© 2024 WHRO Public Media
5200 Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk VA 23508
757.889.9400 | info@whro.org
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'The Liquid Eye of a Moon' is a Nigerian coming-of-age story

Catapult

Uchenna Awoke’s debut novel The Liquid Eye of a Moon is, on the surface, 15-year-old Dimkpa’s coming of age story in the rural Nigerian village of Oregwu. But Dimkpa’s story is bigger than this -- as it takes place within the specific context of what Awoke calls “human tabooing.”

The novel delves into life in an Igbo family that is considered “unclean” because they fall on the lowest rung of the traditional Igbo caste system. There are varying explanations or “justifications” for these harsh social divisions, including a specific type of ancestor worship. One practice is to dedicate a child to an ancestor, thereby “enslaving” the child to that forebear.

Dimkpa’s devotion to his deceased aunt may reflect this spirituality. He is a dreamer, and his most important desire is to build a proper tomb for his aunt Okike, who died by drowning. Although his memory is hazy, Dimkpa knows this aunt was extremely close to him. It is not until the end of the book that we learn the details of her death, disclosing why Dimkpa may be so driven to give her a proper burial.

This novel also takes place against a history of horrific ethnic cleansing. To vastly oversimplify: The Nigerian government undertook a 1966 pogrom that killed thousands of Igbo people. The Igbos rose up to declare the independent republic of Biafra. The Biafran war for liberation, often called the Nigerian civil war, evoked headlines around the world. It ended in 1970 with the crushing defeat of the nascent Biafran republic. Accounts of the Biafran war have been memorialized in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s searing novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, Chinua Achebe’s iconic book, There Was a Country, Louis Chude-Sokei’s terrific memoir, Floating in a Most Peculiar Way, and elsewhere.

Awoke presumes the reader’s knowledge of this complex background. He declines to translate Igbo terms, sharpening his message that Igbo cultural and political history form the novel’s warp and weft.

Dimkpa carries the weight of being the eldest son in his family. He narrates his story in the first person. His maturation is marked by increasing awareness of caste differences, and the grave disappointments and dangers they engender. His closest friend, Eke, cannot bring Dimkpa to his home due to social divisions. But the boys’ friendship transcends these taboos, and they explore their village together and share adventures until fate intervenes.

Dimkpa’s father fought for Biafran independence but remains in the lowest class, and, as such, is unfairly passed over to be village elder. Dimkpa’s parents may have anticipated this injustice, but it wounds the family, especially Dimkpa.

Dimkpa experiences sharp divisions within his own family as well. His younger brother Machebe's self-discipline — and consequent generosity and success — taunts Dimkpa.

Their father follows a traditional Igbo religious practice that invokes punishing gods, including Ezenwanyi, a commanding queen. Awoke intersperses these ritual stories throughout the book, casting a shadow across Dimkpa’s activities.

By contrast, Dimkpa’s mother is Pentecostal, and at pains to ensure her children’s Christian salvation.

How can Dimkpa contain these divisions and move forward in his life? Throughout his teens and early 20s he tries multiple schemes to lift himself up in society and earn enough to build his aunt’s tomb and bring his family out of poverty. He proceeds as a hopeful innocent, while the reader fears for him. He follows paths that result in his being defrauded, shamed, and beaten down physically and emotionally. His struggles lead to a growing sense of frustration and pessimism. We come to understand that his choices are painfully constricted by the caste system into which he was born.

The moon in the title figures prominently in many scenes. When Dimkpa finally succeeds in building his aunt’s tomb, he lies on it beside her, and looks “into the big liquid eye of a moon.” “Liquid” in the title brings to mind the fluidity of life and the lack of control humans have over their fate.

My reading of this novel would have been greatly enhanced by a clearer understanding of Igbo culture and history. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being immersed in Dimkpa’s life, the tastes and smells of his mother’s cooking, the description of his fellow villagers, and his travels to Lagos and elsewhere to improve his lot. We feel the dust in the streets and engage in the activity at the local market. These setting and atmospherics help illustrate the suffering imposed on members of Dimkpa’s caste.

Awoke’s writing is impressive; his metaphors are refreshing and vivid. Sentences like “Eke lights his crackling bush-fire laughter,” make Dimkpa’s friend Eke come alive. Dimkpa gives this specific description of his brother Machebe: “Imagine a tiger incarnate with a hard orange-brown stare.”

The book ends on an affirmative, though abrupt, note, with insufficient lead up to its conclusion. If such an ending suggests a novelist new to his craft, the book itself suggests a writer of great promise. Dimkpa’s meandering story carries a vital humanitarian message. I look forward to reading more of Uchenna Awoke’s work.

 

Martha Anne Toll is a D.C.-based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and was shortlisted for the Gotham Book Prize. Her second novel, Duet for One, is due out May 2025.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Martha Anne Toll
[Copyright 2024 NPR]