Vincent, the Nigerian narrator of Segun Afolabi's impressive new novel, Goodbye Lucille, has left London and his girlfriend for 1985 Berlin. Working as a photographer, he spends his free time there getting drunk with his friends: Clariss, a transsexual ex-marine turned escort girl; B, a Cameroonian working in removals; and Tunde, a Nigerian playboy who selects girlfriends largely on the basis of their breast size. They are all in exile of a kind. Ari, Vincent's Kurdish neighbor, has been driven to paranoia by the violence he has witnessed. His friend Ezmir kills himself after "an interview with immigration officers that had not gone in his favor." Vincent observes: "Sometimes, the sheer exertion of living drove a person beyond their limits."
Exile and alienation are recurring themes in the work and life of the London-based, Nigerian-born author. His father, the son of a Nigerian witch doctor, "ran away and was raised by missionaries," says Afolabi, and later became a diplomat. While the family bounced around everywhere from Canada to the Congo, Afolabi was dispatched to boarding school in the U.K. On his childhood trips abroad, Afolabi's status as the son of a diplomat didn't prevent him from being treated roughly at certain borders. "I have always been astonished and angered,"he says, "by the fact that some people can move very easily around the world and others can't."
A fascination with borders and belonging similarly permeate A Life Elsewhere, a superb collection of short stories published last year, which Afolabi had composed during breaks from writing the novel. One tale, Monday Morning, is about a family of asylum seekers fleeing atrocities at home for a new life in London; another is about a young man escaping to the U.S. from London; a third explores the feelings of repulsion and shame a man feels on a trip "home" to Nigeria. The stories are almost unremittingly dark. When the father in Monday Morning injures himself escaping immigration officials on a building site, his wife, maimed in the violence she has fled, "petted him with her club, her smooth paw."
Afolabi, who began writing while taking an evening class at London's City Lit adult education institute, says he was surprised to discover this bleakness in his stories: "I had no idea that there was so much despair in them. I'd never consciously thought about what I was writing until the collection was put together. I'm not a despairing person. I always want to begin with some sort of dilemma, or problem, and for the characters to come to some sort of resolution, or some sort of understanding." Indeed, there are glimmers of hope and redemption in his snapshots of lives lived "elsewhere." While there is sadness and uncertainty, there is also a good deal of dignity, courage and kindness.
"It is curious," writes Kazuo Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day, "how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly." It's a statement (by another London-based writer originally from someplace else) Afolabi has chosen as the epigraph for Goodbye Lucille an epigraph that highlights the heartening capacity for connection in unexpected places. "I have Polish friends and Ghanaian friends and Indian friends," says Afolabi, "friends across the spectrum. I read the other day that the largest ethnic group in London was mixed-race children. I was pretty gobsmacked, and encouraged as well. I hope that's the future."