We are happy to share an exclusive excerpt from Jumoke Verissimo’s A Small Silence, which comes out on July 30. The novel tells an unusual story, one that readers will find delightfully surprising. Every day at 9 pm, a young woman named Desire visits an ex-prisoner named Prof. in his dark apartment (he likes the light switched off), and they talk. Over the weeks, all kinds of emotional intensities build up around the two and begin to affect other aspects of their separate lives. Intriguing, right?
The story is set in Lagos in the 2000s and captures attempts by regular Nigerians to pick up the pieces after the ruins left behind by General Sani Abacha’s regime. The publisher Cassava Republic describes the book as ” an intimate and evocative debut [that] charges us to look again at the alienating effects of trauma and the power of solitude and darkness to ignite the imagination.”
You might know Verissimo as a poet. Yes, she is a poet of considerable acclaim. Her poetry collections have been published in many different languages. This is her debut novel.
A Small Silence is a gorgeous book. The story itself is cute and sad all at the same time. In this excerpt, Desire is finding out for the first time that Prof. has been released from Prison.
Desire focused on the pages of the newspaper, flipping slowly, despite her racing heart, until she got to the page with Prof’s story. She raised her head and was going to ask if she could keep the newspaper but Remilekun was off again.
‘Do you remember Toks, that guy with the cute rabbit teeth? I saw him yesterday at the party.’
‘Mmm?’ Desire nodded so Remilkun would just get to the point. She however noted that her infatuation and the major reason she made them move to Abesan Estate was no longer Mr. Longface, but now the one with the “teeth like rabbit” and Remilekun seemed eager to talk about it.
‘We talked a lot! I didn’t even know he was so much fun to talk to.’
On another occasion, Desire might have poked fun at the rabbit teeth and what was cute about them, but this time she was eager to hear about Prof.
‘Mmm,’ she grunted.
‘He has his own clothing line and he said he’s travelling to London this summer to see about a new business he is thinking about.’
Remilekun realised she was losing her audience, so she returned to Prof’s story.
‘Toks gave me the newspaper. The party was at his father’s house in V.I. From what Toks told me, people are saying the professor is not normal again-o. They say he lives on cockroaches and insects. He only goes out at night and things like that. A lot of this and that, like, they’ve heard screams inside the house. Maybe, he eats people that go to his doorstep or something. I don’t believe that one, sha.’
‘You really shouldn’t believe anyone would be capable of eating someone in a community like this. Not in this twenty- first century. How did your friend know?’
‘He is a big boy now. Everybody knows he is a rich boy who is living in this area, for whatever reason. People would want him “to drop something”. So, to get money from him, they’ll feed him stories about the area, even when he doesn’t want to hear them.’
‘I hear you.’
‘My sister, leave that matter, abeg. What is there not to believe? Was Clifford Orji not a man? He was killing and roasting people in broad daylight, at a place where people commuted, and he wasn’t found out or arrested for several years. Where is he today? Prison or madhouse? Didn’t they tell us Clifford was a mad man ignorant of his actions? Madness! It’s the reason the world has gone under. And let me just tell you something, there is no one who would go to a Nigerian prison for more than six months and come back sane. That man, according to the newspaper, was there for ten years! Have you been to the police stations? Now, imagine what the maximum prisons are like, abeg, hell is closer than we think!’
They both laughed and Remilekun added, ‘Even the average policeman behind the counter looks like prisoners dressed up for interrogation. Abeg!’
Desire laughed out loud. It was again one of those few times that Remilekun talked politics. Remilekun’s jokes didn’t anger her, instead they helped lighten the anxiety that followed her realisation that Prof was close by. Now, with the knowledge that he was living in the same place as she was, she decided that she must have talked about him so much that the universe connived to bring a twist into her life.
‘The interesting part is that I know where he lives. It is close to us.’
Remilekun waited for Desire’s eyes to enlarge, but instead Desire, trying to control the feeling inside her which she could not recognise, said, ‘Well, good to know he is close by.’
‘Is that all you will say? I mean you are always talking about this man.’
‘In fact, if you weren’t always talking about him, I wouldn’t have known of him,’ Remilekun said.
‘You? You that was enjoying in your mother’s bosom and always got what you wanted, how would you know anyone? For me, Prof is my hero. He saved me. This university education I have today is because of him.’
‘I won’t accept that one. Your present education is because of my mother. Isn’t she paying your fees and even giving you pocket money?’ Remilekun laughed and hit her playfully on her arm.
‘Stop! You know what I mean. It is the motivation,’ she raised her voice.
‘Okay, seriously. I don’t understand you. Here is a man you saw as a child. How is he a motivation?’
‘He gave his life for this country!’
‘What life? Did he give Nigeria her independence?’
Desire realised the argument was going nowhere, and instead, was making them both angry. She lay back on the bed and closed her eyes, signalling the end of the conversation.
‘Now that your Prof is close by, perhaps you’ll sleep better,’ Temilekun moved over to her side of the room and flopped onto her bed.