“Rat and Finch Are Friends” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (2021 Ignyte Awards)

Beginning a series on the short-fiction finalists at this year’s Ignyte Awards, here is my look at Innocent Chizaram Ilo’s story “Rat and Finch Are Friends”.

At an all-boys boarding school, protagonist Izuchukwu becomes attracted to a fellow pupil named Okwudili. The two boys — who lend each other the nicknames of Finch and Rat — eventually kiss, an event that becomes public knowledge. Mr. Okeke, the dorm master, forbids the pair from speaking to each other. Pastor Emega visits Finch in the evenings, preaching hellfire and brimstone about the sins of Sodom and forcing the boy to drink anointed oil. Prejudice engulfs Finch’s family: “just the other day,” says his mother, “that nonsense salesgirl at the grocery store mocked me with her eyes the whole time she was attending to me. All because I am the mother of the boy who kissed another boy.”

The fantasy thread that runs through this narrative of young love and cultural prejudice is largely symbolic. The two title characters are Amusus — an Igbo term typically translated as “witches”, although as is typically the case with attempts to translate folklore between cultures, this obscures a number of complexities. The story portrays Amusus as existing in an ambiguous state between human and animal, between waking and dreaming. Finch describes how he started flying at the age of six, initially believing that his nocturnal flights were no more than dreams until an incident in which he grazed his wing at night and woke up with a bleeding arm. While he became a finch, he met other children who became other flying animals:

The children who were falcons, eagles, hawks, and albatrosses made fun of how little I was. They would fling me into the wind and catch me just before I hit the ground. So I always stuck with the smaller Amusus: the bats, the hummingbirds, the swallows, the pigeons, and the crows.

However, the Amusu characters are forced to keep their state a secret from the wider world. Being an Amusu is seen by society as something shameful — a curse. In the case of Finch, the supposed curse was shared by his late grandmother Nnemuru:

They said Nnemuru, my father’s mother, was a falcon when she was alive. Her wings were so radiant the rainbow envied them. She was beautiful. She was feared. They also said she swooped down on people’s farms and destroyed their crops. Nnemuru was found dead on a Sunday morning, her back pierced by the pointy cross on the church steeple, her wings arched and stiff. People called it witchcraft. When days, weeks, months, and years passed after Nnemuru died and nobody saw a falcon in the sky, they concluded that my grandmother did not pass her curse to any of her children.

This happened a long time ago, twenty years before I was born. I have heard the story of my grandmother a million times, each time with a tone of finiteness and an assurance that the curse had ended. So, when I started flying at six I refused to tell anyone.

Finch’s surreptitiousness about his status as an Amusu is mirrored by his bonding with Rat: the two boys interact in a furtive manner, making brief communications before departing from one another once more. Finch finally learns that his new acquaintance is an Amusu in a surreal scene where he sees a cat chasing a rat, during which the two animals begin talking to one another. Finch’s only way of saving Rat is by breaking his secrecy and taking flight.

Fiction that draws a paralell between LGBT people and mistrusted or despised fantasy creatures — between the queer and the weird, perhaps — is commonplace. This is for the simple reason that the comparison works; not as a direct analogy, perhaps, but definitely in terms of emotional symbolism.The story establishes that each Amusu has an iyeri, a scar on their neck that can be scratched off, removing their shapeshifting ability and allowing them to get respectable jobs and live mundane lives. As metaphors for remaining closeted go, this is perhaps unsubtle, but it is nonetheless apt, providing the central dilemma faced by the story’s protagonist.

Adding considerable texture to the tale is its engagement with a very different sort of gay-coded fantasy. The title riffs upon Arnold Lobel’s picture book Frog and Toad are Friends; indeed, Finch owns a complete collection of the Frog and Toad books, shelved between Young Adventurer’s Atlas and Students’ Companion. Depicting a close friendship between two male characters, the Frog and Toad stories have been interpreted by various commentators — including Lobel’s own daughter — as an exploration of same-sex love. A bitterly ironic passage has Finch’s father expressing hope that his son will form a friendship as close as that between the two fictional amphibians, not realising just what this wish shall entail. Finch’s character arc can be read as an evolution from the clumsy, socially awkward nature of Toad to the more outgoing persona of Frog.

The story of “Rat and Finch Are Friends” is told over a non-linear structure, the fantastic and realistic aspects of the characters’ relationship so tightly mingled that each new layer serves to deepen both. This is a delicate balance, one sustained right into the bittersweet ending.

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