Africans have been coming to America to study for a long time but few of their stories are being told. Nnamdi Azikiwe chronicled his in “My Odyssey.” J.P. Clark penned an angry memoir, “America their America” in the 60s and Ayi Kwei Armah’s wrote the novel, “Why Are We So Blest?” in the 70s.
The mass migration of Africans abroad in the last two decades has followed the collapse of African economies in the 90s and 2000s. But before this current wave, there were Africans in the 60s and 70s and much of the 80s who just came to America to study and return home. Their stories have not been told enough.
In the last decade, the new leagues of African migrants have boldly told their stories. Ike Oguine did it in “Squatter’s Tale”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in “Americanah”, and Okey Ndibe in “Foreign Gods Inc”.
Documenting experiences in memoirs and autobiographies comes with different challenges. One of the most concerning is the privacy of the individuals involved in the stories. Another one is the inevitable failure of memory and consequent squabble over the accuracy of the events as recalled. However, in novels, using fictional tools, a writer can avoid such pitfalls. Why that is not very common is that writing a novel is like throwing a feast of foofoo and bitter leaf soup at Afor Nnobi market. Not many people can accomplish that feat.
That feat is exactly what Fidelis O. Mkparu has done in his novel, “Love’s Affliction” published by Harvard Square Editions. In it, Mkparu, tells a story of a 17-year-old boy, Joseph Fata, who comes to America to study medicine in the early 70s. He happens to land in small college town in North Carolina, a region of America still dealing with deep-rooted hatred for black people. It is within this backdrop that he begins an interracial relationship with Wendy Crane, the daughter of the richest man in North Carolina.
Right there, the scene is set for great conflicts on which remarkable stories are made. The two have to navigate bigotry at school and withstand Wendy's father who epitomized the Old South and sternly forbids the relationship. It is not an easy task. Sometimes it tears the two lovers apart and sometimes it brings them together.
Fata, the African, draws strength from his upbringing. A choirboy with strong family values, he deals with hatred thrown at him in a manner most African migrants of today may find troubling. He flips out easily and breaks into physical fight with those who taunt him, even when he knows his reaction will upset his girlfriend.
“Sometimes things are hard to put into words. Most of the time, I don't feel it's fair to share my mental pain with you. How could you understand my state of mind when fellow students make mockery of my heritage? You only witness a portion of what I deal with every day. I think about how things could have been for me, if I had stayed at home for my education.”
Even in his choice of courses to take, the dilemma of life as an immigrant influences things.
“My interest in interventional psychoanalysis was academic, and I would have resisted such a probing psychological adventurism on the premise that my African heritage endowed me with an enviable stable mental state...” Page 135.
Though Fata is confident about his mental state, like all migrants, he carries on his back the shell of his history, his home and his heritage. Navigating two worlds has never been easy for any immigrant. It is at the core of the challenge in building a relationship with Wendy. Fata confesses his dilemma this way.
“I did not want her to be the one making decisions about our relationship and my future. If I wanted to undress the truth, I would accept that I was afraid of Wendy dominating me. Blame it on my outdated upbringing, because in my culture men made most of the decisions.” Page 188.
In it all, Joseph Fata maintains his academic excellence even when the dream of a life with Wendy is wobbly. Will love win in the end or will hate win? The answer to the question depends on the sensibility of the reader.
Mkparu, paints a picture of the American south that casual visitors of America of today may miss. The story is as soothing as a country song. The reader is compelled to root for the two lovers all the way to the end. When they are down, you find yourself encouraging them to get up and try again. It’s not an easy task because Fata defies the characterization of a traditional African boy of today. As seen in the following passage, he often frustrates those rooting for him.
"Why did you stop kissing me?" Wendy asked.
“I looked at Wendy raptly from her head to her delicate feet, admiring her long golden hair, dimples that accentuated her beautiful face, two beautiful mounds on her chest, curvy waistline, and her dainty feet. It was unequivocally obvious to me why I stopped kissing her, because we had almost crossed over to what the locals called 'public indecency.” page 62.
As the story winds down, Joseph Fata laments:
“To love someone is to give of yourself, knowing that you'll never get that part of you back. I left a part of me in that beautiful garden in Central North Carolina. I had no desire to return to reclaim it. It was in the spring of my life, my North Carolina, where I began my new life, and where my lost youth would remain eternally young.” Page 238.
And that's why the end leaves the reader unsatisfied. It ends like life often does, but not the way novels end. The buildup is intense but there is no release. The writer seems to realize that with a last minute effort to wrap things up, which still does not soften the anguish.
Even though Joseph Fata tries, he does not answer the most important question he set out to answer for himself and for Africans about why bigotry exists. He articulates it in this question that he poses in page 154.
“How stereotypical beliefs permeated institutions of higher learning without proof of their validity was particularly interesting to me. Since I was a victim of such ignorance, I wanted to understand why educated groups comfortably accepted irrational ideas and even participated in blatant mob actions.”
Through the life of Joseph Fata, Mkparu is able to crystallize life experiences in magnificent nuggets. Here is the character’s deduction from watching a bowling game.
“I watched the other students' bowling balls roll down the lanes and things became clearer to me. You throw a ball to knock down pins. Sometimes you succeed fully, or partially. You may even fail to knock any pin down, but the ball always comes back to you, no matter the outcome, to give you another chance. Is that not what we get in life, a chance to try again when we fail?”
A doctor by profession, Mkparu does not have to suffer the drudge that graduates of American writing schools, like the ubiquitous MFA program, suffer. On page 103, for instance, he presents his characters in simple and easily identifiable manner that makes the reading smooth. It’s the kind of paragraph that MFA professors frown at. This is also the reason why some works out of these programs are unreadable.
“I waited patiently as the girls dressed for the evening. Wendy was the first to emerge from the downstairs bathroom and said, "What do you think?" Turning around for me. A tight - fitting cream - colored dress clung to her sculpted ballerina’s body, as if the dress was tailor made for her. The low neckline left little to the imagination.”
The brilliance of Mkparu’s novel is in its exploration of our humanity and the frailty of even the brightest of us. He tantalizes the reader all the way, teasing and tossing both wisdom and seduction with ease. It’s destined to be a landmark in the African migrant literature.
Mkparu’s “Love's affliction” is not cured- the heartbreaks of Joseph Fata and Wendy Crane remains the heartbreak of the reader. In a way, it brings home the unseen anguish African migrants encounter in their sojourn. A reader will never look at an African migrant again and not wonder what he or she has gone through. It will leave the reader with greater sympathy for the African migrant long after he or she has put down this book. For the migrant reading it, he or she will find reasons to cheer for Mkparu has brought his or her story home. If you love great country music, you will love this book.