Review of Kuni Tyessi’s Books: If Only We Knew, Being Twins


Philip Hayab John

An Overview

If Only We Knew is Kuni Tyessi’s collection of 12 twelve short stories which projects an image of a plummeting Nigerian socio-economic, cultural, and everyday life under the following titles: Shay’nyam, Marriage Extremism, Accreditation Palava, And Mum was God, Banana Republic, When God Refuses to Change Genotype, If Only We Knew, In Search of Exclusives, Old Men Do No Wrong, Prophecy of a Lunatic, Beautiful Imperfections, and Irreversible Damage.

All the stories generally explore the lives of commonplace Nigerians who are struggling to survive. What concerns the characters are echoes of ordinary spectacles that are illustrative of the disenchantment in Nigeria and with a reflective message that goes further than what the warlike nature appears to represent.

The Author and Her Work

Kuni Tyessi studied Literature for her first, second and currently third degrees at the Department of English and Drama of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and Nasarawa State University, Keffi, where many of the academics are social realists who call for an ethical revolution of the Nigerian society for positive progress to be attained. Besides, while an undergraduate, Tyessi, in her discussion in and outside the class, appeared to have formed the mindset of a socialist realist. As the writer’s former course mate, I am pleased with the work under the title under review, and the content meets the expectations of anyone who knows her closely.

Accordingly, the work exemplifies a pragmatist’s standpoint with a gentle mien expressive of grief that springs from an endless chain of corruption and misplaced priorities that typifies what Achebe describes in The Trouble with Nigeria (1983) as the failure of Nigeria’s leadership to live up to the responsibility of their office. Like Achebe, Tyessi’s work appears to be a call for more patriotism or else, the grief faced by the characters we meet in the stories will continue.

Equally, as it was idealistic to expect a perfect society, the viewpoint the stories project reflects the flawed nature of the human mind with an unrelenting call for a regeneration hoped to transmute the snail pace development in everyday Nigerian life. The implication is that there is a steep degeneration which leads the nation to a cul-de-sac (a road leading nowhere), and a murky path to disaster.

Preview of Some of the Stories

Just like Prof. Alexander Kure, who wrote the preface to the book, I see stories that portray a quest for meaning in a calamitous life fractured by modern reality. Noticeably, the first story, Shay’nyam, is set tangibly in a township which houses mostly the deprived and the vulnerable; and with the major concerns of daily life hinged on safety and security been exemplified by the incident which occurs at the new house built by Laraba, the chief character. Nonetheless, the temporal setting is the Gwong community, in Jema’a Local Government Area of Kaduna State- Nigeria.

Analytically, the police and nearly all the characters we find in the story depict how cosmopolitan the emergent Nigerian suburb is apprehensive of the recurring tales of kidnappings, ASUU strikes and suspicions, and also avail a manifest of the uncertainties of the Nigerian life. What the story appears to be calling for is an end to the menace, or else the gloom could lead to a greater tragedy.  For instance, the sack of “over four thousand workers, rendering many breadwinners financially incapacitated”, has a connection to Brother Kazzem’s false age declaration, articulating the fluctuations of Nigerian life.

As part of the author’s creation of the, “bizarre cases of man’s injustice to man,” Rasheed’s boss who lives in Asokoro with a small family and decent salary, apart from his wife’s fat pay, takes clothes on credit and fails to pay, given to dishonest excuses, represents the insatiable nature of the average Nigerian. Next, the story laments the futility of education given that after secondary school, one of the jobs available was for the promising young school leavers to work in a saloon since there were no functional institutions to admit them for further their education.

After that, the author’s affirmation of, “life in Abuja, the unofficial capital of social life without boundaries” is embodied by Mama’s sudden death at Laraba’s apartment, a place she barely moved in, after enduring a lot of slanting and chauvinistic contempt as revealed by Daddy Fatai’s description of Laraba being an “Abuja gel wey dey use dem nyash to take quench fire” and “dey folo peson husband too, or dey do dog for one point five million naira.”

However, the twist in Shay’nyam, a word in the Gyong language of the Gwong of Kaduna State, describing therianthropy, otherwise known as shape-shifting, remains a mystery to a reader who has no background knowledge of the mystical reality of the situation. The story portrays the belief in many African societies of the sisterhood of shape-shifting where the devotees could mystically shift from the human world for a temporary life in the animal kingdom. The ending of the first story is a technique which leaves the fate of Laraba, who is accused of being responsible for the death of Mama, who in essence got killed by a hunter when she had shape-shifted to the animal world, to the unpredictable society that Laraba belongs.

The second story, Marriage Extremism, whose central character is Asabe, depicts the challenges single ladies face, the shards of belief, and portrays how women devoted to the Christian faith could be exploited by some clerics. The story critiques the way society is quick to judge any lady who dresses in a manner that society considers undue fashion.

Accordingly, the story gives us a juxtaposing view of Asabe, on the one hand as one with a “sociable acceptable life that was not wild … and could easily be described as boring, poor and tasteless,” yet societal misrepresentation of her was to the contrary being observed as “worldly and sinful” because of “piercings, modifications and body arts, like tattoos.”

In the story, Banana Republic, the reader comes face to face with the angst and disillusionment of ordinary Nigerians through the depiction of the putrid stench that attends the practice of political godfatherism in Nigeria and the uneasiness of being unbiased in an unfair society. The statement “everyone seemed desperate to be on the queue leading to the phantom national cake through legal and illegal options” further gives the story away as one which expresses the disaffection of the citizenry with the matter of patriotism. Manifestly, the driving force in “Banana Republic” is to grab whatever piece of the ‘banana’ one can for one’s self, as decency has been thrown to the wind. When the narrative voice tells us that the National Communications Commission had instructed that all mobile phone lines must be registered, the explanation was that the authorities were out to curb and eliminate banditry, insurgency and terrorism that had become a daily happening. But with the mention of “unknown gunmen or unidentified gunmen,” the story blurs the line between fiction and reality and takes on the technique called faction where the dividing lines between facts and fiction become thin and inseparable.

Consequently, the story laments how plying Nigerian highways, especially in the north of Nigeria, had become so dangerous that every trip had become a journey of no return and when one returns, the phenomenon of safety calls for celebration. The question the narrator seems to be asking is how did Nigeria get to the point where there were “hardly any safe hours”?

As a result, the story does not end with banditry, but the air space and rail tracks once thought to be secure have also failed. So every citizen of Banana Republic “travelled at their own risk.” However, the worst scenario of life in Banana Republic which the writer reflects is when a military aircraft is attacked during a surveillance routine as well as the attack of a train that was on its way to a town in the republic.

But unlike Kole Omotoso’s Just Before Dawn (1988), a novel banned by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida for daring to cross the lines of fiction, the current writer, like Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Tanure OJaide, Festus Iyayi, and the socialist writers from Nigeria, is courageous to declare that the fictionalised Banana Republic is Nigeria, with the mention of the train which leaves Abuja to Kaduna, ending being stopped by bandits who intimidated, maimed and threatened the citizens and the government.

At least, we are witnesses to the disgusting scenario and the writer’s pen reminds us of the failure of our nation leaving abducted train passengers to be held for months with billions of naira paid as ransom, a concept alien to the people and cultures of Nigeria, without the government doing more than media talk.

Style of the Writer

The stories are shaped by the writer’s familiarity with the current Nigerian society and are often embedded in a non-linear plot, an angle which gives the stories their fictional norm. The language is simple but bursting with expressions and salient images that tell the reader the direction the stories take. Without a doubt, the stories are subtle, logical, and with devastating viewpoints.

To my mind, If Only We Knew is one of Nigeria’s emergent literature with a socialist bent and real to the lifelike literature which does not seek to dwell on art for arts’ sake, resonating with Achebe’s idea that the African writer who engages in writing for mere aesthetics is like a person whose house is on fire but rather than seek to quench the blaze, runs after a rat that escapes from the fire.

In summary, If Only We Knew is a penetrating depiction of varied voices disillusioned with the Nigerian polity, especially women who are caught up between a domineering patriarchy and a deteriorating socio-economy of a society that was supposed to provide them security and safety.

Being Twins

Being Twins is a collection of poetry with three major sections entitled: Relationships, Being Twins, and Mortality. There are a total of 50 poems with “Mortality” comprising 27 poems, while “Being Twins” is 12, and “Relationships” has 11 poems. From the categorization, the author seems to be more concerned about social and human suffering, touching on patriarchy and the domination of the female gender.

A ready example is the poem centered on male chauvinism- “The Widower’s Prayer” which appears to be a celebratory appeal, not a lament.  For instance in stanza 6, the persona, apparently a male prays thus:

Give me a charming one

Younger in age and carriage

More beautiful than she who was

Will rekindle the fire of

Youth passion in me (p. 3)

A cursory read of the above lines suggests that the man scarcely mourns the deceased wife, but views her passing as a prospect for a better if you like, sexually active woman. In the title poem “Being Twins,” the persona seems to be mourning for a departed twin, who is missed unendingly. The gender of the twin is uncertain, but the vacuum created by the demise or absence of the ‘twin’ is replete in the poem. Of such instance in the poem is the second stanza;

At morn,

Face of loneliness I see

At noon,

Worries and daydreams accompany me

As I walk into memory

At night,

I toss, turn for comfort,

Yet no arms to embrace (p.17)

In “Mortality,” the poem I choose to focus on is “Who is People?” – Apparently a social critique of the essence of life, especially in today’s Nigeria. True to the troupe, the persona in stanza 5 soliloquizes;

Whatever I eat

Is people’s business

Whatever I wear is people’s business

Whenever I walk

People want to know where I am going (p.35).

As a literacy critic, my reading of the poem resonates with the concerns of the uncertainties of everyday life, but beyond that, the poem tends to be saying that people appear to want to get into businesses or affairs which in the real sense of the word ought not to be their burden. It is because people dabble too much into people’s personal lives that we build acrimony, jealousy, envy and even hatred.

On the whole, the 12 stories in  If Only We Knew and the 50 poems in Being Twins, centre on the vulnerability of the Nigerian poor, yet with a clear doggedness on how Nigeria’s problems could be resolved and this borders on  nurturing nationalistic principles.

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