Review: Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions: A Novel in Interlocking Stories

The nearly 15 years Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi spent writing and rewriting proves to be tenacity well invested, resulting in her audacious debut, Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions: A Novel in Interlocking Stories. The 10 chapters here work as standalone pieces (many were previously published in prestigious journals and collections), but to read them together rewards audiences with mesmerizing intertwined narratives highlighting four Nigerian best friends and their extended circles through a century-and-a-half across continents and cultures.

Feisty, independent Aisha, Nonso, Remi and Solape meet as 10-year-olds entering an all-girls' boarding school; their sisterhood, inspired by a hazing prank and solidified by the death of one among them, is everlasting. But before they meet, the opening story, "Fodo's Better Half," introduces spirited ancestor Adaoma, who married another woman--in 1927!--in order to have a child against all odds, and who eventually chose to raise him on her own. Adaoma's blood might not run through any of the girls' veins, but her fearlessness will be their legacy in the stories that follow.

After their Nigerian childhoods, Aisha, Nonso and Remi all immigrate to the United States, where each finds love (Aisha marries twice) and two have children. Aisha's marriage to Polish immigrant Andrew doesn't last, but her union with Ade engenders her greatest joys. Nonso flees her Harvard-enabled, high-power New York investment banking job and her hazel-eyed husband (albeit the latter, temporarily) and returns to Nigeria after 17 years of living as a foreigner. Remi binds herself to another Nigerian transplant with whom she has twin boys, who give her the strength to confront her absent yet still demanding father. Almost 70 years later, having all returned to their birth country, the beloved friends will rally to help save the life of Aisha's dying son--no matter the cost.

Born and raised in Nigeria, Ogunyemi deftly filters the personal, historical and political throughout her collection, weaving autobiographical details from her own career as a biomedical informatician with Christianity's culturally destructive colonialism, senseless police violence, labyrinthine healthcare and the consequences of the radical and racist polarization of U.S. society. Yet, Ogunyemi never forgets to engage and entertain even as she slyly exposes and educates: the bully dethroned by shame; a dexterously comical display of code-switching; a village girl judging (then lauding) her "madam... [who] behave like somebody whose head is not correct." For admiring readers, the radiance of Ogunyemi's debut hopefully signals more dazzling fiction to come. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Shelf Talker: Nigerian writer Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi makes her splendid debut with 10 interlinked stories revealing four Nigerian best friends' lives across continents and decades.

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