This satire on stereotyping explores US academia through the eyes of a visiting Nigerian scholar
Timothy Ogene’s Seesaw is a refreshing look at aspects of American culture and politics through the eyes of a Nigerian scholar visiting Boston. The writing fellowship he takes up at William Blake College – not the poet, but a 17th-century merchant “whose other ventures in human cargo are well documented” – is for emerging writers, particularly international ones. It’s a chance for Frank Jasper to travel, to network, to write a second novel and to really kickstart his career. At the moment he works nine to five in a government post office in Port Jumbo, a fictional oil city in south-eastern Nigeria modelled on Port Harcourt. Some of the best descriptive passages in the book show the rundown sections of the city, contrasted with the opulent quarters where expatriates and rich Nigerians live. Jasper’s first novel, The Day They Came for Dan, had only a 50-copy run and is described by him as “poorly edited and lacking in punctuation and filled with typos”. But luckily for Jasper, the book fell into the hands of a visiting American woman, a former Fulbright fellow; it is she who suggests the fellowship to Jasper.
This is an opportunity most young writers from a developing country would die for, but Jasper doesn’t go to Boston willingly. He describes himself as a “recovering writer”, after the underwhelming performance of his first book. Once in Boston, he refuses to write or participate in obligatory fellowship activities. He spends most of his time making fun of his co‑participants, particularly those from the global south: for the “ethnic” clothes they wear, or their accents, or their mindless spouting of academic jargon in an attempt to appear impressive.
Jasper could be seen as the model of an unreliable narrator. He never misses a chance to lie or to embellish a fact, be it about his family or his writing. He reviewed his own book under an assumed name, comparing it to Proust and “all the works of Amit Chaudhuri”. He behaves this way, we gradually discover, to cover a crushing sense of inferiority. His favourite target for ridicule during the fellowship is a fellow African from Uganda, Barongo Akello Kabumba, who never tires of “performing” his Africanness, to the great delight of the college faculty – including wearing Masai regalia, complete with a shepherd’s stick, to a welcome dinner. Eventually, after a series of humiliating incidents, Jasper is kicked out of the fellowship and another chapter of his stay in America begins.
Ogene himself could be described as a “recovering academic” – he has a master’s from Oxford, a PhD from Cambridge and a creative writing MA from UEA – and this book is perhaps his way of satirising the academic community for its self-absorption and egotism. It is a rebellion against his own.
Every page is peppered with satiric observations about academic jargon and references to obscure texts and authors, some of them real, some not. It is clever and hilarious when it works, but it can get a bit much; most of the characters feel flat and unconvincing because we never reach beyond the aspect of their personality that the author wants us to see. One such reference is to a book by “Joshua Ibitoye, the Nigerian poet and playwright who was awarded a fellowship to a university in Ohio in the 60s but was swiftly thrown out for not engaging”. Ibitoye is a stand-in for JP Clark, the late Nigerian poet and playwright, and many of the conceits in Seesaw are based on his experiences as a writing fellow in the US in the 1960s, especially his resistance to being stereotyped by his American hosts, as documented in his memoir America, Their America. Perhaps because of this, some of the material about racial stereotyping feels a bit dated.
Structurally this is a classic road novel, utilising the complete motif of departure, arrival and return. And it is when Jasper hits the road, on his way to visit his father’s old friend in the midwest, that the style begins to relax. So far, there hasn’t been much engagement with political or racial realities in America – this could of course be because the narrator is living in a privileged bubble with the other fellows, or because he is an outsider, a west African to whom racism and racial discrimination are not an everyday concern. (He does undertake a flippant post-fellowship career, lecturing on how to be anti-racist.) The road trip brings surprising and unexpected encounters, but most of all it shows the author’s powers of observation and nuance in characterisation. Perhaps Jasper, with no reason to judge or cut down the ordinary people he meets, begins to see clearly, and make the reader see, the midwestern landscape, the corn fields, the sunset, the gas stations by the roadside and the vividly described characters in a startling and convincing way.
• Seesaw is published by Swift (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.