In Sweet Sixteen, Abdullahi interrogates moral enlightenment, self-identity
Nigerian Literature syllabus, at all levels of academic learning, has always been a subject of raging controversy, among critics and academics.
There are two possible factors responsible for this enduring strife in the field of Literature.
One is the seeming incurable obsession of the hands entrusted with the responsibility of selecting literary texts, to the writings of the earliest generation of writers such as, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, John Pepper Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare and other contemporaries of these literary initiates.
This tends to be an institutionalized spite on the creative potentials of the contemporary writers.
The second and by far the more controversial of the two causes of critical consternation on Literature syllabus, has been the infamous politics of selection and inclusion.
To writers and publishers, the inclusion of a literary text into an academic syllabus, simply translates into the double rewards of fame and fortune.
Therefore, each strives to ensure that their publications make it to the school reading list, sometimes, through the interplay of connection and politics with jurists of the subject’s syllabus – with no consideration for literary merit.
However, this is never the case with the JAMB’s newly introduced literary text Sweet Sixteen by Bolaji Abdullahi.
Knowing that the man behind the book is a politician, former commissioner, ex-minister and more so immediate past spokesperson of the ruling party in the country, may trigger a suspicion of another selection informed by power influence. But Sweet Sixteen is far more than a political pick, in matters and manner.
In fact, the text is about the best gift to admissions seekers and young adults that are set to navigate the labyrinths of knowledge and maturity.
Age 16, is the age of transition. It is the age enlightenment and maturity. Coincidentally, it is the age of admission into higher institution of learning in the country.
By contrast, age 16 can also be one of confusion and perdition, with wrong orientation and parenting.
Sensitive to all these, Abdullahi has fashioned Sweet Sixteen as an educational, moral and virtual parenting manual to meet the need of the universal adult youths, as they journey through the voyage called life.
A bildungsroman, Sweet Sixteen is a story of moral enlightenment, of self-identity, of social awareness and of intellectual development of the only child of middle-class Nigerian parents.
The story spans over a weekend, and episodically narrated through an informal conversation between a sixteen-year old Haliya and her father Bello, a retired journalist.
A 16-page letter addressed to the young Aliya on her 16th birthday by her father has elicited the weeklong dialogue.
Each page of the letter is a fatherly reflection on each of the 16 years of Haliya’s existence, and the associated morals that come with the age.
The dialogue serves as a window that links the readers into the mind of a quintessential adolescent, whose mind is always filled with (un)speakable desires, (mis)guided aspirations and (in)ordinate ambitions, as they come of age.
The protagonist, Haliya, has a moral compass in a father who has risen above the societal mores of placing the responsibility of parenting at the thresholds of the matriarchs.
Bello’s rare intestinal fortitude in engaging his daughter on different issues that include her sexual life and menstrual cycle is a deconstruction of the age-long stereotype of what the society has wrongly regarded as motherly functions.
With this, Abdullahi is able to establish the necessity and juicy gains in combined parenting.
Also worthy of note, is the correctional approach of the novella in addressing the erroneous and notional judgment of parents that force children to certain choices of careers, for prestige or fortunes or both, with no consideration for the children’s desire and career passion.
This, truly, has become a major societal anomaly, even among the learned in our part of the world. For Mr Bello, the utmost is a career pursued with passion and happiness, as only this offers assurance of success and fulfilment of purpose.
Furthermore, Sweet Sixteen addresses the many personal challenges faced by young adults, especially among peers and in the society at large.
These challenges include but not limited to the choice of peer group, the desire for sexual partners and gratification, the threat of stereotype and body shaming and the urge to hang out and earn respect for being vast in cyber slangs like: HAK (Hug and Kisses), KOTL (Kiss on the Lips ), KPT (Keep Parents Clueless) OMG, 53X and many more in this lexical category.
However, the author, through the protracted conversation of Mr. Bello and his daughter, philosophically offers some fatherly solutions and counselling, to tame the fledgling youths of thousands desires.
Meanwhile, while Sweet Sixteen is rife in domestic thematic engagements, national issues do not suffer neglect in the creative pen of the author, as the text projects the many bitter realities that have almost put the Nigerian nation into the cauldron of despair.
The novella touches on some national issues, which include the bestial onslaught of the marauding Boko-haram insurgents on innocent citizens, the insensitivity of the ruling class who have turned the nation’s commonwealth into a family heirloom, and the twin-troubles of ethnic jingoism and religious bigotry among many others.
The author draws attention to the negative consequences of all these on the people and the nation, while prevailing on the reading youths to right the generational wrongs with positive attitudes and peaceful coexistence.
One feature of fascination in Sweet Sixteen as a literary text is the author’s use of comprehensible philosophies and lucid universal maxims to drive home his subject matters.
In addition to this, the narrative is spiced with the tang of quotations from great men of letter. Alfred Lord Tennyson. Kahlil Gibran. Albert Einstein. And Mahatma Gandhi. This has made the text a hors d’oeuvre for any youth at the starting point of learning.
Lastly, whether Bolaji Abdullahi has been a success as a politician or otherwise is an exclusive debate for political jurists to negotiate. But with the gift of Sweet Sixteen, there is the possibility that our author may have more to offer humanity in Literature than in politics.
*Akin Oseni is a literary critic, teacher and book reviewer.