholarly interest is not a big deal where you are, as it is not one for the canons, and those you left at home think by virtue of your not being home, you have suddenly become some sort of hero.

But of course, you know you are not one. You still have to struggle to pay for conference fees from your personal, limited income. Like one doctoral candidate at a famous Institute of African studies in the US mid-west said to me, “once you pay [hotel] accommodation from your stipend, you’re back to broke” because the 500 dollars you got as travel funding was hardly sufficient.

Never mind that, while at that, you still have to grapple with issues arising from your visa and immigration status with money from your tiny purse. And you want to get married too? Are you okay? But of course, you did, and now you have to be supported by a spouse who gives up their own dreams to ensure you finish your program as soon as possible, while your white colleagues in the home country wonder why you are in a hurry to finish your program and face the precariousness of the job market. Never mind that they too have the burden of student loans to bear.

I am probably wrong and may be accused of an inclination to share in the scarce resources of colleagues back at home, but that mindset is what I believe to be the problem. As far as I know, some of the best brains of Africa-related research are on the continent, and while they may aspire to the (unknown, precarious) conditions of some colleagues abroad, the truth is that they grind out brilliant ideas and success narratives from their often limiting spaces at home.

And there you have it; we are not different after all. Home or abroad, we thrive, we survive, and we do our best to learn new areas of research that animate ours (and, yes, get us funding in some cases). Perhaps a good strategy for doctoral candidates abroad is to make themselves visible to scholars at home while engaging with knowledge canons and formations from the continent. That way, they can retain their interests in Africa before funding to travel home for conferences arrives. Hopefully from organizations such as CODESRIA that offers scholarly opportunities that often include non-continental Africans. Groups such as The African Doctoral Lounge on Facebook that provide a space for mutually benefitting conversations for African academics in Africa and the diaspora offer invaluable resources.

If you are like me, you can also choose to engage Africa-based scholarship by deliberate citational practices. Read and cite scholars from Africa as a necessary homage and ritual of connection, while waiting for a travel grant.

One can only that when next there is a gathering for African graduate students in Accra or Nairobi, some organizer will do well to reserve a space for one or two African students who may want to travel home to connect, network and learn. It enriches the powwow.