Swift Press • Release Date: November 4, 2021
Strip the ornate appearances, and the literary world becomes an Olympic of sorts. To succeed, a writer must invent a persona that they wear at strategic times. This is what Frank Jasper, the narrator in Timothy Ogene’s new novel, “Seesaw,” wants us to understand. Reading this text felt like watching the Netflix hit series, “Squid Game.” But where the competitors in the show engage in graphic violence to win the main prize, the writers in Jasper’s world wrestle with words.
The novel chronicles Jasper’s journey to the William Blake residency in Boston, where he reluctantly goes to create new work years after the failure of his badly edited first novel. Jasper has nothing but contempt for the other African writer at the residency, Barongo Akello Kabumba, who shows up at the welcome dinner wearing a Maasai toga and holding a cattle-herding stick, “grinning from cheek to cheek, offering slight bows to everyone,” essentially performing Africa for his American audience. This recalls the thesis in E.C. Osondu’s short story, “Enactors,” in which foreign workers in western institutions are required to perform ethnic stereotypes, for financial gain. Jasper’s cohort stretches things a little further: they discard and wear their personas on a whim. One of the fellows, the Indian writer Sara Chakraborty, who constantly spurts “rapid and fully formed academic sentences,” carefully curated her social media, so that her postcolonial activist image on Twitter does not overlap with the bad bitch character on Instagram, who enjoys the same luxuries she constantly criticizes and claims to radically resist.
“Seesaw” is largely about finding one’s place in a deeply competitive world. And this poses a quandary for Jasper. He likes to observe the world from a distance, to constantly retreat to silence, for his sanity. But in the present atmosphere, writers are expected to “sell” themselves at dinners and events, to pose like statues in a museum, to be observed by agents and publishers. Jasper calls these “literary orgies,” where they must “pitch” their work or ideas to publishers. The lucky fellows get a one-on-one chat with a “bad boy” of the publishing world, a man who is said to have so much power that he can easily “transform a rickshaw wallah in Delhi into a New York Times bestselling memoirist.”
Jasper is rebellious, and this does not go well for him. He eventually gets kicked out of the program for failing to impress his western host. His narration itself is an act of rebellion. Dialogs are enjambed with exposition, shunning the traditional structure of a novel. His narration reads like a long, breathless story that he wants us to listen to, and from his perspective. He weeds out long conversations, leaving us with the necessary crumbs that fit his interpretation of his interactions with people and his journey to the United States. He speaks less but has a loud mind; he often engages himself in long conversations, pondering the things he would have said to people, the barbed retorts he would have made, and his constant suspicion of everyone and their intentions. When he speaks at literary gatherings, he paraphrases lines he had “read or heard somewhere,” because he does not like to share what he thinks. And when he dares to, the anxieties take over him: he stumbles; he knocks his wine over; he makes a mess.
Jasper shows us the harm such weighty expectations pose for people who battle social anxieties. Because he must share his work with his cohort, he considers and discards ideas that he would later realize were brilliant. He envies Kabumba for his productivity and refuses to attend compulsory workshops. “I knew I wasn’t a marketable African writer,” he tells us, “I lacked the temperament of a socially conscious black writer. And how could I compete with Kabumba’s teeth-flashing smile and thunderous laughter?” He declares, during a fight with Kabumba, that he is done with the program. His host quickly expels him. Using this distinction between him and the Ugandan writer, Ogene shows us what happens when neurodiverse people are forced to compete with each other, and the unfair advantage the neurotypical has over the divergent.
Ogene’s writing has a sentient quality. His language sings and his sharp themes are softened with humor. But what makes “Seesaw” a stunning and successful work is his protagonist’s ability to look in the mirror and see his hypocrisy. Jasper becomes that which he loathes. Because he had felt “alienated” by his cohort’s “language of engagement” and did not know the things they knew, he goes to work, gleaning academic jargon from journals and magazines, which he later drops as “signposts to ‘foreground’ [his] legitimacy.” Following his return to Nigeria, he connives with his agent to rip off naïve writers who seek western validation. He perfects his new “mode of speaking,” delivering lectures at elite clubs, where he dines with the rich. Americans are not left out in this rebound; he secures a gig to host anti-racist Zoom workshops for prejudiced and socially bruised Americans, who want to confer with “authentic” Africans like him, for a good fee. This is the pivotal turn in this novel: even as he bemoans the aggressive hypocrisy of the literary world, Ogene lets you see that Jasper is not perfect; he is not a victim in this story. And it takes a lot of honesty and self-reflection to capture that kind of excellence.
Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Ogadinma.