Jollof rice is the stuff my dreams are made of. The whiff of tomato, chili, white-, and black pepper, piquant and nose-tickling, the aroma of ginger and garlic and onion. Jollof is West African, but the recipe and desire for it is universal. In my case my dreaming mind classifies jollof rice as nasi goreng, Malaysian style with Maggi’s cili sos, a sweet and spicy ketchup. Chunks of browned chicken thighs, that crust of flesh and crispy skin, dotted with red grains of rice.
Coming from a rice-eating culture I like to think of myself as a specialist in the business of rice-eating and rice dishes. As a historian and reader of postcolonial literature and archival text, I like to think myself an expert in those domains too. But, I remain amazed by what I do not know; there is always a new rice dish, a new recipe, a new flavor to make my tongue and memories alight. There is always a new perspective, a newly discovered history, another layer of human experience to see, enjoy, and revel in.
Ogunyemi’s Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions is that new rice dish, that new revelation. You see, the stories in Ogunyemi’s novel are like jollof rice, grains tossed together, held together in harmony by a dry sauce. Sweet and salty and spicy, a mouthful of emotions that are sometimes in conflict, sometimes piquant, but always in balance.
The novel is familiar and comforting in its focus on men and women of color, their lives indelibly part of the muss and tumble of Nigerian marketplaces, cities, and villages, so similar to those in Southeast Asia, where chickens are still sold live, butchered and feathered at the time of purchase. A place where fish and seafood lie on slabs of ice that are slowly sweating like the people haggling with each other over their prices. There is the aroma of overly sweet fruit in the air: jack fruit (in Southeast Asia anyway), bananas, some kind of incense. There is smoke and pungent exhaust from a motorbike put-put-putting away. A glot of languages rumbles in the background, ever-present as there is no reprieve for the ears in places like these: dialects, pidgins, mix-n-matches of accents and lilts. On occasion there is a puncture of British English (always British it seems), and a few heads turn to see the foreigner. (It is usually me.) Like a Nigerian market place, Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions is dominated by women and their stories; men are present, they form part of the fabric of the novel, but it is the women and their experiences who thread the pattern and the connections between motifs in its cloth.
Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions is a collection of Nigerian and transnational Nigerian, historical and contemporary experiences, spanning from a time under the British and under British influence (for Britishness and Western-centrism continued even after decolonization) to the present — and here is where it gets really interesting — the future. Ogunyemi’s novel recalls to mind another like it, Yaa Gyasi’s Home Going (2016), but it differs on this particular point: Ogunyemi reaches into the future and lets the reader dwell on our current states through poignant examinations of the present.
Jollof Rice ranges across multiple generations, includes the lives of members of different and intertwined families. The reader is given a glimpse into the past when precolonial gender relations were more fluid. The reader accompanies characters in their education under the British, travels with them as they become transnational cosmopolitans, and will find themselves in the uncomfortably familiar place of racialized, racist America. The reader will find themselves in a near future moment, built on the present and past as we know it.
Sometimes, alongside the odor of modernity and vehicle exhaust, there is a faint scent of history and the supernatural, that which exists beyond the usual plane of our understanding. This is like biting down on a pepper seed in your rice, getting that jolt of zing on the tongue. You can’t be sure if it was a seed or a pepper or a tiny grit of sand. You hope it was the former and not the latter, but then the moment is gone, the thing is swallowed and you continue on with your meal, with your life. The next story is waiting on your spoon. I deeply appreciated how Ogunyemi wove these elements into the novel; what the West deems supernatural is not so in many parts of the “formerly” colonized world. Spirits, ghosts, and memory were part of our cultures before and remain so.
Ogunyemi’s characters and their experiences are what give the novel its unique quality. The characters connect to each other through their shared experiences in schools, in migration, in marriage and love, in childhood and navigating adulthood, in how they reconcile their colonial pasts with their “post”colonial presents and futures. Ogunyemi brings the Nigeria of the past into the present and future through their transnational and transcultural journeys. The characters are related by bonds which are sometimes considered casual; in Jollof Rice unbreakable relationships are broken, death is a cause for life, and disappointment is a gateway to revival. In this way, Ogunyemi delivers to the reader the nuances of human love and its endurance across time and space, makes a case for their eternal universality.
Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions makes me want to grab a friend and say, “You must try this! It’s new!” And how special must it be, that it has taken the old topic of history and identity and made an original spin on it!