Chinelo Okparanta’s new New Yorker short story “Benji” is fiction a good reader shouldn’t miss out on. To me, it is even more powerful than her 2013 Caine prize shortlisted story, “America”. A sharp contrast exists between the story and the stories of her fiction debut, Happiness, Like Water. “Benji” focuses on the same issues that she already addressed in her previous stories, but now they relate to a male protagonist instead of a female one. It begins with the introduction of her main character, Benji, who is the only remaining male in his family after his father passed away. He is wealthy after having been bequeathed an expansive estate. But Benji’s oddity is that he is forty-two and not married, Mrs, Anyaogu, his mother tells her new friend, Alare. And with no evidence of lovers even at that age, people will begin to suspect.
Alare, who is in her fifties, got married fairly late, in her thirties, to a man about Benji’s age. Benji also light-brown skin, the kind that glows a little yellow under bright light. Alare is not married a wealthy man, and the lowliness of his job spurrs her to never to discuss her marriage in public. She cautioned the husband never to bring up her name at his workplace. But after some persistent questioning by Mrs. Anyaogu, Alare reveals he is a gardener and lies that he does some construction work too. Alare is also a God-fearing woman, in fact so ardent in her church that when the congregation disintegrates owing to a scandal by the pastor, she does not lose her faith and does not stop attending church services, only finally leaving when the flock has left and the church has completely crumbled. She has found this Deeper Life congregation and is lucky enough to befriend Mrs. Anyaogu there. After church, Mrs. Anyaogu insists on treating Alare to lunch.
The writer brilliantly describes the ornate furniture and design of the house. And then the meal, okra soup with fufu which they eat with forks. In Happiness, Like Water (HLW), Okparanta talks about food a lot especially Nigerian cuisine. She continues to talk about Nigerian food in this short story too. Except that in her debut, there is that Nigerian way of cooking and eating. But in this story, the eating of fufu with forks is not quintessentially Nigerian, even though the food is African. The meal discussion shifts to politics along the ethnicity tangent. In HLW, Okparanta had written all her stories from the Igbo angle where she hails. But in “Benji” she churns everything up -Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa. Mrs. Anyaogu excuses herself and tells Benji to entertain the guest, so she could give instructions to the house girls for the impending meals. (Okparanta also wrote about house girls and a fair house girl in her short story “Fairness”) Alare notices that Benji is an akanshi, a dwarf, as they walk to the beautiful garden where they meet a man called Godwin. Benji tells Alare that he is very hardworking and loyal. As they sit, Alare, in her mind, concludes that it was Benji’s size coupled with his light-yellow complexion that accounted for his being single. Most women she knows feel there is something effeminate about a man being so pale. In HLW, Chinelo’s writing focused entirely on Nigerian women’s marital issues, but in “Benji” she focuses on the marital issues of a Nigerian man, her main character,Benji.
Benji tells her he’s travelling to Dubai to relax and Alare wonders why he has to go there and spend money to relax when he could do it in the garden. She thinks of his kindness, a genuinely nice person almost foolish in his kindness that a gold digging young girl could marry and exploit him. He sends Alare two postcards from Dubai. When she suspects Benji has returned, she meets Mrs. Anyaogu in church and invites herself again to lunch and her friend accepts. After some time, Mrs. Anyaogu has a heart attack and is rushed to hospital. Then she returns home. Naturally, she needs lots of nursing and Alare makes herself useful. This incident also really bridges the status gap between Alare and Benji’s family and increases contact between Benji and Alare, who assumes the role of substitute madam giving orders to the house girls. Godwin makes sure the compound looks clean as ever. And as she administers Mrs. Anyaogu’s medication, she starts sleeping with Benji and cheating on her husband. Alare makes some excuses that it is not a typical behaviour of hers and it is unchristian but God can forgive her. Benji himself does not care much about religion. He seldom goes to church. Alare continues to come everyday and tells Benji that she just lied to her husband about helping a sick friend, but her husband does not question her.
Eventually, things change. Her husband begins having bursts of pain in his head. Alare tells Benji she does not want to tell him at first because she thinks the illness will go away. But it gets worse. Benji tells her he needs to see a doctor. Benji jokes that her husband is getting in the way of things but he will never watch another man die, so he will provide the few thousand naira needed through Godwin, if she feels uncomfortable receiving the money directly from him. She leaves for some time and returns after two weeks to report that her husband has made progress. Sadly, after a month Mrs. Anyaogu dies.
Early in the harmattan season, Alare made an announcement to Benji that her husband’s illness has worsened and his doctors are telling him to go abroad for treatment. After considering the issue, Benji decides to help again, this time doubling the amount for treatment in London, also paying for airfare and lodging. Alare goes for a month and Benji really feels her absence. When she returns, they continue sleeping with each other, even though her husband’s health requires her attention. Less than a year after the London trip, the doctors recommend Zurich. Alare asks if Benji would once more mind doubling the money. Benji agrees to finance the trip, but Godwin has quits his job, so without anyone to deliver the money for him, Benji decides to do so himself. He is amazed to find a Mercedes car and a Volvo car parked on a driveway. He is standing by the window, peering in, when he sees a man and a woman dancing together and kissing. He recognizes Alare but what surprises him is that the man also recognizes him. It is Godwin Onuoha.
Disillusioned and shocked, Benji goes back home and begins contemplating on what he has seen and wondering the role Godwin has played in all of it, wondering when exactly Alare’s husband died. By the next morning it dawns on him that Godwin is Alare’s husband. What a beautiful twist! He rises angrily and intending to storm to Alare’s house and tell her that he has caught her at her own game. But Okparanta complicates the plot by delving into the meaning of it all, very evocative of the end of her short story “America” when Nnenna finally gets her much craved visa, when she thinks deeply about what it is she really wants. Benji thinks about his mother, what she wanted for him most -a wife. Alare has not been a wife but been the closest thing to a wife in his life. She has been to Benji what money has been to her.
The story builds a lot on the foundation of “Happiness, Like Water” and takes off from there like an airplane. Benji has the problem of not being married and facing pressure to do so, just like the girl in “On Ohaeto Street”, just like Nnenna in “America”, just like young Grace in “Grace”. Benji has that fairness issue, which is a minus for a man and a plus for a woman like the fair girl in “Fairness”. Benji is naïve just like the girl in “On Ohaeto Street”. But I think Benji is too, too naïve. How come he never pays a visit to see Alare’s husband in years! Or finds out anything about his condition! He just accepts every single thing Alare tells him, like he’s been charmed. There are the same African themes of health care issues, inadequate medical facilities, and people having to travel out of Nigeria to seek treatment abroad. For the new universal Okparanta themes in the story, there is money swindling, fake friendship, rift between the rich and the poor and how it sometimes causes people to rip off each other. The universality of “Benji” attempts at some cross cultural discussion. And not to forget too that “Benji” was modeled on Okparanta’s favourite Alice Munro story, as she mentioned in an interview with NoViolet Bulawayo in Munyori.
About the author: Chinelo Okparanta was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and moved to the US at the age of ten. A graduate of Penn State University, she has an MA from Rutgers University and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. She has taught creative writing at Iowa, been an Olive B O’Connor Fellow of Creative Writing at Colgate University and currently teaches at Purdue University. Featured as one of Granta magazine’s new voices of 2012, her stories have appeared in numerous publications. Chinelo’s debut collection of short stories, “Happiness, Like Water” was published to wide acclaim in 2013. One of the stories in the collection “America’ was also shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African writing. She’s currently completing her debut novel tentatively titled, “Under the Udara Trees”
About the Reviewer: Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a Cameroonian writer and blogger at Nkiachaatemnkeng.blogspot.com. His work has been published in three online literary journals, malawiwrite.org, www.africabookclub.com and www.thenewblackmagazine.com. He was shortlisted for the 2013 Mardibooks short story competition in London. A holder of a Curriculum Studies and Biology degree, he works as a Swissport Customer Service agent at the Douala International Airport.