“There is something haunting about encountering the past through the childlike voice of a 12-year-old”

Author: Christie Watson

Publisher: Cassava Republic Press

Pages: 289

Year of Publication: 2011

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Awayby Christie Watson is a nice attempt at narrating the loss of home, the travails of exile, and the promise of recovery. Perhaps, this is what gives the novel’s beginning its enchanting quality. There is something haunting about encountering the past through the childlike voice of a 12-year-old. When Blessing watches the street below from a window and describes the bustling mismatch of wealth and poverty that characterises Allen Avenue, one can sense the pathos in her voice. One can sense that this is a world about to be lost. And when her father abandons the family for another woman, it is not just Blessing’s physical home that is lost but also a way of thinking of the world, a way of seeing it in all its romantic distance, from a window.

She, her mother and her brother flee the wreckage of a charmed life in Lagos and are thrown into a world where pain and suffering come up close. Finding herself in a village in the outskirts of Warri and in a house teeming with extended family members, Blessing is forced to live a life to which she is not accustomed. Almost overnight, her old sheltered life in an upper-middle class Nigerian family is shattered. Marble-floored bathrooms give way to pit toilets. Manicured gardens turn into rubbish heaps. She encounters, in this new home, a world where the so-called big and faraway problems like kidnapping, militancy, and environmental pollution become intimate.

The novel, it appears, wants to say that it is futile to keep the outside away from the intimate world of the home. In order for the family to remain whole, it would have to confront the problems ravaging its surroundings. Most of all, Tiny Sunbirds makes the simple claim that family life is not always ordinary and that it is far from being innocent, that it bears its own monsters and has its own insanities. How would Blessing know that her apprenticeship with her grandmother who she loves so much will initiate her into an underground world of traditional midwifery? What will this experience do to her? Can innocence and integrity survive in such a world? 

But Tiny Sunbirds is not just a story about loss—the loss of place, of an original home, of a father, and of wealth. It is also a story about things that cannot be lost, about what remains when so much seems to have already been lost. Blessing carries things from her former life into this new world she struggles so hard to transform into a home. She carries with her the refusal to stop questioning the social ills that surrounds her and a desire to protect what is human not only in herself but also in those around her. One gets the sense that in Tiny Sunbirds, losing home does not lead to wandering but instead becomes a kind of taking-flight that sets one free like a bird in the sky.

But there were some aspects of the novel that left me puzzled. Why does Blessing’s childlike voice accompany her all through her life? At the end of the novel when Blessing is reflecting on her past as a grown woman, one realises that there has never really been any distance between the child remembered at the beginning and the adult doing the remembering. Tiny Sunbirds becomes a coming-of-age story in which the gradual development of the main character is not translated into adjustments in point of view and subtle shifts in the texture of voice.

One does not have to be a militant realist to find odd some of the representations of life in the Niger Delta. At times, one gets the feeling that Watson takes on too much by way of social issues. For instance, why does the Christian/Muslim conflict have to be staged in a village tucked away in the majority Christian South?

Nonetheless, Watson’s commitment to capturing the texture of a child’s world is impressive. Who, if not a child, experiences a city through its smells? It’s only through a child’s nose that a city’s air can smell like “a book unopened for three days” and that a river can smell like “old books that had been left in the rains”. Lying in bed at night, Blessing intimates the reader, “The stars were so bright that when I closed my eyes they remained there, behind my eyelids, as though my body had swallowed some of the sky for itself.” There is another moment in the story when Blessing looks at an inventory of names of birds on a page. The more she looks the more the birds become so real.

It strikes me that in Tiny Sunbirds the eyes are truly marvelous things. If they can scoop up the stars into the body, they can also transform the name of birds written on a page into real birds that fly. That is how a lost home, like tiny sunbirds trapped in a page, is made to come back to life, far away.

Ainehi Edoro is a doctoral student of English at Duke University, in the United States. She writes extensively about literature and philosophy. Her work can be found at her website and blog, http://brittlepaper.com.

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