Exploring the art of prose


Riverine by Ladi Opaluwa

Image is a color photograph of a foggy pier; title card for the new flash fiction, "Riverine," by Ladi Opaluwa.

In her author’s note, Ladi Opaluwa writes about “the indistinguishability of the real and the imagined.” Her flash fiction “Riverine” pulls the reader into the liminal space between the real, the mythical, and the imagined. At its core, “Riverine” is the story of a memory, how shared memory can take on different meanings for each rememberer, and the frustration that ensues when one’s memory is called into question. Here, two sisters are in conversation about a childhood experience that one remembers clearly and the other denies. As the tension unfolds between the two sisters, a parallel tension unfolds for the reader who, like the narrator, is unable to discern between the real and the imagined. The story knocks the reader into an off-kilter state that is as intriguing as it is familiarly frustrating to anyone who has looked back at a memory with a family member only to find themselves doubted rather than affirmed. As the narrator states: “I am desperate for her [my sister] to reclaim this story….” In “Riverine,” Ladi Opaluwa’s chosen form speaks to the experience of the narrator. Dense, rushed, run-on sentences express the narrator’s inner state. The flow of the narrator’s stream of consciousness is then broken by the narrator’s sister’s abrupt and mocking dialogue, but resumes at the story’s end. Ultimately, the piece invites the reader to ponder the many ways we might find meaning in our own stories, and how we might claim our memories, even when they don’t match.  —CRAFT


Over the phone, I urge my sister to recount the event of the morning, several years ago when we were kids and our mother was away in nursing school, that she, being the eldest, woke up early as usual to make breakfast and prepare us for school and saw, upon opening the door of our self-contained apartment, a creature standing at the frontage as if in wait for her, so the sight of it and the gibberish it yelled caused her to fly back in, tripping over our father lying on a mat at the base of our bed and landing on us two younger ones in bed woken to a shaken sister who, several minutes later, after our father had sat her up against a wall and poured cold water over her head and fed her hot Lipton tea, said she had woken that morning with an unusual reluctance to get out of bed, that she felt so laden, as if a bag of cement were on her chest, holding her in place, but she got up anyway, and each step forward was labored because something like a harness around her neck pulled her back, and I thought, as she spoke, she should have taken these signs as a premonition, for we lived in Adankolo, a village on the bank of the Niger River populated by witches that flew in daylight, hooting, whistling, squeaking, making all kinds of piercing sounds, depending on the form manifested, and nestling on large trees behind squat, unpainted houses with rusty roofs, and taking infants from their cribs overnight, leaving mothers wailing and beating their distended breasts in the morning, their lamentations drawing in sympathizers, even passersby, and pooping on the village’s biweekly market so it shut down and became a hideout for criminals, or so we heard our parents say, and when we, my siblings and I, huddled in bed in dread at these stories, our father would tell us to relax, what you do not see will not see you, but I would have already peed my pants, like I did that morning as my sister continued to piece together her story, how she trudged on against the thick air that felt like a wall, towards the door, and saw, when she opened it, the creature standing outside, and our father called the happenstance an abomination, like day and night meeting, and vowed he would do something about it.

“Remember?” I tell my sister as she begins to giggle into my ear. “You were around thirteen then, in JSS 2. Outside in the dark, you saw this per—a thing, half human, half fish, that screamed at you, Ogboshoshoshosho.”

My sister laughs loud and long. “I have told you before, it never happened.” She laughs more, trying and failing at the second syllable to repeat the nonsense I had uttered. “Abeg, nothing like that. It’s funny sha. The way you say it.”

The harder she laughs, the more details of the event I dredge up, making her laugh even more before eventually begging me to stop. I am desperate for her to reclaim this story, else, what do I do with this creature, a tilapia, I recall from her description of its scaly lower half, that she now makes look like my fantasy rather than a collective childhood memory of a distressing morning that ended the carefree, motherless days of our lives, days swimming in the Niger till dark, making statuettes with golden clay from the slippery riverbank? If it did not happen—and I get goosebumps thinking of it—how come I remember seeing her get out of bed in the grey early morning, around 5:30 thereabouts, feeling her way to the door, the screech of the door opening, her flight back into bed, her flailing arm hitting my face and waking me up properly? Why did I become afraid to go out to the bathroom adjacent to our apartment to urinate before bedtime and so began to wet the bed again at age nine, a habit our mother had flogged out of me years prior on one of her days home on holiday from nursing school?

My sister is talking about her kindergartener’s excellent grades, overall best in her class for the second consecutive year, and I am thinking of ways to tell this story better, to ignite her memory of that morning, of her encounter with the creature, which I recently figured must have been a mermaid, whose existence, or, shall I say, her narrative of its existence, she has denied every time I brought it up over supposedly casual calls that I initiate to sneak in the disowned tale. I am desperate for her to reclaim the story so I can tell her my realization that she had seen a mami wata and that was the reason our father stopped her and as a consequence, us, too, from going to the river and from making statuettes that spirits could possess.


LADI OPALUWA is a Nigerian writer based in the United States where she is completing her PhD in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her stories have been published in Electric LiteratureLitro Magazine, and Overland Journal. She was shortlisted for the Morland Writing Scholarship in 2015 and was awarded a MacDowell Fellowship in 2017. Her Twitter handle is @ladiopaluwa.


Featured image by Matt Benson, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

In the opening paragraph of A. Igoni Barrett’s story, “To Fall Twice for the Same Trick (or Déjà Vu),” the narrator falls and hits his head against a desk. The incident recurs in the closing, but one instance is illusory. I return to this story often, with the aim of sifting these events. So far, I have failed. Instead of coming to a better understanding of the plot, I move out towards a philosophical contemplation of the indistinguishability of the real and the imagined. It is this aspect of the story, its inscrutability, the persistent feeling that it cannot be not fully known, the promise of yet more to be discovered, that has kept me tethered to it, and inspired my style in “Riverine.”

Stories, generally, are difficult to convey from the mind onto the page, perhaps more so if the concept is about memory, as in “Riverine,” with its formless, infinite, and tumbling nature. With this story I wanted to create a prose style that was unwieldy enough to match my material. This stylistic decision, the narrative loop and winding sentences, made sense in my mind, but knowing how difficult it is to translate story ideas into text, I feared the project was certain to fail. The task was to rescue it from such fate. Predictably, the first draft was a mess. Each subsequent draft, then, was an attempt to revise towards clarity while, hopefully, retaining that puzzling element of Barrett’s story that prompts the reader to return to it often. Constructing the sentences was a thrill, but the several attempts at taming the language were tortuous.

After I had failed to rescue myself from the maze of my own fabrication, I knew it was time to let the story go to workshop. Thankfully, I am in a program that makes provision for that. Creative writing workshops have a dubious reputation, but it is an arrangement that I am grateful for. Workshop, in its traditional, blunt format, has worked for me. It always pulls me through a jam and refocuses my vision so I can see better where I am going with a story, what I need to add or drop. So, I may have conceived and written the story, but the result published here is collaborative. This statement similarly calls for the acknowledgment of the input of the editors of this magazine, who went beyond the now-customary grammatical corrections. My hypothesis on the decline of developmental editing is a topic for another essay. In the meantime, let me know if you figure out what is happening in Barrett’s story.


LADI OPALUWA is a Nigerian writer based in the United States where she is completing her PhD in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her stories have been published in Electric LiteratureLitro Magazine, and Overland Journal. She was shortlisted for the Morland Writing Scholarship in 2015 and was awarded a MacDowell Fellowship in 2017. Her Twitter handle is @ladiopaluwa.