Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Bringing light through the Blackout writing competition

The Nigerian fiction writing scene is no longer quiet; it is enjoying a raucous renaissance and we have the energy and creativity of young Nigerian writers to thank for it. For the past decade, we have just Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila and Chika Unigwe and a few others to brag about. The good news is that new voices like Chigozie Obioma and Chinelo Okparanta, Elnathan John, A. Igoni Barret, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, and several others have emerged to literally rock the literary house. Still, for a country of over 170 million people, this is not nearly enough. 

 Nigeria needs lots of resources and robust structures to encourage its creative writing industry. What do we have? How many MFAs? How many noteworthy publishing houses. How many noteworthy contests for upcoming writers? Apart from Farafina and Ebedi, what other consistent live-in workshops are there? My point is this: Nigeria needs more structures. We need a more enabling environment for our writing. We need to rid our culture of the poor-writers-who-scramble-for-every-20k-crumbs attitude. We need to give writing the dignity it deserves in this part of the world. We need The Flash7: Blackout. 

 Yes, we need the Flash7: Blackout. What is blackout, you ask? It is an exciting initiative of the writer Hymar David, one of many brilliant young writers that have turned Facebook and Twitter into an infinite literary canvas that is giving traditional writing serious competition. 

The Flash began as a series of Facebook-based writing duels of Flash Fiction between two writers with the reading public as judges: Samuel Okopi and Enobong Odohofreh. Hymar David, however, took the idea and turned it into a certain movement that has spread through Facebook like a virus. Literally. 
 

The Flash7: Blackout, featuring 24 writers in 6 groups, is the second of its kind after the Flash: Eclipse which had 16 writers in 4 groups going one on one for a N30,000 reward. However, with the support of Dufil Groups, the makers of Indomie noodles, and Lenovo, Nigeria’s foremost laptop and smartphone manufacturers, the Flash has grown in one giant leap. 

Blackout is offering a grand prize of N100,000 naira plus a Lenovo laptop to the eventual winner; N50,000 plus a Lenovo smartphone to the runner-up and N15,000 each to the last 2 semi-finalists. It is so far the biggest individually-run writing competition in Nigeria. And stands its own next to The Etisalat Prize and the NLNG prize. I am beyond thrilled.
 

The Flash7: Blackout is well organised. The contestants are picked via a process that involved stories sent in (after a call for submissions) sorted and sent anonymously (without the writers’ names appended) to four judges who filter through and pick the final 24 stories.

 The Facebook reading public is often fond of praise-singing, applauding poorly written efforts and giving writers a false sense of accomplishment. During the Blackout, each matchup will be judged not just by votes but by three judges whose votes carry more weight than the public votes. For instance, 10 public votes are worth 3 points while a single judge’s vote is worth 12 points. Soliciting for votes is prohibited. Contestants are fined 5 points for that. Just write (based on given themes with word limits attached) and let everyone assess your worth, the organizers seem to be saying. 

I cannot say it enough: Kudos to Hymar David and his crew who are taking Facebook writing, and social media writing in general to another awesome level. 

 Credit must also go to Lenovo and Dufil Groups for their involvement in this noble endeavor; helping grow a youthful literary sphere full of groping brilliant hands and minds. It is my hope that The Flash will keep expanding to become a major player in the Nigerian literary landscape. It is a new world and it is a good time to be alive if you are a reader.

As the flash starts on Saturday, 9th January 2016, like the Facebook page: The Flash: Challenge to follow up on this generation of new writers, writing their way out of Nigeria’s glorious literary past into a new dawn of fun and innovative writing. I salute Hymar David and his fellow warriors.

  

Petina Gappah: Unreliable witnesses and the burden of memory

The biggest surprise about prison is the laughter.
– Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory

Interesting and ambitious: Those two words best describe The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah’s new work of fiction, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is an interesting book, burdened with many ambitious experiments. This fascinating novel follows many long years after Gappah’s highly successful collection of short stories, Elegy for Easterly. Years from now, scholars will debate whether Gappah’s transition from short story writing to this full-length fiction novel was successful. At the very least, this was a listless production for the most part, lacking the passion and joy of Elegy for Easterly. There are many brilliant parts, which make the book recommended reading, but the parts do not jell, largely thanks to an improbable plot with even more improbable twists and turns that gleefully compromised and undermined the book.

The story is narrated in the first person by Mnemosyne or Memory, the main protagonist, an albino born some years before Zimbabwe’s independence (in what was then Rhodesia) to loving parents (well, the mother, not so loving). Memory is inexplicably sold, at age nine, to a white man, Lloyd Hendricks and moves from the poor Mufakose Township to live with him in the wealthy and spacious upper class estates of Umwinsidale. This dislocation from childhood to adulthood sets up class clashes on several levels and she finally ends up on death row accused of murder. It is an improbable plot made even more farcical by twists and turns many of them seemingly designed to keep the story going. The story goes on and on and fills a book, broken up into three parts. The book should have stopped at the first part. One gets the sense that Gappah spent many harried hours with her editor, haggling and fighting over how to get all of this into a book, as if by hook or by crook, a book contract had to be fulfilled. Well, they did get their book.

gappahbookDo not get me wrong: There is plenty to like about the book and there are many excellent reasons why you should read this book despite its flaws. Gappah writes some of the most beautiful prose that any reader will ever come across, turns of phrases sneaking up on you and delighting the senses. A disciplined writer, she spends time with every sentence, it is difficult to fault anything she writes (there were a few editorial issues but my copy was an advance review copy). Many aspects of the book benefited from exquisite research; when the book was good, it was like watching history come alive in black and white (Rhodesia) and in full color (Zimbabwe). Reading many sections of the book felt like flipping through the pages of a photo album lovingly put together by a gifted artist who truly cares about her subjects:

My mother wears a white dress with big red poppies all over it. Around her waist is a cloth belt in the same material, and on her head a red hat with a white plastic flower on it. Her shoes and bag are white. My father is in a safari suit whose colour I can no longer remember. Or perhaps it wasn’t a safari suit at all that he wore, and I have only put him in one because it is what all the men wore in those days. His hair shines with Brylcreem. (p 1)

The Book of Memory is a treatise about exile; prison, and the sale of a child and the resulting dislocation as metaphors for exile and longing. It is about the pain of stigma seen through prison and albinism. There is homophobia, mental illness, and marital violence – by a woman directed at the man and the children. Zimbabwe comes alive, Gappah knows her ancestral land. The book fills the soul with tender memories of the strong and sometimes dysfunctional bonds of the clan and community, of a dad, a gentle soul who upends the chic stereotype about African men as bumbling, drunken misogynists, a dad who dotes on his wife and kids, a dad who works from home, to take care of his kids and wife and who endures marital abuse with grace and calm. This is the work of a well-read, well-traveled and eclectic mind. Intimidating is the breadth and depth of her imagination. You can taste the townships in song and dance and want to eat at a certain restaurant called Zupco:

You will discover as you walk around the city that it was planned to keep the direct heat of the sun away from the faces of white people. In the mornings, they left the northern suburbs to go into town to work, and the sun was behind them, and in the evenings, when they went back home, the sun was behind them still. The streets of the northern suburbs are lined with avenues of jacarandas and flamboyant that give cooling shade. But in the townships, the sun is always in the faces of the people. And there are no tree-lined avenues, no cool grass beneath the feet, only the hard heat of the dusty streets. (p 38)

In many instances in the book, Gappah displays an amazing dexterity with words; she can arrange simple words in sentences that make you really think about the way things are. She offers the best analysis of the African condition that I have ever read and puts to shame those who hurl the word “poverty” at Africans:

We were poor without knowing it. There was nothing ennobling or romantic or life-affirming about our poverty. It just was. And you could say that we did not know just how poor we were because everyone else around us was the same. We accepted the simple order of our lives in the ignorance that other, richer lives were possible. (P 39-40)

I can see this book in the hands of a gifted scriptwriter and superb editor becoming a stirring movie about Zimbabwe’s numerous triumphs and challenges. Sadly, that would require a lot of work pruning the filler weeds from this inchoate production but it can be done.

There is the trademark superciliousness of the African writer, exaggerated by the fact that the narration is in the first person, lending the protagonist a superior all-knowing haughty air. The superciliousness is aimed squarely and gleefully at the white settlers whose ways are caricatured mercilessly as leading soulless lives but it is also turned inwards at the narcissism and self-serving agenda of African intellectuals and artists:

His career has risen with our country’s collapse. His paintings are different from the realist paintings that he said he wanted to paint. It is all tortured faces and screaming mouths now, slashed genitals and dismembered breasts, ‘Evocative images of his tortured homeland,’ as the reviewers have you believe.

His painting speaks truths that the government wants to hide, it is said. He is the artist exiled from his homeland because his work shows a reality before which the government flinches.

None of it is true, but who cares for truth when there is a troubled homeland and tortured artists to flee from it? The more prosaic truth is that he did not flee, but rather left on the arm of his German girlfriend, on a ticket bought with Deutschmarks, and that, having gone to Germany, he got himself a nice new passport before he traded her in for someone richer. (p 178)

The Book of Memory features a brief but brilliant take-down of the shakedown that passes for many NGOs in much of Africa and Haiti. There is also an incursion into Zimbabwe spirituality juxtaposed with Western spirituality. The subject of albinism got a good treatment here, it is not overblown, over-the-top, but respectful. In treating Memory as a human being dealing with biological issues due to her albinism as well as societal prejudices, Gappah humanizes albinism and effectively educates the reader about the subject. This book houses robust discourses on race, misogyny, and class (in this regard, juxtaposing Memory’s life with her parents with life with her white owner was masterful). As a delightful side benefit, many readers will be surprised by Africa’s love affair with the radio and country music:

My mother… liked the more mournful music of Jim Reeves and Dolly Parton and Porter Wagner and Kenny Rogers, particularly the songs that were also stories.” (p 93)

It bears repeating: The Book of Memory is not a perfect book. The book’s chapters sometimes seemed like passive-aggressive members of a dysfunctional family; as if Gappah wrote the chapters independently of each other, like failed short stories. A character or two appear out of the blue as it they’d been previously introduced in the book, the forensics research was poorly done and the construction of the death scene stretched credulity. Readers who remember the playfulness and unrestrained defiant abandon of Gappah’s Elegy for Easterly will be quite disappointed by the tentativeness of The Book of Memory. The humor is there no doubt:

She is in prison for biting the penis off a man who refused to pay her after sex at a nightclub. ‘Prostitute Bites Man’s Privates’ is a frequent enough headline in the papers to make it a common-place occurrence, but Jimmy’s attack was so ferocious that her victim fainted from blood loss. When he recovered, it was to find that Jimmy had fled to the women’s toilets, where she spat out an essential part of him into Harare’s sewers. (p 22)

Sadly, the humor is shy, unsure of itself, never letting go of the hem of self-doubt. At its best, the reader’s face cracks into a smile, and stops. There is little room for mirth, this is a restrained book, too restrained. It is as if the Petina Gappah we know was held hostage by an army of humorless editors:

The bulk of this book happens inside a prison, thankfully, it almost liberates the book. Gappah knows the prison culture and it shows. This is an exquisitely researched book about life inside a female prison. The scenes are convincing, the characters well developed and the riotous sorority of prisoners and jailers, soul stirring. Whenever the book strayed out of prison I would pine for the cells where brave but flawed women spoke defiantly of the injustices that landed them in the unjust arms of a semi-blind and prejudiced judicial system.

gappah2pic

The Book of Memory continues a conversation about (the English) language and the stories of Africa, what gets lost and what gets mangled in the translation. It is a book written with immense pride, there is little attempt to explain indigenous Shona terms. Gappah takes the conversation one step further by simply writing entire songs and sentences in Shona with absolutely no explanation. This would not be a problem if one could easily google them and get translations. Google does explain terms like Voetkek to the world, and Zimbabwe’s history becomes accessible. One learns from instance that there was a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe’s prisons in 2008 thanks to Gappah’s delightful penchant for weaving history into the folds of fiction. The reader however soon tires and curiosity grows into frustration as Shona songs and terms are too obscure for Google to translate or explain. In the confrontation between Shona and the English language, Shona loses.

The Book of Memory is like an airplane, roused, it rumbles, grumbles and growls, then starts a slow ride that rises into a flight – and then comes down crashing in a slow burn. Out of the smoldering rubble, the reader sees islands of spectacular brilliance connected by long stretches of drudgery and monotony. Memory, the protagonist reminds the reader of Ikemefuna, that tragic figure in Chinua Achebe’s epic Things Fall Apart: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death,” the elder Ezeudu warned Okonkwo. This reader felt like advising Gappah, “That girl loves her family. Do not sell her off, it makes no sense, it will kill your novel.”

 

Random musings on that presidential chat…

Accents. December 30, 2015 was not a good day for most Nigerians. President Buhari spoke at his inaugural “Presidential Media Chat” and that upset them. Poor Buhari. He can catch no break. If he doesn’t speak, everybody wails, ‘Baba, talk to us na, SMH!!!” If he speaks, everybody wails, “OMG! Baba shut up!” Yesterday all of Nigeria was in mourning. The best way to decribe it is if all the teams in the British Premier League played on the same day – and they all lost. Imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth on the streets of Nigeria. Pretty much everybody agrees now that President Buhari should not do media chats again, ever, never, ever, never. I happen to agree. I do think there should be media chats – featuring just Lai Muhammed and the interviewer Ngozi Anyaegbunam. Just kidding! Just kidding! Drop your stones, SMH.

I actually enjoyed the media chat, even  before I watched it. The Igbo have an ancient saying, that Facebook comments are always more interesting than the original post. This was especially true with Buhari’s media chat. I kept laughing and fainting and dying as APC die-hards, Buharists, breathlessly tweeted and Facebooked their alarm, despair and disgust as their man Buhari kept mangling any and everything remotely resembling rigorous thought. It was cute, how PDP enthusiasts kept consoling the Buharists [“Ndo! It is well, this too shall pass, it doesn’t worth it, Buhari is useless, that is the crust of the matter, see him passing the bulk, SMH! Hiss!! Nonsense!!! Don’t cry!!”]. The tweets and Facebook posts, I must say were hilarious. I don’t need to post any here, they are everywhere.

Nigerians are proud people, they like to look and sound good. You can do anything you like, but don’t disrespect Nigerians by not representing them well. Buhari did not represent them well at the media chat. I finally watched the videoclip of the media chat; it was bad, but not as bad as it could have been. The interviewers were not the best, save for Ibangy Isine, the Premium Times representative. He at least looked like he had done his homework. Ms. Ngozi Anyaegbunam should not be allowed near a microphone again, ever. To say she was awful would be to disrespect the word “awful.” In general, the interviewers missed a golden opportunity to ask systemic questions, rather than “who chop meat” kinds of questions. The other way to look at it is that Buhari is incapable of big picture questions. He stubbornly refused to rise to the occasion at each opportunity. He sat there like a Nigerian iceberg glowering at himself and the world. He clearly has no idea what it takes to run a modern state, it just seemed like he had not read anything of substance for 30 years, as if he had been locked away in solitary and the keys thrown away. Does he have advisers who brief him every day? Poor Buhari, he still longs for the days of decrees and house arrests, democracy is in his way. And he pretty much said that. It was bad.

I have to say I love Buhari’s accent *dodges slaps* I honestly do, it is the only thing presidential about him. He should speak Hausa and use an interpreter. Let the West use English subtitles, who cares? They will anyway, even if he speaks what we think is English. My sense however is that it was his accent and delivery that upset Nigerians the most. Nigerians love style over substance. This time there was neither style nor substance. They came for suya, they did not smell suya, did not smell the smoke, did not hear the sizzle, certainly did not even eat the onions. Nigerians are steamed, and they are not having it.

Since 1999, it appears that the chief objective of democracy has been to humiliate Nigerians with leaders that are quite honestly unpresentable. Whenever Obasanjo would speak on CNN, they would use subtitles, as if he was speaking a rare variant of Yoruba. He came across as opinionated, arrogant, but poorly read. I still wonder what he is going to put in his presidential library. I met Yar’Adua once, I liked his delivery, he came across as humble and well read. I could never bear to watch Goodluck Jonathan. He was poorly read and did not look anywhere near presidential. I loved Madam Patience though, just loved the poetry of her delivery. I never understood her, to be honest. I did not know she was speaking English until someone told me that she was. And this was long after she’d left office. Yes, she was president of Nigeria. Her husband was simply warming the seat. Now, that is how to be a feminist.

I do miss the days when our leaders made us proud when they spoke. Leaders like Tafawa Balewa, Yakubu Gowon, Odumegwu Ojukwu, etc. etc.. We were respected world wide. Go to the archives and see how prepared and dignified Yakubu Gowon and Victoria Gowon were when they were guests at Buckingham Palace. Ah! Victoria! *swoons* Compare those halcyon times to the buffoonery that was the visit to the White House by Buhari and the boys. I am still crying. Here, watch Tafawa Balewa’s visit to the U.S. Compare it to today. You wil cry.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YT5m9Fn9RBg

I shall be back in the new year.

– Signed, Your favorite rascal, Ikhide

 

Elnathan’s song: Born into a war on a boiling Tuesday

“Let your women study,’ Sheikh said, ‘and let them vote. Let them learn how to read. The wives of Christians read and write and our wives cannot even read the Quran. There is no sin if a man accompanies his wives to go and queue up to register or to vote.”

– Born on a Tuesday, Elnathan John p116

The writer Elnathan John is something of a celebrity renegade in the African literary scene. He rules the waves on social media, this eccentric and eclectic Twitter Overlord who sits perched on an imaginary throne, dispensing carefully crafted snarky but profound tweets that throb and seethe with controlled rage and truth, tweets that often develop lives of their own in the re-tweeting and re-telling, as they utilize the magic of the multiplier effect to replicate and go viral in infinite directions. Elnathan could probably make a nice living by allowing ads on his Twitter site; he has the kinds of followers that make him an opinion – and possibly brand leader.

Elnathan is probably not well known in Western literary circles where the keepers of the gates of African literature live, but it has not been without trying. He has been shortlisted twice for the prestigious Caine Prize; in 2013 for his short story Bayan Layi, and in 2015 for Flying. He is yet to win the prize. I almost expect him to be back on the shortlist in 2016, he is quietly relentless. Elnathan can also be quite controversial, he seems to court and relish the drama of being the center of literary and social media attention. His spat with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is well chronicled here. Here is a television interview of Elnathan that gives further insights into the numerous demons that drive his creativity.

elnathanprofileSo, Elnathan has a new book out, Born on a Tuesday, published by Cassava Republic Publishing Press. It is just the case that even as the world is changing few writers feel accomplished without writing a book. This is interesting because it is not as if Elnathan needs a book to establish his cred as a writer. He is easily one of the most important writers to come out of Africa in the 21st century and the world has the gift of the Internet to hold responsible for his restless presence in readers’ daily lives. It is a sign of the changing times that he is his own publisher, on social media and on his blog, spewing forth thought provoking material laden with sardonic humor without the permission of avuncular gatekeepers.

It is the truth: Few African writers feel accomplished without being published by a publisher in the West. There they have all the tools that a writer needs and they also have access to a willing paying audience. There seems to be a movement to change that, thanks to a new crop of writers like Elnathan (most of them living inside Africa) willing to work with publishers on their own terms. Rather than endure the clinical editing of Western publishers, they are turning to African publishers. This is a leap of faith and a gamble, for many African publishers are pretend publishing outfits, giant stapling guns with a lot of heart but little to offer writers. However, having just read Saah Millimono’s Love Interrupted published by Kenya-based Kwani Trust and now Elnathan’s Born on a Tuesday, published by Cassava Republic, it is my fervent wish that I am not forced to eat my words. Like Love Interrupted, I was impressed by the quality of print and editing of Born on a Tuesday. I looked hard but I could not find a single typo or sentence that was out of place in that book. This book can compete with any book published outside Africa. The book said to me, “My writer and publisher are serious people.” That is so refreshing and I sincerely hope that this is an upward trend for African publishing. Kudos to the people behind Cassava Republic.

Yes, I read Born on a Tuesday. And I liked it. I was taken by this little book that took me places in Nigeria and in the heart that I did not know existed. There should be a special place in hell for those who think Africa is one large country. This book confronts prejudices and ignorance about a large swath of Nigeria and then suddenly the reader understands why Elnathan would look the world in the eye and insist on writing what he refers to on social media as his own reality. This time I agree with Elnathan, Born on a Tuesday is not poverty porn, but a serious exploration and analysis of a very important part of Nigeria. In the process, Elnathan makes a powerful case: His life’s journeys are far removed from those of the average Southern reader and writer. In that respect, alone, this is an incredibly important book, one that needed to be written despite the risk that it would be put under the category of poverty porn. There is another sense in which Born on a Tuesday is an important book; it joins a robust body of literary works that are now shaping an intellectual dichotomy between Diaspora writing and writing from within the continent. That alone is enough to keep several PhD candidates busy.

Born on a tuesdayIn Born on a Tuesday Elnathan wraps several issues around a simple plot: The protagonist, a boy Ahmad Dantala leaves home to attend a Muslim school far away from his parents. Through this simple act of dislocation, the reader is taken through a bloody roller-coaster of emotions and violence in Northern Nigeria as life becomes a theater of war for this boy and he is forced to live in strange places and be mentored by even stranger people.

It is easy to fall in love with Dantala, this inquisitive kid, this autodidact who knows Hausa and Arabic and in between the spaces of his anxieties studies English with great success. Spoiler alert: This is a very graphic novel and if you don’t have the stomach for blood and other bodily fluids, this book is not for you. It is a book of unspeakable sadness. Grief is a leaden blanket that almost overcomes. Fleeing darkness, Dantala moves from place to place mentor to mentor and repeatedly suffers heartbreak of the bone crushing kind. He is almost clinical and detached in narrating the child abuse that is his daily lot. He says matter-of-factly in that voice that haunts and hurts the soul, “I have never memorized anything without a whip in front of me.” Your heart goes out to the voice, the narrator.

Dantala’s voice is the terrified voice of a boy who has seen too much. Somebody’s hand is chopped off for stealing meat, women are beaten savagely by cruel men for the sin of being married to them and children grow up to learn that cruelty is normal. The book reads like a movie from hell. I can see this as a movie actually. Yes, there is unspeakable cruelty in the form of torture; human beings are slaughtered like mere goats. At some point, the violence becomes monotonous and meaningless and the reader asks, “What is the purpose of all this?”

There is purpose and beauty in this book. It does help that the book is immensely readable with beautiful unpretentious prose that keeps you wondering what will happen next. Born on a Tuesday is pretty prose-poetry rolling past the eyes, lovely words conjured by an artist filled with a quiet self-confidence. There is nothing to prove here, Elnathan can write. Born on a Tuesday is a well-paced book, sometimes, the reader’s heart races as the book teases the senses. In a sense the book is almost prophetic. Nigeria seethes, held hostage by ignorance and arrogance, people will not be bothered about history because history is no longer being taught in Nigeria’s classrooms. Boko Haram is on a rampage, the politicians of old are here draped in new agbada and ancient ideas and Biafra is back into our consciousness roaring on the dysfunctional backs of philistines with a mission.

Is that not how they told us that, during the Civil War, the same man who was pushing the Nyamirai to attack Nigeria jumped on a plane and ran away when he saw that his people were defeated? People never learn. p228

There is anger in the land because, as the book demonstrates, the people do not remember. Actually you don’t remember what you don’t know. This book teaches you about these things, so you will never forget. This book should be taught in the classrooms, it packs so much in, it would make a great text for instruction in literature, politics and (the ethics) of organized religion. This is a book about war and living and loving. It is deceptive in how it reads like a simple story in the beginning but soon gets serious and almost tedious towards the end. It is stunning how much Elnathan packs into this one story. I would like to see this book paired with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s epic, Half of a Yellow Sun as instructional text in graduate studies. I would take that course in a heartbeat.

There is compassion and the humanity shines through. Elnathan displays a good grasp of Islam and its attendant culture and educates the reader with great discipline and patience. The reader learns many things; do you know kosai is akara? To my great delight, Elnathan did not bother giving helpful explanations and footnotes – I had to google unfamiliar Nigerian terms like Dambe and tozali. And I found out that koko is also akamu.

Born on a Tuesday makes the case that in Nigeria, many dysfunctions have rushed into the huge vacuum left by a rank failure of leadership. Citizens, rich and poor are thus terrorized as they try to survive in a state in which structures and institutions have been compromised by graft and incompetence. There is politics featuring violent political rivalry. Between the Small Party and the Big Party. There is anti-Semitism, the alert reader learns about sects, divisions and anxieties within the Muslim community in Nigeria. The reader learns about the evil of scammer-NGOs fleecing donors. Google Dan daudu. And there is bigotry:

A Yoruba man is a Yoruba man. No matter how Muslim they become. They stab you in the back. That is how they are. Hypocrites.  p121

Elnathan displays courage in his quiet but in your face, matter-of-fact narration of things many would rather not talk about. It is a time of discovery among boys and girls struggling through adolescence and taboo issues like masturbation and homosexuality; two boys engage in gay sex and the resulting guilt and confusion feels like mourning:

Malam Junaidu said it was a sin fasting could not cleanse. I had heard of men being together, read many hadiths about sodomy, but I had never seen it with my own eyes. I wondered what they did before I came and how they did it. When I imagined how painful it was sometimes to shit in the toilet, especially when I ate a lot of bread, I wondered if Bilal didn’t feel pain allowing Abdulkareem’s penis inside him. I thought of the hadith that said that the earth trembles whenever there is an act of sodomy and wondered how many times they had done it and if I ever felt the earth tremble. It made me feel nauseated when I thought of it—Abdulkareem touching Bilal, Bilal bending over—how they could prefer themselves to girls?

Born on a Tuesday is quietly funny, brimming with sardonic humor. My favorite chapter is the one named My Words, in the protagonist’s hand writing. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book. It is perhaps the most creative thing I have seen from a writer in a long time. It is so cute and adorable you fall in love with the protagonist, Dantala. It is as if he is walking around in a drugged, poetic daze amused, if not bemused by an ever-changing dispensation that stays new and unknowable:

I walk past the ward where they say the oldest patient in the hospital is. Everyone says he has been here for many years. Sometimes he goes unconscious for months and just when they think he might not make it, he wakes up. Only Allah knows what type of sickness that is that makes a man go to sleep for months. p121

Sometimes I wish I knew why Allah does His things. Why He lets good people get shot and bad people get all the glory; why He lets bad people have such gifts like the power to move crowds and convince people and make grown men cry. It is His earth. p128

I am happy that I know the difference of piece of paper and sheet of paper. It use to worry me. But now I know piece of paper is paper that is not complete that somebody tear to write something and sheet of paper is a full paper that is complete. p134

In Dantala’s world, we find pockets of wealth lying side by side with a culture of poverty and misery marinated in a sea of organized religion. It is a society that is deeply dysfunctional and violent even as its leaders preach peace. Dantala finds comfort in violence – and his religious fate. As if they are both linked. His religion takes him to a peaceful place but the road is strewn with violence. He is awed by raw wealth, power and education. It’s all about power:

The deputy governor has so many people around him. He has someone holding his bag, someone pulling out a chair for him, someone holding his phones and someone writing when he speaks. I wonder why one man needs so many people as if he were a cripple. Sheikh does not even let me carry his bag. p140

Born on a Tuesday opens Northern Nigeria to the world in a way that Cyprian Ekwensi’s Burning Grass did decades ago, albeit more intensely and with an edgy attitude. Also, as I reflected on the fate of the young Dantala and Aisha, his love interest in a time of war, I remembered Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not Child, and the love of children in a time of Mau Mau and marauding colonialists.

Dantala is Elnathan’s Obierika of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the sensitive soul who thinks about these things. He is socially awkward but he asks interesting questions: “A bra is an interesting piece of clothing. I wonder who came up with the complicated idea.” And like Obierika he thinks about a lot of things and he struggles to understand the world or the war he was born into:

Malam Abdul-Nur opens with a long Arabic quotation from a book by Bakr ibn Abdullah Abu Zayd. He then translates it into Hausa and explains how Islamic societies were self-sufficient and pious and progressive. The Europeans, he explains, needing to conquer Muslim people, sought to start by conquering their culture through worthless and sinful education. He says that if the Europeans had come with guns and ships, it might have been easy to fend them off. But they came with liberal ideas and education to slowly eat at the root of Islamic civilisation and control. He calls the modern Islamic universities ‘so-called Islamic universities’ because they have adopted Western education. Then he takes a more direct hit at Sheikh by saying that the basis of the Nigerian government is kufr because democracy is ‘a disgusting, anti-Islamic, Western invention which seeks to introduce liberal ideas and kill Islamic values. p196

There is one reason you should read this book. Elnathan paid a lot of attention to character design and development and it shows beautifully. You will love the characters in the book, these are not stick figures, these are not caricatures; these are thinking people. Africa has thinking people. They even have books in their homes. Wow, what a concept. African writers would do well to read this book and see what it means to talk about a people without feeding the bigoted jaundiced views of an entire continent. By the way, if you are interested in having a taste of Born on a Tuesday, please read his short story, Bayan Layi, which earned him a place on the Caine Prize shortlist in 2013. It resurfaces as the first chapter of the book.

Finally, Born on a Tuesday is about purpose. What is the purpose of writing? What should writers be writing about in a world filled with anxieties and terror? Is it the writer’s burden to be the moral voice of those without voices? Elnathan has earned my respect and admiration. He and many other writers have stayed firmly rooted in the earth in Africa quietly telling their truths with every canvas available to them. This book screams to be taught in every classroom out there. In Elnathan’s fiction, there is history, that subject deleted from Nigeria’s classrooms. I would love to see this book read to millions of youngsters in the world. It is not just a good book, it is an important book. I love the new literary warriors, most of them writing from within the continent as opposed to Diaspora writers, writing with a new-found confidence, and unapologetically doing their thing. With this book, Elnathan joins that army of writers. In Born on a Tuesday, nothing indigenous like egusi is italicized, not much is needlessly explained. Like A. Igoni Barrett in his book, Blackass, Elnathan says, If you don’t understand it, Google it! I love it!

Summer Blues: Life is a beach

(First published in Next Newspapers, March 7, 2009)

 

I miss my wife. She is gone home to Africa to laugh with her sisters until her sides hurt, to eat mangoes until her teeth ache; and to dine on suya and sad stories until her stomach churns with the stress of too much food and information.

 

The children and I miss our mother and wife. The house is not the same without her. In her absence our spirits lose their nerves and their will. Maybe the ocean will help.

 

We will go to the ocean to play in the waters. Well, my children will play in the waters and I will stare at the sea until Africa waves back at me. So we are headed to the seaside, to the Atlantic Ocean, to feel Africa.

 

Dawn on the road in America. We are headed to the beach, the children and I. Well, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and I. The children are asleep in the truck, but Fela refuses to go to sleep.

 

He leans out of his vinyl hut and speaks truth to America s deception. They will arrest us today but I don’t care, I am enjoying this god, wearing nothing but his underwear and his saxophone, wailing truth to America’s power.

 

Suffering and smiling, I listen to the guttural voice of the priest’s, born of privilege giving voice to the dispossessed. The truck rocks with Fela; there is despair and desolation and truth and lies and suffering and smiling everywhere, even in America. The truth escaped Nigeria with me and after all these years, Fela reminds me that the truth stays constant. There are no mysteries, only lies.

 

America taunts my denial. Even after all these years, Fela’s words haunt and hurt badly. What happened to Nigeria? What happened to Africa? And what am I doing here in America? What is the purpose of all this restlessness? Here in America, I am in my middle passage.

 

I am like Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo, seething, gazing forlornly at the Africa that my siblings in Nigeria say exists only in my imagination. They say Africa has moved on for good or for bad. And they say I need to move on. Even our masquerades are now rap artists wearing Dallas Cowboys tee shirts. After all these years, what force pulls us back to the womb of our past?

 

We are going to the beach to forget our miseries for a little while. The children have their iPods. I have Fela and Sunny Ade and Osita Osadebe. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is coming with me. I will read her stories on the beach and hope the lifeguards save our children from the ocean’s foaming rage.

 

I cannot get enough of Adichie’s stories. They remind me that we are making progress. She takes on our old story tellers, leans off the sturdy eaves of her defiant hut to give her own masterful call and response riff. From Achebe to Adichie, there are no dead white writers here. Yes, life is good.

 

Adichie’s stories are the affirmation of my mother’s stories and the bravery of Africa’s women and children. Ogaga Ifowodo is coming with me. I will read his oriki of suffering on the devastated shores of the delta. I will read aloud the dirges of the children of the delta, to the privileged of America. They must hear Ogaga. They will hear Africa on the beaches of America. Life is good.

 

I am sitting here on the beach staring at the Atlantic wondering when my wife will come back. I am wondering if I will ever go back home to Africa like I said I would almost 30 years ago.

 

Maybe I should resign myself to squeezing joy out of the remains of my current dispensation. I understand now why Kunta Kinte was so angry; dislocation aches the bones. We stayed too long in paradise and trapped ourselves in our own private prison. We are at war like no one has ever seen.

 

America is a strange place and I am in a strange place. In America, doors are always opening. And closing. I miss Africa and grandma coming down the little path. My spirit carries me past wretched bridges to nowhere. We are miserable in the new order called life.

 

In the new order, there is no order. Systems germinate and thrive out of seeming chaos. Chaos wails foul as we insist on order. There is no order; that is so past tense. Flow with the waves, relax your muscles and you’ll end up on the beach of the life, grinning sheepishly.

 

The Atlantic Ocean comes roaring, bringing forceful memories of Africa and the joy of my children to my feet. The waves rise, menacing walls, malevolent spirits foaming in the mouth; my voice dives tremulous into the jaws of the masquerade. “Children, be careful!”

 

The masquerade swallows my boys and spits them out, inedible offerings to greedy deities. The prayers rise in me and stop at my feet, putting jarring brakes on my boys’ death wishes. Out of the ocean, Africa comes crashing at my feet, steamy, hot, sweaty, salty, fertile, taunting me in the sterility of my exile. And a guiding light says to me from across the seas, “WHAT are you doing here, Okonkwo? Come home!”

 

We are back from the beach. The children had a great time. I was miserable. I missed my wife and Africa. But she is back now. Back with bottles of groundnuts and malaria.

 

Africa gives her lovers chills and headaches. In-between the delirium of her fevers she raves about Africa. She loved Nigeria and she can’t wait to go back. But the chills and the headaches of her malaria come in waves riding on the toasty heat of a body battling demons. Welcome to America, honey.

 

On EC Osondu’s This House is Not for Sale, jollof rice and all that jazz

I enjoyed reading E.C. Osondu’s book of fiction, This House is Not for Sale. The book shares many of the same issues that frustrated me in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen (reviewed here) and Jola Naibi’s Terra Cotta Beauty (reviewed here) but still it does a great job of educating and entertaining the reader with humorous tales laced with historical accounts of a bygone era. The reader is regaled  with witty observations from the eyes of a child living in a house (called “Family House”) filled with interesting characters, characters that could only have been conjured up by a mind on steroids. I recommend it to the reader dying for good fiction. The blog Africa is a Country has a good review of it here. Its opening paragraph aptly sums up the book’s portrayal of life in a Nigerian city where:

…everyday life serves as the stage for spectacular dramas and miraculous events, where every neighborhood has its fair share of characters and crazies—the white-garment church pastor, the dodgy police man, the mad man with his thing hanging out, the prostitute, the political thug, the old soldier, the witchdoctor, the quack pharmacist, the old lady who everyone thinks is a witch, the Phd holder without a job, and so on. Life with these archetypes existed in a continuum of the hilarious, the surreal, and the bat-shit crazy.

There are many things to like in the book – from the editing (which sometimes morphs into over-editing), to the meticulous research, to the disciplined, short sentences that showcase Osondu as a writer in charge of his craft. Osondu deploys an unusual but ultimately effective approach to writing this book that draws primarily on his strengths as a writer of short stories. There are eighteen chapters, each of which could stand alone as a short story, because each chapter seems to bear little or no relationship to any other. There are these fascinating characters, people with names like Gramophone, Baby, Cash, etc., each one assigned to a chapter. All through, Osondu maintains a disciplined focus on the character that owns the chapter to the near exclusion of others who remain in the shadows. It makes for easy and pleasurable reading.

Osondu toys with innovation in this book and he is successful at it. The mansion “Family House” that houses all these characters is a living, breathing, brooding character in its own right, ruled by Grandpa, the patriarch, mafia don, fixer and enforcer. It is a rowdy house, the reader gets the impression that it is a house of umpteen rooms. Many people come to this house in this mythical city to try their fortunes, seek solace from terror, flee their demons, and in a few cases, their crimes. “Family House” is a not-so-mute witness to life, dishing out opinions through its many characters that live in her. As an experiment in writing out of the box of orthodoxy, Osondu pulled that off nicely.

With this book, Osondu slyly turns the reader into Obierika, the wise one in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, who thinks about things and quietly questions the way things are. The book forces the reader to reflect on cultural norms with respect to relationships, patriarchy, misogyny, sexuality and sexual preferences, pedophilia (as in child brides) child abuse and labor, the new Christianity and its demons, the mentally disabled and their treatment, infertility, infanticide, corruption, etc. Again, these are familiar themes that run through most contemporary African fiction, except that Osondu does not preach at the reader. Indeed, it is the case that some of the characters, especially the children (Ibe and the nameless protagonist who narrates each chapter) try to fashion joy out of a war they found themselves in, and they mostly succeed.

This House is Not for Sale does not delve deep into any of the myriad issues it confronts, but like a good tweet, fills your mind’s mouth with rich imaginings. The book jogged my memory a lot and I grinned as I read of “sentimental songs” and revisited legends of my time like “Kill-We” Nwachukwu. Google him. Yes, Osondu has a phenomenal memory; his sense of recall is impressive.

For the Western audience, the abuses against women and children might seem savage and distant, of a time and a place where women and children could be expelled from their homes by men, sent packing to make room for a new bride. Except that corporal abuse, humiliation of women under flimsy pretexts (stripping them naked, beating them up and imposing corporal punishment on them) continue to this day in many of these societies, despite the slick and glossy noises of over-funded “empowerment” NGOs. But the book lets you think about those things without making any judgments.

The chapter named Ibe was my favorite chapter.  Here, Osondu comes alive and one enjoys the power of his mind and his muscular writing skills. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. The chapter took me back to my past and my childhood, to an era long gone, and I remembered a lot of things I had forgotten. Ibe, a cousin of the unnamed protagonist is an entertaining know-it all adventurous and impish boy who regales his audience with fantastic tales of his travels some of it made up in his head. My favorite lines are here:

Ibe paid for the movie with the money we got from the mission. Ibe bought suya. Ibe bought Fanta. Ibe bought Wall’s ice cream. Ibe bought FanYogo, Ibe bought Fan ice orange slush, Ibe bought guguru. Ibe bought epa. Ibe said we should walk into the movie theater like Harrison Ford walking into the Temple of Doom, we should walk in with a swagger and we should be swaying from side to side because no one could stop us. We did. (p 25)

I remembered this especially and I cackled with joy:

Cash had a framed picture in his store that showed two men. In one half of the picture, the man who sold in cash was smiling and looking prosperous in a green jacket and a fine waistcoat with a gold watch dangling from a chain and gold coins all around him. The other man who sold on credit was dressed in rags and looked haggard. All around him were the signs of his poverty; a rat nibbled at a piece of dry cheese in a corner of the store. (p 28)

cashcreditMany of the stories are lovely but Ebi and Fuebi were my favorites. Fuebi was a good story, a bit more passionate and self-confident than the others, intense and filling. The chapter Currency reads eerily like a narrative of the recently concluded Nigerian elections. All through the stories, “Family House” is a constant presence, mute witness to living chaos, and enabler of dysfunctions, with Grandpa as the patriarch. In a sense perhaps, “Family House” is the main protagonist, the one that takes all our stories – and tells them – like the Internet. Welcome, new world.

Many readers might find the disconnectedness among the stories to be disconcerting especially as the book seems to be marketed, not as a book of short stories, but as a novel. I actually liked that the stories were loosely or not connected. Osondu tried to experiment with all these characters in this huge house and create stories that sometimes went nowhere. Just like life. He did not attempt a contrived plot; I think that took supreme literary confidence or chutzpah.  Osondu did try to bring together all the stories in the last two chapters; that, in my opinion, was a messy mistake.

This House is not For Sale is not a perfect book; it reminded me of some of my pet peeves when it comes to African writing. It is written for a broad Western audience in mind; Many times, Nigerian words and idioms are italicized and carefully explained in the same or preceding sentence. African writers should perhaps learn to be more insular, I mean who italicizes akara and explains it as “bean cake” in the 21st century? If the reader is too lazy to use Google, tough luck. But then, to be fair, after all these years of railing at African writers, I now realize that African writers who choose to publish in the West are not negotiating from a position of strength; the editor is Western, the publishing company is Western and the audience is Western. It makes marketing sense. It doesn’t make it any less maddening. Imagine if Tolstoy in War and Peace had taken the time to italicize and explain every word foreign to the African reader. That book would have been way more than 50,000 pages. But then to be fair Nigeria has precious few indigenous publishing houses, what is a writer to do? You want to be published? Take the crap from the Western paymasters.

The chapter, How the house came to be uses conventional (and helpful) quotation marks to delineate dialogue; the others osondudispense with it, which is confusing sometimes, especially when it is a long dialogue. Also, sometimes I felt like I was being read to as if I was a child. It is as if Osondu started out writing a children’s book, then he changed his mind. The tone of the prose may have been influenced by the fact that the protagonist is a child. The characters are mostly caricatures, many of them behaving like pretend-humans lolling about in an anti-intellectual society, lacking an ideological core and an abiding spirituality. That would be contemporary Nigeria. Perhaps this is the case, but between the 70’s and the 90’s, it boggles the mind that for many African writers like Osondu writing about that era there seems to be a dearth of serious minded people as characters. The African writer’s trademark superciliousness mars the book, somewhat.

In a few chapters, the over-editing by the editor lowered the boom and passion of Osondu’s powerful voice into a near-whimper. The attempt to sell the book to the West was relentless, and readers, young readers especially now used to the raw indigenous attitude of writing on the Internet and social media would look askance at parts of the writing. For Chinua Achebe, it was a simple trick; appropriate the English Language as if it were your own and tell your story. We need bold writing like that. Achebe’s editors amplified his voice, at least in his early works. Osondu needs a powerful editor who gets the power of his narrative and the need for the English Language to bend to the will of the story in a culturally sensitive manner. By the way, Aatish Taseer, writing in the New York Times (March 22, 2015) seems to speak to the frustrations of writing to, for, and through the West:

But around the time of my parents’ generation, a break began to occur. Middle-class parents started sending their children in ever greater numbers to convent and private schools, where they lost the deep bilingualism of their parents, and came away with English alone. The Indian languages never recovered. Growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, I spoke Hindi and Urdu, but had to self-consciously relearn them as an adult. Many of my background didn’t bother.

This meant that it was not really possible for writers like myself to pursue a serious career in an Indian language. We were forced instead to make a roundabout journey back to India. We could write about our country, but we always had to keep an eye out for what worked in the West. It is a shameful experience; it produces feelings of irrelevance and inauthenticity. V. S. Naipaul called it “the riddle of the two civilizations.” He felt it stood in the way of “identity and strength and intellectual growth.”

As a near-aside, just keeping the reader entertained with a book in the age of social media is an amazing feat in itself and Osondu passed that test with me. The reader is also facing personal challenges; social media is the new addiction that comes in short posts and grunts in tweets. Reading long form is now the new distraction. The intensity of feeling, the rush that comes with the instant feedback and contact with the reader and writer and the reader becoming a writer also (reader and writer exchanging roles). I don’t see myself as addicted to social media; many readers now see the book as a mere distraction from reading. Writers must provide leadership in confronting this threat against traditional scholarship and entertainment. Welcome to the 21st century. And oh, Osondu loves jollof rice. A lot. That meal of the gods is a recurring character in this peppy little book of many memories.

Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen – and sordid tales

Chigozie Obioma’s debut work of fiction, The Fishermen, is a work of muscular industry and prodigy, and it is also an incredibly frustrating book, more on that later.  Obioma is one powerful storyteller. In this book, things fall apart in the worst possible way, over and over again for a Nigerian family of eight, with the first four sons the chief protagonists in this story from hell. This unusual book documents the family’s free fall into one grim tragedy after the other. This family is a country song, a sad country song.  The Fishermen is a powerful and tragic coming of age book and Obioma writes as if he is looking through hell’s windows. As an aside, Obioma is incredibly well-read, his vocabulary is intimidating; that alone is enough reason to buy the book, your SAT scores will soar.

The book is a tightly woven six-pack abs of stories. The chapters sport titles that represent characters, just like the inscriptions on the mammy wagons of my childhood. Obioma is no Chinua Achebe, he is his own man, but then the book offers parallels with Achebe’s epic Things Fall Apart. Father is Okonkwo, afraid of his being, a moody, emotionally absent father, tethered Mother doing the best she can, as if a single mother. The reader comes face to face with corporal punishment so brutal it terrifies and scars children and the reader. The children endure life under a physically and emotionally abusive and absent father and a doting, albeit overwhelmed mother. Here, there are haunting reminders of Okonkwo and his relationship with his sensitive son, Nwoye (good analysis of the relationship here).

the-fishermen-chigozie-obiomaReading The Fishermen can be a grisly exercise: There is mayhem and madness everywhere, blood and gore in excruciating detail. Read as a mad man sexually defiles a female corpse in full view of onlookers. Nigeria. Fear, rage, hate, revenge are persistent characters. Yes, hatred is a leech. There is jungle justice –extra-judicial killings of suspects – in the most grisly way:

I particularly liked how she recounted an incident about a robber who was lynched in our district, how the mob knocked down the fleeing thief with a hail of stones, and how they got a car tyre and placed it around his neck. She’d emphasized the mystery behind how the mob got petrol within that fleeting moment, and how, within coughing minutes, the thief had been set ablaze. I as well as Father had listened intently as she described how the fire had engulfed the thief, the blaze prospering at the hairiest parts of the thief’s body— especially his pubic area— as it slowly consumed him. Mother described the kaleidoscope of the fire as it enveloped the thief in an aureole of flame and his jolting cry with so much vivid detail that the image of a man on fire stayed in my memory. (pp. 27-28)

There are characters jumping out of the darkness and startling the reader, living and inanimate characters, The river Omi Ala is a powerful character. Even fear is a recurring, terrifying character in the book. History lives here and it is sobering, so much of it a sad reminder of Nigeria straining at the center and at the edges with social, political and cultural anxieties.  But then, the book is thematic, with a yawning absence of any vision, nothing soars here but words. That is perhaps its brilliance, nothing soars in today’s Nigeria but words, no vision, nothing. Chief MKO Abiola shows up in a chapter that is well worth the price of the book, amusing and touching. Biafra shows up, in brief, taunting, haunting cameo appearances:

I’d heard of a war that had happened long before— a war Father often mentioned in passing. When he said the phrase “before the war,” a sentence unconnected to the events of the war would often follow, and then sometimes end with “but all these were cut short by the war.” There were times when, while chiding us for an act that smacked of laziness or weakness, he’d tell the story of his escapade as a ten-year-old boy during the war when he was left to cater for, hunt for, feed and protect his mother and younger sisters after they all took to the big Ogbuti forest to escape the invasion of our village by the Nigerian army. This was the only time he ever actually said anything that happened “during the war.” Alternatively, the phrase would be “after the war.” Then, a fresh sentence would take form, without any link to the war mentioned. (pp. 116-117).

As I read the book, the beauty of some of the prose reminded me of the soaring prose and haunting sadness of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country (read some beautiful quotes here). Powerful passages like this lie in wait for the happy reader and ambush the senses and one is forced to think about these things:

This dream fetched him much ridicule in the biting economy of 1990s Nigeria, but he swatted off the insults as if they were mere mosquitoes. He sketched a pattern for our future— a map of dreams. Ikenna was to be a doctor, although later, after Ikenna showed much fascination with planes at an early age, and encouraged by the fact that there were aviation schools in Enugu, Makurdi and Onitsha where Ikenna could learn to fly, Father changed it to pilot. Boja was to be a lawyer, and Obembe the family’s medical doctor. Although I had opted to be a veterinarian, to work in a forest or to tend animals at a zoo, anything that involved animals, Father decided I would be a professor. David, our younger brother, who was barely three in the year Father moved to Yola, was to be an engineer. A career was not readily chosen for Nkem, our one-year-old sister. Father said there was no need to decide such things for women. (pp. 25-26)

My best quote:

Mother was a falconer: The one who stood on the hills and watched, trying to stave off whatever ill she perceived was coming to her children. She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in their forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm. (pp. 97)

I read of cattle egrets and I remembered my childhood as we would break out into happy song… Leke leke, gbami leke! You can feel, hear and taste Nigeria with a feverish noisy intensity:

The roads had widened so that the sellers got pushed back many metres from the jumbled roadways, which often filled with cars and trucks. An overhead bridge had been constructed over the road on two sides. Everywhere, the cacophony of vendors crying their wares roused the silent creatures that had crept into my soul. A man dressed in a faded Manchester United jersey ran along as we stopped in the middle of the clogged traffic, banging on the car, as he attempted to shove a loaf of bread through the window near Mother’s side. She wound up the glass. In the distance beyond the nearly thousand cars that were honking and raving with impatience was a mighty semi making a slow U-turn under the overhead pedestrian bridge.  It was this vehicular dinosaur that had brought the entire traffic to a halt. (pp. 286-287).

Obioma is intense; his portrait of Abulu the mad man who lives in a truck is etched indelibly in my mind. It is beautiful language – and a searing commentary on how Nigeria treats mental illness:

Now up close and certain he would soon die, I let my eyes take an inventory of the madman. He appeared like a mighty man of old when men shredded everything they grasped with bare hands. His face was fecund with a beard that stretched from the side of his face down to his jaw. His moustache stood over his mouth as though it had been applied there by fine brush strokes of charcoal paint. His hair was dirty, long, and tangled. Thick foliations of hair also covered a large part of his chest, his wrinkled and swarthy face, the centre of his pelvis, and encircled his penis. The matrixes of his fingernails were long and taut, and in the bed beneath each plate were masses of grime and dirt. I observed that he carried on his body a variety of odours, the most noticeable of which was a faecal smell that wafted at me like a drone of flies when I drew closer to him. This smell, I thought, might have been a result of his going for long without cleaning his anus after excretion (pp. 223-224)

From cover to cover, The Fishermen unveils multiple tragedies within just one family. Still, it is a tender story in parts, shyly tucked among gripping blood-curdling chapters, a true reflcection of the juxtaposition that is life in Nigeria. Obioma loves gore and catalogues it with near-gleeful graphic unsparing detail. There is child abuse in perverse abundance; for the child in Obioma’s world, the world is a vast classroom of unrelenting terror and abuse. And there is the terrifying descent into depression and lunacy by a distraught mother. Sad, almost beautiful, is the sadness that drapes this powerful book. Obioma tackles the familiar positions on the new Christianity – the desecration of customs, institutions, and religious totems in the name of Christianity.

And this made me remember of trips to my village from the city where we lived:

Like a miracle, a host of people, almost all of whom were relatives, Nde Iku na’ ibe, some of whom I’d seen before and others whose faces merely peopled the many daguerreotypes and fading photographs tucked away in our family albums, arrived at the house within two days. They had all come from the village, Amano, a place I barely knew. We’d visited it only once, during the burial ceremony of Yee Keneolisa, an old immobile man, who was Father’s uncle. We’d travelled through a seemingly interminable road sewn between two vast stretches of thick forests until we reached a place where the great jungle shrunk into a few trees and cultivated heaps and a distributed army of scarecrows. Soon, as Father’s Peugeot negotiated the sand-filled tracks, jerking furiously, we began to meet people who knew him. These people greeted our parents and us with a boisterous effulgence of geniality. Later, dressed in black clothes with a host of others, we’d marched down in a procession to the funeral, no one speaking, but merely crying as if we had been transformed from creatures capable of making speech to ones that could only wail; this had amazed me beyond words. (p. 146)

From my perspective, The Fishermen is not a perfect book; it is bipolar, confounding the reader with its beauty – ugliness. It showcases powerful writing that is often cruelly ambushed by the whims of a clueless editor trained to wean stories of their passion and meat. Western editors should collaborate with African editors. Obioma can be quite bombastic; he likes the word “declivities” and a few other big words. I will be blunt, the dialogue was awkward and contrived; a result of clumsy attempts to explain Africans to Western readers. That grated on my nerves.

Here is a strange passage:

Locusts were forerunners: They swarmed Akure and most parts of Southern Nigeria at the beginning of rainy seasons. The winged insects, as small as the brown brush flies, would leap out of porous holes in the earth in a sudden invasion and converge wherever they saw light— it drew them magnetically. The people of Akure often rejoiced at the arrival of the locusts. For, rain healed the land after the dry seasons during which the inclement sun, aided by the Harmattan wind, tormented the land. The children would switch on bulbs or lanterns and hold bowls of water close so they could knock the insects into them or cause them to shed their wings and drown in the water. The people would gather and feast on the roasted remains of the locusts, rejoicing at the oncoming rain. (p. 128).

They are not locusts, they are termites, what does it matter, we do not eat bugs in my village, we eat irikhun! Google that! And in Nigeria, we don’t call lorries “trucks.” But then, Obioma is the sum of his experiences, he is free to use porpoises in his fiction. What he did to the Pidgin English was unnecessary and poorly done. It was contrived and rejiggered for the benefit of the Western (paying) audience. We don’t talk like this. It made for awful dialogue, an insult to Pidgin English. Here is a sample that made me reach for my cognac:

“Her pikin, Onyiladun, dey sick. As her husband come inside, she tell am make im give medicine money, but im start to beat-beat am and im pikin.” (p. 107)

Bee ni— it is so,” Iya Iyabo said. “Aderonke vex say im dey beat the sick pikin, and fear say because of im alcohol, say im go kill am, so she hit im husband with a chair.” “Eh, eh,” Mother stammered. “The man die,” Iya Iyabo said. “Im die just like that.” (p. 107)

We don’t talk like this. It goes on and on with the characters mumbling in the sort of contrived Conradian language that made Achebe call Conrad a thorough going racist and that incurred my wrath in the essay The Balance of our Stories. Thanks to the contrived language, the book gives the wrong and unintended impression that the characters speaking Pidgin English are unthinking dolts invested only in mimicry. But then, Nigeria’s rulers work hard every day to give the impression that we are not serious human beings.

The attempt at translating the language to the other in this book is relentless, we are the other faithfully italicized and explained to the other. Everything is italicized down to wrappa. And this: I almost stopped reading the book at this point upon reading Obioma’s attempt to explain beans to the West:

“I recall one Sunday afternoon when Iya Iyabo came in while we were eating black-eyed peas marinated in palm-oil sauce.” (p. 106)

So much was lost in the translation of Nigerian Standard English to a format favored by Western readers, it was not funny. Obioma badly wanted to use Nigerian voices: “What if we follow them from a distance, through corner-corner?” (p. 67) Apparently, his editors could not stomach much of that insular stuff. So they went rogue with their red pens and tried to butcher a good book. The result is a crippling loss of language and indigenous context. “Dodo” is helpfully explained in parenthesis! Fried plantains! Who does that? The language problem haunts Obioma. From my perspective, The Fishermen is a failed experiment with language. From another perspective it would be a brilliant attempt at bridging both worlds with contrived language. I understand the other’s perspective. The other is paying.

There is a God. Half-way into the book, Obioma stopped the annoying experiments with dialogue and language and things got better. Over time, the characters formed and matured as identities become distinct and unique. The Fishermen is a beautiful book, – once you survive the penury of the first few chapters and the ignorance and cultural incompetence of the editor. I learnt several new words though! A skink is a lizard, LOL!

 

Africa: Statesmen, executioners, and black-on-black oppression

“The white man may be gone, but the pillage and the oppression he brought are still there. That, we kept. The people in power now are proud of this government, this omnipotent blunderbuss of a thing they didn’t even create, whose sole goal was to oppress and exploit. In the eyes of this elite of ours, the country is a cake there for the eating, not a common project, something we all work at together.

The people who govern us owe everything to the white man: the diplomas they brandish to ‘prove’ their superiority; the high-ranking positions they milk for personal gain; the cars they drive; the suits they wear; and the kids they send abroad to get a decent education. Even the president is a product of the white man! He patterns himself on him – and he’s proud of it. Don’t we say of Paul Biya that ‘he’s a white man’? His whole entourage is expected to act white along with him. There’s little room made for Africa and its traditions in the state apparatus – except for those traditional dance troops that get trotted out at the airport whenever the president travels, as if the whole thing hadn’t been a colonial invention in the first place, created to cheer and stomp whenever some De Gaulle flunky showed up.”

        – Jean-Pierre Bekolo Obama

Visiting South Africa’s Johannesburg in 2005 left me confused. I expected a joyful place, ringing with the bountiful fruits of freedom from the horror that was apartheid. Instead, I saw in the eyes of the poor, fear and despair and one wondered if they knew the difference between the past and the present – or if there indeed was any difference. At this conference, poor blacks served the participants with a certain deference and trepidation that stayed with me all through. The Black and White conference participants seemed fine with it. What seemed obvious was that the black ruling class had merely mounted the saddle of the former oppressors and was now using the same state-sanctioned instruments of oppression to oppress the poor – and amass power and wealth. I looked around me and it just seemed that white on black oppression had been replaced with black on black oppression. No compassion.

This horrific dysfunction is repeated in virtually all black African nations. The poor in my village are blissfully unaware that they were freed from colonialism; huge swathes of the village look like a place time forgot. Take those nations freed from colonialism; not much in terms of the culture and structure has changed. All over the land, the intellectual and ruling elite swagger like drunks, armed with pie charts and PowerPoint slides, mouthing bullshit as the poor ferry them from broken hovel to broken hovel on their backs. No one holds them accountable because they own the bully pulpit.

It is as if the warriors merely took over from the white man, shoved the poor into “boys’ quarters” and ghettos and continued the looting and brigandage. In the case of apartheid South Africa, the oppressors came to stay with their families and so they built robust structures and institutions for their enjoyment and use. The colonialists came, ruled as if from afar, built temporary structures – which was fine since their families were back home attending real schools and being taken care of by real hospitals. Each time they got sick, they would fly back home to have their rashes treated. Today’s post-colonial African ruler is exactly the same as his white ancestor. His families are abroad and each time he has a cough, he flies home to the West to be taken care of in real hospitals. There is no investment in his society – because he does not believe in his society.

The dysfunction is now being aggravated by the uncritical adoption of a form of crippling governance, what I call democracy without accountability, an aping of what happens in the West. Outside of slavery and AIDS, nothing has hurt African nations more than decades of looting in the name of democracy. Why are things the way they are? Why are we like this? Until we confront our challenges with real honesty and rigor, African nations will continue to be the butt of jokes in the international community of nations.

We are headed in the wrong direction. That much is obvious, let’s not lie about things. Our intellectual elite must stop bleating inanities and admit that there has been a rank failure to lead from their end. Our intellectuals have become the problem; lazy and loud parrots of lies and obfuscation all so they can feed their mouths. All I see is mimicry, and loud parroting of stolen ideas. In the absence of a robust infrastructure; of home-grown accountability, in the absence of a real willingness to work, our nations will remain caricature nations. We must think about these things.

And no, I do not agree with Jean-Pierre Bekolo Obama. A return to colonialism would be silly. But read his interview, right here; he has thought hard about these things.

Fiction Faction: New world

I come from a land that has streets with no names. Our people did not name the streets of our village because they saw the coming of smartphones, Google, e-mail and Facebook. Well, the little path that goes from my father’s village to my mother’s village is called the little path. Was. The little path is no more. In the land of my ancestors, people don’t venture far from the earth. There are no mortuaries; when they die they practically fall into their graves themselves. My father’s father was buried by the path half-way to my mother’s people. He is no longer buried there. A government thief built an ugly mansion over my grandpa’s bones.

Today, I stare at the remains of winter in America; earth is frosting on chocolate cake. After all these moons, alien images and clichés stick to me, like white on rice. I have ventured far, very far from home. When I left home many decades ago, no cellphone chats charted my way out of Customs and Immigration into America’s issues. My parents put me inside the capsule to somewhere and hoped that someday I would be back. I am still here in America. I am not going back soon.

Nothing stays the same. Not even in America. The changes make me dizzy and I obsess nonstop about the way things used to be. Here in my part of America, our drugstore no longer has human cashiers. The owners remodeled the store, and replaced humans with machines that talk to you. You simply walk up to the machines, scan your goods, pay and leave. It is very disconcerting; I keep looking for the humans to return, I actually miss them and their attitude. I know now that I love people and I cannot shake this cold unfeeling nothingness I get from interacting with a machine that proves its indifference with faux warmth.

Don’t get me wrong, I am high on the possibilities and the opportunities riding on the strong backs of these new and emerging technologies, but I do wonder now if there are downsides to all of this. The world is becoming more and more shaped by a few powerful cognitive elite. We are struggling to deal with and adapt to the awesome force of these new technologies and the new billionaire dictators that built them.

Life is war. We were all born into a war that we did not ask for. And people write about life, sometimes it is mostly gory. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, they belonged to a certain era when one had no choice but to concentrate all of one’s creative passions on one medium of expression – the book. I read a lot of books, mostly about the condition we find ourselves as people of color in a white man’s world. However, I am first and foremost a writer of creative stuff, whatever that means. Lately though, I am known more as a book reviewer than anything else, which I find interesting. I think that a critic’s work in itself is creative work. We may not like it, but it is what it is. The critic clearly has a role to play and I would say we are in dire need of honest courageous tell-it-like-it-is book reviewers.

Some people should really not be writing and they should be told that. Some writers are also full of it and they should be told that. Some works are fun to read and they should be celebrated. It is a shame that we are talking about books because in my clan we are steeped in the oral tradition. Some of the world’s greatest “books” have been “read” to us in song by our ancestors. My mother is one of the world’s greatest living poets; she has not written a lick. She would be great on YouTube. She would at least help to preserve one of our dying languages.

On social media, walls are colorful wrappers wound tightly around the new municipalities of ME. Social media is falling leaves, hearts fluttering, forlorn, and drying on yesterday’s clothes lines. People are waving hasty goodbyes out the windows of indifferent relationships. It is complicated. Life goes on. There are no nations as we remember them. We have fled lands ravaged by thieves preaching democracy. Soon a generation will come and in their history books they will learn about something called a check and the gallant art of balancing a checkbook.

Social media. The new frontier has edged into our consciousness. America. Deep in the windy beauty of this land, the majesty of Nigeria, the land of my birth goes howling. We fled our gods, mean angry bloody gods foaming blood in their blood thirsty mouths wielding blood drenched cutlasses between steely teeth. Here in Babylon, alien gods kill us with the kindness of indifference. We retaliate by turning their plates on their heads, these patronizing, condescending gods. Africa. We fled her bloody windows for Facebook Nation. Every day children reject what passes for African culture today. They are not all mad. What is going on? Let’s talk about these things.

On beauty and narrative in Jola Naibi’s Terra Cotta Beauty

I enjoyed reading Terra Cotta Beauty, Jola Naibi’s book of short stories. Yes, I enjoyed it a lot; it took me back to Lagos, the land of my birth. It is a quiet little persistent book. As I read, I grew to respect the book before me. The characters are well-developed and unlike the caricatures that characterize the products of poverty porn, they carry themselves with the dignity of thinking albeit long-suffering human beings. There are very few editorial issues in the book, a great feat for a self-published book. As literature goes, this is not what I would call a muscular literary work but it hit my hunger spot. I am happy.

So what is the book about? As far as I can tell, it is about life in Lagos in the nineties and possibly early 200o’s. If you don’t know where Lagos is, you can stop right here, it is okay. There are seven stories in the collection, each connected to each other in a clever and innovative way.TerraReal

Ol’boi, the first story, a thrilling story about family, the violence of robbery and corruption, starts out the collection with great promise:

“They had lived on that street for as long as he could remember. It was a short street that ended in a T-shape at a cement wall that shielded the backyard of another compound on another street. Everyone in the entire neighborhood dumped their rubbish at this end of the street. Very rarely the authorities would clear the trash, but most of the time there was a huge pile of garbage at the end of the street which stunk like rotten eggs.” (p 1)

A Laughing Matter, and Terra-Cotta Beauty, both offer a unique look into the tyranny of military dictatorships and patriarchy and the brave fight against both dysfunctions. They were my two favorite stories in the collection. Terra-Cotta Beauty, the piece that bears the book’s title is a lovely read, with pretty prose like this: “My mother… often smelled of the earth. It was the same matinal smell that my grandmother, who would end up raising me had.” (p 27)

Iridiscent hope is a travelogue of sorts as the main protagonist hawks her hope for a better life in Lagos and in her travels from home of the day to work, exposes the reader to the precariousness of hope, and life in Lagos. It was my least favorite story, it went nowhere fast and it read like reportage from a distracted journalist. By the way, you can read it here online on Africanwriter.com.

Running in the Wrong Direction is a moving commentary on migration, the search for meaning, peace and prosperity in life. It is ultimately a commentary on child labor and the plight of young children who are forced to leave the comfort of home to seek prosperity in the war that is the typical African city, this time, Lagos.

The Fire Starter uses an account of arson to paint a compelling portrait of class struggle. Well done.

The Sacred Geometry of Chance is down to earth African romance, shorn of the mimicry that is much of romance literature by many African authors. It is also a commentary on patriarchy, teen sexuality and pregnancy. It does go on too long and ends strangely, well, it does not end. I loved this line: “Until it jumps into hot water, a frog does not realize that there are two worlds.” (p 117) Now, that is good writing!

There is a good interview of Jola Naibi here. She writes beautifully, several passages in the book are full of gems like “He taught himself to read and write; whenever he saw books, his heart soared.” (p 92). You will not find the unctuous sermons that pass for literature in much of contemporary African literature, feminism, patriarchy, child and marital abuse, blah, blah, blah. She simply writes as she remembers. The issues are not the stories; they are part of the stories’ lives. Nice and refreshing.

Terra Cotta Beauty is not a perfect book. For one thing, it is a bit too restrained for my liking, somewhat of a victim to be liked by all, especially the West. Still, it is a good read; I recommend it highly, especially for teenagers and young adults. Illustrations, perhaps using pencil sketches would have been nice to break up the monotony of text and still my attention deficit disorder. Every now and then, the prose is too clinical, a mechanical clack clack clack of the keyboard – a writer, writing as if unsure of herself. Again, the use of italics for indigenous words rankles. Why capitalize molue in the 21st century? It is an English word, for heaven’s sakes. Google it.

naibi2Naibi deploys impeccable Pidgin English which she promptly italicizes and explains with standard English. I really hate that she does this.

“Wetin dey do you now? (“What is wrong with you?”), his companion spat at him. “You just dey do like person wen don lose im mama, you no hear de tin wey Ol’Boy talk—im say mission accomplished! So why you dey slack now?” (“What’s wrong with you?” “You are acting like someone who has lost his mother. You heard what Ol’Boi said—-mission accomplished! Why are you slacking?”) (p 93)

Again, I don’t like that Naibi italicizes the Pidgin English, and then helpfully translates it, presumably, to Western readers. It is what it is but I prefer this approach to the bastardization of pidgin preferred by Nigerian writers who write primarily for the West’s consumption. A lot is lost in the unnecessary translation. It is perhaps true that the paying audience is in the West and the writer is under a lot of pressure to get as wide an audience as possible, but there are unintended consequences. The writers of the West gained traction in other climes by being relentlessly insular even before the advent of Google. That insularity bred a nagging curiosity in readers. It is counter-intuitive but I suggest strongly that African writers need to find the muscle to be insular, to force Western readers to be curious enough to want to learn about African communities by getting off their duff and doing the research themselves. But then, we are not negotiating from a position of strength. They have the money and the publishing houses. This is why I love Facebook and Twitter; you can’t italicize egusi over there. At least not yet. Don’t mind me jor, Terra Cotta Beauty is a good read. Stop reading me and go buy a copy. Now. It is an order. LOL!

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