Short Story Review – Akinwumi Isola – The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English) (trans. the writer)

Those elderly men and women were skeptical about the new faith, which they only heard about, since they could neither read nor write. They would stand embarrassingly mute whenever hymns were sung from the hymnals or whenever common prayers were read from the prayerbook, in call-and-response fashion. Some of them succeeded in learning the Lord’s Prayer by heart, although they did not believe in it because they knew, by tradition, that they had many fathers, not just one, in heaven.

The Yoruba people are transitioning from their old ways and religion to the new, which is to say, to Christianity.  The older generation are unsure and overall nonplussed, while the children consider Christianity intriguing because it’s festivities are different, revolve around different days and times, and serve different foods.

To us, the main difference between Christian and traditional religious festivals was in the type of food served. At traditional festivals, the smooth pounded yam with delicious vegetable stew and bush meat was paramount. Yam flour paste with ground-bean stew and mutton was also served. At Christian festivals, however, the queen of food was rice, especially white rice with chicken. We children loved rice, because it was not our staple diet. It came only at Christian festivals and was never served during traditional religious festivals. Never.

Akinwumi Isola’s The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English) was translated by the author from Yoruba into English.  I can’t speak for the Yoruba language, but much of this story reads clumsy, as though written by someone unskilled in English.  The story revolves around a white, educated, important man visiting the town only to become frustrated at the lack of subtlety of expression displayed by the children, who are knew to English, and knew to Christianity.  The narrator mimics the cadence of the children, using punctuation usually reserved for dialogue within the narrative.  It’s off-putting though thematically sound.  For example –

As he spoke on, the whiteman became increasingly inspired. He had almost forgotten that he was addressing junior primary school pupils in Africa!

This is a matter of taste, but it kept me from properly connecting with the story.  The use of exclamation marks, and to a lesser extent, question marks, served to continuously disrupt my engagement with the text.

Nonetheless the story picks up when, after setting the scene of a people oscillating between two religious and, consequently, two cultures, the newly arrived evangelist attempts to indoctrinate the children further into Christianity.

“Good! But after terrible tribulations, his enemies conspired against him and crucified him! They crucified him! Even then, when Jesus was crucified . . .”

He stretched out his hand to us again, asking us to complete the sentence.

We were now completely confused! We had no rules of grammar to guide us. So we quickly remembered the very last example he himself gave us: ” . . . we lived with him.” And so we naturally shouted: ” . . . we crucified with him.”

The whiteman opened his mouth and couldn’t close it. He could not find words to express his surprise. At last he said “No!” very emphatically. “You don’t say that in English!”

Our headmaster and other teachers became very uncomfortable indeed. They were looking at us threateningly, but what could we do?

The first half of the story describes the food and customs of the Yoruba people, with the second half being much like the above.  The increasingly exasperated Christian becomes harsh and condescending with his words while the children, understandably bewildered, try their best.

But to what end?

Unfortunately, there’s no sting at the end to justify this elaborate back and forth.  The story, boiled down, describes a people, and then has a white Christian become frustrated with young heathens who are trying their best.  I am, perhaps, missing something here, but what I am able to glean from the text suggests a slight story, one that is perhaps instructive in the nature of cultural and religious conflict, but overall fairly limited in its reach.  It feels pedagogic, as though it exists to educate others rather than possess any real literary merits of its own.  The story reads as though it should be read by primary school students in Nigera to help them better understand the cultural and religious transition pains suffered by their parents, their grandparents, their dead.

The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English) is a short story by Nigerian writer Akinwumi Isola, translated by the writer.  

Author Akinwumi Isola
Title The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English)
Translator Akinwumi Isola
Nationality Nigerian
Publisher Words Without Borders

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