When I call A. Igoni Barrett on the phone, he’s in Lagos, Nigeria—not because he’s visiting his native country but because, unlike most successful Nigerian writers, he still lives there. “The stories I want to tell are Nigerian,” he says. “By leaving, I suspect I’d lose something important.”
Barrett has won prizes and been anthologized in the West, and his already acclaimed short story collection Love Is Power or Something Like That (which Kirkus starred) will be released in the States this month. But this doesn’t mean the author makes it easy on American readers. Some of his characters speak in a dense pidgin English (“Dog wey get rabies dey craze”) and Barrett doesn’t go out of his way to explain that moin-moin is a delicious bean paste, or that NEPA is short-hand for the organization governing electricity in Nigeria (about which it is joked to stand for “Never Expect Power Again”).
When his publisher suggested including a glossary, Barrett resisted, hoping his book might serve as an introduction to the vibrant local dialect, an immersion experience in all things Nigerian. Barrett explains that “pidgin has become more of a lingua franca in Nigeria than many native languages, and I try to stay true to that. I understand that I’m writing for the world. But when I read Russian novels growing up, my lack of knowledge about that country did not in any way effect my engagement in the experience.”
Barrett’s influences are as international as they are Nigerian. He grew up in a household “with more books around than toys” and says that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera convinced him to give up the study of agriculture and turn to literature. “When I first started writing,” he says, “I was in love with Thomas Mann.” But when asked where his own writing fits, in terms of a lineage, Nigerian or otherwise, Barrett is reticent. “I can’t really say. I just found a style that works for me and helps me tell the stories I want to tell.”
The style of Love Is Power or Something Like That is edgy and original, and Barrett is able to universalize the human experience in a way that often subverts expectation. In the opening story, “The Worst Thing That Happened,” a woman reveals her own fear of the “other” when she gives her son permission to attend college in the U.S. only after he promises to “steer clear of civil rights marches, abstain from drugs and alcohol, and, most important of all, to avoid relationships with crazy women, which all white women were.”
That’s not to say the characters in this collection are always easy to empathize or identify with. In “Dream Chaser,” a teenager pretends to be a woman online so that he can scam foreigners for money. In “The Shape of a Full Circle,” the child Dimié, who has been sent to buy food for his siblings and alcohol for his deadbeat mother, loses the money when he stops to throw a rock at a homeless woman.
Barrett dramatizes the moments when people’s lives change, when they are at their most violent or most vulnerable, in an effort to understand what has pushed them to arrive at that moment. In the title story, a policeman has trouble reconciling the corruption and violence of his job with the intimacy of his home life. Barrett says that Nigerian police “have children who they want to feed and protect and send to school, just like everybody else, but when you see them in their official position, they act like brutes. I wanted to contrast that with the quiet moments at home, to show the humanity that existed underneath. Sometimes the system is so large and powerful that individuals cannot do much on their own against it.”
Despite the frequently dark subject matter, Barrett’s gorgeous prose crackles even in the most wrenching of moments: “Catching sight of the pile of butchered meat on the table surface, Eghobamien Adrawus reached out and grabbed a cow leg—the hoof dug him in the wrist and bloodstained ligaments extended like hacked wires from the knee joint. Wielding the leg like a truncheon, he clubbed the prostrate man over the head.” When I finished Love Is Power or Something Like That, I felt emotionally bruised but also energized and ready for more. Lucky for me, Barrett has just finished the first draft of a novel. I can hardly wait.
A Fulbright scholar to Nigeria in 2007, Mary Helen Specht's fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times. She teaches creative writing at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.