Seesaw by Timothy Ogene review – adventures in cultural expectations | fiction

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TSeesaw by imothy Ogene is a refreshing look at aspects of American culture and politics through the eyes of a visiting Nigerian scholar in Boston. The writing scholarship he accepts at William Blake College – not the poet, but a 17th century merchant “whose other ventures in human transportation are well documented” – is aimed at emerging writers, especially international ones. It’s a chance for Frank Jasper to travel, to network, to write a second novel and to really kickstart his career. At the moment, he works from nine to five in a government post office in Port Jumbo, a fictional oil town in southeastern Nigeria, modeled on Port Harcourt. Some of the best descriptive passages in the book show the run down areas of the city, contrasting with the opulent neighborhoods where expatriates and wealthy Nigerians live. Jasper’s first novel, The Day They Came for Dan, only produced 50 copies and is described by him as “poorly edited and lacking in punctuation and filled with typos.” But luckily for Jasper, the book fell into the hands of a visiting American, a former Fulbright; it is she who suggests communion to Jasper.

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It’s an opportunity that most young writers in a developing country would die for, but Jasper doesn’t go to Boston of his own free will. He describes himself as a “recovering writer” after the disappointing performance of his first book. Once in Boston, he refuses to write or participate in the obligatory activities of the fraternity. He spends most of his time making fun of his co-participants, especially those from the Global South: for the “ethnic” clothes they wear, or their accents, or their insane amounts of academic jargon in an attempt to appear. impressive.

Jasper could be seen as the model of an unreliable narrator. He never misses an opportunity to lie or embellish a fact, whether it is his family or his writing. He commented on his own book under an assumed name, comparing it to Proust and “all the works of Amit Chaudhuri”. It behaves thus, one discovers it little by little, to cover an overwhelming feeling of inferiority. His favorite target for ridicule during the scholarship is fellow African from Uganda, Barongo Akello Kabumba, who never tires of “representing” his Africanity, much to the delight of university professors – including wearing shirts. Maasai badges, with a shepherd’s staff, for a welcome dinner. Eventually, after a series of humiliating incidents, Jasper is kicked out of the community and another chapter of his stay in America begins.

Ogene himself could best be described as a “recovering scholar” – he has an MA from Oxford, a PhD from Cambridge, and an MA in Creative Writing from UEA – and this book is perhaps his way of doing research. satire of the university community for its egocentricity and selfishness. . It’s a rebellion against his.

Each page is interspersed with satirical comments on academic jargon and references to obscure texts and authors, some real, some not. It’s smart and hilarious when it works, but it can get a bit too much; most of the characters feel flat and unconvincing because we never go beyond the aspect of their personality that the author wants us to see. One of those references is a book by “Joshua Ibitoye, the Nigerian poet and playwright who received a scholarship to an Ohio university in the 1960s but was quickly expelled for not enlisting.” Ibitoye is a replacement for JP Clark, the late Nigerian poet and playwright, and many vanities in Seesaw are based on his experiences as a writer in the United States in the 1960s, particularly his resistance to stereotypes of his American hosts. . , as documented in his memoir America, Their America. Perhaps because of this, some documents on racial stereotypes seem a bit dated.

Structurally, this is a classic road novel, using the full motif of departure, arrival and return. And it’s when Jasper hits the road, en route to visit his father’s old friend in the Midwest, that the style begins to loosen up. So far there has not been much engagement with political or racial realities in America – this could of course be because the narrator lives in a privileged bubble with other comrades, or because he is a foreigner, a West African for whom racism and racial discrimination are not a daily concern. (He embarked on a casual post-scholarship career, lecturing on how to be anti-racist.) The road trip brings surprising and unexpected encounters, but above all it shows the author’s power of observation and its nuances. in characterization. Maybe Jasper, for no reason to judge or bring down the common people he meets, begins to see clearly and make the reader see the Midwestern scenery, the cornfields, the sunset, the resorts. – roadside service and the characters vividly described. in a surprising and convincing way.

Seesaw is published by Swift (£ 14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, purchase a copy at guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


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