My Thoughts: Lagoon

Author: Nnedi Okorafor.

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I recently decided that Nnedi Okorafor is currently my favorite fiction author. Last year, right after I read Who Fears Death, I think I declared it my new favorite novel, and for sure, Onyesonwu (the main character of Who Fears Death) is my favorite fictional character at the moment, so it’s like Nnedi is just winning in my whole life right now. I’m trying to read all the books of hers I can get hold of, and since I’d heard so much about Lagoon already, I requested it from the closest public library. It was lit. So here, let me talk about several things I really liked about the book.

First of all, I loved that the main character was a middle-aged, married Nigerian woman with kids. This was unusual for me, not only for a novel, but for a science fiction one. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. Adaora (that’s her name) felt real and credible to me because of this. She was also a university professor (although her field, marine biology, isn’t one I’d consider quite ordinary for a Nigerian professor) which I know Nnedi Okorafor also is, and this made me happy, for goodness knows what reason. Also, she had a marine lab in her basement with computers and an aquarium and I don’t even know how you can get more badass than that.

The gradual revelation of the characters’ complexity was fascinating! I love background stories and things about people that are not always what they seem. On the surface, all the characters are rather unremarkable. It took the idea of random civilians to a whole new level because of how the characters’ careers were so diverse that it almost didn’t make sense what on earth they were doing together. Adaora, the protagonist, was a marine biology professor. Her companions, “Anthony Dey Craze” and Agu were a rapper and a soldier respectively. There’s an interesting way in which the extraordinary is composed of the unlikely placement of perfectly ordinary things. A story about a marine biologist, a Ghanaian rapper or a soldier would be a fairly normal one. But when all three are suddenly and randomly placed in the same context with a common interest, they begin to bring out the peculiarities in each other’s stories, while adding complexity to their collective story… and only when they were together did they begin to confess their supernatural fits.

They all had strange superpowers, and I loved it! All of their powers were quite logically related to their professions and that kind of blew my mind. I feel like that’s the best kind of superhero; the kind whose powers are not necessarily separate from their everyday lives, but which are rather part of their mundane realities.

Of course, I liked the onomastics. I love names. I think onomastics are my favorite literary device, if this thing can even be considered a literary device. I liked the emphasis on names in this story, the way Nnedi brought them to the forefront such that they were impossible to ignore:

“They all went. Adaora, Anthony, Ayodele and Agu… Adaora knew the soldier’s name now. His name meant “leopard” in Igbo. Her name meant “daughter of the people” in Igbo and she told them so.”

It was telling, how Adaora deliberated quite a while before settling on what to call her new alien guest: Ayodele. Have you ever heard of an alien with a Yoruba name? Nah, didn’t think so! LOL

The narration caught my attention. It was mostly omniscient, though it had a POV focus depending on which character was most relevant in which section. But it was the prologues to book sections and “interludes” that really intrigued me. At the very beginning, before Chapter 1, we had insights into the thoughts of a swordfish. Somewhere in the middle, the thoughts of a tarantula. And my favorite, near and at the end, there were first person sections from a character called Udide, who is the “master weaver,” the spinner of everyone’s stories, who lives underground beneath Lagos. Oh, and she’s the cousin of Ananse, hehee. Shout-out to spider families!

I felt like throughout the book, I could see Nnedi’s love for the animal kingdom shining through, and this made me smile. Something magical happens to stories when they radiate the author’s own loves. (By the way, the reason I know so much about Nnedi’s love for animals, particularly bugs – and her distaste for spiders, SMH – is because I follow her on Twitter. She has fantastic thoughts and things to share, so I recommend you do that too, even if you never read any of her books.)

I also really liked how easily I could imagine this book as an action/superhero movie! I don’t like comparison very much, but in my head, Lagoon’s movie is like a Lagos-based Avengers. (LOL, wait, the Avengers have been to Lagos! What if… Nevermind.)

Then. of course, there was the novelty. The aliens in Lagoon were the most unique kinds of aliens I’d ever read. Usually, I’m thinking of those cliché visions of small, bug-eyed creatures who can fly and whatever. But marine aliens? Creatures from space deciding to come through the water? That was different. They were shapeshifters too, capable of looking exactly like humans if they wanted, and that kind of reminded me of those aliens from the only episode of Star Trek I have ever watched, “The Man Trap.” If you know what I’m talking about, you know.

Lagoon gave me points to ponder about the reception of extraterrestrials here on Earth, and specifically in an African city/country. I noticed something fascinating among the characters: many of them chose to interpret the aliens’ arrival in a way that aligned with a worldview they already had. A lot of it translated into the religious. Two prime examples. The first is this pastor, Father Oke, who nearly immediately started to use the aliens to grow his brand, marketing their arrival as some agenda of God to bring even aliens to the Gospel. Another was of a fairly ambitious prostitute who already had internalized guilt about her method of income generation. And, in the course of the story, “she would become one of the loudest prophets of doom in Lagos.” There was a lot of relevant comedic religiosity in the book, only fitting for a story based in Lagos.

And lastly, I just want to say that in my personal opinion, “Anthony Dey Craze,” the rapper, the only Ghanaian character, the one with a superpower that manifested itself through his voice, which he called the “rhythm,” was the coolest character in the book, and one of the coolest characters I have ever read in my whole life. And I’m not just saying that because I’m Ghanaian, I promise.

I highly recommend Lagoon!

-Akotowaa

You Should Read #OutburstbyAA by @AkosuaAtuah

Interesting things happen when Ghanaian fathers find themselves together in one room. It is common knowledge how extremely unfashionable it is to brag about yourself to others. Bragging about your children, however, is a completely different matter.

I met Akosua Atuah between July and August of 2016; our fathers had met a couple of weeks prior and it just so happened that one had a daughter who, come December, would release a spoken word EP (me) and the other had a daughter who, come December, would release a poetry anthology (Akosua). And clearly, these men thought, for the sake of networking, two emerging college-age poetesses, by force or fire, had to meet. I won’t lie, the enthusiasm with which my father kept sending me screenshots of Akosua’s Tumblr, consistently asking me if I’d called her yet, since he first gave me her number, kind of scared me. Eventually I did text her though, and we had brunch together, and then sat in East Legon traffic while jamming to Kanye West before she dropped me home.

The thing that most surprised me after I met Akosua Atuah, and followed/liked her on every social media platform I could find her on, was how I’d never heard of her before. Not only because she was in what most people would call “my circles,” but because everything I read of hers showed that she was an absolutely fantastic writer. It was more than obvious that she paid careful attention to her words and her craft, and was clearly particular about her aesthetic. Looking at her Tumblr was a humbling experience; the layout and photography on her Instagram was incredibly impressive. She was a poet who paid attention to her poetry in its entirety, not just the lyrics. I had a lot to learn from her. While in the car with her that one time, she told me she needed a new writing journal, and whereas most people might have found her exclusive pickiness about what kind of journal she wanted, it was only more confirmation for me for what I’d already seen of her personality: she could not be pleased with “just anything” (when it comes to journals, notebooks and pens, I’m the same way). I showed her where I got my favorite ones and we passed through – Acrilex, by the way – before she took me home. I say these things about her personality first because it made her book make so much more sense to me.

To begin with Outburst: The Things We Don’t Say, the anthology she eventually released in December, speaking entirely superficially, the book is beautiful. In fact, it is gorgeous. Everyone to whom I have shown it can barely help but comment on this fact first. The whole thing reeks of deliberate design, and anybody who picks it up can appreciate this before even reading a single poem. I daresay this book has the most stunning presentation I have ever seen of any book by a Ghanaian – and it has one of the most stunning presentations I have ever seen, period. (And yes, I do take into account that I have a bias towards both minimalism and black-and-white.) The purposeful design extends beyond the cover. As you turn the pages, you will notice the deliberate, careful structure of the poetry, noticing the spaces between words, the patterns of the lengths of the lines, the necessity of varying the alignment of the text and the conscious placement of photographs specifically shot for the anthology. (Speaking of those pictures, they evoke a slight twinge of jealousy, because at least from afar, it seems like the models and photographers are composed of a support system dedicated to helping Akosua succeed.)

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Source: Akosua Atuah’s Facebook page (facebook.com/AkosuaAtuahTheWriter)

On the content itself: Only about three or four poems into the book, I was already smiling like an idiot, the voice in my head screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes, this is what I’ve always wanted to read!” It’s probably why I took so long to actually finish it. I had to keep pausing to recover, both from my excitement and from its profundity.

First, on how it’s written: Akosua Atuah is not pretentious. Pretentious poetry suffocates me – even, and especially, when I write it myself – but the poems in this book were saying exactly what they were saying, not saying them in a way that was intended to deliberately impress or confuse. You must know what I mean, for there are so many people out here trying to sound deep and consequently showing very little evidence of authenticity or comprehendability. (I feel evil for saying this, but it is what it is.) But I think the key to Akosua’s very real style is in her Author’s Preface at the beginning of the book:

“I thought it had to be dramatic with sound effects and imagery, but then I noticed that sometimes, the best advice is in the things we don’t say.”

She was not here to flash and blind her readers. She was here to tell the truth according to her experience, and on behalf of several others, because “it is important for them to know that somewhere, somehow, someone else has the same feeling.” I admit there were a few poems I was, nevertheless, unable to understand, but I know it was not because they were badly written; in fact, it’s a good thing when poetry invites you back for a rereading, either because what they said resonated so well that you must visit again and again, or because you need several opportunities to fully appreciate the meaning within the words. I think for me, each poem was one or the other.

On the content itself: There was a lot. So much, I wonder how she managed to fit it all in a single book. But most of it was about grief, struggle and sadness. There is a reason for this: most of the content of this book was at least loosely triggered by the passing away of Akosua Atuah’s mother, at the age of thirteen. A girl barely a teenager, losing her parent and left to navigate life, womanhood and her own response to the death of an instrumental loved one is sure to produce some sort of chaos within her, and confusion as to how to manifest it. It is highly unlikely that she would find the most appropriate way immediately, in the midst of the processing, and the consequence, I suppose, is that it will all build up, like a disaster waiting to happen, and then BOOM – an Outburst. For the most part, that is what this book is. I can’t think – after all the pain and acting out – of a better or healthier way to explode.

I admire the boldness with which the first few poems set the tone. From “The Balm”, a quote that proves Akosua is a lexivist whether she knows it or not:

“My poems and its prose are for the ones that hold power in the flick of their wrists,

yet are too afraid to use it. The ones that have thunder in the midst of their

voices so much so that life stops for a second to grasp that solid piece of history.”

And right after that, there’s “Writer’s Task,” which is just so many things that I honestly feel that it deserves its own blog post. That’s the one that tells you all the things you shouldn’t expect the book to exclusively be about.

“…They will ask you,

and again, “why not write about the war or the fact that your land is facing many economic problems?”

And a couple of stanzas later:

“You tell them that you don’t need to write about those,

not because they aren’t of importance

but because that is all we hear.”

STANDING OVATION! I could have stopped reading the book there, and that would have been it. That poem did two of the bravest things a Ghanaian poet can do:

  1. Decide not to write about what “everyone else” is writing about, the way they are writing about it, the way they expect it to be written.
  2. Write what one genuinely feels one must write, how one feels one must write it, in order to be true to oneself.

Again, several things I can learn from Akosua Atuah, but I’m young and I have time.

Speaking of being true to oneself, you can see aspects of Akosua’s identity oozing through the pages, boldly, in defiance of whomever will refuse to accept her as she is. I am talking about how she talks about being an African woman, an African woman in America as seen by Africans back home, being African in general, being a woman in general, being a Christian – and goodness knows how dreadfully unpopular any of these things can be at any given time.

It is a book full of poems that allow themselves to be desolate with no happy endings sometimes – which is perfectly fine. It is a book full of affirmations that do not give desolation any chance to rear its head sometimes – which is perfectly fine. It is also a book full of poems that carve spaces for both at once, sometimes, which is great.

One impressive thing is how Akosua not only explores womanhood in her poems – several poets do that – but I notice and am extremely impressed by her poems that touch on manhood as well. “Man Made” is one of those poems (side note: it brought to mind a Sophia Thakur TED talk called “My boyfriend isn’t allowed to cry unfortunately”), and it asks the necessary questions of humanity and gender, this thing called “toxic masculinity”:

“So I asked them, “what is it about society shoving strength

down a man’s throat? Does crying or grieving or simply

feeling emotion make him less of a man?”

Or what about “A Stranger’s Words to Fathers.” which is just the surface exploration of the rift between father and daughter that I can unfortunately relate so well to? Or “Father’s love” which highlights the comfort of a caring father when one is in the pits of despair? But I have to say that my favorite is “Love him” because, my goodness, that poem is several levels of beautiful:

“Love a man that carries Christ in his

back pocket and always pulls

him out when you’re lost.”

I was only about halfway through with the book, when, one day, when depression rendered me completely unproductive and incapable of leaving my room, I just finished all the rest of the book in one sitting. It left me very pleasantly exhausted. It carried me through the sadness; poetry can do that for you. During and since reading, one of the quotes that sustains me is:

“Remind your melancholy that it will always be that muse that allows you to draw a blossoming flower through dark times.”

To say the least about how I feel about this book, I am impressed. And although I barely know Akosua, I am so, so proud of her and this milestone she has achieved for herself and, whether or not she knows it, all of us aspiring young writers. Look at what she achieved before she even graduated from college.

Support the art, the industry, support Akosua Atuah. Purchase her book. It is not something you will regret. The book needs to be read.

-Akotowaa

Update: Following from the number of people who have asked me where it is available in Ghana, I know now that it is for sale at LifeForms Gh, which is on the same street as MetroTV. I also know that Akosua is working on getting more stores in Ghana involved. When she does, I will update this post again.