A Future Restricted by Affordances of the Present
Review of TJ Benson’s We Won’t Fade into Darkness
Sometime between the mid 2000s and mid 2010s young Nigerians wrote short short fiction in online destinations like AfroSays, Naija Stories, The Naked Convos and on platforms like Facebook. Buoyed by the ease of sharing these works in personal blogs and on social media, and the exhilaration of finding an audience that might have been otherwise averse to other forms of fiction, this form thrived and became the breeding ground for what is now a generation of publishing authors out of Nigeria. It is out of that class that a writer like Bunmi Familoni arose with his debut collection of stories titled Smithereens of Death, which comprised absurdist short short fiction. His book won The Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories at the 2015 Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) prize just before his publishers disappeared, sunk into the quicksand of unresolved pecadiloes between its founders. It is from that class, and in that mode, that TJ Benson’s debut We Won’t Fade Into the Darkness has arisen, this time published by Parresia Books, a much stable publisher by Nigerian standards.
Most of the stories in We Won’t Fade Into the Darkness are tied together by a kind of high-concept science fiction idea: a future dystopian Nigeria is filled with a poisonous gas called Nigerium, the by-product of continued exploration of oil in the country, which leads to effects such as cannibalism, a matriarchal society and something the author calls “the great translocation.” These different effects are explored in fabulist stories that sometimes read like they’re from the same universe, and other times like they’re all alternate universes.
Short short fiction, or flash fiction as it is usually called, isn’t a green form. Writers like Lydia Davis and Diane Williams have fine-tuned its brevity and tendency towards minimalism to near perfection, combining turns of phrases and well executed punctuation with the economy of poets to create brilliant stories. In its Nigerian reincarnation, there were certain predilections that defined flash fiction: it favoured experimentation, economy of words, and a tendency towards writing for the end twist/cliffhanger. Benson’s work reflects the best and worst of these tendencies.
‘The Killing Mountain’, perhaps the collection’s best story, bears semblance to Ted Chiang’s ‘Tower of Babel’. (There’s rarely a better compliment in Science fiction than comparison to Chiang.) In Benson’s story, a man falls down on a mountain where he’s supposed to meet his end, but misses the tip that’s supposed to gore him and begins descent down a hill where encounters creatures that hint both at a humanity and hope behind what feels like a drop into hell. It’s a story that at times reads like a parable for anything that is supposed to kill a person yet doesn’t. Benson, however, doesn’t possess Chiang’s gift for naturalism. There’s little regard for a logical explication of the story’s premise, instead, the focus is on evocative imagery and emotions.
“The business of a dying world is survival,” Benson writes in ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and it’s disappointing that, despite Benson’s preference for descriptive sentences that approach the lyrical, the collection isn’t filled with more pithy lines like this. Some of the sentences in We Won’t Fade Into the Darkness are actually sloppy, confusing in their paradoxical clumsiness. “No one could ignore the poetry raining from the sky that day, but no one paid it too much mind,” he writes in ‘An Abundance of Yellow Paper’. That sentence falls apart upon close inspection.
In the same story he writes, “When the elevator doors slid open to Room 101, there was no one in but out of the room, through a small door beside the wardrobe, a figure was bent over a table littered with crumbled yellow paper shoulders jerking as the hands worked furiously.” The imagery is clear, yet the sentence opens with a stutter that is hard to dismiss. Sometimes the let down is due to misplaced punctuations, which may be forgivable in longer stories that do not depend on taut sentences. But short fiction isn’t forgiving of sloppiness. Some paragraphs are chock-ful of world-building details, that take a while to figure out. ‘Jidenna’, a story about a matriarchal society where men are endangered tools for child making contains this paragraph:
“He had jumped out of the sweet dream and pulled the helmet off. The alarm system was linked to a chip lodged in Jidenna’s neck, programmed crudely of course, to set off once the bearer’s chip wandered too far away to receive signal. He calmed down a bit when he saw Jidenna’s cancer diaper on the empty bunk bed suspended above his by nothing but the sheer magnetic strength of like poles. Jidenna always thought this aptly reflected their relationship. “Relationship” was another clingy word from Jidenna’s vocabulary. The father feared gravely for the boy. If he did not man up soon, he would be pumping babies in one of those skyscraper apartments.”
The stories in We Won’t Fade into Darkness, with few exceptions, build up to abrupt endings, often stopping just short of a revelation. This happens so much that the collection feels like a setup waiting for a punchline. The cliffhangers read like escapes from staying with the emotional intensity of the worlds the writer has created, and twist endings do not carry the weight the stories portend because the emotional investment required for this to happen aren’t made, yet. The colleciton feels rushed, and this isn’t just because the stories it contains are short short fiction. Benson seems to be stuffing his brilliant ideas into brief packages that barely convey their import, when they could be better served by further exploration. We Wont Fade into Darkness was a runner up in the Saraba Manuscript Prize, which set it on the path to publishing. It therefore appears to have arrived in a complete form to the publishers, and maybe this precluded it from further editorial support, which would have done it a world of good.
In ‘An Abundance of Yellow Paper’, the collection’s final story, the world has become averse to poetry. Words are rationed and poets are hunted down and killed. The need to extinguish their work beyond traceable digital footprints has also led to a worldwide ban on paper. Poets, therefore, write in secret on yellow paper cut from old novels. The writer in the story is about to write on an old copy of George Orwell’s 1984, and he contemplates what to write that “would be worthy of these pages?” He is killed while writing his poems, and in the aftermath pages of his writing disperse into the air and land in front of a boy who picks it up and reads the words, “We won’t fade into darkness.”
The collection ends on that line from Swedish DJ Avicii’s song ‘Fade into Darkness’ delivered with the defiance of Dylan Thomas’s famous vilanelle ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. It is funereal, yet hopeful, and reflective of the state in which young writers living in Nigeria practice their craft. Many want to write “worthy” stories, but are also aware of of the limited possibility of that while they remain in Nigeria. Yet, writers like Benson continue to create worlds that pulse with vivid imagination even when reward isn’t promised. For all its flaws, We Won’t Fade into the Darkness is a reflection of that desire to write and publish and exist despite dire odds.