Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, November 23, 2015

Monday, November 23, 2015: Maximum Shelf: And After Many Days

Tim Duggan Books: And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile

Tim Duggan Books: And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile

Tim Duggan Books: And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile

Tim Duggan Books: And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile

And After Many Days

by Jowhor Ile

As Jowhor Ile's debut novel, And After Many Days, opens, 17-year-old Paul Utu leaves his home in the city of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, to visit a neighborhood friend. When night falls and he still hasn't returned, his mother and father mask their unease with optimism, assuring themselves he'll be back any minute, or at least by morning.

Paul fails to appear the next day or the day after that, leaving his parents and his younger siblings--brother Ajie and sister Bibi--in a state of disbelief and confusion. "They sensed something had gone wrong, but it was new, whatever it was, so no one knew how to hold it properly. Not Paul, everyone thought." The exemplary firstborn, Paul had never given his parents a reason to worry. He was the least scolded of their three children and the one most commended by his teachers.

As the hours and days tick by, Paul's waiting family members are "like the pendulum on their parlor wall," emotions swinging back and forth between dread and hope. Ile deftly draws readers into their shifting world to bear heartbreaking witness to the slowly dawning recognition that Paul has indeed vanished from their lives, seemingly without a trace. After a television appeal for information fails to yield any leads and the police turn up nothing, they no longer vacillate between fear and hope. Instead there is "just horror and dread."

Several days into Paul's disappearance during the 1995 rainy season, Ile takes readers back in time, chronicling the years leading up to that mysterious and catastrophic event through Ajie's recollections. The youngest of the three Utu children, 13-year-old Ajie is the last person in the family to see and speak with Paul, a distinction that carries with it a burden of guilt, a feeling that "rose like tidewater up to his chest and made breathing very difficult." It also casts him in an uncomfortable role in this strange new family drama, and he's repeatedly asked about his final encounter with his brother. "They always returned to that moment and settled on it as if the mystery had to be unearthed from there," says Ajie.

Rather than unfolding And After Many Days as a traditional narrative, the chapters are vignette-like. Together they create a portrait of a loving family--the occasional sibling squabble aside--headed by supportive parents Benedict, a lawyer (whose kids affectionately call him Bendic), and Ma, a biology teacher and vice-principal of a boys' school. The day of Paul's disappearance dawns like any other, with no hint of the disastrous turn it will take.

Outside the Utus' happy home is a country with a tumultuous legacy of political and social strife--corrupt officials pocketing bribes, flare-ups between ethnic communities, riots, student demonstrations and false arrests. A young male relative of the Utus was once roughed up by the military regime without cause in the family's ancestral village, where some residents staunchly support the presence of a large oil company in the region and others are passionately against it. Violence is not uncommon and neither is having loved ones go missing. Heads of state have been known to make people disappear, and even Bendic was detained for a time. Two and a half decades earlier, during a civil war, he was wrongly accused of being a spy for the Nigeria side, taken away by rebel authorities and imprisoned. For months his family didn't know his whereabouts or even if he was still alive; erroneous reports surfaced that he had been executed.

When Paul disappears, Bendic and Ma have no idea if it was an accident or the result of something more sinister, or whether it has anything to do with Bendic's involvement in mediating between citizens and the government. A champion of giving voice to the powerless, Bendic took the federal government to court after the explosion of an oil well left farmers' lands, and their livelihoods, submerged in crude oil. Regardless of the cause, the pain of Paul's absence, heightened by the uncertainty surrounding it, "would come to project itself, harsh and relentless, like a whistle at midnight. It would be the question mark hovering above the sentence of their lives, never knowing where to settle." Nearly 5,000 days pass before the Utus finally know anything about Paul's fate.

And After Many Days is an impressive debut, beautifully written and infused with an element of mystery that keeps pace throughout the story. A native of Nigeria, Ile draws on real-life history and events to create a searing tale that juxtaposes the greater landscape of a nation in turmoil with one family's personal loss, rendered through characters that are distinct yet familiar. At the novel's heart is a universality that transcends time and place: the loss of a child and the wrenching toll it takes on the loved ones left with the unfillable void. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Tim Duggan Books, $25, hardcover, 9781101903148, February 16, 2016

Tim Duggan Books: And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile

Jowhor Ile: Living Other Lives Through Literature

Jowhor Ile was born in 1980 and raised in Nigeria, where he currently lives. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly and Litro magazine.

What was your inspiration for writing And After Many Days?

I'm not sure where the idea originated, and many things inspired me. The character Ajie was in my head for a really long time, and he wanted to say something about what happened in his home in the rainy season of 1995. There was also the image of the family in a car traveling to their home village for a break. There was an ordinariness that I wanted to capture.

The novel opens in Nigeria in 1995, on the day Paul disappears, and then unfolds primarily in the years leading up to that devastating event. What can you share about the time and the place in which the story is set, and why you chose them?

I grew up in Port Harcourt in the '90s so it is the landscape of my childhood. My feelings about that period, when I look back now, are complicated. On the one hand I had a happy time growing up there (and it remains home for me) so there is an element of nostalgia. It is also one of the darkest periods in Nigeria's history, and you could feel it then even as a young person. We were under a stifling dictatorship; by the mid-'90s there was a sense of approaching a transition to something very uncertain. There was a lot of anxiety and fear.

It wasn't much of a choice to write about that time; the voice and the time the novel was set came at the very beginning. I had moved to the U.K. to do graduate work at Southampton University, and when I finished I moved to London. This was my longest period away from home. I suppose distance from that time and from the place I was writing about gave me the right access into the novel.

Paul's younger brother, 13-year-old Ajie, is the last person in the family to see him before he goes missing. Tell us about Ajie and his role in the story. What made him an interesting character to create?

Ajie was a very fun character to write. His voice in my head was really the origin of the story. He is observant, genuinely curious, resistant, impetuous, and he possessed an inwardness I came to admire.

In the acknowledgments section you thank numerous people who read early drafts of the novel, including a friend, your "most exacting critic," who gave you "angry-red notes." As a writer, how important is it for you to be open to feedback and constructive criticism? How much influence did the input from these early readers have on the final version of the novel?

Feedback and constructive criticism are important to me. Much of my writing is intuitive and the novel grew in an organic way, so I was not always certain what way it was going. Normally I would finish a story and revise it before I let anyone see it, but with And After Many Days, after I had written about three chapters I had a feeling akin to foreboding. It was scary and exciting, as if I was going underwater and wouldn't be let up for a long time. I sent those early chapters to a friend who, in response, said something to the effect of "well, there is a story there." That was the encouragement I needed, and I took the plunge. About a year and half after, I sent the first complete draft to the same friend and a few others. Their comments were crucial and allowed me the perspective to revise subsequent drafts.

And After Many Days is your debut novel. What was your path to publication like? What are you working on now?

I have been told it was less difficult for me than it normally is. Even though I have been writing for much of my life, I knew nothing about publishing and hadn't made any serious effort to publish the short stories I had written. Half way through writing And After Many Days, I started thinking about publication and got a copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook to learn how to approach agents, how to write a synopsis, those kinds of things. The rejections came in one after the other. Even though I had braced myself for the worst, the rejections still hurt. I decided then to focus on finishing the novel and making it something I would be completely happy with, something I could read many years after and still like even if it never got published. At this time I had left my job, and was probably a little depressed. It feels a little crazy now looking back, but at the time, writing this novel and finishing it was the only thing that felt meaningful to me. I also decided to polish up some of my short stories and send them to magazines and literary journals. This proved more successful. I sent a short story to McSweeney's Quarterly, and the acceptance e-mail I received from Dave Eggers is one I would not forget. It was generous, and I hadn't realized until then what that sort of validation can do for a writer.

When I finished writing the novel and felt it was ready to share I sent it to a few friends. One of them asked if he could forward it to an agent. I said yes. A week later I got an e-mail from Sarah Chalfant of the Wylie Agency asking to meet regarding possible representation. I spent some more time with the manuscript, working on different bits, taking time away from it and returning. The manuscript was then sent out to publishers, and we went with the offer made by Tim Duggan Books.

I am working on another novel now, but I can't say for sure what it is yet. My writing comes together really slowly, and at this early stage it feels like sniffing my way towards something in the dark. I don't know, I guess we'll see.

What would you like readers to take away from And After Many Days?

Hopefully the same things I take away from the books I read and like--the reading pleasure. Also, after following the characters through their journeys, I would like for readers to come out of the book feeling like they have gone through those journeys themselves. Like they have lived other lives and spent time in the same places as these characters. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

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