Published in the Winter 2022 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review, Joe Sacksteder’s craft essay, “Against Quirky Writing,” captures many of the editorial frustrations I find when regularly reading through submissions. The trend toward defamiliarizing and unconventional prose is not so bad on its own, but when unusual language and complex punctuation are all that a story offers, it’s kind of like receiving a beautifully wrapped empty box. The present itself is nothing more than shiny, hollow packaging.
Reading Arinze Ifeakandu’s short story collection, God’s Children are Little Broken Things, was thus that much more refreshing and enjoyable, because his nine included works of short fiction often feel nearly novelistic in scope, are reinforced by superb character development, and offer exacting precision on the line level. There’s an acute attention to storytelling, a narrative patience that has perhaps fallen out of fashion when we’re wont to show taste by quote-tweeting a dazzling lyrical passage before abruptly moving on. This is all to say God’s Children are Little Broken Things isn’t trying to be flashy or splashy, but it is the best kind of gift.
Consider the first two sentences of one of the collection’s longest stories, “What the Singers Say About Love”:
“I’d seen Kayode once before, in first year, having a bath downstairs, his wet body an assemblage of small perfect muscles, his ass firm and flawless, his dick, my God. I noticed him in the way that one notices something beautiful but unattainable and did not see him again until second year, when I went with my friend Ekene to a campus celebrities’ bash.”
This is a lovely entry point because it’s not trying to do too much, likely at least in part because—clocking in at thirty-seven pages—this story takes its time. These sentences don’t attempt to jar the reader into paying attention. Instead, they introduce central characters, establish narratorial voice, and kick off the plot—as well as a sense of where we were and where we’re going—without fretting over creating an image of Kayode that goes beyond physicality. Kayode and the narrator, Somto, quickly develop a strong romance that risks falling apart behind Kayode’s rising fame. Much of the story is about love and music, and the prose holds true to that musicality, but never with the brand of incisive language aimed at causing gasps of awe. Instead, it is the characters and mood of the story that are memorable.
To be clear, the ambitious scope of most of these stories—the collection ends on two that are brief compared to those that preceded them—should not be confused with sluggishness or a lack of lyricism. Ifeakandu’s writing is anything but pedestrian.
For those seeking range, however, the thematic focus of this collection might cause the stories to at times blur together, even if individually solid. They all center on clandestine relationships among queer Nigerian men, so that the primary points of conflict and tension, as well as the social and cultural pressures driving them, remain largely consistent, even if under disparate situations and circumstances. For me, this wasn’t a problem, because I enjoyed each story on its own and didn’t fret too much about the overlap. Yet, in whole, Ifeakandu is a master craftsman who—in this debut anyway—doesn’t stray too far away from what’s working.
It would be convenient to label this collection “raw,” but it’s worth taking a quick stand against that designation, in part because it’s become overused diction specifically for narratives written by and about queer people of color. Raw suggests something undone or intentionally presented without preparation. In that word, there’s almost always some implication of pain. But in my mind, raw doesn’t really apply to Ifeakandu’s unrushed narratives, which are chock-full of well-distributed exposition and deliberate scene work. The stories are not even necessarily raw in their emotional resonance, because the various characters generally experience the full arc of a relationship rather than the terse light-switch arguments fiction writers so often fall back on for fast break-ups and make-ups. In other words, it’s an oversimplification to attempt to place Ifeakandu’s short fiction into binary categories: happy or sad, raw or refined, light or serious, because to do so ignores the immaculate attention and nuance that has gone into each story’s construction. While there might not always be range in subject matter, there is vast range in character, emotion, experience, and perspective.
It’s not easy to write stories like these in a publishing landscape with a short attention span. One of the reasons God’s Children are Little Broken Things stands out is that nothing feels hasty or unconsidered. There’s no race against a clock here, simply a concreteness, a rock-solid quality that offers a sense of sturdiness and permanence. These are stories I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
by Arinze Ifeakandu
A Public Space
Published on June 7, 2022