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Stephen Ney

Reading from the South

The fiction of Karen King-Aribisala

A number of contemporary writers on "global Christianity" think that it is important for Westerners to learn from the forms of Christianity practised in the "Global South," particularly Africa. Foremost among them is Philip Jenkins, whose 2006 book The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, reviewed in Books & Culture, concludes with an exhortation for Western Christians to try "reading from the South." This imaginative practice "can help free biblical passages and even whole genres from the associations they have acquired from our own historical inheritance." Jenkins says little about how one could learn this way of reading and thinking, though I am sure that going to live in a Christian community in the Global South would be the ideal. However, a more modest step that any Westerner can take is to make a point of reading books written by Asian, African, and Latin American Christians—such as Karen King-Aribisala.

King-Aribisala is an English professor in sub-Saharan Africa's most populous city, Lagos, Nigeria. Her 1989 collection Our Wife and Other Stories and her two novels, Kicking Tongues (1998) and The Hangman's Game (2007), are all available in North America and are all well suited for undergraduate literature classes. The Hangman's Game was awarded the 2008 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for the "Best Book" from the African Commonwealth countries.

The Hangman's Game weaves together two stories that are separated by nearly two centuries and by the Atlantic Ocean. The first is narrated by a comically neurotic Nigerian woman, originally from Guyana, determined to write her novel in spite of her precarious pregnancy and her country's tyrannical government. Nigeria's president—obviously modeled after Sani Abacha, who ruthlessly ruled and pillaged Nigeria in the 1990s—is systematically executing his opponents. The two lead males, the novelist's husband and her gardener, are involved in overlapping schemes to save the country from oppression: the husband plans a spiritual coup through a massive Christian outreach, and the gardener plans an armed coup that will use the outreach as a cover. The way King-Aribisala schematizes these two available responses to political desperation has the effect of schematizing modern Nigeria's history, which is packed with armed coups and spiritual revivals. But neither of these big nationalist schemes comprehends a woman who has her hands full with a baby about to be born and a novel about to be written.

The second story is itself that novel-in-progress, Three Blind Mice, which keeps interrupting the first story. It is about the failed 1823 slave revolt in Demerara, a British colony now part of the South American country Guyana. Taken right from the history books are the main events: the Demerara revolt, though suppressed speedily and violently, involved many thousand slaves, and was the first major slave revolt in the Caribbean where Christianized slaves played a prominent role. A zealous young London Missionary Society missionary (his actual name was John Smith) was subsequently condemned to death as a conspirator, for since his arrival he had incited the antagonism of the plantation owners by teaching slaves to read and telling them that Christianity calls all men equal. Demerara's governor makes an accurate prediction: "Teach the slaves to read, teach them from parts of the Bible which let them feel all men are equal in the sight of God … and you teach them revolt." (King-Aribisala gives many such examples of the consequential and socially engaged biblical hermeneutics that Jenkins wants Western Christians to learn from.)

What makes the novel funny as well as insightful is the way that the two stories refuse to stay apart. Each story overflows into the other, and as a result the reader stays alert, listening in one story for echoes of what he has heard in the other. The boundaries are blurred between the oppression of black slaves in the British Empire and the oppression of black citizens in the independent but corrupt country of Nigeria. But The Hangman's Game has more to say about writing than about politics. Though it depicts domineering rulers who deny the truth that their authority is always subordinate to God's, its central conflict is the struggle of the domineering writer to relinquish control over both the real and the fictional people in her life. When she starts writing, she resolves, "As God is my witness, I was going to be in control whether they liked it or not—or kill them off." But in dealing with her novel's fictional people she gradually realizes that the right way to deal with real people is not to stay in perfect control by treating them as stock characters who can fulfill a function in a predetermined plot. She learns, rather, to practice love by acknowledging the uniqueness and having compassion toward the flaws of each person. And, repudiating the commonplace that in the world of the text the writer is God, she learns that God, not she, is in control.

King-Aribisala's earlier novel, Kicking Tongues, charts a similar journey. The ambitious protagonist, during the course of narrating the story, realizes that her noble social and political goals can only be achieved once she acknowledges her own and her nation's need for God. In the loose poem that serves as epilogue, she prays for the Lord to deliver Nigeria from "blood-guiltiness" and "perversities," and thanks him for having taught her and her fellow pilgrims "How / To set this love / In order." Indeed the book can be read as a pilgrimage towards a realignment of that which an African Christian writer two millennia before King-Aribisala, St. Augustine, called ordo amoris. For in the world as seen through King-Aribisala's fiction, you can never solve horizontal, human-to-human problems unless you solve the vertical problem—and I think this is a major reason why her work has received little scholarly attention. Her vision matches what Jenkins says about African Christianity in at least one sense: it is thoroughly un-secular.

If implicitly this is a novel about a woman's and a nation's pilgrimage towards repentance and reconciliation with God, explicitly it is about forty individuals' pilgrimage from the Eko Holiday Inn in Lagos, the old Nigerian capital, to the new capital, Abuja. Into the soil of late 20th-century Nigeria, King-Aribisala transplants Chaucer's pilgrimage from the Tabard Inn in Southwark towards Canterbury. (Some might consider a strategy like this, adopted by an African writer, as a kind of subservience to the Western canon or as a lack of cultural authenticity. Actually, the net effect of this transplanting is robust confidence rather than subservience, because King-Aribisala retells The Canterbury Tales with aplomb, and grounds it squarely in the Nigerian cultural and political context.)

Since she invites comparison, I should mention that in terms of both psychological perceptivity and verbal artistry King-Aribisala is no match for Chaucer. Her characters are often schematic, and never as hilariously hypocritical as Chaucer's; her long passages of free-verse poetry often seem to be poorly edited padding. But like Chaucer she succeeds, by the very heterogeneity of her narrative structure and by the disharmony of the voices contained in it, in pointing to the futility of human effort and the need for grace. The Abuja-bound bus—its passengers include a milkmaid, a deaconness, a police superintendent, an English graduate student, a traditional Yoruba Chief, and an air-hostess—becomes a microcosm of Nigerian society, full of engaging ethnographic details. Each passenger has a tale to tell: the woman in purdah tells of how she saved her husband from his debtors by dressing him up as a veiled woman; the British umbrella salesman tells of how his encounter with Nigeria made him confront within himself a subtle tendency toward violence and misogyny. Though the strong-willed narrator attempts to monopolize all their voices, she does not succeed, and by the end of the journey resolves (much like the narrator in Hangman's Game) to grant others the freedom to deviate from the plot she had in mind for them.

Many observers, myself included, are convinced that Christianity's center of gravity is shifting southward, away from the North Atlantic countries and toward their former colonies, and are further persuaded that this shift will bring blessings both to the church and to the world. In the January/February issue of Books & Culture, Andy Crouch raised doubts about the "slippery metaphor" of this shifting center, and about whether the North Atlantic countries have really lost their status as the site of the most influential forms of Christianity. His caution is justified, and the speed of the shift should not be exaggerated. However, current trends in the global church suggest to me that a city such as Lagos, far outside the borders of Western Christendom, is set to play a role in the first half of this millennium as important as was London's in the second half of the last millennium. If I am right, then Chaucer and King-Aribisala, though separated by many centuries, have more in common than the plot structure of their literary works. Both are lovingly critiquing a society where Christianity is predominant and yet shallow, where widespread piety often fails to produce personal integrity and public justice. Imagine if the critique were effective! Imagine if the Christianity King-Aribisala depicts were one day to have global influence as great as the Christianity Chaucer depicted!

These scenarios are fun to contemplate while reading The Hangman's Game and Kicking Tongues. But a warning should be added to Jenkins' exhortation to read from the South: this is not a trick for making belief easy, for regaining some lost simplicity. The sense I get in reading King-Aribisala is that I am looking into a world where belief is not easy but it is right, and though it can be painful it is good for the world. Her enjoyable writing makes a consistently strong point that putting God first and learning to make room for diverse voices are vital, even in a country as rife with religious and ethnic tension as Nigeria.

Stephen Ney is a PhD student in the English Department at the University of British Columbia.

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