Twenty-20: Stories and Lessons from the Pandemic Year is the first anthology in African literature to deal with COVID-19. At 65 pages, with 14 stories by 14 contributors, it is a brisk read. Its strength is in its diary-like format.
Some of the stories tug at your humanity. Some reflect on the self and ask questions: What are we doing? When all of this is over, what would we say we achieved? “The Pandemic Culture,” by Avwemoya Izoduwa Ogheneochuko, takes an introspective angle and, in a vulnerable way, puts out the fears and jealousies that arose with opportunities missed and successes celebrated by others. Money became a central theme during the pandemic, and if you were not making enough of it, what then were you doing? For a generation that has made a ritual out of “celebrating wins,” there is the pressure to constantly be in a state of achieving. (Ironically, the anthology does not question this culture.) And so, when a family member falls sick—the father—what happens is a celebration of life and the appreciation that it wasn’t death.
Haneefa Abdulrahman’s “Revived Intimacy” is also set in a home where fear lingers and worries are confronted. It dwells on a journey to Zaria, which ultimately serves no real purpose and gives scant details about the family and the intimacy we should see. Ibrahim Babátúndé Ibrahim’s “Down, Not Out” takes us into the world of a young family man who’s left a decade-old career to start writing. We meet his wife and his newborn child, and we see his struggle of “being at the bottom” in a new career. This story is better written than most in the anthology.
Central to all the stories are family, loss, anxiety, and fear. In “Of Highs and Lows,” Tobi Eyinade writes about losing a close friend and being a source of hope to many who looked up to her, making her dig deep inside herself for a strength she didn’t know existed. Albarka Wakili, who writes in the second person in “A Lockdown Hero,” narrates how he spent time during the lockdown, from starting a football team to his PlayStation overheating and, finally, delving into books and understanding God.
Zainab Muhammed opens with a brilliant sentence in “Covid-19 and Me”: The world was used to running. It is about her renewed decision to keep on writing. Osatare Omonkhegbe, a fourth-year medical student, takes to writing, practicing her faith, trying out new recipes, and watching the fight against police brutality and the oppression of women. Oluwabukunmi Familoye reflects on pandemic buzzwords: “shutdown,” “work from home,” “the new normal.”
The anthology aims to provide “lessons from the pandemic,” but the stories try so hard to focus on individual writers that the “lessons” take center stage and storytelling is left incoherent and flailing. They do not arouse as much emotions as they aim to. Think of a Nigerian church: members giving testimonies while trying to beat time.
The attempt at this anthology is commendable, but it could have undergone more rigorous editing. Recent creative nonfiction from Nigeria has been accused of focusing on the traumatic and being too confessional. This anthology doesn’t fall into either category. It is all about thanksgiving and seeking small happinesses. All in all, it answers the most important question of the pandemic: How did you remain sane when the world was falling apart?
About the Author:
Socrates Mbamalu is a graduate student of War and Society at Chapman University. He is an editor with Bakwa Magazine and Yaba Left Review.