Hi, it’s Juneha Chowdhury, your Showcase editor for March.
This week, I have two particularly powerful pieces of prose to showcase. Dramatic, engaging, and totally gripping, both are literary treats that will definitely have you asking for more.
My first piece is by novelist Freya Berry.
Here, Freya shares an outline and intriguing extract from her debut novel, The Dictator’s Wife.
The Dictator’s Wife
The story follows a captivating dictator’s wife standing trial for her dead husband’s crimes, and the web of secrets and lies she weaves around her young female lawyer. Partly inspired by time in New York as a journalist on the 2016 US election, observing Melania Trump, it’s an exploration of female power, ambiguity, and complicity. It’s had endorsements from Anthony Horowitz, Marian Keyes, and Harlan Coben and is Waterstone’s best book for February 2022. The story is set in post-Cold War Eastern Europe, and I wrote much of the first draft while traveling in that region, then subsequently in Seattle, Wiltshire, and my beloved London Library.
I am not my husband. I am innocent. Do you believe me?’
The beautiful, enigmatic wife of a feared dictator stands trial for her late husband’s crimes against the people. The world will finally know the truth. But whose?
I learned early in life how to survive. A skill that became vital in my position.
I was given no power, yet I was expected to hold my own with the most powerful man in the country.
MOTHER OF THE NATION
My people were my children. I stood between him and them.
I am not the person they say I am.
I am not my husband.
I am innocent.
Do you believe me?
Visceral and thought-provoking, haunting, and heart-breaking, The Dictator’s Wife will hold you in its grip until its powerful conclusion and keep you turning the pages long into the night.
In this extract from Chapter Two, the young female lawyer for the dictator’s wife talks about the trial to come.
They called her the Black Widow after all, said she’d eaten her husband from the inside out, that it was her fault he had become what he had: a man who put on a different two-thousand-dollar suit each day and burned it each night in case the fabric was poisoned, who kept a listening room behind his office to spy on ministers and ambassadors, and whose only significant political opponent was discovered shot in the head in a hotel room locked from the inside. Constantin Popa had (allegedly) embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars. But he was (undeniably) dead, murdered horribly in the protests of 1989. Instead it was his widow who had turned up at the arraignment, the first step of a trial that would ask how a couple on twenty thousand dollars a year could afford Meissen porcelain, a bed once slept in by Marie Antoinette, a summer palace, a winter palace, a zoo and a personalised train, complete with champagne room and beluga caviar on tap.
She arrived to a packed-out court, half applauding vigorously, the rest howling insults, a comedy and a tragedy all at once. She bestowed her smile upon them equally before listening with sphinx-like calm to the charges being read by a fat official. Even when he came to the serious corruption charges, those that carried the death penalty, she did not flinch. Nineteen eighty-nine had been and gone; Marija Popa should by now have been an irrelevance, yet that slight smile whispered that really she’d been picking her moment all along. Money laundering, fraud, bribery, corruption, obstruction of justice … it was an impressive list. Only when the official finished, slightly out of breath, did she raise her hand.
‘You have not asked me to state my name.’
The judge rolled his eyes. ‘We know who you are.’
A sigh. ‘Go ahead. State your name.’
‘Constantin Popa,’ she said promptly. The court emitted an odd blend of sound, part gasp, part laughter.
‘That is not your name,’ the fat official exploded.
‘Ah. I apologise.’ The amber eyes opened wide as mouths; the red lips gave the tiniest smile. ‘But you have read out a list of crimes you allege to have been committed by the executive presidency, which was of course held by my dead husband. I thought you might think I was him.’
‘We are perfectly aware that you are not your husband,’ Judge Ardelean said impatiently.
The eyes widened further. ‘I see. In which case, why am I here?’
I had to admire the elegance with which she stooped to plant the seed of doubt. They said that in a marriage it was hard to tell where one person ended and the other began, but how often did that have to be proved in a court of law? Divorce, yes. Money laundering, no. The innocent wife scapegoated for her husband’s sins – it was compelling. That day she wore pale blue and covered her head and suddenly the papers were calling her the Virgin Marija. With irony, if not outright loathing, but that was not the point. The words had been gently, slyly put into their mouths like sugar lumps. The mood was febrile, fertile; right now, with the right nutrients, anything could grow.
© Freya Berry, 2022
The Dictator’s Wife is published by Headline Review and available now from all good bookshops. To order a copy online, visit https://smarturl.it/TheDictatorsWife
Connect with Freya on Twitter: @FreyaBBooks and Instagram: @FreyaBBooks
My second piece by Ola Awonubi, is an excerpt from one of the 12 tales of love featured in Naija Love Stories.
Green Eyes And An Old Photo
It was another cold day when I met your mother. I remember because I was wearing this cheap coat I had picked up in Petticoat Lane. The material was useless – like paper – and I was freezing. I think I had been in the country for about two months by then. As I had done every morning for two months, I was walking down the road on my way to the Labour Exchange in search of a job. They were standing outside the pub–four, maybe five of them. They were tall and thin in the black jeans and shiny leather jackets they wore, their greasy hair slicked down with side partings and heavy sideburns. I could smell their fear lurking beneath the stink of cheap alcohol as they hurled insults in my direction. That was the first day I heard that word, the ‘n’ word. Bitter. Full of contempt. Spat out like their phlegm hardening on the pavement in front of me.
I thought to myself. See these ignorant people? They can’t think of any other word with ‘n’. I wanted to show them that I knew more than them, that ‘n’ was for Nigeria, the land of my birth, and Lord Nelson, who won the battle of Trafalgar and died in such a dramatic fashion with one arm, faithful to the end, and that there was another Nelson, currently imprisoned on Robben Island in South Africa for expecting equal rights in the country of his birth. Hatred burned out of their opaque eyes as they surrounded me like a pack of jackals, spitting and snapping.
“Hey monkey boy? What you gonna do? Wanna fight?” The one who seemed to have a problem with his salivary glands swaggered further towards me. The others stood behind him, wise enough to be scared of this unknown African. They wanted to see my tail. At that precise moment I wished I had one so I could tie it around their necks and watch them choke. They thought I was a savage, an animal, but I was a gentleman. These men were the animals, pure were scum. I decided that I would not give them the satisfaction of a public brawl. I politely tried to make my way past them, but they blocked me. I was outnumbered. I tried again.
“I would appreciate it if you could kindly let me pass?”
Their eyes popped out of their heads, like freshly caught shrimps.
“Oooh. It speaks posh,” said one.
“Oiii…you leave ‘im alone!”
I looked up and saw a young woman approach. Young, with a hairstyle that looked like a mass of shiny copper coins done into a high contraption on her head. She was wearing a short pink coat and a white dress with a huge white belt and matching white boots. I looked past her to the boys, confident that I had the height and the physique to deal with all of them.
She stood in front of me, put a hand on my arm, and shook her head. “Go on love. They aren’t worth it. You touch them, and you’ll just get banged up because the bobbies aren’t going to listen to a word you say.”
I did not know what getting ‘banged up’ meant, but I did realise that if there was a fight it would be my word against theirs, and I did not think the word of a black man would count against the word of these pasty creatures.
One of them shouted again. “Blackie! Why don’t you clear off and go back to your country and live in your trees?”
I saw the woman put her hands on her hips. “Why don’t you all clear off and go find some decent work to do for a change?”
They sniggered amongst themselves and made some rude gestures with their hands warning me that if they ever saw me around the area again they would panel beat my face. I wanted to stay and show them that I was a man, then decided that I would rather be a free man than one locked up in prison in another man’s country.
I decided to keep walking. So deep in thought was I of the eccentricities of the English, that I did not hear the footsteps behind me. Expecting trouble, I turned around and saw the same woman, that was now a beautiful, young thing. She had the longest eyelashes I had ever seen on any woman and her eyes were green. Green was good. Green, white and green. The colour of the new Nigerian flag. Green, the colour of the bush that surrounded the gates of our compound in Lagos. Home.
“You showed ‘em.” She put her hands on her hips and laughed.
I immediately found her very refreshing. This was the first English person that I had spoken to in the two months I had been in the country, and one that had not cursed, grunted, or compared me to some form of wildlife. I smiled even though I could not recall showing those impolite fellows anything, but I liked her laugh. I had never heard a laugh like that. It was like a man’s – deep and confident.
“You look as if you’re a long way from home.”
I put my head down and continued walking. “This is my home for now.”
She ran to keep up with me. “Slow down mate. I’m only trying to be friendly.”
I reduced my pace and looked at her again, remembering the stories I had heard about the sorry ends of black men who were friendly with white women. My knowledge of this was mostly gained from reading magazines like Jet and Ebony at the American consulate in Lagos. Mr Jim Crow and his brothers were not allowed in England. Here everyone was equal. I remembered my sixth form tutor Mr Reginald Smith reassuring me as a student, ‘You see in England there is no segregation. We pride ourselves on our fairness and equity’.
He hadn’t lied about that. It was evident on my street where both white and black lived united in mutual poverty squashed together in the little boxes they called houses. England was truly a country where people lived as equals. A place where a black man could exchange smiles and conversation on a street with a white woman, without being hassled. I was impressed.
© Ola Awonubi, 2018
Her books are available on Amazon: amazon.com/Ola-Awonubi/e/B0714H3H7Y
If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! Showcase, please submit your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to: pentoprint.org/get-involved/submit-to-write-on/