I was just reading a short story by my friend, Nasir Yamamma, who I met a couple of years back at Chimamanda Adichie’s Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop. The story, Prey, is an exquisitely written one that I enjoyed reading–blending a mix of historical fiction and fantasy. Frankly, you all should read it, HERE.
It is not the story itself that prompts this blog post, rather what a part of it reminds me of–a part of another book, equally historical and equally fantastic. I mean “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by American writer, Mark Twain. And what is of interest to me now is the art of exaggeration, specifically the art of the Boast.
Perhaps all products of re-creation are based on exaggeration, for it is true we embellish what we capture or try to represent or seek to caricature and correct with our own unique experience and perspective. Consequently, I have always had a slightly perverse enjoyment for a well expressed Boast–quite in the way I enjoy a number of images of myself mirrored and looking at me each with a mind of its own–my personalities. The idea of exaggeration in the form of the Boast has been with us a long time and it is inevitable that some writers will try to capture it. As have Mark Twain and Nasir Yamamma. The art of the art, if you will.
A few words on both writings before leaving you to enjoy these Boasts. Nasir’s story centers around a mercenary warrior named Gwoje, a “wild man”. We locate the tale as being set in the 20th century–for there is a colonial overture to Gwoje and his wild ones who listen to occult music and demand only to fight. The story is told in the first person from Gwoje’s point of view, and the Boast, entirely in verse, is his reaction to the music. Mark Twain’s book is set on the Mississippi River in the mid 19th century, in the course of a journey made by a plucky boy and an escaped slave named Jim. The boast in it is overheard (and reported ) by Finn when he climbs aboard a boat to spy out where they are. The book is written in the first person as well and the wide ranging Boast in all its creativity, acquires an elegance quite similar to poetry. And there is a sense that we have met these men before . . . So, enjoy.
“Jange blares the horn again. It ripples through me and I spring to the centre of the circle. Lawan keeps beating the drum. My sword is in one hand above my head ready to strike, spear in the other; waist level, ready to fence and pierce. The punch of Lawan’s drumbeats reach my liver and sanity begins to elude me. I turn around and a thousand eyes tickle me. I yell and there’s a clatter of arms responding to my cry.
‘Tread slowly Lawan.’ I begin.
‘Tread carefully men of the wild
Watch where you go
Lest you step on my feet
I, the courtier of death
messenger of misery
trader of trouble
I am the one you love
Because you can’t afford my enmity
It is my voice at your door that
Sends you jumping fences
It is my sword’s single strike that
Sends you straight to Barzakh
Be wary wild ones
Walking plague before you
One jostle to end your lineage
I am a mortal injury
There is no getting well from me
I am the face of menace
There is no escaping me
Steer clear wild ones.'”
“Then the man that had started the row tilted his old slouch hat down over his right eye; then he bent stooping forward, with his back sagged and his south end sticking out far, and his fists a-shoving out and drawing in in front of him, and so went around in a little circle about three times, swelling himself up and breathing hard. Then he straightened, and jumped up and cracked his heels together three times, before he lit again (that made them cheer), and he begun to shout like this–
‘Whoo-oop! bow your neck and spread, for the kingdom of sorrow’s a-coming! Hold me down to the earth, for I feel my powers a-working! whoo-oop! I’m a child of sin, don’t let me get a start! Smoked glass, here, for all! Don’t attempt to look at me with the naked eye, gentlemen! When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales! I scratch my head with the lightning, and purr myself to sleep with the thunder! When I’m cold, I bile the Gulf of Mexico and bathe in it; when I’m hot I fan myself with an equinoctial storm; when I’m thirsty I reach up and suck a cloud dry like a sponge; when I range the earth hungry, famine follows in my tracks! Whoo-oop! Bow your neck and spread! I put my hand on the sun’s face and make it night in the earth; I bite a piece out of the moon and hurry the seasons; I shake myself and crumble the mountains!
Contemplate me through leather–don’t use the naked eye! I’m the man with a petrified heart and biler-iron bowels! The massacre of isolated communities is the pastime of my idle moments, the destruction of nationalities the serious business of my life! The boundless vastness of the great American desert is my enclosed property, and I bury my dead on my own premises!’ He jumped up and cracked his heels together three times before he lit (they cheered him again), and as he come down he shouted out: ‘Whoo-oop! bow your neck and spread, for the pet child of calamity’s a-coming! ‘”