Author: Jerry Chiemeke
Year Published: 2020
Book Reviewer: Uduak-Estelle Akpan
Sometimes, there is a misplaced expectation about short story collections; that to make sense, the stories must maintain a recurring theme or some semblance of balance typical of a mosaic novel. This presumption holds for many a collection, but certainly not Jerry Chiemeke’s full-length work, Dreaming of Ways to Understand You. With a gimmicky title, the 187-page book is a delicate, character-driven collage of fifteen short stories, energized by an itinerant setting that sees its characters enduring the bustling city of Port Harcourt, chaotic outskirts of Warri, or the Piccadilly circus that is Lagos.
Chiemeke is known mainly for his music and art reviews. He has great accomplishments such as being the winner of the 2017 Ken Saro Wiwa Prize for Reviews. Therefore, he writes with the sure-footedness of one who not only understands how to immerse readers in his art but to marry them with adaptability. The collection imitates the intensity and variability of his Notes for Nnedimma and The Colours in these Leaves. Its stories underscore themes of intricate human relationships that fit for engaging beer parlour banter, forming part of the syllabus for a history class, or kickstarting deep reflective thoughts.
The even-toned collection ensures ease in transitioning from story to story without the abrupt feeling of the ground shifting from under one’s feet. One minute, the reader is contemplating the pun embedded within the bizarre turn of events in the first story, Not for Long, and its opening line, Wizkid’s “I want your boy sleeping in my bed...” The next, they are drifting through the sedate, yet soulful On Moshalashi Street. Again, through piece like Ugborikoko, one rendered in Warri Pidgin, readers experience Chiemeke's exceptionality and his deserving of applause increasing pidgin language's consciousness in and beyond the Nigerian literary space.
The book delivers in sterling prose and an array of undeniably important themes. The Blankness I wouldn’t let you see, a piece that acquaints one with Yetunde, the queer woman struggling with commitment is appropriately followed by On getting around to confidently taking my shirt off, a story about body image. Cheerful as it may seem, What am I supposed to say to you? bravely addresses the weighted topic of intimate partner violence.
Dreaming of ways to understand you, the piece from where the book derives its title explores the overlooked intricacies of mental health, and The River Brought us Here is a heartbreaking yet important reminiscence of the 1803 Igbo Landing Mass Suicide. While one may argue that the last piece, Confetti, could have used an extra development in its plot, it can be agreed that no story seems misplaced in the collection. Where one lacks in information, it makes up for, serving a full belly laugh.
Chiemeke’s consummate writing, stylistic use of words, and deliberate creation of a playlist of some sort is very commendable. Even though one who is not inclined to music may find the occasional reference to songs, a distraction, it is still a colourful addition to the work. It created a relaxed ambience for the stories and to fuel the reader’s imagination. Ultimately, if Dreaming of Ways to Understand You were to be judged by one thing, it would be, its proof that literature isn't always only about words; it is as much sounds and sight as it is a skillful blend of words.