“Blackbird” by Chinonyelum Anyichie
Chinonyelum Anyichie’s “Blackbird” is the first-place winner of the 2023 Short Fiction Prize, guest judged by Nana Nkweti.
Many writers would posit that no matter how fictional our literature—no matter how fantastical or absurd or surreal or grounded in a reality not entirely our own—its emotional core always resides firmly in autobiography. Perhaps then, the work of writing is all a form of translation that both muddies and clarifies the mirrors we hold up to ourselves and to the world. Chinonyelum Anyichie hints at this paradox in her brilliant author’s note, offering that she writes “as though polishing a glass surface until it shines, and then I stop to see how clearly it bears my reflection.” In “Blackbird,” she circles around ideas of self, performance, and image, the story’s tension carried in the dichotomy between how we see ourselves and how we refract through the lens of other people. What external standards of beauty infiltrate that emotional core, threatening to rot it? And, more importantly, how do we take agency back into our own hands, using what is external not to mask ourselves but to elucidate what resides within us? With startling specificity and gorgeous imagery, Chinonyelum Anyichie addresses the protagonist in a second-person voice that offers an almost dreamlike closeness, catapulting us toward an evocative ending that holds the mirror resolutely, refusing to let us look away. —CRAFT
Ifunanya called you ugly, and you answered her with a slap. A slap so charged it was the envy of thunder, and you didn’t even care you were in Chuckies, the school restaurant, teeming with people eating, laughing, coming in and breezing out. She had told you not to make the hairstyle you showed her on your phone, because it wouldn’t fit you, because you were awfully ugly “Or didn’t you know that?” You stared at her, your eyes fixed, overcast, hurt. But your palm rose in your defence: Itawai!, damning the many eyes turned from their tables to stare at you in shock, damning the anger that rocked Ifunanya’s face.
You expected her to slap you back and didn’t know what you would do if that happened. But she surprised you with sharp, derisive laughter instead, and you thought that was all, until she stood up and shouted words at you that succeeded in crumbling the weak wall you had slowly and painfully built around you.
“Every day, you play that stupid, ugly Nina’s songs and dress foolishly so people will admire you,” she said to you. “But the truth is always bitter! You are so ugly you don’t even have a boyfriend!” she said, packing all the slaps she could have given you into those words.
As you stomped out of there, you felt everyone’s eyes on your back, your vision fogged as your eyes gathered pools of water. You put heavy step after heavy step, wishing you had worn flats and not high boots, so you could get to your destination quicker. You didn’t return the greeting and smile of Mr. Ejiofo, the bookseller permanently stationed with his busload of books in front of the restaurant, the bookseller who always loved to hail you and call you “Nina” when you passed by, even when he had customers circled round his bus, waiting to be attended to. Mr. Ejiofor said you had Nina’s eyes and always gave you books for free or slashed the prices for you because he admired your “Americana fashion sense” as he called it, which reminded him of the Black Panthers of 1960s America.
Thankfully, you got to the bus stand in no time and hopped into one. Luck was on your side today—the bus filled up surprisingly fast. There were only three passengers when you got in. The bus capacity was eleven. You sat and waited, laboriously inhaling and exhaling, blinking back tears, waiting to get to your hostel so you could lock yourself in your room and let it all out. Your scalp became scratchy under your Afro wig, and you couldn’t wait to drag it off when you got home. The bus stopped by the school gate at Ifite, and you got down and began to walk away, but you had not gone six steps when the driver shouted at you.
“This girl, come and pay me my money, osiso! Do I look like your boyfriend that will carry you for free?” The thick veins on his neck were tense and looked like they were going to explode. You walked to him, took out a one hundred naira note from your purse, slapped it into his palm and turned away. The fare was fifty naira. He didn’t call you back for your change. You didn’t ask for it. He ran his eyes over you, up and down, once, and began to chuckle.
“With your small body, you carry old mama wig for head,” he called after you. “Who give you this wig?” he continued to laugh.
You turned back to him, coughed up a phlegm and spat it towards him. It landed on his windshield.
“Look! This girl!” he shouted, making to open his door and come down but was called back by the students shoving their money into his face. “Fine, you no fine, home training, you no get,” he said and the students and some passersby began to laugh, but you continued on your way.
You usually bought boiled corn and ube from the women lined up at the entrance of the school, but you walked past them today. You flagged down an okada man and told him, “Saint Bernice Hostel.” He lowered his bike so you could climb on. He rode recklessly, zigzagging to impress you. You paid him no mind, but his fellow okada men horned in salute and called him “Okpo-owa!”
He made the bend to Saint Bernice Hostel and stopped in front of your gate. You got down and gave him a one hundred naira note. The fare was fifty naira. He didn’t give you your change. You didn’t ask for it.
You covered your ears with your cupped palms against the outrage of music blasting from the rooms of your lodge mates as you walked up the stairs. You opened your door, got in and banged against the noise. You threw your bag on the black-and-white tiled floor, yanked off your wig and high boots, and fell on the bed. You lay there, wanting to cry, waiting for it. It didn’t come.
Ifunanya knew how that word got to you, how it made you quiet when it was spoken. She knew the power it had over you, so she used it to get back at you for not leaving your answer sheets open so she could copy at the exam hall, even though you had explained at the restaurant that the lecturer had been standing behind you. You should have felt better. Your palm had been quick to act when words failed you—it was the first time you ever stood up for yourself. But you didn’t. Ifunanya had desecrated the altar of your beloved goddess in full glare of other people. She had taken the sacred image of Nina and dashed it to the ground, beating her chest and asking you: “Kedu ife I ga-eme? Eh? What will you do?” It wasn’t enough she called you “ugly,” she had to bring the woman you worshipped into it. You felt you needed to do more. For Nina. Something, anything to end all the anger and bitterness you’d carried inside for twenty-two years.
All your life you have been at war with that word, ever since you could say “Da.” Ever since you were taught what beauty was and what it wasn’t. Ever since you learned to look at your reflection in the mirror and droop your head in shame because you saw what beauty wasn’t staring back at you. It started in Olodi-Apapa Lagos, where you began life. When your siblings and other children in the tiny but densely populated face-me-I-face-you yard you lived in called you “wor-wor” in jest, as children did to themselves, and you, a little child of two, would cry because even then, you understood “wor-wor” was the word for ugly. Then they’d sing to you to calm you: “Oya, sorry, sorry, don’t cry, you fine, you fine,” and you would smile, and push out your stomach in relief. You remembered this because your siblings who were much older narrated it to you and to the children of your street, proudly regaling them of a time you had all lived in the Almighty Lagos before coming down to share a temporary space with them in Onicha. Their stories cast images in your eyes and you focused and saw your two-year-old self crying for being called ugly. Your siblings told it all to you, fondly remembering their childhood. But they didn’t know or didn’t care you didn’t remember yours with fondness.
You got up now, egged on by a sudden desire to be cruel to yourself. You went to the mirror and stood stiffly in front of it, hands clenched into fists by your sides. The white bulb in the room resting directly behind your head helped the mirror outline features you knew so well. Your eyes were the only spectacular feature about your face. About you. They were expressive and showed more than you willed them to. If you laughed, they carried your amusement; if you nursed any thoughts, they came up there. They were the first details people noticed and marked out about you, because they were large with striking white sclera. And beautiful. But you hated them because that was all the beauty your Chi thought to give you.
Times without count, you would cry to your Chi, your guardian spirit, asking her where she was when other Chi went in search of beauty to give to the bodies God assigned them to. “Chi m, why did you give me this face? What wrong did I do to you?” you would cry on end.
You wriggled your nose as you stared at it. It was wide and flat. Your father and mother had well-formed, standing noses, and so did your siblings. Your heart always sank when family members made good-natured jokes about it, asking where you were when God was doling out beautiful noses to your family. To make it worse, they were all light-skinned. You alone were dark and that you got from your mother’s mother, but that didn’t make you feel any better. You felt out of place in your family.
You had a wide, voluminous mouth to go with the nose. You remembered when once, Ifunanya had subtly attacked it. You had both gone to eat at the food buka behind the Arts Faculty at school. Ifunanya picked up a spoon with a wide scoop from the spoon holder on the table and gave it to you, telling you your mouth could comfortably enfold it. Everybody at the table had laughed and so had you. You took the spoon and ate with it, laughing, but fixing your eyes on your plate of rice so no one would see the angry spark that had formed in them. You wished you were bold enough to call Ifunanya a dunce and throw the aluminium spoon at her, making sure it landed squarely on her forehead. After eating, you excused yourself from walking to the bus stand with her. You needed to stay back in school to study, you told her.
Often, you wondered why you clung to Ifunanya in spite of her occasional insensitivity towards you, in spite of your stark dissimilarities. Ifunanya was everything beautiful. Her face had all the graceful, pointy features yours didn’t have, features that made her look like Bianca Ojukwu, the woman who was regarded as a paragon of beauty in your country, Nigeria. Ifunanya was as fair and supple as a ripe udala fruit and didn’t have trouble getting men who drooled over her and wanted to marry her. She loved to refer to herself as Nwa Chukwu kelu mbosi uka—a child God created on a Sunday—and you agreed because as you all mock-believed God set Sunday aside for creating beauty, but it made you wonder what day he created you, what day he set aside to make ugliness.
You often mused over whether Ifunanya only came close to you for what she could gain from you, because she was the sort of person who only pretended friendship for as long as she got what she wanted. She had done that to Maxwell, a guy she had dated for two years and discarded because he stopped providing her with money to pay lecturers to pass her in courses she failed. Maybe she came close to you only because you were clever—you made nothing but As whenever results came out. But you let her be because, perhaps, you thought by keeping close to her, to beauty, you would heal from your lack of it.
Ifunanya sometimes reminds you of Florence, the girl who lived with your family as help to your aunty when you were little. Especially when Ifunanya taunted you for being the way you were. Like that day when you had both just become friends in your first year at Unizik, when you went to her hostel and you had both played a game of truth.
“Tell me what you have never been able to tell anyone, and I’ll keep it a secret,” she had encouraged you. So, you opened your mouth and spilled, and hated yourself afterwards when she laughed and said, “But that is an open secret. Even if you didn’t tell anyone, it is there for all to see.”
You wanted so badly to twist her mouth and hurt her back. But looking at her pretty face, you knew there was nothing you could come up with, so you ended the game and walked out of her room, her sardonic laughter trailing behind you as you went.
Florence, the girl who lived with your family as help to your aunty, had simply told you to cut off your nose when you lamented to her while you were a child about your nose looking different from your siblings’.
“Cut it off if you don’t like it and nobody will laugh at it again. Because you know why?” she had asked you and you eagerly shook your head, saying no.
“Because it wouldn’t be there again!” She had laughed at the shadow that crossed your face, in the same way Ifunanya laughed at you when you walked out of her room.
The power went off and cast the room into near darkness, and you realised how far the day had gone by. A rat skidded off the entrance of the bathroom to your left and landed on your foot as you made for your bed. You raised the foot, determined to kick life out of the rat, but it jumped up twice and ran out of your reach. You bit your lower lip then screamed at it: “Maka Chukwu, I di very lucky!” It really was, unlike the one that got caught in the metal trap you bought and set up when you found the straps of your favourite sandals gnawed off. You were sure the culprit was the tiny rat trying to tear itself free from the trap, so you gave back all you felt when you beheld your damaged sandals—you used hot candle wax to send it to its maker. You didn’t feel bad. The rat had wronged you. You had fallen on your bed laughing and laughing and couldn’t stop laughing as it squeaked and twitched in pain from the hot wax that soaked it up, and left it a still, irregular form of hard white.
You lay down on the bed and covered your face with your palms, as though in shame. You learnt from a young age no one really wanted you, not even your mother. You believed you saw traces of shame in her eyes when her friends visited, and while taking bottles of soft drinks she called you to fetch them, burped and casually asked her why you were so different, and if she worried that no husband may come for you. So. You learnt to dwell in solitude, choosing the comfort of your room over family banter and what you thought were scornful gazes and spiteful comments. That was when you began experimenting with fashion.
You were fifteen when you began dressing in a way everyone thought unusual. You were a millennial, but dressed old-school, like the African-American pop singers of the mid-90s who had their photos plastered on the vinyl records your father kept. Large ear loops, defiant Afro hair, baggy jeans, sturdy boots, skimpy tops—you wore anything to make you stand out. And you did stand out, but soon noticed to your dismay that your style only made your lack of beauty more conspicuous. You didn’t know why you dressed that way, but perhaps it was a way of showing there was more to you beyond how people saw you. A way to self-express. You kept on this way, reaching out for something you couldn’t understand, until you met Nina Simone.
Mr. Ejiofor had introduced you to her the first time he saw you, on that day Ifunanya made a joke about your mouth and you walked home alone. He called you “Nina” and gave you a copy of her biography.
“You look just like her!” he said. “Same eyes!”
You looked at her photo in the book and listened to detect mockery in Mr. Ejiofor’s voice. There was none. You even thought you saw admiration dancing in his eyes.
“Have you heard her songs?” he asked you.
No, you said.
“Really? Gracious me! Where have you been?”
The next day he gave you a CD compilation of some of her songs and asked you to keep it. The songs were chart-toppers, the ones he loved best: “I Wish I Knew How to Be Free,” “Mississippi Goddam,” “Feeling Good,” “Blackbird,” “I Put a Spell on You.” Nina put a spell on you and you fell into a swoon. You wondered why you never heard her songs in the records your father played. You devoured everything you could find about her—her life, her songs, causes she stood up for. You became so connected to her you couldn’t tell where she ended and where you began. You understood her bouts of anger—a constant in your life, because you felt your Chi had conspired with the whole world against you to give you a face you didn’t like. Nina was everything you ever wanted to be but couldn’t: wild, free, fearless. Vocal. You drowned yourself in her voice and even began to see yourself as beautiful because you thought she was.
You imagined speaking up for yourself like Nina did in her songs, for herself, for the Blacks in America. You imagined yourself shouting at everyone: “I am beautiful! Nina was, so am I!” And it worked.
But only for a while.
Was it because you had lived with that picture of your two-year-old self, crying, begging everyone to take back that word so you could laugh, that you found yourself slipping back into that hole, even though you reached up desperate for air? Was it because, from that tender age, you had learnt you were not a thing of beauty? Was it because that word messed up your psyche, caged it and asked it to forget about ever being free? That even though you knew you shouldn’t let it win, you did? Was it because you listened to “Blackbird” on end and felt it talking to you? Told you you would never be able to fly, no matter how hard you flapped your wings?
You began to wonder why Mr. Ejiofor asked you to listen to “Blackbird” in particular. Did he not understand the lyrics? Or perhaps he did, but was taunting you just like everybody else. So your feelings for Nina became bittersweet—you embraced her, but she held you back from flying. You went high then low, low, low, in fleeting happiness and faithful dolefulness. But still, you loved her like an addiction.
And then today, Ifunanya held you by her right hand and Nina by her left, and, in full glare of onlookers, smashed your heads against each other’s and told you you could do nothing.
You remained there in the near dark thinking of a way out of it all. Why, you couldn’t keep on being silent. That was why you had stood up for yourself today for the first time. You lay there, thinking of a way to put a screeching halt to it all, and that was when you heard it.
It was faint, so much like a whisper that at first you thought you imagined it. You heard it again and sat up still. The voice came distinctly the third time, from the direction of your balcony. Tusa-tusa. You opened the door leading to the balcony and stood there, straining your ears to catch it again. You looked far up the street and saw the retreating figure of a man speaking into a megaphone, a bag slung over a shoulder. “Tusa-tusa,” he called into the speaker as he went, and that brought back a memory. Tusa-tusa sellers were scattered in the streets of Onicha where you grew up, but you never saw them in your three years of living in Awka as a student, so seeing one now surprised you. A wild thought came to you then as you stood staring at the figure.
You rushed back into your room, took out your wallet from your schoolbag still lying on the floor and dashed out. You took the stairs three at a time and bolted out of your gate, almost falling.
“Tusa-tusa!” you called out to the retreating figure even though he was already at the end of the street and was making to take the left bend out of sight. Your flailing hands up in the air caught his eyes as he made the bend, and he turned to you. He stood there staring at you, as if contemplating whether you were worth covering the distance again for. You bade him come with your fingers and he obliged. You walked back to the gate, leaned against it, and waited.
You almost ate up a plate of rice doused with the locally made insecticide when you were six. Florence had encouraged you to do it. Florence enjoyed dangerous mischief, which was strange for a quiet ten-year-old. Once, she had directed your elder sister, Grace, to hold a rubber band to an open fire and then swing it close to her ear while it was still hot. Grace’s right ear still bore the mark of her obedience.
Florence had come into the sitting room while you ate alone that day and made for the cupboard where your mother stored insecticides. She got out a tiny brown bottle, and without much ado, emptied its contents into your plate and placed a fifty kobo coin beside it on the dining table, telling you the coin would be yours to buy Robot Bubble Gum with if you ate up your food without a fuss. You looked at the fifty kobo coin, thinking of the promise of sweetness it held. You looked at your plate of rice. You picked up the spoon and began eating, taking hurried scoops even though the liquid changed the taste of the food, stung your lips, your tongue, your throat, and made your eyes and nostrils water. You soon felt faint and put down the spoon, coughing in protest. Florence was disappointed and showed it, her eyes filling with contempt like they always did whenever she called you “njo,” when she spelt out your name and added a slice of ugly to it.
She gave the spoon back to you and urged you to finish up, not minding you were crying and clutching your stomach. Grace came in then, took one quick look at you and a hard one at Florence still holding the bottle, and shouted for your mother. Reverend Father Ndulue’s holy water and anointing oil that your mother bought every Sunday after mass, and lavished on you that day could do nothing, not even the hardcover Bible she placed on your stomach, until your father came in and rushed you to City Hospital, a few blocks from your house.
The man got to you now, and you asked him to give you four bottles of the insecticide. He dropped his megaphone on the ground, clicked on his phone’s torchlight and rummaged in his bag. He put four bottles into a clear cellophane bag and, mixing Pidgin English with Igbo, told you how to use it.
“Tusa ya just little in all corners of your room, and e go kill all insects, instanta! Make sure you stay out of your room for thirty minutes o, if not, e fit kill you too.”
You smiled at that and at how the insecticide got its name from how it was applied. You gave him a two hundred naira note and he flashed the light on it to be sure it was the right amount.
You walked back to your hostel. It was pitch-dark now, so you felt your way back to your room, your eyes glittering with the urgency of what you knew you had to do. You got into your room, shut the door, and picked up your bag. You took out your phone and sat on your bed. You searched through the call log for Ifunanya’s number. You were going to apologize and invite her over tomorrow. You were going to make her jollof rice. You sat there, hunchbacked in the dark, phone in hand. Your lips parted, making way for a smile that welcomed a laugh so deep it shook your whole body. You knew you should stop it, but you didn’t.
CHINONYELUM ANYICHIE is a Nigerian from Anambra State. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Nigeria, and a master’s in English literature from University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Wichita State University where she is a graduate teaching assistant. She is an Elizabeth George Foundation grant recipient and currently working on her debut novel. Her work has appeared in Isele Magazine and The Shallow Tales Review, and is forthcoming in others. Find her on Instagram @chinonyelum.anyichie and Twitter @ChinonyelumAny1.
Featured image by Jez Timms, courtesy of Unsplash.