In “Apollo,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a man named Okenwa visits his elderly parents. Age has “shrunk” them; they tell fantastical stories, the opposite of previously being curt, intelligent professors. Okenwa worries if his parents will die soon, but would not be as concerned if he had a family, feeling guilty since his parents want grandchildren. One day, Okenwa’s parents tell him about robbers in another city. Their leader was Raphael, a former houseboy. Okenwa flashes back to when he was a young teen and Raphael was houseboy, after several others left since Okenwa’s mother was so harsh. His parents’ former haughty and scholarly attitudes worried Okenwa that he disappointed them by not being intellectual enough. However, Okenwa secretly loved kung fu. One day Raphael caught him practicing Bruce Lee moves, but to his surprise, Raphael joined in. The two bonded, and Raphael mentored Okenwa in kung fu. He even made Okenwa nunchaku (or nunchucks) out of an old mop. Gradually, Okenwa developed feelings for Raphael. However, Raphael got Apollo (a minor eye infection common in West Africa), and was quarantined in his room. The parents gave him eye drops and left him alone, but Okenwa snuck into his room. When Raphael admitted that he couldn’t put drops in his own eye, Okenwa did it for him, sneaking in three times a day to put in his eye drops. Their gestures suggested that they were falling in love. Raphael soon healed, and Okenwa was disappointed because he no longer had an excuse to visit him. But soon Okenwa got Apollo. To direct the blame away from Raphael, he lied to his parents that he got it from a classmate. They were so concerned that they called a doctor, stayed home, and put in his eye drops for him. To Okenwa’s disappointment, Raphael never visited. Finally, his parents left, and Okenwa looked for Raphael. He was outside, flirting with the neighbor’s house-help, Josephine. Shocked, jealous, and not thinking straight, Okenwa demanded that Raphael provide him food. Josephine held back laughter, and Raphael muttered something with “the sound of betrayal.” Then Okenwa’s parents drove up, and Josephine left. Okenwa asked Raphael why he never visited, and Raphael casually said that he wasn’t allowed. Panicked at the growing rift between them, Okenwa backed away from Raphael, but tripped and fell. When Okenwa’s parents saw, he lied that Raphael pushed him. Raphael is fired and Okenwa feels guilty forever.
There are many conflicts worth exploring in this story. As far as chronic tension goes, there’s a lot:
- the anxiety and discomfort Okenwa feels towards his parents
- his parents’ changed personalities
- their desire for Okenwa to have a family
- Okenwa’s guilt about lying about Raphael
- inferior treatment of house-help, especially the mother’s harshness
- house-help’s resulting resentment of well-off people like Okenwa
And for acute tension, there is, more obviously:
- the budding relationship between Okenwa and Raphael
- the Apollo infections
- Raphael’s betrayal of Okenwa
For this presentation, I tracked two elements listed as chronic tensions: Okenwa’s worries about his parents, and the inferior treatment of house-help. Let’s start with Okenwa’s worries, in the story’s very first line.
Twice a month, like a dutiful son, I visited my parents in Enugu, in their small overfurnished flat that grew dark in the afternoon.
What’s worth noting here is the phrase “like a dutiful son.” From the very beginning, we are clued in that the narrator doesn’t visit his elderly parents because he wants to, or because he loves them, or because he enjoys seeing them, but because he feels it is his job. A few paragraphs later, Okenwa wonders when his parents will die, and although the thought makes him sad, he narrates:
And yet I knew that if I had a family, if I could complain about rising school fees as the children of their friends did, then I would not visit them so regularly. I would have nothing for which to make amends.
This again suggests that he does not visit his parents or worry about them because of an emotional connection he has with them, but because he feels like he owes them something, specifically grandchildren.
Later, in Okenwa’s flashback, he recounts his childhood anxiety about being a disappointment to his parents. Several paragraphs are dedicated to characterization of the parents: they were intelligent, philosophical, competitive, pretentious, and brusque. On the other hand, Okenwa had little interest or knack for academia, and it made him feel uncomfortable, nervous, and like a loner in his own house:
I read books only enough to satisfy them, and to answer the kinds of unexpected questions that might come in the middle of a meal— What did I think of Pip? Had Ezeulu done the right thing? I sometimes felt like an interloper in our house. My bedroom had bookshelves, stacked with the overflow books that did not fit in the study and the corridor, and they made my stay feel transient, as though I were not quite where I was supposed to be. I sensed my parents’ disappointment in the way they glanced at each other when I spoke about a book, and I knew that what I had said was not incorrect but merely ordinary, uncharged with their brand of originality.
Sometimes, this tension between Okenwa and his parents overlaps with the second element I tracked: unfair treatment of house-help. For context, house-helpers are basically live-in domestic servants, and they are common for wealthy Nigerian families. However, they are often treated as inferior. This inequality is highlighted in “Apollo”; not only are Raphael and the other houseboys treated as secondary, but the especially harsh personality of Okenwa’s mother makes life much worse for the houseboys. This is made clear right at the start of Okenwa’s flashback:
The houseboy before him, Hyginus, had been sent home for insulting my mother. Before Hyginus was John… he had broken a plate while washing it and, fearing my mother’s anger, had packed his things and fled before she came home from work. All the houseboys treated me with the contemptuous care of people who disliked my mother. Please come and eat your food, they would say—I don’t want trouble from Madam. My mother regularly shouted at them, for being slow, stupid, hard of hearing; even her bell-ringing, her thumb resting on the red knob, the shrillness searing through the house, sounded like shouting.
This initial situation is worrisome that Okenwa’s mother could be so harsh, but it gets even worse when Raphael and Okenwa develop their covert bond: suddenly when his mother is mean to Raphael, it is difficult on Okenwa, too. When Okenwa gets Apollo from Raphael, his parents immediately blame him:
My mother shouted at Raphael, ‘Why did you bring this thing to my house? Why?’ It was as though by catching Apollo he had conspired to infect her son. Raphael did not respond. He never did when she shouted at him. She was standing at the top of the stairs, and Raphael was below her.
Okenwa ends up lying to his parents about how he got infected just to divert their wrath away from Raphael. The inequality between children and house-help is further shown in the differences in Raphael’s and Okenwa’s experiences while infected with Apollo. When Okenwa catches it, his parents call a doctor, set up medicine and fruit by his bed, stay home, and put in his eye drops three times a day. They didn’t make half the effort for Raphael. Instead, they merely gave him his eye drops and left him to treat himself, and they never knew that he couldn’t do it. If Okenwa hadn’t snuck into his room, Raphael would have never gotten treatment, suffered for much longer, and probably would have taken far longer to recover from Apollo.
Raphael’s room itself is also worth talking about. As if Raphael wasn’t treated differently enough, his room is even separate from the house. When Okenwa walks in, he describes the scene:
I looked around his room and was struck by how bare it was—the bed pushed against the wall, a spindly table, a gray metal box in the corner, which I assumed contained all that he owned.
Raphael’s room is cramped and threadbare—earlier it is said that instead of lights, he gets a single exposed lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. When Okenwa walks in, Raphael moves to get up and says “What is it?” suggesting that he cannot imagine that someone he works for would visit him just to be with him, but that they need him to work even while he is sick.
I liked reading “Apollo” because it was so personal, chock-full of emotion and significance, and I felt like I could really connect with Okenwa. The progression of the plot was also really engaging, and being a super sentimental person myself, I was really excited for Okenwa and Raphael to fall in love, and I also felt for Okenwa when Raphael abandoned him for Josephine. I love stories like this one that deal with emotional subjects like unrequited love, betrayal, guilt, anxiety, and loneliness. I think we can all relate to that, at least a little. I also loved the deep exploration of characters in this story, and how important every person’s behavior and feelings were to the plot, but how at the same time they manage to be mysterious and surprise us.
And some things that I think, as a writer, I could learn from this story: I love the characterization, and I think it provides a valuable lesson. I think of it as a perfect blend between showing and telling, rich and given both through action, description, and through straight-up telling. The characterization is also inextricably tied up with the tensions, and I would like to more directly engage personalities with conflict in my stories, to enhance the intimacy and tension. I also think that Adichie is acutely aware of where she places this characterization, subtext, and tension, and every jump cut (there are many) begins with a direct progression of plot that is almost always engaged with a description of character, an elaboration of conflict, or both. I think it is important to be this aware of placement, which could make my writing more engaging and move more smoothly. Also, I would like to start making use of jump cuts like Adichie does, as valuable pauses to divide a story and to mark progressions in a story.
Alright, so questions!
- Why did Adichie choose to start off the story with Okenwa visiting his elderly and radically different parents, instead of just going straight into the story with Raphael?
- Is there any figurative relation to the infection Apollo and the Greek god Apollo, or is it just a coincidence?
- Why did Raphael betray Okenwa? Did he ever really love him?