Notes on Okwiri Oduor’s ‘My Father’s Head’

(The 2014 Caine Prize-winning story ‘My Father’s Head’ is this month’s assigned reading at Women Writers Forum, which is hosted by Mbaasem. I have notes,)

A story of loss, of grieving, of memory; ‘My Father’s Head’ begins with:

I had meant to summon my father only long enough to see what his head looked like, but now that he was here and I did not know how to send him back.

Then later in the story:

“I said to Bwibo, “We have to send him back.”
Bwibo said, “The liver you have asked for is the one you eat.”
“But I did not really want him back, I just wanted to see his head.”
Bwibo said, “In the end, he came back to you and that should account for something, should it not?”

Perhaps my father’s return accounted for nothing but the fact that the house already smelt like him – of burnt lentils and melting fingernails and the bark of bitter quinine and the sourness of wet rags dabbing at broken cigarette tips.”

1.  Weeks after my godfather’s death in Nairobi, I saw him in New York where I was living at the time. He first appeared to me in the living room of my Washington Heights apartment. I was watching TV.  One of my roommates had installed a 70s era furniture set and had placed a loveseat, brocaded in bluish-green to the right of the TV, in a nook. I can’t recall now what show I was watching. Perhaps it was lunchtime and as I lived a block from work, maybe I was home eating a bowl of my New York style Ghanaian pepper soup. In which case a repeat of Law and Order? Or it was in the morning and I was drinking tea while watching Teletubbies (an optimistic show to start anyone’s day in New York).  Anyway, I saw something move in the right-hand corner, I turned my head and there was Uncle Jonathan, sitting legs crossed in the loveseat, smiling one of his toothy grins at me. I just stared at him and turned back to the TV as though it had not happened. Not like I wanted to ignore or to unsee him. More like okay, there’s that.

Then he would appear next to me on one of my jaunts on Broadway. He just walked with me, with that strident stepping of New Yorkers meant to signal to those annoying pavement-hugging tourists that this here was our city.  I just accepted his presence and proceeded to brunch. Over a period of weeks, my godfather visited me several times. I gathered up enough nerve to tell my mother, who broke down in tears and asked if I needed to talk with someone. No, I don’t need a therapist, Mummy. Not for this anyway. I knew exactly what was happening. My grief was overwhelming and besides who doesn’t need more of Jonathan Kariara in their lives, alive or dead?

I don’t believe in ghosts; my mind was conjuring up his image in response to the loss and it was comforting indeed.  My godfather’s appearances stopped weeks later. Unlike the narrator in ‘My Father’s Head’, I didn’t summon my godfather; never talked to him; never offered him tea; never lived with him so the community around me thought the person was my lover!; never needed him gone since he never overstayed; and so never thought of asking a Catholic priest to give me protection.  I was, like the narrator, wistful and longing once I realized that he’d left.

I said, “Maybe you could stay here for a couple of days, Baba.’

Maybe stay, definitely not die, live always. The longing never stops.

2. There’s food all over this short story. I went googling, after reading ‘My Father’s Head, and found that Oduor had entered the story in the 2013 Short Story Day Africa’s Feast, Famine and Potluck story competition;  and that she had actually won the contest. So then I saw.  But at first reading, I was smacking my lips, swallowing my saliva on encountering mentions like:

Ghee (even if a sentence later it “went rancid”)
Bread slices dipped in tea (my 8 year old calls that fabom)
Street-roasted maize
Chapati
Fried eggs and sour cream
Cane juice
Butternut squash and melons
Garlic, salt and pork
Groundnut soup and pumpkin leaves
Chicken bone

Look. ( I could speak here about how great a cook Uncle Jonathan was. About his sumptuous breakfasts; of juices made with five to ten fruits, of curries and stews; of conversations around dinner tables. But one JK story is enough for these notes.)

Mostly this food themed story works well. But then you read a paragraph like –

“Let me tell you: one day you will renounce your exile, and you will go back home, and your mother will take out the finest china, and your father will slaughter a sprightly cockerel for you, and the neighbours will bring some potluck, and your baby sister will wear her navy-blue PE wrapper, and your brother will eat with a spoon instead of squelching rice and soup through the spaces between his fingers.
And you, you will have to tell them stories about places not-here, about people that soaked their table napkins in Jik Bleach and talked about London as though London was a place one could reach by hopping onto an Akamba bus and driving through Nakuru and Kisumu and Kakamega and finding themselves there.”

–  and think to yourself: well, where did that come from? Perhaps you’ll wonder at the nameless, odd characters; the sometimes macabre descriptions and the mysterious pronouncements from Bwibo. You may puzzle at the puzzling happenings. Ask yourself, whatever happened to plot development? Because maybe you forgot that ‘My Father’s Head’ is a story that shows how we mourn and remember. How in our grief, we gather disparate, unrelated groups of things and make them cohere as we attempt to rebuild, grasping on whatever comes. Where else, but in a story about death, can we admit to others that we’ve thought out the dying of our parents and mourned them while they slept in the next room, alive and well?

3. Maybe like me, you also feel this: there’s no making sense of some deaths.  Some of us, here in Ghana, are enduring the first full week of a loss that can’t be explained neatly. I have found in the prose poetry of  ‘My Father’s Head’ a sort of acknowledgement of the mess, of the puzzle, of the grief.

4.  ‘My Father’s Head’  is among my three favorites of Caine Prize stories that I’ve read. The other two are Billy Kahora’s ‘Urban Zoning’ and Lily Mabura’s ‘How Shall We Kill the Bishop’.

5. Read the story, please. Okwiri Oduor is apparently working on her ‘first full-length novel’ (her first book, The Dream Chasers, is listed as a ‘novella’ and what is a novella but a short novel?  Some novels owe their existence to novellas. Let’s stop shading the novella).

6. Okwiri Oduor is from Kenya. And so was Jonathan Kariara. See? (lol, it’s fun reading stories, ain’t it?)

7. Read the ‘My Father’s Head’!

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4 comments

  1. Thanking you for sharing with us your moving response to this story. I am deeply touched. We all have our own ghosts. Now off to try and find the story to read it myself.

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  2. Kinna I read Odour’s short story My Father’s Head and I fell in love with it. Powerful, moving, humorous and yes ‘foody’. My dear, ghosts exist and that is another story for another day when we meet. Uncle Jonathan must have really loved you. I re-read his poem. It tugged at my heart.

    Beautiful post you have there my dear. 🙂

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