Reading… is a new series on Amie’s Blog where I introduce you to a Contemporary African Short Story Writer and their body of work. If you love reading short stories like I do, and you’d want to learn more about African writers, this series will prove helpful to you.
This week we’ll be reading Pemi Aguda.
Pemi Aguda lives in Lagos, Nigeria. She has an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where she is a fellow. She has won the Henfield Prize, a Tyson Prize for Fiction, Hopwood Awards (for Novel, Short Fiction, Non-fiction and Drama), and the 2015 Writivism Prize.
She received a work-study scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2018, an Octavia Butler Memorial Scholarship from Carl Brandon society to attend the Clarion workshop in 2019, as well as a 2019 Juniper Summer Workshop Scholarship. She was a finalist for the 2020 Us National Magazine Award in Fiction. She is a 2020 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow, and her novel manuscript won the 2020 Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award.
I spent this week reading as much of Pemi Aguda’s fiction as is free and accessible on the internet. Some of the stories I read include Caterer, Caterer, Birdwoman, Contributions, 24 Alhaji Williams Street, Masquerade Season, Things Boys Do, and Manifest. She predominantly writes Speculative Fiction, occasionally dabbling in the subgenres Magical Realism and Horror.
It is believed by many that her story Caterer, Caterer—which went on to win the 2015 Writivism Award for fiction–brought her into the limelight. Published on Munyori Journal in 2015, the short story is about a young woman who accepts a catering job for the Foundation laying ceremony at a mysterious Mega Church but later comes to unearth a gut-churning secret about the church. The story takes on the grim, suspenseful, melancholic tone which has come to be a constant in Pemi Aguda’s fiction.
The writing style in Caterer, Caterer is distinct from all of her other stories. She employs more figurative language and imagery compared to some of her latest stories like Manifest and Masquerade Season. For instance, in Caterer, Caterer, when trying to capture the image of a plate of dry jollof rice, of it’s grains she writes, “…with grains that do not hold onto each other in solidarity”. When trying to capture the image of a speeding Keke driver, she writes “the keke drives as though the spirit of someone whose land he stole is trying to catch up with us.” She compares a man in an ugly green suit to the freshwater algae, Spirogyra.
These images make for an interesting read. You want to know what mundane object she will give life to next.
Compared to stories like Birdwoman and the mind-bending Contributions, Caterer, Caterer falls flat. It does not offer as much suspense, as much depth as the others too. And this is forgivable considering the story is somewhat a debut. I think I have a predilection for the newer stories because there is more attention to plot, to the actual storyline than to metaphorical language.
Now, with Birdwoman, which was also published in 2015, Aguda weaves a more compelling, complex story.
Her depiction of the character Felicity is so beautifully accurate and human. Human in the sense that her characters are always somewhat leaning toward malevolence. And accurate because Pemi begins the story by giving us a glimpse into the childhood of the character, which sort of balances out the adult character we see and sets up the story. Why is this woman sad? Why does she look this way? Why is she desirous of something other than the life she has?
24 Alhaji Williams Street reminded me a lot of Caterer, Caterer. It had the same grim undertones. At the start of the story, Pemi introduces us to a street that seemingly goes on forever. Quite similar to the church yard in Caterer, Caterer which is also of an unfathomable size.
They are building a church. They say it is going to be bigger than both the whole of Sabo and Ladoja joined together. They say it will rise so high that we will not be able to see the hills of Agbara that touch the sky in the distance; that it will be so tall that it can only force our eyes to go up. To God.Excerpt from Caterer, Caterer by Pemi Aguda.
The story, 24, Alhaji Williams Street is about inevitable death and has elements of black magic (juju). There’s a slow chronological death wave, wiping out the first sons of each tenant on this endless street. As death goes knocking on the doors of each house, the reader sort of wonders when (if ever) it stops.
Pemi employs the same technique of repitition in Manifest, a story about the reincarnation of an evil woman named Agnes. Manifest had my heart racing and left my jaw on the FLOOR.
The crazy thing about Manifest is the intensity of the story, you know. How Pemi manages to hook you and have you curious about… a pimple?
Masquerade Season is her most recent work. It’s published on Tor.com (which is the dream for many writers).
What I really love about Masquerade Season is it’s richness and just the uniqueness of the plot. The story is about a boy named Pauly who brings three beautiful, radiant Masquerades home to his mother.
I particularly love how Pemi writes tenderly about Masquerades in this story. She paints them out to be subservient beings, possibly capable of human emotion.
Masquerades in the African context are spirits associated with acts of evil (great dancers tho). They are feared by young children in the way children in the western world fear The Boogey Man.
I remember growing up in fear of them. I remember how whenever we’d travel to the village for Christmas (which was prime Masquerade season), my mother would tell me to not stray too far, to always go with a group of people just in case we’d meet a masquerade on the way. Even when we’d go to the square to watch the masquerades dance, we were told to keep a distance so their whips wouldn’t touch us. We were told not to stare at them for too long.
There were stories by the adults too. Stories of how masquerades were terrorizing the village, extorting money from motorists, raping young women and burgling shops–occasionally burning them down too.
So, for me, it was quite interesting to see how Pemi took on that scary image and made it into this toned down, almost pet-like being. Truly a subversion of the ordinary.
And such vivid descriptions!
The tall masquerade has a body of long raffia threads layered over each other—like someone has stacked fifty-six brooms and topped them all with a brown cowboy hat, the kind Woody in Toy Story wears.Excerpt from Masquerade Season by Pemi Aguda.
The way Pemi writes about Lagos is also something I think is worthy of note. I like to believe that if enough people write on it, a city begins to develop it’s own personality. There are many stories about Lagos being a hard place, a place that breaks you, a place of promiscuity and all the devilish things.
So, it doesn’t come as unbelievable that all of this evil, that things such as cannibalism, black magic, reincarnation, that all of this devilry would occur in a place which already has notoriety for being that way.
I enjoyed reading Pemi’s work this week. Naturally, I read a lot of literary fiction (you know, the real-life type fiction). This was a needed escape from that. It appealed to my inner child… which is insane because none of the themes explored in any of these stories are near child-friendly.
Click here to start reading Pemi’s stories. Do come back to tell me which of the stories you loved and if this post was helpful to you.
Happy reading! X