In the summer of 1997, I resigned in a temper from my job as a sub-editing, proof-reading, writing, picture-editing, chain-smoking dogsbody at the London-based magazine Africa Business. I had learned a lot, but it was time to move on. I had a few hundred quid in my bank account when I walked into Black Star travel agency and asked for the cheapest return flight to West Africa. I was offered Lagos, Burkina Faso or Accra. I chose Accra and spent the next twelve months based there, travelling up and down Lake Volta, taking tro-tros into Burkina Faso and further north to Niger’s capital, Niamey. I wrote for all sorts of magazines, I did an appalling interview with Nadine Gordimer, I met Bernardine Evaristo for the first time, and I fell in love with one of Robert Mugabe’s nephews. I also started reading Ghanaian writers like Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah and B. Kojo Laing. The B is for Bernard. It is also for Brilliant.
I am reluctant to provide a summary of ‘Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ’. I will, however, give you the first few sentences:
When the small quick lorry was being lowered from the skies, it was discovered that it had golden wood, and many seedless guavas for the hungry. As the lorry descended the many layers of cool air, the rich got ready to buy it, and the poor to resent it. The wise among the crowd below opened their mouths in wonder, and closed them only to eat. They ate looking up while the sceptical looked down. And so the lorry had chosen to come down to this town that shamed the city with its cleanliness. The wheels were already revolving and, when they shone, most of them claimed they were the mirrors of God. The lorry was quick but the descent was slow. So many wanted to touch it.
Laing has been described as an Afrofuturist, and his work as African magical realism. I’m not entirely sure what either of those terms means and instinctively I dislike them. What I do know is that Laing writes with a freedom that resists categorisation. If I was pushed, I’d probably say he writes jazz – say Sun Ra meets Thelonius Monk meets Manu Dibango. He lets loose his imagination and his knowledge and trusts his instinct to produce stories. He writes tight sentences that can veer in the most unexpected direction. He is political, he is poetic, he is funny and he is fearless. As of last year, he is also dead. It is curious that, in his lifetime, he did not gain more critical attention. I think he’s one of the best.
From The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories edited by Chinua Achebe and C.L. Innes, Heinemann Africa Writers Series, 1992. Also included in The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer, Vintage, 2016