‘Love Is Power, or Something Like That,” a collection of stories set largely in modern-day Nigeria, pulses with an indomitable life force that is, by turns, tender and fierce.
In nine taut stories, A. Igoni Barrett, who lives in Lagos, captures lives full of yearning, striving, setbacks, and moments of joy. He’s a compassionate if unflinching writer whose stories of daily life in Nigeria turn on universal themes. There’s a 15-year-old boy who poses online as a 23-year-old Liberian widow, a young man who thrusts himself on a girl 15 years his junior, and a woman who becomes friends with her husband’s mistress.
Two of the most memorable stories in this collection happen to be ones that Barrett said — in a Q&A distributed by the book’s publisher — are drawn from the life of his maternal grandmother and other family members. In one, “The Shape of a Full Circle,” expressions of love and hate arise and vanish in quick succession. Fourteen-year-old Dimié Abrakasa leaves his siblings and his mother, passed out from too much alcohol, in their wretched apartment as he strikes out in search of money so they can eat that day. When he finally returns home with food and drink, his siblings have decamped to their grandmother’s house. Dimié’s mother slobbers him with kisses, but the next morning her gratitude is forgotten and she lashes out at him. This time, though, he fights back.
In “The Worst Thing That Happened,” also drawn from family stories, Ma Bille’s grown children are so absorbed in their own lives that they hardly notice her declining health. Yet the widow comforts herself with the memory of how they pulled together and helped her through an unbearable grief years ago when the children’s father died of a heart attack. “The worst thing that happened to her revealed the best thing she had,” Barrett writes.
The title story “Love Is Power, Or Something Like That” — first published in the Boston-based Agni’s African fiction issue in 2009 — pays witness to the abuse policeman Eghobamien Adrawus unleashes on the job and at home. He seethes, even when he is lying in bed. As Barrett writes, “He glowered at the ceiling, chewing his lips, so immersed in the acid broth of his thoughts that he didn’t hear his cell phone until the call was lost.”
Though this collection is dominated by serious encounters, Barrett shows his facility with a light touch in “My Smelling Mouth Problem,” narrated by an earnest yet clueless man riding a bus in Lagos. Every time he opens his mouth, his fellow riders recoil from his bad breath. “The conductor squeezed his face like I have killed his mother,” Barrett writes.
Nigeria — for all its political turmoil, and perhaps, in part, because of it — has a brilliant literary history. Native son Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart” has been called African literature’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And in 1986 Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka became the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Among the most celebrated Nigerian writers of a younger generation is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who now divides her time between the United States and Nigeria. Her new novel, “Americanah,” being published this month, is set not solely in Nigeria but in London and the United States as it chronicles the lives of Nigerian immigrants. Barrett’s tales from Nigeria are so rich in detail and feeling that I selfishly want him to stay put in Lagos and keep writing, inspired by the lives around him.
Jan Gardner writes Word on the Street and The Find in the Sunday Books section.