Innocent Chizaram Ilo: The day I knew the Ethereal power of books [Nigerian Voices]

by Innocent Chizaram Ilo

Okigwe was always red-red, hilly and tranquil. On Sunday afternoons, after the legendary rice and stew lunch, boredom loomed over the dorm-rooms of Federal Government College Okigwe. Then, I was a hardcore science student who flaunted his lab-coat in the face of arts and commercial students and spear-headed arguments on why the sciences is superior to the arts. Although I loved reading novels (Harlequin, Mills and Boones, African Literature), led the school debate team and crafted beautiful essays with effortless ease, I regarded the arts as unserious.

“I mean, why do you want to go into the arts? Engineers and doctors are busy changing the world.”

In the spirit of changing the world, I swotted earnestly on my Biology, Physics and Chemistry textbooks. I was going to be a medical doctor and nothing could possibly alter this fueled determination.

On a Sunday, five years ago, I was sitting on my bed and munching a bowl of shak (soaked Cabin biscuits and milk) when my eyes fell on a book that lay on the next bunk. The book’s spangled purple and white cover piqued my interest. It belonged to Skentè, an arts student whom I recently called his dream of being a lawyer unrealistic.

“Guy, is that book yours?” I asked; a feigned obliviousness of knowing the book’s owner emblazoned my face.

“Eheyn! Are you looking for your own?” Skentè quipped.

“Sorry o! I just wanted to borrow and read.” My voice was reduced into a whisper.

A heavy silence ensued. Skentè glared at me; he probably had not forgiven me for what I said to him. After what seemed like forever, he handed the book to me.

“Oya, collect. Make sure you return it tomorrow morning. I have literature class by eight o’clock. Don’t put pen between the pages. You science students treat books like monsters. If you tear it, you’ll buy a new one for me.”

I nodded at each of the conditions Skentè reeled out. I propped my pillow and eased into the book.

A book is a mystery. You never know what you  might find.

That was the day Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave me Purple Hibiscus. I looked intently at the novel; two hundred and ninety-seven pages, healthy spine and a sharp scent of musky newness. I opened the book…

Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go for communion…

The opening lines transcended me into another world. A world where all that mattered were Kambili’s sheer innocence, Jaja’s fierce rebellion, Beatrice’s pitiable vulnerability, Eugene’s brutal fanaticism, Aunty Ifeoma’s charming charisma, Amaka’s delightful sauciness and Father Amadi’s subtle calmness.

Before Purple Hibiscus, I had read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, struggled to finish Soyinka’s grandiloquent writings, laughed at Chukwuemeka Ike’s humor and admired Ekwensi’s powerful narratives. But the characters in those books were forlorn, flawless, unrecognizable and larger-than-life. They were more like mediums used by the writers to elucidate on the powerful themes of pan-Africanism, cultural identity and corruption.

Purple Hibiscus was different. The characters were exquisitely crafted and believable; characters you could see in your neighborhood and on the street, characters you could relate to and characters who lived similar lives with you. The rawness and vivid descriptions of the prose awakened something in me. Something no other piece of literature has ever done.

The fact that Kambili and I used the same Integrated Science textbook fostered a kind of relativity.

Hunger welled up my stomach when Kambili’s mouth felt like paper during lunch. Pain shot through my spine as Eugene’s belt lashed out on barebacks. The characters spoke to me. I felt their whimper, the twitch of their muscles, their breathing, their fear and their triumph.

The bell for evening prayers rang as Jaja and Kambili were en route to Nsukka. The hostel assumed a sudden rowdiness as everybody ran out before the Prefect-On-Duty banged on the hostel gate. I clutched my bible and the novel and left for the chapel.

“This people cannot allow somebody to rest in this school,” I cursed under my breath.

Pastor Brown, our Religious Coordinator, preached that evening. I barely listened to him. The words inaudibly flew out of his mouth. I continued reading the novel that was sandwiched between the pages of my bible. I would, at intervals, look around to find out if an usher was coming towards me.

God had to understand; it was Chimamanda for crying out loud.

“What are you doing?” A voice asked.

I looked up to see the Chapel Prefect. I froze and unfroze. He picked up the novel, flipped through the pages and gave it back to me.

“Have you seen how the devil is using you? After dinner, fly straight to my dorm and lie under my bed.”

Like the proverbial fly that followed the corpse to the grave, I continued reading the novel. This time, I was extremely careful not to be caught again.

The new rains will come down soon.

I was done reading when the Grace was about to be said.

While preparing for dinner, I silently hoped that Pastor Brown’s preaching on forgiveness would soften the Chapel Prefect’s heart. I struggled to finish the beans and plantain we had for dinner. My stomach was tied in a painful knot.

The Chapel Prefect turned out to have a special brand of spirituality; the one with a The Kingdom of God sufferereth violence  mantra. I sulked off to Peace House and lay under his bed. He was already waiting for me and administered twelve strokes of his metal-studded leather belt on my bare back. He even threatened to seize the novel if not for the love of God.

In the morning, I admired the welts on my back. My friends told me to report the wicked senior. I laughed at because the welts looked like those on Jaja’s back when he went to prison. I had paid the ultimate price for literature.

Fast forward to the present. I am in my room at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. The irksome mosquitoes have sworn to tell me that it is way pass midnight. I am scribbling my thoughts on a paper. I do it with confidence because Adichie has given me the courage to know that my characters must not have the complexities of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart and that characters like me (who worry about personal identity, teenage love and jollof rice) can exist in literature.

I bow for books.

This entry was submitted as part of the Nigerian Voices competition organized by


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