JUMBLED THOUGHTS ON FRESH AIR by Debbie Iorliam

Book: Fresh Air and other stories. Author: Reward Nsirim Year of Publication: 2013. Publishers: Origami. Review: Debbie Iorliam

Reward Nsirim exposes his readers to the vast ocean of his mind, in his collection of short stories Fresh Air. He takes his readers for a long and interesting ride around his world, the places he has been to and the many experiences gained. Nsirim is a traveler as well as a writer and this is reflected in his stories, especially “The funeral Arrangement”, “One Night in Soho” and “The expatriate”,  to mention a few. There is a taste of Nigeria and foreign countries lived through the key actors in the stories through these tales. Most of them though have a UK feel to them. Matter of fact, ‘One Night in Soho’ happens totally in the UK – you feel it so strongly and can almost taste the accents on your ear buds 🙂 Nsirim narrates his stories with so much ease and expertise, which is a skill most writers do not possess. You feel the places he writes about and can almost vividly picture them.

Nsirim’s power of description makes ordinary words come alive in an amazing way that paints vivid pictures of what he is saying. These pictures are so crystal that its almost as though the reader was there at the time of the event. The writer’s sense of humor is  noticeable from his manner of description and narration, this runs through from the beginning of the collection to the very end. This is not to say that the book is purely humorous  because the author addresses very serious issues from “Fresh  Air”, “The Riot”, “Re- election task force” , “Calling the shots” etc. But pure humor is in “One Champion’s League Night”, “diary of a troubled traveler”.

Quite noticeable is the fact that most  Nsirim’s stories are set in Nigeria’s South-south region (dominantly Port Harcourt),  where the author resides. This shows a man who is quite rooted in his home. As you hear in some tales like ‘Re-election Task Force’ the ‘Area!’ sound that comes from most of the local vagrants there, you note that there’s skill and an understanding of where this writer comes from and he is not afraid to talk about it. Whether it sounds palatable to the ears or not, he is more than willing to expose issues that have eaten into the society using Port Harcourt.

Most of the stories are tragic and they have one way or another of making us think deeply about the state of affairs in the country. The lovely  and touching story titled “The conversation” tells the story of a man  who loses his wife to a ghastly motor accident due to the recklessness of drivers  and ever since finds it hard to forgive himself for snapping at his wife  when he learnt she travelled by road, due to a delay at the Airport. His wife Tope boards a sienna car on her way to Lagos to see her sick mother, with some stranded passengers who were meant to travel by Air and some where in Okene she has an accident which claims her life. Life for this man becomes unbearable and each day he would sit by his wifes’s grave talking to her and wishing things could be different. Still, as Su’eddie Agema notes he hides most of his seeming realities and tragedies with humour. Put more aptly, he coats the bitterness of most tragic situations with the sweetness of humour.

Contemporary issues fresh airare splashed all over the collection. Tradition which is the hallmark of an African and indeed a Nigerian is addressed. In “Funeral Arrangements” for instance, we get to see the thrust of the extravagance of burial ceremonies and the heavy expectations put on any ‘child’ based in Europe or America – overseas. Burial ceremonies in Nigeria are attached great importance and are seen as avenues to attain status quo in the society. This crave for a prestigious display of wealth brings hardship to the sponsor of such an occasion, which most times is bankruptcy. Exorbitant demands are made, such as purchasing livestock, buying food to feed the whole community, purchasing wrappers for uniforms, making arrangements for masquerade entertainments, providing alcoholic drinks for the important guests etc. Note that no one cares about where the money would come from. Note also that if you don’t ‘live’ to the expectations of society to have a lavish burial (the thought of it!), you would find so much disfavour. In Nsirim’s story, the relations sure have a shocker awaiting them!

‘The black sheep’ as a story shows the influence of family on their wards towards career choice and these decisions are detrimental to the happiness of  their wards as revealed by the story. Very touching is the story of ‘Keeping mum’ where a fifteen year old girl faces persecution when she is pregnant from constant harassment from a predator that we learn at the end of the story is surprising. Here too sorrow looms and you just wonder at the inhumanity of people.

Unemployment as a contemporary issue is also reflected in ‘The target’’. A young lady is forced to compromise unnecessarily because of the nightmare of being unemployed. The state of unemployment which seems to be on the increase has crippled not just the individuals but the society as well.

The title story, ‘Fresh Air’ questions the justice system in Nigeria and the fate of individuals who are jailed for crimes they are unaware of, simply because of sentiments. This standard of conduct has marred lives and have left others too wounded to recover.

Nsirim’s Fresh Air and other stories collection has in total sixteen stories amazing stories that talks about various problems apart from the previously listed  ones. In loud tones, it satirizes and in very subtle tones, calls for a revolution.

A good look at Nsirim’s characters reveals they are well developed and very strong in their respective roles. There is absolutely limitation to his characters, they are broad. There are white characters as well as seen in ‘Forensic Investigation’,’The expatriate’ etc And the dialogue between these characters are simply appropriate and not overboard. An example from Forensic Investigation is needed here…

“For instance,” said the commander, “some of the officers you will work with might be learning about forensics for the first time, having depended largely on shibboleths like torture, hearsay and superstition as sources of evidence and intelligence gathering. To buttress the point, all of the late senator’s domestic staff as well as all unimportant neighbours within a block radius of his house have been captured as suspects and are still in custody.”

Boyd wanted to ask if they would not take some members of Human Rights Watch along with them in the light of the last piece of information, but the commander continued before he could interrupt.

“Talking of superstitious policing, officers over there have only recently arrested a goat on charges of armed robbery, claiming that a human robber had magically transformed into the goat at the sight of the police.”

Even Fletcher joined in the long peal of laughter that followed, both officers believing the commander to be really stretching his sense of humour. Bu when the commander distributed newspaper clips on the case from a file on the table, the officers stiffened. This assignment, the commander concluded, promised to be the most interesting that Boyd and Fletcher had ever been involved in.

 

Thus, from here, you note the way that Nsirim captures his readers making them want more while being brutal in his remarks (through the white officers here) of the state of security in Nigeria.

Approaching Fresh Air from a different perspective, at a glance  the book grips the attention of the reader and this is attributed to the title of the book and the lovely picture of nature, which shows grasses swaying gently to the touch of Air and in this case fresh air. A question immediately pops to mind: “Is this the promised Air?” Fresh as a word connotes something ‘new’ or ‘different’’ in a way that it adds or replaces something that has already been. A critical look at the leadership system shows lapses in all the sectors of the economy where leaders have derailed from their sworn duties to a point where personal obligations are of much importance. Promises of improving the peoples conditions have been blared on the media in the past years about drastic changes about drastic changes that would be enjoyed if they enfranchised. A lot of  ‘fresh air ‘ was promised, all the people had to do was exercise their franchise and everything would be made new . But years later we are told by Reward Nsirim in “fresh air that nothing has really changed, everything is as pathetic as it use to be and right now the masses are not just starved of fresh air but ordinary air.   The same issues like corruption, poor leadership, bad roads, lack of electricity, injustice still torments the people. In the end, what stands out fresh is the beautiful book that Nsirim brings out that is well worth the read.

Nsirim tells his tales like no other person would, his thematic preoccupations are realistic, which makes him a realist. A realist that is out to inform, to advocate and to entertain.

Fresh Air is a book that can hold one spell bound till the end  leaving the reader with a mixture of feelings but definitely with a good measure of satisfaction.

Debbie

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You can read three great stories from the collection, ‘The Testimony’ and ‘Diary of a Troubled Traveller’ (discussed above). There’s also the beginning excerpt of ‘Forensic Investigation’ here. Find Fresh Air and other stories on Amazon here. Follow Reward Nsirim on Twitter @rewardsrhetoric. He blogs here.

 

 

 

 

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