In “Our Girl Bimpe,” a story in Mukana’s first short story anthology The Newlywed’s Window, Olakunle Ologunro writes a wonderful story that bears thematic similarity with one of literature’s highly celebrated works, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella The Double. In this story, Ologunro criticises one of today’s greatest catastrophes—the dangers of virtual reality, or “hyphenated reality,” as I like to call it, where we face the possibility to create multiple versions of ourselves and exist as these different versions in both imagined and virtual worlds. The protagonist Bimbe Adedeji, a 14-year-old secondary schoolgirl, has been introduced to Facebook which allows her assume a second identity, but which in an innocuous start, she won’t take notice of how the social app begins to distort her personality.
This innocence starts with her remixing her name as “Bheempay Hardeydeyjee” to fit the trendier, peer pressure standard of her time and those around her, and writing such textspeak as “m vewi qud, fnxz” (“I’m very good, fine”). But she turns seventeen and “read[s] her way into enlightenment,” being the only schoolgirl “who did not see the school library as a place of terror, the only one who dared to read the dusty hardbacks sitting on the shelves,” and reads Jane Eyre; she becomes a new being. Her thinking improves and she finds her peers shallow, wondering “how she had been friends with them for so long.” To shed her old self, we read, “And so, in 2017, Bimpe created another Facebook account to get away from them all.”
Her new thoughts—how had she been friends with her shallow classmates for so long, and her urgency to get away from them—begin an initial split of her identity and the desire to alter or update it to fit her new awareness. On her new Facebook account, she uses the real spelling of her name “Bimpe Adedeji” (written “Bheempay Hardeydeyjee” on the old account). But she isn’t just trying to be a new self; she wants to distance this new self from her shallow classmates, so she gives herself a new name “Flora Ayoola,” changes her display picture from a portrait view of herself to a photograph “where her entire face was turned away from the camera.” She also adds extra years to her age; from 17, she becomes 20. And further curates her new Facebook account to match her new personality, an alter ego, her double version online.
In Dostoyevsky’s The Double, the protagonist Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, who is a low rank civil servant, suffers from the social anxiety of being a persona non grata. In the beginning of the story, we find him posturing as a worthy middle-class citizen as he drives around Petersburg in a hired carriage, and at a market prizing goods he cannot purchase. He works himself up in this manner to later, by dusk, attend a dinner hosted by his boss where he is thrown out of because he isn’t wanted among such esteemed guests. As if in mockery to his earlier posturing, creating a better image of himself than who he is, he encounters a double of himself on a bridge. He thinks it is his imagination or a hallucination, but it is not. This double, who is his namesake and dresses just like him, becomes a projection of who he wishes to be. But it is himself, the real Golyadkin, he wishes is known, as he goes about asking people if they know him, not his double whose activities threaten his existence.
In a way, as Rosa Inocencio Smith analyses here, Dostoyevsky, writing The Double in 1846, knew something about how liable the virtual reality of the Internet is able to distort our personalities, which Olakunle Ologunro acutely captures in his short story “Our Girl Bimpe.” What is Bimpe doing when she alters her age, changes her name, and tells small lies about herself in the imagination of creating a personality better than who she is, and the deliberate, meticulous effort? That part of her rationale for doing this is to become anonymous to her classmates who she doesn’t want trolling her. As Ologunro writes, “She wanted to be anonymous but also seen, be herself, say her mind, without anyone identifying her. . . . And with the mere click of pre-programmed instructions, she was born anew, no longer her but still very much her.”
But how much is Bimpe in control of this fiction? How much has the distortion and duplication of her “self” not resulted in a kind of Freudian identity crisis? This is the deceit for many of us—how are we sure our doubles online do not, in the long run, become the masters of this fiction, dictating what we should become, or even making us totally forfeit our true selves? In Bimpe’s newfound self-expression and enlightenment, she would descend into a black hole of self-deceit and hypocrisy she hadn’t discovered of herself yet when she and another Facebook user, a writer whose work she reads and admires and began chatting with (sliding into his DM), would begin exchanging photos of their privates to each other, sexting about the most carnivorously sexual things they want to inflict on each other. When she set out as Flora Ayoola, how did making such contributions to the consciousness of society, in her earlier posts online such as “Wasn’t it time for a female president? Had Nigerians forgotten about the Chibok girls so soon?” devolve to her sending nudes? Certainly, Bimpe has been thrust into an online community that fed on her desire—to fill an emptiness—to be someone else, where the comrades-in-arms of this virtual metropolis:
shared articles that educated her on feminism, global warming, and mental health, and sometimes, they argued about these things, rabid arguments that ended with them breaking into factions and creating long comment threads and bitter subliminal posts that showed the dirty underbelly of their brilliance. She took it all in, feeling as though she was feeding on a sparkling source of adult wisdom and insight that made her ten years older than her age.
She joins them, these brigadiers who break into factions and write “bitter subliminal posts that showed the dirty underbelly of their brilliance.” And also begins to give her opinions on things, telling others “to shove their opinions into their asses and get the fuck out of her comment box with their misogyny,” blind to what this double of herself is turning her into. Is this Ayoola or Bimpe? Who is this? When do we pause? Would she know that the author’s story with an affected title “The Taste of Grief” and an abhorrent opening sentence (“How does one grieve a living soul”) only “held her attention” because she isn’t any better than the writer, both of them, lacking any real imagination nor quenched by the Pierian Spring, that their sophistication is just a fiction performed by their doubles?
This essay is supposed to be a discussion of Mukana’s anthology The Newlywed’s Window but I have spent 1,300 words writing about only one of the stories in it, swallowing time for discussing the other stories. First published in Lolwe, “Our Girl Bimpe” is a very pivotal short story of our age; it dissects the dark waters of the inventions of the self aided by social media usage, a Frankenstein already criticised for its subtle monstrosity, cancel culture its worst legacy yet. The writer himself is a worthy stylist; here’s where he writes about the dying intellectual flexes which began Bimpe’s friendship with her online lover, the writer, when they began sexting:
And in this new order of events, there was little room for discussions about government policies or child abuse or gender. They were accouterments of their old platonic friendship, and now that things had shifted out of that circumference, these discussions seemed a bit out of place, contrived.
Inasmuch as the story deserves praise, “Our Girl Bimpe” isn’t the best story in the anthology yet. However, before you arrive at the better short stories in this anthology, I feel, one has to endure the unnecessary pain of reading the first three stories which begin it. (“Our Girl Bimpe” is number 8 out of the 12 stories.) On their merit, the question for Altine Jojo, writer of the first story “Border Control,” is if they are ready to write; too many exclamation marks, too many italicising, inchoateness, mannered writing, and a weak, delayed surprise. The second, “Gasping For Air” by Ogechukwu Emmanuel Samuel, is gasping for its own air. And the titular “The Newlyweds Window” lacks profluence because its writer Husnah Mad-hy, aspiring to a mind-in-every-sentence level writing, or high language, fails to arrive; the message in the story lost in its performance.
The other stories shine. Muuka Gwaba’s “Rain,” written in a style that recalls Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” but not like the latter’s where the protagonist Charlie Gordon is a lab rat in an experiment to increase human intelligence, who records his progress in daily “progress reports,” the protagonist in Gwaba’s “Rain” is imprisoned by a rainfall that appears only to pour within the perimeter of his compound as he writes emails to his friend telling him of his fate, eventually drowning in the ensuing flood.
Vanessa Nakayange’s “The Daya Zimu” narrates a legend of Daya Zimu, a mysterious supernatural being; the classroom where it begins dramatises language, shuttling a griot-like narration with the colloquialisms of the schoolgirls’ dialogues. “How Are You” by Cynthia Nnadi, is a fine exploration of the anxiety of the eldest child (here, a 26-year-old daughter who is always “Watching for . . . subtle signs of well-being or the absence of it” in her mother) who often tries to fill in the place of their late fathers and become husbands to their widowed mothers. “Old Photographs” by Hannah Onoguwe has the best prose, as clean as distilled water; it is an equally compelling story. Idza Luhumyo’s “This Is For My Aunt Penzi, Who—” which is narrated from the first-person POV of a girl, re-imagines standards of beauty and questions the racial hypocrisy of her mother and other women in their tenement apartments who despise her Aunt Penzi for her questionable morals but befriend a new neighbour, an mzungu (a white woman) who she doesn’t find to be any different than her aunt. The other stories include “Mareba’s Tavern” by Gladwell Pamba, “Black Pawpaw” by Obinna Ezeodili, and Victor Ehikhamenor’s “A Letter From Ireland” which was first published in AGNI in 2010 under the title “A Picture From Ireland.” Most of the stories in the anthology are curiously narrated in Present Tense.
Over a video chat on Telegram in December last year, I engaged Nyashadzashe Chikumbu from Kubwa, Abuja, him in Warren Park, Harare, curious to talk to him about what he thinks of the short story, and more. It is, to him, “the best inventive form of writing, next to the novella and short novel, in its ability to deliver a punch, how everything in it flows but yet is compact . . . packing in a lot within a short space of time, unlike the novel which tends to ramble. . .” He was echoing what Poe called “the single effect” of a short piece of literature. Perhaps this is what he’s thinking when he curates the Mukana short story anthology. (A second will be published this year again.) When I ask him if he has a best short story, he mentions “Oxford, Black Oxford” by Dambudzo Marechera because of its “rawness” he says. “How Marechera deals with the states of the mind, where the art of writing is an ongoing kind of conflict with language, and how the author makes it work for him.” He gets up and tries to find the collection where the story is but doesn’t find it; rather he holds a worn copy of Mindblast to me.♦
Carl Terver is the founding editor of Afapinen and the author of For Girl at Rubicon.