Editors’ note: This is the first installment in the Courier’s new book review series written by Sacred Heart University faculty. The titles are chosen in consultation with the Easton Public Library.
“Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions: A Novel in Interlocking Stories,” by Nigerian-born author Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi, is a richly-textured composite novel that deftly draws the reader into the worlds of four Nigerian women, Aisha, Nonso, Remi and Solape, friends since grade school, over the span of their lifetimes.
As a composite novel, “Jollof Rice” succeeds well with each “chapter” existing suitably as a stand-alone short story that unfolds a critical episode in the life of one of the women or of another person connected to them. Time itself is a composite in the novel since the collected array of stories spans an arc of two centuries, from 1897 to 2050, but that expanse of time only reinforces the compelling message of the novel, that neither time nor distance nor untoward events can weaken the bonds within a family and the love between friends. Love is what endures.
While the theme is universal, the stories of the novel place the reader specifically in certain spaces on certain occasions among certain communities. The title, vivid with significance, offers a helpful suggestion, for the reference to “jollof rice” transports the reader immediately to West Africa, to countries like Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana, where jollof rice is a near-iconic staple of the regional and local cuisines. “Jollof rice” evokes the spicy scents and aromatic dishes of family meals in villages and towns and cities, and while the familiar dish unifies the cultures and cuisines of the several countries of West Africa, it is also a dish that each individual nation claims with its own version in seasoning and uses of spices. Similarly, the novel itself is a lively collection of stories about families and communities and the indelible bonds of friendship that can become like kinship, and the author skillfully and seamlessly weaves together the separate tales, each with their own space of expression, to map out how the four friends mature from naïve and impulsive school girls into accomplished, hopeful, and, increasingly, self-aware adults. Each chapter speaks with its own voice and modulates its narrative in its own tone and, in so doing, invites the reader into the intimate workings of the families and communities and the lives of the four women.
The life of each character follows its own trajectory, but each character is always linked to the others and to their Nigerian home. So, for example, a chapter from 1986 is Remi’s account of the girls’ fateful “revolution” (thus the title) against their high school administration for poor supervision (as they decided) of their curriculum; in a subsequent chapter, dated 1997, Remi and the other girls, now young women, appear again in an account that Solape’s mother, Deola, narrates. Or again: in a chapter from 2003, Aisha recounts her adventures during a trip to Poland for a colleague’s wedding, which she describes also to her friends in postcards, and those same friends are present with her in the final, poignant, story of the novel, dated 2050. Each chapter underscores, in its own language and phrasing, the inimitable beauty and sometimes bittersweet attachments of friendship, even over the stretch of time and the breadth of space; collected together, the chapters suffuse the composite novel with a buoyant, effervescent, even hopeful, buoyancy, alluding to the joys but also to the sorrows that the women encounter throughout their lives.
For this reviewer, one of the most memorable chapters is the first, dated 1897-1931, that tells of the complex relationship between a pious woman named Fodo (who, the reader later learns, is Nonso’s grandmother) and an uncommon woman named Adaoma: two women, of vastly different temperaments and life stories, connected to each other by a steadfast love for a child, Uchenna. In interviews, Ogunyemi has described her research into the history of West African women prior to colonization, and her decision to open her novel with the absorbing story of Adaoma, a female “merchant queen,” as a kind of code for all her female characters. They are women who err and stray and misstep but also endure and ascend and prevail, and they brim over with compassion and brightness.
The first chapter also demonstrates a vital—and inspiring—aspect of the novel, the decision of the author to incorporate Nigerian vocabulary and local dialect, as well as regional references and cultural allusions, into each chapter with no authorial recourse to explanation or elucidation that edges toward apology. Omolola Ogunyemi has graced the reader with an elegant novel about the human condition, and especially about human dignity, in successive narratives that intertwine the lives of the four friends with each other, but also with their beloved Nigeria; as a result, Nigeria itself becomes an elemental character in the novel, ever present to the touch or in the memory. Should the reader encounter an unknown phrasing or an unfamiliar cultural reference, the context is usually a sufficient resource for clarification, as long as the reader is willing to travel attentively with the characters along each journey that Ogunyemi has envisioned.
June-Ann Greeley is an Associate Professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at Sacred Heart University.