Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi’s novel in stories unfolds across centuries, continents, political parties and a tight group of friends.
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JOLLOF RICE AND OTHER REVOLUTIONS: A Novel in Interlocking Stories, by Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi
In the nearly 20 years since I first learned of Aristotle’s belief that the best story endings are “surprising, yet inevitable,” I have rarely been as blindsided — in the best possible way — by the final moments of a book as I was while reading Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi’s “Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions: A Novel in Interlocking Stories.”
The final chapter will shock you. You will likely pause, flip back a few pages, certain that you missed something. Then you will realize that you did not, in fact, miss anything. You might scream, close the book, go for a walk and return to it, still shocked.
The brilliance of Ogunyemi’s writing is that after that walk, you’ll realize that from the book’s earliest pages (which are set in 1897) to its final pages (set in 2050), she lays out exactly what is to come. While the narrative is personal, centering on the friendship of Aisha, Nonso, Remi and Solape, women who met as girls in the 1980s at a boarding school in Nigeria and whose lives are forever changed by a rebellion they participate in at the school, the background also matters. Politics and revolution are never far from the women’s stories.
The girls, fiercely independent and empowered, choose to leave Nigeria for university in the United States, where their stories do not stick to the themes of immigration and life in the diaspora that have become popular in fiction about Africans in the past decade. One of the delights of “Jollof Rice” is the way Ogunyemi declines to explain Africanness or Blackness to readers. Pidgin isn’t translated, interracial dating doesn’t warrant multiple pages of analysis and the horrifying history of Elmina Castle need not be spelled out.
Ogunyemi transports her characters not just between Nigeria and the United States, but to other African countries and to Europe over several decades. The visit to Elmina Castle shapes Nonso’s career choices. A trip to Poland gives a glimpse into the racism there, but also provides Aisha with clarity about an important relationship in her life.
The women face challenges while living abroad as adults, but struggle is not their constant state of being or that of the other Africans they encounter. There is joy in community, in friendship, in romance and, of course, in food. “After my dad left Nigeria for the U.S., I spent countless Ibadan nights dreaming of New York,” one character recalls from the Bronx. “The skyscrapers, cars whizzing past, pedestrians streaming down sidewalks and streets without fear. My dreams never featured food. When we finally joined him, I realized too late how deficient those dreams were.”
A chapter told from the perspective of a grieving mother is one of the most evocative; another, told from the perspective of Nonso’s housekeeper years later, brings the streets of Lagos to life. Ogunyemi artfully describes the strength of a sisterhood formed in childhood and forged through highs and lows of love, loss and distance or separation from a loved one. The political dramas of the United States and Nigeria move from the background to the fore during the book’s final chapter, which is set in a future where hydrogen jets can travel from Ibadan to New York in just four hours. The final moments of the novel are anchored by Aisha, describing what has become of a country that elected a nativist leader and never quite recovered from that choice.
Among the smaller details that might appeal to regular readers of literature about immigrants is the fact that the women choose not only to go to the United States, but also to return home to Nigeria. For them, America is not the end-all, be-all.
Each of the 10 chapters that make up this novel can stand on its own, but together they tell a beautiful story of sisterhood, family and love.
JOLLOF RICE AND OTHER REVOLUTIONS: A Novel in Interlocking Stories, by Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi | 256 pp. | Amistad | $27.99