Reading your manuscript, The Moth and the Light Bulb, is the warmest experience I have had since I left Owerri. It is cold and almost lightless here, and each new face I see stares blankly at me in ways that remind me of how little I am in my new environment. I have been in Ibadan for eight days now, but I am yet to begin my clearance at the university. The PG School insists I present my original degree certificate. I only have my statement of result. It never occurred to me to apply for my certificate, despite living very close to my undergraduate institution. What do they say about children whose parents own a mansion in heaven? They go to hell. All of them. Except the maid.
You see, I have so much to fix. But I do not measure my frustration with the misery of Haba’s life, knowing how devastating the shame of a second and perhaps final loss of the chairmanship election to Monsieur was for him. Haba’s condition is inexplicably tragic, and it is not something I wish anybody to experience in these traumatic times. However, I admit that the full measure of his life reveals the dignity of a man unrelenting in his struggle to fulfill his dreams.
Haba is a man of many opinions, so he has a natural gift for attracting trouble. It is only consoling that each new challenge gives strength and urgency to the narrative. But be careful not to overreach him. It is enough that his life derives from some unutterable hubris. In spite of his inclination to anger and violence, it is easy to eulogise Haba for his integrity and for prioritising the interest of the slum over his safety and comfort. Incidentally, it is for this decision that he is abused by many people who consider him insane, a few people who call him ambitious, and the rest who think he is insanely ambitious.
There is a daring coexistence of incompatible ideals in your novella. I find that morality and immorality, mortality and immortality, introversion and extroversion, peace and war, love and hate, promiscuity and chastity, all overlap with convoluted implications in the consciousness of each individual character. By creating these characters who embrace their strength and weakness alike, you point to the complexity of human beings.
I marvel at how patient you are with your characters. Some six years ago, one of my close friends said I was impatient with people. His tone did not hide his disapproval. Well, I argued that he misunderstood me. I told him I did not like wasting people’s time and would not want others to waste mine. But now, I confess that I am impatient with people, like the inhabitants of the slums who seem so fixated with luxury that they forget to discover themselves. Frankly, I admire your empathy towards Haba’s shortcomings. Empathy is a valuable gift which we give to ourselves and to others. It is the freedom that liberates all things.
It is exciting that other characters are taking up more spaces in the narrative. Monsieur is a remarkably mature character. His commitment to the slum, especially his attempt to drive away cholera from among the people, is as absolute as Haba’s. Perhaps, it is intriguing that he rises in a time like this. Is Haba’s antagonism towards Monsieur a striking pointer to things to come? Is Haba not as altruistic as he would have us believe? Or as he believes himself? Whatever happens, Haba’s relentless struggle to return to the political and social center of the slum at all cost does not erase his humanity, for he is a man given to the agonising lure of self-sacrifice.
Although Monsieur is an equally central character in your novella, I do not know much about him, except that he speaks French and is now a doctor of cholera. Is that an appropriate way to describe him? A background detail on his character would do us a lot of good. I need to know his past to appreciate his life now. He speaks French, how come? And what brought him to the slum? Is he running away from a bad marriage, a dictatorial government, or a senselessly violent and noisy city life? I would have suggested you provide these details through dialogue. But dialogue has done a lot for the story already. A narrative landscape will suffice. Well, not to contradict myself, a dialogue never gets overused. Or are your characters screaming already?
It is difficult tracking down all the characters, but gratefully the humour of your writing has held them together, quietly proclaiming the abundance of laughter, even in tragic times. I am also impressed by the relative equanimity with which the cholera outbreak is announced. The painter is such an intriguing character. I would like to meet him in real life. But I wish to meet Ama first.
I am worried that the narrative voice drifts, at some point, away from the omniscient to the subjective, and there are no explanations for this. I believe that the narrator of this story is objective. But there are times the narrative shifts to Ama’s voice.
It does not surprise me that Haba is slowly disintegrating, for it seems it is the fate of most activists to become the monster they swore to chase away. Maybe it is unfair to call Haba a monster, seeing that he is a character driven by oedipal instincts. But what choice has his recent deterioration left me?
I see light in most of Haba’s vision, especially his idea to nativise the curriculum of schools in the slum, yet I think his methodologies for achieving his dreams are inimical to the ideals of human freedom which he repeatedly professes. Moreover, his absolute claim to power and moral authority is tyrannical. Even as his admirer, I confess that Haba has hurt a lot of people, the most spectacular being the photographer, whose precious certificate and awards earned in England he ruined; the most unforgiving being Essy, the guitarist, whose musical instrument the thugs destroyed at his rally. Still, can we call Haba a tyrant?
Haba feels. Does a tyrant feel? Haba feels the destitution of the slum, just as he felt the pain of losing his dog, Tiger. Haba loved that animal with all the strength in him. Tiger came into Haba’s life when all things had nearly collapsed around him; so when the dog died, everything eventually collapsed within him. I do not make excuses for Haba’s dictatorial temperament, but I think that Tiger’s death snapped something in him. It was the love of the dog that held him together when he lost the first election, and it was the dog’s death that tore him apart later.
Is it not curiously sad that Monsieur is doing all the things Ama wished Haba could do? While Ama remains faithful in her marriage to Haba, she is plagued by his firebrand visions, which often lead him to extremism, and his refusal to be logical rather than ideological. It is doubtful whether Ama would continue to tolerate Haba. But it does appear obvious that she would always venerate his towering audacity.
You have done so much to draw my sympathy to Haba. But it lies with Ama. Not even with Monsieur, the character who thinks he deserves it the most. Monsieur is a man who, like Haba, is sensitive to the plight of the slum, but who, unlike Haba, might not suffer for the slum, especially if there is no reward for doing so. I am sad for Ama, who must contend with the fantasies and madness of her activist husband. Haba’s restless life may well account for why he and Ama are childless. But it seems Haba does not care so much about making babies. Ironically, Haba has babies: the first is his dream of emancipating the slum, the one thing that will one day demand his life and which I fear he would give it to, in order to prove the essence of his activism; the second was Tiger. That dog was Haba’s closest attempt at fatherhood. Ama saw this. She knew she was going to compete for Haba’s love with the dog. Why did Tiger fall ill the day he followed Ama to the market? The rendering of Tiger’s death is coloured with grief and longing. It is a silent sedimentation of loss, a threnodic tribute to love.
Even a docile wife —which Ama is not — will be scandalised by the passions of an eccentric husband. So it is expected that she takes a step forward, away from Haba, in order to regain her sanity and to live long enough to continue to support his routine of dreams and madness. It is thus comforting that Ama finds happiness and hope at the Women Coalition. Here, I am reminded of the friendship between Aïssatou and Ramatuolaye in Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. Aïssatou, in a letter to her friend, asserts that “Friendship has splendours that love knows not.”
The friendship of the members of the Women Coalition, engendered and solidified by their common vision of emancipating themselves from the stifling hold of a patriarchal world bent on erasing them, powers their struggle for freedom rooted in gender inequality. But it is stunning that Haba gets domesticated in the process of seeking Ama’s love and attention again. Or, is it that he located his feminine self, something he locked so tightly within himself and yet needed so urgently?
While I am impressed that Ama’s praise for her husband among the women earns Haba some political acceptability in that circle, something he would benefit greatly from and yet suffer terribly for, I think that you must draw a line between reality and the limits of fiction. Ama calls her husband “a feminist” in the narrative. And I am wondering whether she is capable of using that word, especially if you consider her modest education and very impoverished life in the slum. I do not suggest that many of the adults in the slum cannot articulate the idea of gender equality, but I doubt that they can express it with the kind of woke certitude Ama and the rest of the women exude. This is the most exhausting part of the story so far. And I understand that it is because it carries the responsibility of unraveling many layers of translucent reflections.
I now see Monsieur for who he is and what he stands for. But, beware. I do not think that a straightjacket depiction of Monsieur’s character would do any justice to the narrative. He can benefit only from a nuanced portrayal. There is a sense in which I cannot victimise him for desiring to be chairman of the slum, yet I cannot vindicate him from conniving with the Salvationists to ruin the census Haba organised.
The failure of the last election was traumatic for Haba, just like the death of Tiger. Again, I am moved to presume that the measure of Haba’s life lay in the things he could not do more than in those he actually did. He fought for the slum, he wanted love, the love that Tiger could give, the loyal love he thought human beings were incapable of offering him. But that love did not last long. It is the briefness of happiness, the ephemerality of joy that constantly haunted Haba and ultimately pushed him to a psychopathic precipice.
Essy is a victim of passion and love. The guitar was the essence of her life, and it was for it that she died. Perhaps she did not die for the instrument, but by it. And this is similar to Haba’s condition. Haba did not perish solely for his vision of emancipation, but also through it. I am consoled that both Haba and Essy, whose lives share a valuable but deeply haunting connection, did not die in vain, for the slum will always remember that they lived out their lives in passionate pursuit of their dreams.
Nnamdi, this is an impressive story. I am sorry that we have reached an end. Again, it is Ama that I pity. Left to nurse the body and soul of a conquered husband and to carry the hate of an unforgiving community, she reminds me of Lear, the eponymous character of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “a man more sinned against than sinning.”
Accept my warm regards and best wishes.
Darlington Chibueze Anuonye
is a literary conversationist and writer. He is the curator of Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories, co-editor of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction, co-editor of Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories, and editor of Through the Eye of a Needle, an international anthology of creative writing that documents the experiences of writers on the COVID-19 pandemic. Anuonye was longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award and shortlisted in 2016 by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency.