Kola Tubosun - Behind the Door
We don't know what exactly is being tested behind the door, or at least, we are never told directly. But we know that Kola Tubosun is from Nigeria, and we know the types of tests which young men and women from that general region are encouraged to take. The illness is never named, but it's identity is clear - The HIV virus.
The narrator, who remains nameless, has decided, finally, to take the test. It is free, though there are many more people who don't take the test and should, than those who do. The medicine is free, too, and so is the life sentence that comes with the virus. Good enough, then. The narrator writes, "Maybe I didn't need to know what was in my blood." But of course he does.
He watches another man being tested,
She summoned him to come closer, and he did. He got up to sit by her at the lab table. As he folded the arms of his shirt in readiness for a needle insertion into his veins, I got immediately apprehensive. I had never liked needles, or tablets, but I liked the needles even less, and I would have done anything to avoid another insertion, about the third in one week.
After the other man's test is complete, it is his turn. To dispell his nerves, he starts chatting with the nurse. They discuss nothing but the test, the virus, and the state of the illness in Nigeria, but the conversation remains calm, the tone matter-of-fact. It is both the numb fright of the narrator, and the regularity of the nurse - she's seen it before, it's become part of what makes up her normal.
"So you came here to do the test..."
"Yes, of course. I've always wanted to do the test. There's nothing wrong with me."
"Of course, young man. Of course."
"I'm sure you call it Voluntary Testing."
She smiled. "Yes."
And then later,
"Let me ask you a last question," I said, after a short pause.
"Alright. You seem really curious."
"What is the rate of infection in this part of the country?"
"Well, it depends on the organisation that did the statistics."
"No. I mean in your hospital. You do this every day, right?"
"Like how many people, on average, come here for testing every day?"
"Okay. Now about how many of them turn positive?"
"I would say about two."
I feel it's best to look at this story critically from two angles. The first is the merits of the writing, which should of course remain paramount. In this, Tubosun does very well. He captures the dry absurdity of a potentially terrible situation, and the ending is remarkable in its pathos. I believed both the matter-of-fact and slightly sympathetic tone of the nurse, and I believed the narrator's feelings when he hoped he did not have the illness, but suspected that, because of his life and where he lived, he might. Tubosun alternates between writing with very plain, ordinary language, such as when a conversation occurs, and larger, quite grand sentences which seek to encompass the tumultuous shifts of emotions experienced by the narrator. He is adept at both, and perhaps most importantly, knows when to use which. When the narrator talks to the nurse, the writing becomes short and sharp because the narrator himself is tense with anticipation, he must be calm, because if he is not - collapse. When he retreats within himself, his conscious is allowed to expand, and so, too, does the writing, Tubosun's sentences uncoiling like languorous snakes willing to take their time to reach their destination.
A few minutes on the hospital bench in the corridor ended up as the longest ones of my life. They were few, but they contained a range of similar thoughts of gloom that circled my throbbing head like vultures around a dying desert traveller. I panicked. And suddenly, the random glances towards me by passers-by suddenly began to carry a new significance...Random images of a gruesome death competed with my beating heart as twin punches of a ruthless fighter in the fighting rings of my recurring memory, and all my past and future goals were instantly reduced to the now suddenly loud ticking hands of the hospital clock
The second is the elephant in the room, which has been glanced at briefly, but not discussed. In my part of the world (Australia), AIDS prevalence is around 0.3%. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the rate is 5.2%. The fact of AIDS is, then, something that I basically cannot comprehend on a societal level. But a Nigerian? They can, and Tubosun does. Coming at a story like this, the basis from which it is created is something wholly different from my own experiences. And yet - and this is part of the reason why the story is so good - Tubosun couches it all with familiar language and a classic plot. The casual tone of, well, everyone, is unsettling, but Tubosun recognises this and uses it to enhance the tension.
But statistics do not, of course, make for much of a story. Nobody cares about numbers, really, but they do care about character, theme, and emotion. Tubosun's story makes an abstract statistic seem real, and it solidifies the reality of the HIV problem in Africa. Behind the Door works on multiple levels, which is to say it's an overall success. The tragedy of AIDS in Africa is well documented, and its effects are felt everywhere on the continent. Tubosun never preaches; he is satisfied with merely telling a good story, and telling it well, and this, as it often does, gives the story greater impact, and increases the effectiveness of his message.
Behind the Door by Kola Tubosun is a short story from StoryTime's publication, African Roar (edited by Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor W. Hartmann). This review is part of a series intending to examine each story from the collection, in an effort to broaden awareness of both the project itself, and the excellent array of authors contained within.
Kola Tubosun's website
Reviews of other short stories from the African Roar Series