For 44-year-old Dwayne Genus, An African Story is not just a book about the Biafran War.
“For me, it’s more than just writing a story,” he said. “It’s saying that I understand what the situation is and I want to be a record that says that these people matter.”
Speaking to a small group of readers at East York’s S. Walter Stewart Library on Feb. 13, the Richmond Hill-based author, whose background is Jamaican, was presenting An African Story, his family’s first published book. In it, he describes the experiences of his mother-in-law, Nkechi Iroaga, during the Biafran War.
“It was very emotional for the people she had lost, never to be seen again,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder how she even managed the trauma of that.”
Genus first got the idea when he asked his mother-in-law about a photo she had above their fireplace. The picture showed a younger Nkechi Iroaga and her late husband dressed in traditional African attire. Iroaga explained to Genus that it was the couple’s first picture before the Biafran War.
“She tells me this story that sounded like a movie,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I better write this down.’ So the next day I came with a camera, and she didn’t just tell me her story, she told me her whole life.”
He couldn’t do it alone, though. While writing the story, his wife, 42-year-old Uchenwa Iroaga Genus, provided details about life in Nigeria and fact-checked her mother’s story.
“I added colour because I actually went to boarding school in Nigeria when I was a teenager,” she said. “What the boarding school was like, a lot of the language and the songs and things like that.”
Unchenwa Iroaga Genus said that although her family often took the story for granted, they’re glad that it has been published to a broader audience.
“It’s kind of like you’re rediscovering some gift you had,” she said. “(Dwayne Genus) definitely did a lot of research and a lot of work in putting it together for us. I was also really happy because it meant a lot to my mother.”
One of the book’s major themes was love. To Dwayne Genus, that is what struck him most from Nkechi Iroaga’s story.
“I love the love story,” he said. “The whole idea that he was always writing letters to her and that eventually one got through and they were able to be reconnected in Toronto. It was important to emphasize that part in the novel.”
Uchenwa Iroaga Genus saw just how important that love story was to her mother following her father’s death.
“He died in January (2016) and (the book) was published in the summer,” she said. “So it was almost like it was a gift to her. Not that it could replace my dad, but these are her memories of her life from before, and it was like giving her a new gift.”
The way her mother dealt with her father’s passing was evidence of another theme of Nkechi Iroaga’s story: perseverance.
“My mom is such a strong woman,” she said. “She’s very practical, moving on to the next step and the next step, and each little step completes a picture for her.”
“I don’t know if I would’ve been able to persevere in the way she did,” Dwayne Genus said. “I really wonder about us here in the western world and how we struggle with certain things, when you have people in other countries who go through this and still at their age carrying on. You ask them if they were in a war and they say, ‘Yeah, I was in a war. I’m fine.’”
With Canada celebrating Black History Month, the couple believes Nkechi Iroaga’s story will also help Canadians better understand the history of Africa from first-hand experience.
“You have to understand that Canada is a country of immigrants and everybody’s story makes up the mosaic of what we are,” Dwayne Genus said. “So to have a proper perspective of history and what makes this country run, you have to have a proper understanding of each part of that whole.”
“A lot of African history has been oral history, and that’s fantastic because that act brings people together,” Uchenwa Iroaga Genus said. “But there’s also something for writing it as well, because these days it needs to last much longer than a generation.”
Dwayne Genus has another story in the works. His next book, The Story of Lovers’ Leap, tells the legend of two slaves in Jamaica who, in order to prevent their plantation’s owner from separating them, jumped off of a cliff to remain together. Genus said he wants to use the tale to talk about Tacky’s Revolt in 1760.
“It was a big event that happened (in Jamaica) where the Africans of that time revolted over the British,” he said. “I think it’s a historical event that needs to be remembered and told, so that’s my next work.”
An African Story is available in the Toronto Public Library system.