BOA Editions • Release Date: May 11, 2021
The world has been turned on its head. An African man zealously works as an ‘enactor’ in a ranch where guests pay to watch foreigners perform their ethnicities, a fetish that quickly takes its toll on a Chinese staff, Ling. As enactors, they must make their guests happy, or they risk getting bad ratings and losing their jobs. In this strange and fascinating story that opens E.C. Osondu’s collection, foreigners, immigrants, including visitors from outer worlds, all struggle to survive in their new environment. The locals are not left out of these pockets of well-dramatized social panic, as they appear to be threatened by the mere presence of aliens who dare to settle on their land.
A witty storyteller, Osondu begins each story with the warmest tone. Everything looks alright: there is a lot of laughter, families milling about doing what families do, workers carrying on their job without hassles. But then he throws a wrench in the heart of things and disrupts the façade of sanity.
Osondu is most insightful when he is exposing the hypocrisy of those who pretend to be accepting of open-minded views. In “How to Raise an Alien Baby,” villagers go at lengths to make their alien visitors comfortable, but underneath all that performance, those well-arranged smiles and proper manners, lies disturbing prejudices. In “Visitors,” Osondu pokes holes at liberal modesty: here, we meet a family as they prepare to receive new visitors. The husband is unhappy that the visitors have chosen, of all places, to settle in their community. His wife is more welcoming of strangers, and her niceness offends him: “She is a good woman but the problem is that she is too good for her own good,” he grumbles. She once took in a stray cat, fed and cared for it, but the grumpy animal, who he nicknamed Old Moocher, later abandoned them, reaffirming his rigid distrust for strays and strangers. However, with the arrival of the visitors, he undergoes a pivotal transformation that is earnest: he reluctantly engages them in a conversation and realizes that they are people like him, who go through difficulties like him. Walls crumble. The atmosphere is filled with new tenderness. And a once-insensitive man becomes vulnerable.
Osondu knows how to build tension. He takes us on a ride that first appears to be a jolly adventure, but then he shifts gear, and we are hurtling down a steep hill. In “Feast,” we meet a vibrant community as they prepare for a great ceremony. Children run around, playing creative games. Parents set the venue in the Feasting Hall. It is all laughter and delicious smells of food, until the major event that prefaces the feast: the public hanging of an alien visitor. This lynching, this mindless murder we never see coming, is a “sacrifice” the villagers must “offer” before they can eat like they never do any other time in the year. This devastating climax recalls the shocking twist in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where the members of an otherwise ordinary and close-knit community participate in a lottery system to decide who among them must be stoned to death, in keeping with tradition. Osondu stretches things even a step further: the villagers sleep soundly afterward, “because on Alien Feast days everyone slept uncommonly well,” he writes—a casual sentence that manages to be plain and horrifying at the same time.
Osondu’s stories circle around a unifying theme, but they are varied and held together by his original writing. This rich and unforgettable collection is an artistic triumph.
Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Ogadinma.
Image: BOA Editions