Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Yaba Badoe’s African Love Story, “The Rival”

 In the process of looking for works by Ama Ata Aidoo with Kinna’s Ghanaian Literature Week in mind, I came across this collection African Love Stories.

I requested it from the library and hoped that it would include one of Ama Ata Aidoo’s stories, and actually it does not, but her introduction is quite wonderful.

She immediately raises the question of readers’ expectations of a love story, and she soundly dismisses the view that if a story is a love story it must be all sentiment and frivolity.

“Rather, it is a label that speaks of the enormity of the consequences of loving, especially its impact on the lovers themselves, their families, and the entire society in which they live and love.”

Love stories can be among the most serious of stories, she holds.

She also dismisses the view that there are no love stories to be found in African, that black female readers are consigned to read of the loves of white heroines.

There have always been African love stories, she says, and that is still true of contemporary writing, including her own novel, Changes.

(Others that she singles out are Ngūgī wa Thinogo’s’s The River Beween, Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter, Lewis Nkosi’s The Mating Birds, Grace Ogot’s Rain, and Buchi Emecheta’s The Joy of Motherhood.)

The stories selected for this collection are all complex tales; they are chosen so that the reader will learn something, yes, but also the reader is intended to have fun with the stories (although she does mention that a couple of them are heartbreaking, and there is much talk of betrayal as well).

The story included, that fits with this week’s reading theme, is by Ghanaian-British writer, Yaba Badoe, and there also is a very interesting interview with her here, on Geosi Reads, which discusses her film-making and novel-writing.

Yaba Badoe’s story, “The Rival”, is the first discussed at length in the collection’s introduction, even though it actually appears in the middle of the anthology.

Nonetheless, the fact that it is “hilarious” garners it some additional attention.

There is a playful aspect to the story, but what truly captured me, more than that, was the plotting of it.

It begins like this: “The night Mrs. Mensah dreamt of fruit bats in her garden, she knew that she was in trouble.”

Yes, right off, in the first sentence: trouble.

Of course you want to know about the trouble. But you are not told.

Instead, Mrs. Mensah struggles to go back to sleep, to try to correct the situation.

“She believed that if she could return to what she had seen, she could undo it, repelling the bats from her trees, protecting herself and her husband.”

But she is unsuccessful.

(That’s not spoiling anything, that’s only a few lines later, and still the suspense builds.)

Even on the next page, “That night, Mrs. Mensah didn’t sleep at all.”

All the while, the reader is drawn along with the desire to know more.

Here is a peek at Mr. Mensah a little later: visitors have come to the house.

Now Mr. Mensah is struggling to keep calm, too.

“Taking a sip of his beer, he closed he eyes and began concentrating on his lungs filling with air.”

And this isn’t helping Mrs. Mensah at all. Partly because Mr. Mensah’s way of dealing with stress could be, more likely, confused with NOT dealing with it:

“An amiable man, Albert Mensah had long ago realised that the wisest thing to do in a tense situation was to relax into it. If you relaxed for long enough, he believed, the situation would usually go away.”

And by now, the reader knows more, but does not know what will come of it all.

Alfred and Beatrice (and the visitors) are sketched succinctly; often a few phrases or the clarifying detail of a specific facial instruction are the reader’s most obvious clues to characterization.

Dialogue peppers the expository sections of the story, which not only adds to the sense of character, but also propels the plot.

The style is clean (few descriptors, the odd one, ‘nubile’ and ‘mewling’ and ‘piercing’ are deliberately chosen) and the arc, although less than ten pages, is satisfying.

As an introduction to African love stories, and as an introduction to the storytelling of Yaba Badoe, I’m a satisfied reader.

 

 

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