Chioma Okereke’s Bitter Leaf
After a build-up of many months including a shortlisting for the Commonwealth Prize 2011 in the category of Africa First Best Book, Chioma Okereke’s ‘Bitter Leaf’ was finally presented to the public on Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA). The presentation of the 477 page novel was sponsored by Fidelity Bank Plc, MTN Communications and its Nigerian publisher, Bookcraft.
The debut work of Okereke, ‘Bitter Leaf’ is a love story set in the fictional village of Mannobe where characters including Jericho, Babylon and Driver among others, live intertwined lives. As noted by the emcee, Deji Toye, the novel symbolises two emergent trends: “Firstly, the rebound of women in Literature in Nigeria and that the whole lot of them come from Disapora. We want to thank Chioma for doing us proud.”
The presentation was chaired by Gamaliel Onosode who said, “An event like this excites me and at this same time makes me thoughtful. It saddens me that a country like ours which is filled with geniuses is still being held back with corruption and underdevelopment. Is it that the geniuses are so up there, that they are speaking above our heads or we the laymen are so dumb that we don’t understand what they are saying?’ Onosode however ignited hope in the audience, noting that, “Nigeria has produced great writers and the fact that we are here this morning is evidence that the country is still alive and obviously has the capacity to be among the best in the continent.”
The review of the novel was done by Toni Kan Onwordi, a writer. He lauded the author for doing Nigeria good. “It is not every day a book gets to be selected for the Commonwealth Prize, but today ‘Bitter Leaf’ ranks as one of the first best books in the continent, for me, that is huge,” he said. He likened Okereke to Angela Carter, a British author who has been dead for almost two decades but whose works like ‘Wise Children’, ‘Magic Toyshop’ and ‘Shadow Dance’ are still very much relevant. “While reading this book, I found myself speaking different languages like Portuguese, French, Igbo and Pidgin, this is one attribute that sets this book apart from others and makes it an enigma. It is a mixture of magic, fairytale and poetry, this makes for an interesting read anytime.”
Categorising ‘Bitter Leaf’ as only a love story would be wrong, according to the reviewer, who observed that Okereke also celebrates the harmony of man with nature in the work. “This book is a manifesto that puts the author as an environmental rights activist because it provides an ideal, an almost total vision of an unspoiled landscape where man and nature are one,” Kan said. “This book, ‘Bitter Leaf’ despite its title is a love story that borders on the sexual, filial and environmental. While the wise old man, Allegory, is more attached to the land, people like Babylon the musician, Jericho, Magdalena are busy with man and woman love. Chioma is at her best weaving love triangles.”
“While I am not sure whether Chioma Okereke is a feminist or not, through the pages of this book, it was obvious that she clearly favours her female characters over the male ones. She paints them strong, nurturing and vocal, as evident in characters including M’lle and Mabel, while she did the opposite with the male ones including Driver, the village gossip, Allegory, the Squatter and Babylon the musician who necessarily don’t know what the future holds.”
The reviewer however noted that, “The characters seem to be congested, while Okereke’s use of pidgin is faulted.”
Women are taking over
Okereke had a time to read to the audience who were eager to hear from her. She thanked her father for standing by her as her dreams came true. “I want to appreciate everyone, especially my father who in his wisdom put this together. This eventual title was not the initial one, as my father and I worked tirelessly trying to put an apt name to this book. I am so grateful”. She then went ahead to read an excerpt from the book.
The audience had opportunities to ask questions and comment on the book. Business guru and former presidential candidate, Pat Utomi, f author for her brilliance and creativity. “It is shocking to know that the mother role is beginning to overshadow that of the men. There is a new set of writers that are females; and for example in Anambra, almost all the permanent secretaries are females while the men with their egos are outside doing nothing.”
Another member of the audience, agreed with Utomi. “It is becoming alarming that our men are sitting on the fence while the women are going out to work and provide for the family, as evident in the book. Women are taking on the men’s roles.” Chika Okereke, Chioma’s sibling, asked what the author would change in the book if given another chance. The novelist replied, “I will probably not change anything, but I guess I will give myself a chance to enjoy the work and the process.”
Reginald Ihejiani, CEO of Fidelity Bank, of the major sponsors of the event, expressed his pleasure and that of his bank at partnering with creative writers including Chioma Okereke and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “Writers are agents of change. If only the world can take to heart what they are saying, we will have such a beautiful world.” Ihejiani pledged that, “[Fidelity Bank] won’t stop at this, we will always be proud of as many writers as possible.”
Poet and playwright of note, John Pepper Clark Bekederemo, served as special guest of honour; and disclosed that he saw the book while it was still in the manuscript form. “You should not be surprised that Chioma wrote this. She is a writer, even if she decides not to write, writing will search her out.” Clark added that writers are born, not made. “I don’t believe in all these creative writing workshops Americans run. Not everyone is a writer, they are born.”
He commended the author’s achievement. “Writing is tedious, it is not simple, so for someone to write something meaningful, they ought to be celebrated,” he said. Clark however declared that, “I don’t believe that writers are special people, they are just performing their roles in nation building, which is compulsory.”
Rounding up the public presentation, Titus Okereke, father of the author, expressed his gratitude to everyone present; and shared his experience of working on the book with his daughter. “The first title of this book was ‘More Things’, but it was changed after much deliberation. I thank God that we are here today to celebrate Chioma,” said the proud father.