Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Month: April, 2012

Viewing Nigeria through a web of broken links

Nigerians own some of the best websites on the internet. Nigeria also boasts some of the world’s best intellectuals and professionals who quietly make the world run smoothly.  Many of them actually obtained their education in Nigeria at a time when Nigerian institutions were the envy of the world.  My point? Nigeria is a nation of greatly talented people; however you couldn’t tell this from viewing the websites owned by Nigerian governments and institutions. They seem to exist only for the purpose of loudly advertising Nigeria’s dysfunction and mediocrity.

It is interesting that Nigerians can spend umpteen hours making their personal websites the paragon of excellence but are content to let corporate sites under their watch grow weeds. A random sampling of the websites of Nigerian governmental institutions exposes them as a jumble of mediocrity, misinformation, self-serving aggrandizement served up on a spaghetti bowl of broken links. It is as if these websites were put up simply because it seems the fashionable thing to do. Once they are established, usually with loud fanfare, they are allowed to simply decay into digital earth.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to unearth evidence about what I am talking about. Take Nigeria’s official website for example: It is a disgraceful riot of broken links and outdated and in many instances false information. It is slow, buggy and awkward to navigate. Some of the links simply take you nowhere. Click on any link in there and you are confronted with either a broken link or a message indicating that “this page will soon be available.” The government of Nigeria should consider taking down the site until work and appropriate technical tests have been concluded.  It would be interesting to know how much has been spent on this website so far and what the process was to determine its design and content.  Whoever is responsible for developing this website should be held accountable.

Nothing expresses this dysfunction in more visual detail than the websites of Nigerian institutions that are devoted to education or the literary arts. It is particularly heartbreaking to click on Nigeria’s “Ministry of Education” tab and watch it announce optimistically, “this page will soon be available.” It is a disheartening visual of Nigeria’s lack off seriousness. How is it possible that Nigeria’s Ministry of Education is represented by a broken link? And folks wonder why our educational system is broken. In more respectable societies, the person in charge of this disgrace of a website would be promptly fired. Aso Rock is probably running the website in a “cybercafé” that also doubles as an amala and ewedu bukateria. I would not be shocked to find out that hundreds of millions of dollars were “spent” on this national e-disgrace.  If I sound harsh, it is on purpose. We ought to start shaming our leaders into doing the right thing. I know, I know, they don’t give a damn, but I will keep trying.

Edo State’s site should be shut down until it is usable. It is as if a gaggle of enthusiastic and clueless motor park touts collaborated on its design and implementation. Click on the Ministry of Education and see what happens. Hint: Nothing. There is absolutely no information there worth using; one might as well be reading the self-congratulatory slop of Nigerian obituary announcements.

Similarly, The Association of Nigerian Authors spends most of its dying days squabbling over inanities like who got invited to drink peppersoup and chomp on bushmeat in Aso Rock. That dysfunctional organization founded on a beautiful dream but floundering from the excessive sloth of her current warders, has, well, had a website. Google it, click on it and you realize that it no longer exists perhaps because the owners allowed its domain name to expire.

The most disappointing, is the official website of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). It is to put it mildly, a near incoherent offering of stale documents, dated information and broken web links. ASUU should please take a brief break from walking out on students (for yet another pay increase) and bring down the website immediately. It sends a very bad signal to the world about the state of our educational system.

We live in a new dispensation and Nigerian institutions are to be applauded for taking advantage of the Internet to showcase content about our country. Our leaders must however refrain from simply developing websites for the sake of it. People actually want to use these sites for what they are advertised. Increasingly, people, states and institutions are being judged by the state of their websites. Nigeria should not be on the Internet until she is ready for prime time.  I do applaud President Goodluck Jonathan for maintaining a robust presence on Facebook and for engaging a sizable slice of Nigeria’s Facebook generation. It is the right thing to do even though the editorial standards of his postings are questionable. Nigeria boasts a wealth of literary talent and President Jonathan can easily put together a top notch editorial team to manage the country’s digital presence.

The Three Rs: Reading, Reading and Reading

First published in Next Newspapers on January, 23, 2011. Reproduced here for archival purposes only.

If you love reading this is a great time to be alive. Thanks to technology, pretty much anything these days is a book. There is always something to read.  The democratization of reading is happening at a time when it appears that people have lost interest in reading anything that doesn’t chant “Amen!” at them. Today, there are homes that house no books. Unfortunately, there are children in those homes. That is child abuse. A child should be immersed in all sorts of books. I know, I know, I have said that the book is dying a long slow death. A house should be slaphappy with books and ideas. Look at it another way: This is a great time to buy books because no one wants them anyway. Buy them and leave them lying around the house. A child may just read them.

I have enjoyed reading many African writers. The younger ones tend to be enthusiastic and eager to be published. Many are good at what they do, but if I had to give advice, I would suggest that many of our writers would improve their craft if they spent more time reading than writing. Read, read, and read. You will be surprised at how much it improves on your muse’s judgment.  What do I read? People regularly send me books from Nigeria. I stalk used bookshops thrift stores, and yard sales. You would be surprised what Americans will give away for pennies. I trek the Internet buying the books of my childhood. If you really want to see how the Internet is fueling the renaissance that is African literature today, google “African writing”, kick back with a good glass of something red, luscious and bold and enjoy yourself. There are blogs, websites, and Facebook pages out there devoted to some pretty good writing. Google Nnorom Azuonye and his Sentinel Poetry Movement and you will be love-struck. Jeremy Weate, (who with Bibi Bakare-Weate publishes Cassava Republic) owns Naijablog, a brilliant blog that I am fairly addicted to. Read Molara Wood’s Wordsbody, Chuma Nwokolo’s African-Writing, and Sola Osofisan’s Africanwriter.com and Nigeriansinamerica.com. And of course, for home grown investigative reporting, late breaking news, literature and some pretty strong opinions, you should visit Sowore Omoyele’s inimitable Saharareporters and Philip Adekunle’s bustling Nigeria Village Square.

The irrepressible writer and poet Obi Iwuanyanwu (Obiwu) manages a small group of top notch Nigerian writers on the list-serve Ederi. The poet Amatoritsero Ede edits Maple Tree Literary Supplement and manages the list-serve Krazitivity. Indeed, many of today’s Nigerian literary stars cut their teeth on Krazitivity under the watchful eyes of griots like Obiwu Iwuanyanwu, Tade Ipadeola, Pius Adesanmi, Molara Wood, Chika Unigwe, Olu Oguibe, Afam Akeh, Lola Shoneyin, Chuma Nwokolo, EC Osondu, Jude Dibia, Tolu Ogunlesi and Victor Ehikhamenor. Shola Adenekan runs The New Black Magazine.  Kola Tubosun blogs his escapades in America and elsewhere in ktravula. Chielozona Eze connects the lush dots of African Literature in his blog African Literature News and Review. Google the Zimbabwean writer Ivor Hartmann of Storytime and be enthralled. Do not die until you have read Ainehi Edoro’s blog, Brittle Paper.  Edoro is enigmatic, witty, brainy and just plain fun.  Binyavanaga Wainaina is the brainy godfather of them all, spewing his brilliant rage on our e-conscience. The uber-smart Petina Gappah blogs (too occasionally lately, alas) on The World According to Gappah. Oh, if you are on Facebook, please visit my favorite, Auntie PJ’s page, Let’s Talk About It. The sum total of our sexuality is on full luscious display right there in all its glory. It is not literature as we know it, but I highly recommend it. There are also many groups and pages on Facebook devoted to literature and writers. I am friends with several African writers on Facebook and they are an invaluable source of manuscripts, stories, leads, books, etc. They tend to accept you as a friend once you request, don’t be shy.

When I read books, I take copious notes along the margins of the books. The notes are usually my observations about many aspects of the book I am reading. At the end of the reading, I always go back and compile all the notes and it never fails, strong opinions always result from the compilation. I invariably always publish the opinions for what they are worth. If I like a book, I say so. If I don’t, I say so. It is really nothing personal. And please do not take me too seriously; I am just an opinionated consumer that has been fooled by America into thinking he is always right. I am a consumer, I paid for the damn book, and I am right. Deal with it. So tell me, I really would love to hear from you. Where do you go to for the literature of our people? I am thinking of compiling a digital reading list that I would share with the world. Send me your favorite digital site and I will put it out there for the world to see and enjoy.

Many voices, one story

First published in Next Newspapers, September 10, 2009. Reproduced for archival purposes only.

America is getting hard; the dollar is playing hide and seek with all of us; well, it is playing mostly hide. Faced with a costly choice between Uwem Akpan’s book, Say You’re One of Them and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, I chose the former.

It would appear, from my limited reading, that I exercised poor judgment in choosing Akpan over Lahiri. Akpan’s book is a series of short stories that aim to highlight an important theme–the plight of dispossessed children and women in Africa. Unfortunately, his approach is tired and made even worse by wooden prose (probably the result of over-editing by copy editors unfamiliar with the African landscape).

From my perspective, Say You’re One of Them does not break new ground. The theme is very familiar–the plight of children and women in sub-Saharan Africa. There is no shortage of books on this, so when reading a new work on the subject, I look for new insights. But the reader is not going to find fresh scintillating prose in this book and the story-telling technique is safe, straight out of an MFA program. It is a carefully written memorandum, as if penned by a timid civil servant, too scared to hurt another.

I would have loved to see some experimentation, something like what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did recently in The New Yorker with her story, The Headstrong Historian. With Adichie’s piece, you are not conscious of the language; you are absorbed in a story. She pulls off the trick because, like Achebe, her stories wear the English language well. Not so with Akpan.

By the way, what is the purpose of Pidgin English? When do you deploy it and why? I think that was a trick (the use and timing of Pidgin English in dialogue) that Akpan had not mastered. I kept struggling to stay with the book, intent on finishing it just as you would struggle with an expensive meal in a five-star restaurant that turns out to be, well, merely expensive.

One thing I wondered is if Akpan could not be fairly or unfairly accused of manufacturing contrived stories. By this I mean that he deliberately wrote short stories from each of several African countries (Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, etc). One writer trying to be in character over such an expansive span of geography, that is an ambitious undertaking and I am not sure Akpan successfully pulled it off.

This is notwithstanding that, as a Jesuit priest, Akpan is trained to be eclectic and is widely travelled. Finally, there is an activist approach to the stories. Akpan’s Jesuit training shows in his anxieties. Nothing wrong with it but that feeling stays with you all through the stories (oh, and a number of them should really be novellas; they are looong).

As for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story (The New Yorker, June 23, 2008), it is set roughly around the time frame of Achebe’s trilogy from Things Fall Apart through Arrow of God to No Longer at Ease. I relished her story on many levels: the headstrong insistence on re-writing from a woman’s perspective and I just loved the stealth with which it crept up on me.

It wasn’t a rebuke of Chinua Achebe’s version, but a polite insistence on another cut. This is a complex and ambitious, and yes, bold, project by Adichie, using an incredibly creative process to start a debate. There is a potentially epic piece of work in there somewhere.

I do regret that the debate was started on the pages of The New Yorker, rather than somewhere else (like Nigeria), but it is not my story. Man, you should see my copy of The New Yorker; all marked up as if it were a sermon. What a treat. I actually thought for a minute I was reading a short story by Chinua Achebe, all the signs were there down to his appropriation of the English language to tell an authentic story.

No gimmicks, just clean, uncluttered communication. And of course there was Achebe’s trademark poetry in the rendering. Adichie sure has a gift. But the mimicking of style for me was deliberate to drag the reader into Achebe’s head and then listen to her voice. I am desperately hoping that this is the beginning of another epic book by Adichie! Ah, something to look forward to! Life is good! Life is really good!

But back to Akpan, whose book is impressive in the sense that it is careful not to present any new insights into the African problem (whatever that is). It is presented in a matter-of-fact style that sent me yearning for some other activity each time I tried to read it. It is pretty bad when you cannot finish a short story. I should have chosen Lahiri. My own assessment of course; I am quite sure that there are others who will find the book a delight. Good for them.

Fiction Faction: Calabash Goulash (For Chinua Achebe)

America. Every day we go to the same place and we talk to the same people who have the same ideas and the same views on the same things. Every day. It is a bit like pushing against amused walls. Every day we go home exhausted from this exercise like Don Quixote huffing and puffing at windmills in his head. The windmills stay standing, And we are diminished just a wee bit. Every day. And our days do not morph into our nights. They clash into the nights and the explosions send us merrily into the bosoms of tired deities. Dawn comes in the morning with the rude roar of the bugler’s horn. And the cycle continues. Every day. In America, we call this life, this spinning around on a treadmill that never stops spinning.

And Fear slinks out of our souls, shoots out of us in hurtful mouthfuls.  Bluster asks Fear: Where are you running to, fool, preening, prancing, peacock princess of the concrete desert? Fear wonders: Where is the night leading? He steps inside the room. It is a huge cave, this room full of men, women and plastic feelings. He fishes in his mask’s pockets for his plastic feelings. He is rearing to go, not far from beneath the skin of his heart. And he puts a face on his face to mask his contempt for the evening. Tomorrow, he swears, I will slink out of my skin to drown your prejudices in the color of my blood. For my blood is the color of your blood. I am your brother, you fool!

He says, tomorrow, I will step into the shadows of your power. Help me, he says, I am your brother. Your blood is the color of my blood. I am your brother. Blonde colossus, I will dance in the shadows of giants before I clamber on to your shoulders to yell my name to the world. Giants have shadows; you, you have no shoulders. Blonde colossus. The dibia told me: Gawk at a monkey and lose yourself in the forest. We have left our gods and followed alien gods. I will die for you, goddess of blonde chemicals. Hey, look, the life of the party is here.  The party begins. Let’s party! And Joy rides our senses, going places in the heart where fear clings to life. Look at joy bounding up and down the steps of happy memories. Joy takes us by the hand and says everything will be alright, you’ll see!

See, the clouds are scampering about with furtive rage seeping through their watery bandanas, rebels gathering storm buckets of rage. The clouds are scampering back and forth across the sky of blue moods lugging buckets of rain, imploring us to wait under the umbrella of rain buckets for the coming deluge of retribution for sins unaccounted for. The clouds are raining water buckets of rage on us and deep inside Jonah’s belly are wet slimy muddy remnants of his snacks from the feast of the land of people that have too many in the first place. Somebody give us a sump pump!

Even in the land of many there are poor people and they wail on, disconsolate about soggy beds, ruined teddy bears and waterlogged memories of days in the summers past. And from across the ocean, the truly poor but really rich look through the skies window-shopping and wishing for what they really don’t need: They pray, one day we’ll be like that.  America. For now, I am holding my lamp in my hands. It is a good lamp. The lamp’s shade broke. In America, it is cheaper to buy a new lamp than to replace the shade. America! But I have a perfectly good lamp. All I need is the shade. Maybe I’ll buy a new lamp and replace the broken shade with the one from the new lamp.  But what do I do with the new broken lamp? America! I miss my old lamp.

The more things fall apart, the more things stay together. The boy stood in the path of the Iroko tree, gentle giant of the savannah. And the boy sat down before the eagle seated on machines that weave life into unbroken giants. Show me something, the boy said; tell me a story, the boy chanted. I don’t want to watch TV, the boy wailed. The eagle shook his head, mane all wooly from the winter of his life’s journey, and the voice, gentle messenger of the gentle masquerade, the voice said, my son, I will tell you a story…

And the eagle told the boy yet another story about things falling apart when things come together. And the boy said: Teacher, you teach me a little something in big ways. Every day. After all these years, I am now old enough to sit still and listen to you, teacher. I love you, teacher.

Burma Boys and strange wars

“No European writer could have written ‘Things Fall Apart,’ ” says Ernest Emenyonu, who chairs the department of Africana studies at the University of Michigan at Flint. It was “a new kind of writing,” for two reasons:

The first was the way Achebe made the colonizer’s language his own. By incorporating Igbo speech patterns, proverbs, folk tales and beliefs, he invented an English that could “articulate African aesthetics and African poetics.” The second was that he “explored the psychology of imperial conquest” and challenged Eurocentric views.

In other words: Part of what Africans suffered at European hands was the loss of control over their own narrative.

Achebe took back that narrative.

-          Bob Thompson, Things Fall Into Place,

The Washington Post, March 9, 2008

I have just finished reading Biyi Bandele’s latest novel, Burma Boy. Major kudos to Farafina, the publishers of this book. Farafina has come a long way since I last read their production of Tanure Ojaide’s The Activist. Burma Boy is a beautiful production, carefully laid out with a nice cover, bereft of typographical errors and significant editing issues. It is remarkably easy on the eyes. I salute Farafina for a job well done. In terms of the contents of the book itself, have you ever read a book that you could never put down because you feel this weird obligation to finish it? To relive that experience, buy Biyi Bandele’s book Burma Boy and try to read it. You will never put it down. Spurred on by Bandele’s boundless enthusiasm for the story and his reverence for his father’s noble contributions to the war effort, I so badly wanted to love this feisty book. Unfortunately, I had trouble reading it to the end. I got lost in the middle but I re-booted my motivation and started over. And I slugged through the book again. And again. The exercise was tedious; not painful, but tedious. This book is an ambitious project but I am not quite sure Bandele pulled this one off.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved the dialogue in Burma Boy – Bandele’s skills as a really good playwright are evident and enviable. I loved the galloping intensity of the first chapter of the book as hearty chunky sentences raced me through the colorful streets of Cairo and the demented tortured soul of the book’s first character, Major Wingate. Unfortunately, the transition from a playwright to a novelist is bumpy at best. For example, a play can happily absorb umpteen characters; you know, market women, street urchins, hangers-on in the king’s palace, etc, etc, but a novel does not have that much staying power. There are all these characters, inchoate, rambling on and on with malarial delirium. Also, caricatures have their place in plays; properly deployed they can be delightful exaggerations of the human condition, witness the riotous and manic delights of the characters in Wole Soyinka’s Jero plays. Burma Boy struggles with an identity problem, a play wishing to be a novel.

What is Burma Boy all about? It is about a certain war takes place in Burma but I shall return to that question later. The book’s one major failing is that it fails to anchor the story in its proper context. The reader is initially left hanging, wondering why this book is talking about a certain war. You would almost have to read about what Burma Boy is trying to deliver in order to have a fair shot at enjoying it.  The alert reader quickly learns that it is about a certain war, some of which took place in Burma and boatloads of Nigerians fought in this war, and it was a war that they didn’t have a dog in but one they fought in like dogs. But what was the war all about? Those who truly want to understand what Bandele is trying to say should first read the books he recommends in his helpful “Author’s Notes” at the back of the book. I especially recommend James Shaw’s A March Out. Then they should read Burma Boy. In this respect, the book fails to deliver what would appear to be an enchanting story. Anchored to a succinct context, the story would have been a crowd pleaser. Bereft of an enabling context, the reader keeps asking the irritating question: Where are we?  The book lurches drunkenly from obese sentence to obese sentence, egged on by legions of tragic-comical characters.

So what is this book really all about? The near-context for all this penkelemesi is buried in one sentence one-thirds into the book: “The story of the day is that Kingi Joji, monarch of Ingila is fighting a war in a land called Boma and he wants our help.” (p 42) As seen through the eyes of Private Ali Banana, the main character, it is about the heroic exploits of West African soldiers who were part of the Chindits, forces that fought gallantly during World War II. The Chindits, under the fearless and lunatic leadership of a British officer named Orde Wingate were a part of the allied Special Forces of the 2nd World War. As Chapter 1 of Bandele’s book shows Wingate was easily one of the most charismatic, if not lunatic military chiefs of World War II.  The Chindits were highly effective against the Japanese. They destroyed bridges and railroads, attacked logistics units and disrupted vital supply lines, all while staying largely embedded inside enemy territory. These West African soldiers or “Burma Boys” were a critical part of these operations; however most of the stories in print tend to glorify only the white combatants. The most charitable of the stories involve condescending, patronizing, and mostly racist commentaries about these soldiers. Their white counterparts certainly found them fascinating, if not exotic and tended to write about them as if they were sub-humans. Books like Shaw’s The March Out that Bandele praises effusively are written in this vein. Bandele set out on a noble quest – to write a story from the West African soldiers’ perspective. Unfortunately, he takes the ball from the white writers, and mostly runs fast in the wrong direction.

There is plenty to frustrate the reader in this book. Bandele obviously read a lot of books about the Burma experience and it shows. It is not a pretty sight however. Numerous scenes are lovingly slapped together and they hang together, tough but separate, hardly ever jelling in this unlikely stew of a story – like the unhappy ingredients of a pot of okro soup put together by a hungry and impatient cook. Every ingredient stands alone refusing to play Bandele’s dream symphony. The okro soup’s richness is rendered destitute by the narcissism of its feuding ingredients. For example, in design and execution, chapter 1 is easily the best part of the book, but what is the point of this chapter other than to introduce a perversely eccentric character – Major Wingate? Also characters are born and rapidly killed off – there is no staying power.  A painful riot of too many minor characters ensures that the reader stays distracted from the message. The book is a caricaturist’s delight. Stereotypes, mostly ethnic fall upon stereotypes and jostle gamely for space in the reader’s limited span of attention. Here, in this book, exaggerations are an inappropriate tool for scoring points. Also since the war theatre remains oblique to the reader, let me suggest that a map of the war theatre in that region (Burma, India, etc) would have been useful.

Overweight sentences puff and huff their way through a maze of a story. The very first sentence in the book screams, “I need to go on a diet!” I am not exaggerating; two mere sentences go on for three quarters of a page. Awkward sentences, fat, with muscles in the wrong places and fat everywhere else. Exhibit one:

“Godiwillin Nnamdi, a school-teacher’s son from Onitsha who had joined the army to spite his father for some slight he could no longer remember, ominously announced that only last week two Indian nationalists, who wanted neither the British in their country, nor the Japs, but would prefer the Japs if they had to make a choice, had been caught trying to poison the base’s water supply.” (p 56)

There are all these long sentences thrown into a room and thy loll about like grenades that won’t go off. Exhibit 2:

“A wandering bomb soared beyond the trucks and disintegrated into several smaller bombs as it struck a tree like an axe with a thousand blades, carving the thick stem into several pieces and flinging the disembodied upper trunk with its crown of shattered branches into the solid undergrowth behind.” (p 114)

The attempts at humor only register and arrest the beginnings of a smile on the reader’s face like the beginnings of great sex arrested at half climax. Frustrating. There are good moments. Hear Private Ali Banana, the main character:

“’… I pay homage to the scorpion for, as the saying goes, he who spurns that which is short, hasn’t stepped on a scorpion. Am I being spurned because I’m short? It surely cannot be because I don’t speak your language. I’ve tried learning it, your eminence, God is my witness. But every time I start from a to z, I get lost somewhere between β and đ, and my head hurts and I have to lie down to recover. May you live long kyaftin sir.’” (p 40)

My favorite line is: “Trust in God but tie your camel tight.”(p 111) Ali Banana easily has the best lines. My favorite:

‘Mules?’ Ali gasped as if stung by a driver ant. ‘Do you know who I am? I’m the son of Dawa the king of well-diggers whose blessed nose could sniff out water in Sokoto while he’s standing in Saminaka. I’m the son of Hauwa whose mother was Talatu whose mother was Fatimatu queen of the moist kulikuli cake, the memory of whose kulilkuli still makes old men water at the mouth till this day. Our people say that distance is an illness; only travel can cure it. Do you think that Ali Banana, son of Dawa, great-grandson of Fatima, has crossed the great sea and travelled this far, rifle strapped to his shoulder, to look after mules?’ (p 38)

Beautiful. And then we find out miles of pages later that this fabulous oratory is delivered by a man who turns out in fact, to be a boy-soldier. Incredulous, such precociousness especially when one realizes that the same child had uttered ‘I here for to killi di Jampani.’ (p 33) It is impossible to see the child in Ali Banana even as the book assures that Ali Banana indeed started out as a thirteen year old soldier. This reader is unconvinced. It stretches credulity.

In Burma Boy, a tedious tale unfolds through the eyes of a writer unfamiliar with the terrain of Burma and India, the war theatre. It is one thing to be born after an event; it is another thing to have never been at the scene of the crime. The book answers the question each time, with a forlorn “No, I was not there and I have never been there.” Bandele’s knowledge of the geography is not intimate enough and comes across as contrived – as if the writer read about several places and sprinkled the resulting knowledge on several pages of the book. Burma is still a distant, remote land. It is not enough to litter the book with exotic flora and fauna. The landscape is not watered enough, not nurtured enough to keep it alive. Every battle is fought in the same leafy hills, sunken valleys and paddy fields. The book suffers from the rich monotony of a stunted imagination.

Then there is this abiding disconnectedness. For example,  Chapter 4 seems to start exactly where Chapter 3 did not end and this reader is not sure why. Weak synaptic connections try gamely to string the chapters together. Most times the ends don’t touch and the result is jarring. One just feels lost in this vast jungle that the writer doesn’t seem to conquer. And the reader feels like a hapless soldier, captured and frog-marched through a jungle to nowhere. Once the reader recovers from the climactic end to chapter 1, the book never really builds up again; there is nothing to look forward to.

The book’s other major failure is in not mining what is truly harrowing – the fact that these soldiers were indeed little boys conscripted to fight a war by their elders. Once you get to that realization, several passages in the book assume a haunting surrealism, like during a particularly  wretched passage to India; of little boys stowing away their mothers’ delicacies (kuli-kuli and dawadawa) as they go to the war in Burma:

“’While we were at sea over a hundred pounds of dawadawa were found under Aminu Yerwa’s bed after the men sharing his cabin started complaining of  foul smell. The dawadawa had gone bad in the airless cabin and there were maggots gathering inside it.’ Dawadawa, a seasoning made from fermented locust bean, was pungent enough even when fresh.” (p 52)

These were children after all, albeit loquacious children, who afflicted with chicken pox, malaria, and diarrhea, seemed to be fighting diseases and home sickness rather than the Japanese. As a result, the book’s lack of depth startles and rankles and leaves a yawning chasm in the reader. And the reader soon learns that nature abhors a vacuum. For instance Burma Boy does not go to the depth of feelings that forced these young men to fight in a war that they did not ask for. You would have to read another book.

Burma Boy is a cautionary tale about the limitations of oral story-telling in literary world. How many epic stories have we lost because they got lost in the translation to “the book”? Maybe www.youtube.com will help but I am afraid that we have done our ancestors a grave injustice. Fifty years ago, Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart and in so doing set out to model how we should tell our own stories. Things Fall Apart was a stunning salvo in response to contemporary literature like Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson that sought to dehumanize the African. With that book, Achebe assured the world in compelling evocative prose that the sum total of the African should not be expressed in primal grunts and half-sentences. For we were poets, philosophers and scholars before the Westerners came and christened us bumbling illiterates. That war rages on today. I must say that I was particularly distressed by Bandele’s use of contrived English in this book. Indeed our writers’ new-found love with contrived English in its various viral strands threatens to shove us back into those dark ages that Achebe and his peers got us out of. Everything must be viewed in its proper context; as in Things Fall Apart, the language must be a vehicle – of communication, not of eternal damnation to a dark hell that only houses sub humans. We are not children of a lesser god.

I have a frayed copy of James Shaw’s The March Out. You read the book and you are left with no doubt as to where Biyi Bandele got his inspiration from. His Muse drank liberally from The March Out, down to similar scenes, characters and leafy sceneries. Even the signs are the same as in:

WARNING

DEAD JAPS IN THE RIVER

ALL WATER MUST BE CHLORINATED

(p 27 in The March Out and p 140 in Burma Boy)

Biyi Bandele pronounces himself gratefully indebted to the late James Shaw and similar writers whose “unforgettable” accounts chronicled “salutary instances of the courage and resourcefulness” shown by the Africans who served in Burma. I beg to disagree. James Shaw’s The March Out is unforgettable only in its rank racism in depicting Africans as exotic sub humans. The Japanese are referred to as slant-eyed Japs and Africans loll about grinning, shuffling and speaking contrived half-sentences. Hear Shaw:

Haruna looked wooden; he and the others plainly resented my presence. Not wanting an unwilling orderly, I asked for a volunteer, but with no response. Feeling depressed, I told Haruna to leave m, and sat for a time too uncomfortable for even the slight exertion of exploring my hole. Suddenly a presence loomed up, and a voice spoke: “Dis orderly work – me fit do um for you.”

I was surprised at being addressed in English, for the speaker was a Tiv, or Munchi, one of an extremely backward tribe with which teachers and missionaries have little success. Not one in a hundred speaks English or Hausa, and their own jaw-cracking dialect is hard to learn. Training them is difficult at first, but they make good soldiers and boast that they do not fear to die, believing that death met bravely is the only passport to life hereafter…. As is usual in his tribe, his teeth were filed to points like a dog’s and the skin of his face stood up in bumps and ridges. It had been cut open in infancy with a knife, another playful Munchi habit.” (The March Out, p 28).

If you think that passage is beyond the pale, unfortunately, in several instances, Burma Boy cries louder than Mr. Shaw, the bereaved. Unfortunate stereotypes litter the pages of Burma Boy and it gets tiresome. The March Out does have something going for it that elevates it beyond Burma Boy: It has helpful maps of Burma and India and I love the black and white picture of “a typical West African infantryman” wearing a “tribal haircut!”

Stripped of appropriate context Bandele’s characters come across as needless stereotypes that reinforce those in James Shaw’s unfortunate book. So Burma Boy, rather than being an Achebean response to a most unfortunate book about Africa, simply becomes yet another version of the same. Because the book falls far short of the expressed or implied purpose – to give rich voice to Bandele’s father’s “stories of carnage, shell shock, and hard worn compassion.” I would strongly recommend that the reader first read Bernard Fergusson’s excellent introduction to James Shaw’s The March Out. It serves as an excellent context to Bandele’s book. Or better yet, read James Shaw’s entire book.

I find it interesting just reading the very positive reviews of this book by Western reviewers. For me, Bandele can do a lot better than this. Burma Boy is a story hanging in mid-sentence stuck in the deep throat of Bandele’s Muse, still waiting to be told. I understand why the author would like to write a book about Burma in honor of his father, a brave Burma Boy but I am not sure I understand why I would call this a successful response to the stated need to write that book. In the end, Ali Banana concurs with the bemused reader:

“He was a foot soldier fighting a crazy war he didn’t even really understand. He didn’t understand why King George was waging a war in Burma from far away England. And it didn’t matter to him.” (p 206)

Neither did it matter to Bandele apparently. Private Ali Banana is luckier than this reader; in the end, he embraces the liberating arms of madness and engages in juicy dialogue with snakes and trees. Oh, to be so lucky.

 

Guest BlogPost: Professor Pius Adesanmi – Face Me, I Book You: Writing Africa’s Agency in the Age of the Netizen

Professor Pius Adesanmi is the author of You’re Not a Country, Africa!

(Keynote lecture delivered at the African Literature Association Dallas, April 2012. Sponsored by the Graduate Students’ Caucus of the African Literature Association (ALA))

I owe the title of this lecture partly to the Nigerian poet, Amatoritsero Ede, who recently “booked” a fellow Nigerian writer for “facing” him in a Facebook spat and, partly, to my favorite palm wine tapper in Isanlu, my hometown in Nigeria. Although Ede coined the brilliant expression, “Face Me, I Book You”, I think the greater debt is owed to my tapper. I call him my tapper extremely cautiously because he also tapped wine for my father for decades, becoming my tapper only after Dad passed on in 2007.

My palm wine tapper needs no introduction to you. You know him. He is an eponymous subject, still very much part of whatever is left of the bucolic Africa “of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs” which fired the imagination of David Diop, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and others in the Négritude camp but irritated Wole Soyinka, Es’kia Mpahlele, and other opponents of Négritude’s “poupées noires” version of Africa to no end. You know him.

You know him because his craft is ageless and has defied the frenzied and chaotic wind of postmodernity blowing over Africa. Baba Elemu – that’s what we call a palm wine tapper in Yoruba – is still alive and kicking in towns and villages all over West Africa. Firoze Manji of Pambazuka once busted my West African monopolist bubble by telling me that they also know the palm wine tapper in East Africa. You know him.

You know him because the fruit of his labour episodically irrigates your tongue whenever summer research takes you to those parts of Africa where he still plies his trade. His black and rusty Raleigh bicycle, the ageless gourds and tired plastic containers attached to the rear end of the bicycle (carrier in Nigeria), all bubbling and foaming in the mouth, and the dark brown belt of reeds that has gathered mileage by taking his ilk up and down the trunk of palm trees since Obatala got drunk in the mythic process of creation, are all iconicities of a certain version of Africa that will just not go away. You know him.

In addition to this generic portrait, my own palmwine tapper is always a vital source of reconnection with my roots during summer vacations in my hometown. Connoisseurs of the matter at hand know only too well that nothing beats the early morning harvest, especially if it comes undiluted with water. That is why the palmwine tapper has to beat even the most auroral farmer to the belly of the bush. The palm tree knows how to reward the tapper who sets forth at dawn.

Whenever I’m home, the pact between my palmwine tapper and me ensures that he wakes me up around 6 am on his way back from the bush with my own reserved portion of “the usual”. I suspect that one of his kegs was named for me or I was named for it as Achebe was named for Victoria, Queen of England. He filled it faithfully every morning and his “akowe, mo ti gbe de o” (Book man, I’ve brought your wine) was my muezzin’s call to prayer. My mum would grumble that I now wake up to the call of palm wine. Whatever happened to the Pius she raised to wake up to the Angelus and morning mass?

I did not hear my tapper’s call to prayer on this particular day in the summer of 2008. The jarring clang of TuFace Idibia’s “African Queen” – I’m sure you all know that song – was what woke me up. One of my nieces in the village had been kind enough to set the said song as my ringtone. Ladies and gentlemen, please sing with me: “You are my African queen/the girl of my dreams/you take me where I’ve never been”. That was Idibia crooning in my cell phone. Who could be calling that early in the morning? I concluded that it must be some silly friend back in Canada or the US who’d forgotten the time difference between Nigeria and North America. I hissed and fumbled for my phone in the greyish darkness of the early morning and the voice that came from the other end made me jump up in bed.

“Akowe!”

“Akowe!”

That was my palmwine tapper phoning me – wait for this – from the bush! As I later found out when he returned from that morning’s sortie, he was calling me from the neck of one of his trees. He wanted to let me know that delivery would be delayed that morning and I may not get my regular quantity of “the usual”. Funny things had happened to his gourds. I understood. In the village, strange spirits disguised as villagers sometimes climbed trees to help themselves to the fruit of another man’s labour. It was all part of the territory. I told him not to worry. I would accept whatever he was able to supply.

Then it hit me like a thunderbolt! The familiar and the strange. The uncanny. Try to imagine an elderly palm wine tapper atop a palm tree in the village, reaching for his pocket to fish out his blackberry in order to discuss the laws of supply and demand with a customer whose father he had also served decades earlier under a totally different economy of meanings and you will understand why that event, in the summer of 2008, marked a turning point in my attempts to fashion new ways of listening to so many new things Africa seems to be saying about her historical quest for agency – a quest that has lasted the better part of the last five centuries .

I also began to think seriously about how the new economies of agency emanating from Africa pose serious challenges to the work of the imagination in the postmodern age of social media and immediate communication. In thinking along these lines, I haven’t been too far away from the epistemological challenges which confronted another thinker, another place, another time. I am talking of Walter Benjamin’s attempt to grapple with the rise of the image – film and photography – and its impact on the work of art in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

The Age of Mechanical Reproduction? That’s so dinosaur now! Perhaps you will agree with me that until a blackberry joined the arsenal of tools and implements that my palm wine tapper took atop his trees every morning in Isanlu, he belonged in a habitus of tradition governed by those mytho-ritualisms of existence which has led to tensions in the arena of historical discourses and counter-discourses about Africa’s agency. My palm wine tapper sans his blackberry comes from the world we have come to associate with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart  – especially the world as the people of Umuofia knew it before Obierika’s famous metaphor of the rope and the knife – or Birago Diop’s Breath – where we must “listen  to things more often than beings” in order to hear the voice of fire, water, wind, and bush.

This is the world of cosmic equilibrium to which the poet persona in Abioseh Nicol’s poem, “The Meaning of Africa”, returns after ironically escaping the world of the cold northern sun which gave my palm wine tapper his blackberry. You will recall that after loving the sophistication of Dakar, Accra, Cotonou, Lagos, Bathurst, Bissau, Freetown, and Libreville, Abioseh Nicol’s poet persona was advised to:

Go up-country, so they said,

To see the real Africa.

For whomsoever you may be,

That is where you come from,

Go for bush, inside the bush,

You will find your hidden heart,

Your mute ancestral spirit.

The story of agency as it relates historically to Africa is easy to narrate from this point. Europe encountered this Africa of “mute ancestral spirits” and “hidden hearts”, called her horrible Conradianly dark names, and proceeded to deny her agency through a series of historical violations and epistemic violence, which bear no rehashing here. As disparate and contested as they have been, Africa’s and her diaspora’s epistemological responses to these violations have been fundamentally about the recovery of agency.

We named these responses Négritude, pan-Africanism, cultural nationalism, decolonization, just to mention those. In the process of articulating these robust responses, Wole Soyinka and Eskia Mpahlele may have gone after Senghor; Ali Mazrui and the Bolekaja troika may have gone after Wole Soyinka who, in turn, went after some of them as neo-Tarzanists; Mongo Beti may have gone after Camara Laye for publication of work not sufficiently anti-colonialist; and Obi Wali may have gone after English-language dead-enders, opening the door for Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s decades-long crusade against Europhonists, I don’t think that anybody would quarrel with my submission that these tensions and disagreements are more or less what the Yoruba would call the multiple roads leading to the same market. That market is the recovery of the self, recovery of agency.

In the stretch of essays and books from “Dimensions of African Discourse” to The African Imagination and, lately, The Négritude Moment, Abiola Irele has done remarkable work mapping the evolution of and the tensions inherent in Africa’s counterdiscourses of self-recovery. Writing from a different philosophical perspective in the essay, “African Modes of Self Writing”, Achille Mbembe takes a somewhat dismissive tack absent from Irele’s work but nonetheless identifies three historical events – slavery, colonization, apartheid – as fundamental to the two currents of discourses and processes of self-recovery that he identifies as central to the question of agency: Afro-radicalism and nativism.

What is interesting for me – and I believe for numerous readers, critics, and followers of Mbembe – are the weaknesses he ascribes to both traditions of discourse in his attempts to problematize them. To Afro-radicalism, he ascribes a “baggage of instrumentalism and political opportunism” and to nativism he ascribes a “burden of the metaphysics of difference”. I wonder what my brother, Adeleke Adeeko, thinks of that particular critique nativism but I digress.

My reading of Mbembe’s essay has shifted over the years from a fundamental disagreement with his characterization and insufficient contextualization of Afro-radicalism and nativism to what I am beginning to think are gaps and silences in his critique of the African imagination. These gaps and silences pertain to the very nature of Africa’s agency even within the ideological politics and the economies of self-recovery in the African text. For we must ask: what sort of agency does Africa really acquire in Négritude and cultural nationalism? I am talking about the version of Africa which Chinua Achebe, Senghor, Birago Diop, Mongo Beti, Ferdinand Oyono, and Abioseh Nicol rescued from Europe’s post-Enlightenment philosophers and colonialist writers. Which agency does Africa acquire in the texts of these shons of the shoil?

Which agency does my palm wine tapper acquire as he moved from Conrad to Achebe? I think his transition is a move from being silent and unspeaking in one textual world to being rescued but spoken for in another textual world. One world gives him to us in body parts, capable only of dialects or incomprehensive babble, tapping a horrible alcoholic brew consumed by lazy natives in irrational quantities, an activity he gets to perform only if he escapes poisonous snakes, lions, and hyenas. Another textual approach restores the cosmic harmony of his world, the ancestral dignity of his work, and treats his product, palm wine, as worthy of the elevated cultural registers and aesthetic apprehension that Africa’s violators would normally reserve for merlot, cabernet sauvignon, or pinot noir.

The flora, fauna, and seasons of his world, especially the palm tree, also become subjects of elevated aesthetic treatment. If, as Adam Gopnik, the Canadian essayist for The New Yorker, assures us in his Massey lectures, the Romantic imagination elevated winter and ice to art and aesthetics, Achebe and his contemporaries would do much more for the world of the palm wine tapper in their attempt to fully restore his agency. Don’t forget that harmattan and even the white froth and foam of palm wine became worthy elements of metaphorical constructions.

But the tapper is still spoken for in and by these texts. In at least one instance, he is upbraided for killing trees in his youthful exuberance. I am thinking here of a different version of the problematic that Linda Alcoff evinces in her well-known essay, “The Problem of Speaking for Others”. Race and gender are weighty dimensions in Alcoff’s treatise on the pitfalls of speaking for the native, the oppressed, or the gendered subject. What happens if Africa is the subject that is spoken for or represented, albeit in the ideological resistance mode of Afro-radicalism and nativism, by the privileged African intellectual, especially the writer?

African feminism’s critique of Négritude’s treatment of African woman and African womanhood provides part of the answer. We must all remember that Mariama Ba and her contempories, writers and critics alike, got tired of Négritude’s constant conflation of Mother Africa and the mothers of Africa. Yet, in the beautiful and memorable lines such as “Négresse, ma chaude rumeur de l’Afrique” and “Femme noire, femme nue”, the Négritude poet actually believed that he was conferring agency on his subject.

In his earlier cited essay, Mbembe approaches this part of the agency question in a manner which allows me to offer possible windows into the dilemmas of representing Africa’s agency by writers in my generation. “Over the past two centuries,” writes Mbembe, “intellectual currents have emerged whose goal has been to confer authority on certain symbolic elements integrated into the African collective imaginary.”

I think my problem as an intellectual arose that morning in Isanlu when a momentary cognitive scission occurred and denied me the ability to “confer authority” on the intrusion of a symbolic element such as a blackberry into the imaginary of palmwine as I used to know it. It was immediately obvious to me that what was happening was beyond what could be explained by the usual recourse to the tradition-modernity binary, with the attendant intimations of how Africa negotiates modernity by gradually appropriating, domesticating, or integrating it within her own orders of experience.

From the top of his palm tree, my palmwine tapper was articulating his own agency and self-representing in ways that are miles ahead of the imaginaries which underwrite my work as a writer and critic. That, I posit, is the problem of African art in the current age of social media and MAC, my acronym for mutually assured communication. The fact that he phoned me from the top of a tree in the bush rattled and unsettled me. What if, God forbid, my Baba Elemu had also recorded videos of himself at work and posted it on youtube as these new possibilities of agency now afford him? What if he tweets his conversation with me from the top of that tree? What if he makes a photo of himself at work the cover of a Facebook page dedicated to tapping? What if… questions, questions, questions.

In a way, I think the writers of Négritude and cultural nationalism, escaped these dilemmas not because they shared coevality – or restored it where it was denied – with the palm wine tapper but because they operated as artists in the age of mechanical reproduction which, as revolutionary as it was, still allowed the possibility of a certain “inert” version of Africa that could be “rescued”, “re-represented”,  and “spoken for” in their texts.  My second submission is that this inert version of Africa, on behalf of whom Afro-radical and nativist discourses and praxes were articulated, now speaks for itself in ways that perpetually confound art and the imagination. Coping with an Africa which no longer needs your powers of metaphorical mediation to articulate novel forms of agency which have the added power of immediate global circulation is one of the most formidable dilemmas facing the generation of African writers, artists, and intellectuals to which I belong.

Chris Dunton and I have edited some special issues of journals in which we described these new writers, in the case of Nigeria, as the third generation. That description of convenience has been vigorously challenged.  My good friend, Abdourahman Ali Waberi, also a keynote speaker in this conference, has famously described that generation of writers as “les enfants de la postcolonie” in the case of our Francophone counterparts. Jacques Chevrier at some point was moving the idea of “migritude writers” but I haven’t followed the critical fortunes of that concept. Thanks mostly to the Nigerian members of this generation who have been winning bucket loads of international literary prizes – I am almost blushing with nationalistic pride here – the work produced by the children of the postcolony is now globally known and is the subject of numerous panels in conferences such as the ALA.

I am thinking of Helon Habila, EC Osondu, and my maternal cousin, Segun Afolabi, who have all won the Caine Prize. There is Chimamanda Adichie and, also, Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani, who did well in the Commowealth competitions. There is Teju Cole, who recently won the Hemingway Prize here in the US. Oprah made the fame of Uwem Akpan and hefty manuscript cheque confirmed Helen Oyeyemi’s arrival on the global literary scene. To these we must add other bright representations of new African writing, especially the novel, such as Binyavanga Wainaina, Monica Arac de Nyeko, Petina Gappah, Leonora Miano, Alain Mabanckou, Abdourahman Waberi, Dinaw Mengestu, Hisham Matar, and Ellen Banda-Aaku, my co-winner of the Penguin Prize for African Writing.

So, we have a cast of writers and a new writing that now whets critical appetites in international conferences. My concern is whether we are paying sufficient attention to the extraordinary dilemmas that these writers face in their attempts to write a continent which now possesses the ability to self-write, self-inscribe, and self-globalize even before the first sentence of your novel, poem, or short story takes shape in your head. How do you write a continent which no longer lies inert to be rescued from misrepresentation? I saw hundreds of responses and counter-discourses from the African street to the Kony 2012 video before Teju Cole and Mahmoud Mamdani offered their famous responses. In Twitter and Facebook years, the writer and the scholar were light years behind the African street. To bring this dilemma back to my point of departure, how should this generation write my blackberry-wielding, self-inscribing palmwine tapper? Reduce palmwine and blackberries to conflicting metaphors and inscribe that conflict in flowery prose? That would be too simplistic.

Besides, there is a second problem. Those who wrote Africa’s agency in the age of mechanical reproduction never really had to deal with new forms of art that competed with and challenged the ontology of their respective mediums of expression. The novel, the short story, the poem, the play, and the painting didn’t have to worry too much about other forms of generic expression emerging at once as evidence of Africa’s new ability to self-represent and also as contending and competing forms of art. This lack of competition, if you ask me, partly accounts for why the scribal form of the African imagination, enjoyed an imperializing prestige over oral forms much to the consternation of colleagues like Karin Barber and Thomas Hale.

Tricia Nwaubani’s excellent novel, I do not Come to you by Chance, sadly, does not enjoy the luxury of not worrying about competition for its ontology as a form of art which seeks to represent a particular reality of post-SAP Nigeria in terms of its local and international dimensions. What do you do if you are writing a novel about what, for want of a better description, we must call Nigeria’s 419 letters and the imaginaries that have now come to be associated with it, only to discover that those letters themselves are now being discoursed and critiqued as art forms on their own terms? Where the 419 letter now stakes a vigorous claim to an ontological identity as art, does a novel which ventures into its territory even merit the description of simulacrum? Which is the art representing what? It is almost now possible to claim that the 419 letter waiting in your mailbox as you listen to my lecture here is art representing the reality that is Nwaubani’s novel. If your head is not spinning yet, please remember that some actors in Africanist scholarship here in North America have been very active in making a case for 419 emails as an art form worthy of critical reflection. I have received at least one solicitation in the past to help evaluate submissions to a planned special issue of a scholarly journal on 419 letters as a literary genre.

As I speak, the same argument is being made for the literary quality and generic integrity of tweets. In Canada, where I am based, the literary establishment seems to have made up its mind that the tweet is a literary work. Now, that’s tricky because it makes every tweeter a potential writer just as a collection of somebody’s Facebook status updates or 419 letters could give us a Nobel Prize for Literature down the road. If you look at the website of Canada Writes where the CBC organizes the prestigious CBC Literary Prizes, you’ll be able to assess the considerable energy devoted to tweets and tweet challenges. Tweet is literature as far as Canada Writes is concerned.

The Nigerian writer, fiery critic, columnist, and cultural commentator, Ikhide Ikheloa, has been screaming himself hoarse about the need for African writing to face these new realities. Like Obi Wali, decades ago, Mr Ikheloa has been making very weighty pronouncements on the future of African writing. And he is arguing, among many pro-social media arguments, that tweets, Facebook updates, and the associated genres of the social media age, would leave African writers behind if we don’t come up with imaginative ways to engage the forms of continental agency which they throw up. The way he sees it, social media is a significant part of the future of African writing and he has been warning that writers in my generation, especially those who remain social media stone agers, are in danger of extinction.

I take Mr. Ikhide’s work extremely seriously and follow him religiously online. You should google him, follow him on twitter, and add his blog to your daily reading. When he is not upbraiding African writers in the new generation for not taking the full measure of the possibilities of the social media revolution for our work, he is making very valid points in terms of the contributions of social media to even our own agency as writers.

Let me explain my understanding of Ikhide’s position. Errors of interpretation would be mine. I think the debate about which audience the African writer ultimately writes for is further complicated for my generation by the mediators who stand between our work and our audiences. A measure of that is how much of Africa we still literally translate or italicize in the actual process of writing. Go to any Nigerian novel and see what happens with registers and diction depicting the actualities of youth experience, counterculture, and postmodern citiness for instance.

Paraga, mugu, maga, yahoozee, aristo, shepe, etc, all capture experiences which the Nigerian writer in my generation italicizes to mark their strangeness and otherness. Yet, Western writers using other Englishes in Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, don’t always feel compelled to capture local experiences in italics. Just last month, Elizabeth Renzetti, a Canadian columnist writing for the Globe and Mail, had this to say about the extensive registers of drunkenness in England:

“The English have more words for drunk than the Inuit have for snow, perhaps because it is as much part of the landscape. On a given night, you might be bladdered, legless, paralytic or rotten with drink…I thought I’d heard them all until British Home Secretary Theresa May used the phrase “preloaded” on Friday to announce her government’s war on binge drinking. Preloading refers to the act of getting hammered before you go out to get hammered – that is stocking up on cheap booze from the grocery store in order to be good and wobbly by the time you hit the bars.” – Elizabeth Renzetti

“Bladdered, legless, preloaded – all registers of English drunkenness. Would a British writer in my generation Italicize these experiences specific to his own people in a creative work? You guess is as good as mine. “Stop Italicizing Africa!” Ikhide screams at writers in my generation all the time on Facebook. “Stop writing Africa for your literary agents, publishers, editors, marketers, and Western liberals”, Ikhide screams. Perhaps Ikhide already suspects that there is a reason why Salman Rushdie and Paulo Coelho – more international writers are following their example – have quietly migrated a great deal of their art, celebrity, and mystique to Facebook. “If your handlers insist on an Italicized Africa, take your agency to social media and engage the world freely”, Ikhide screams at African writers.

I hope I am not the only one who takes Ikhide extremely seriously.

I thank you for your time.

Good reads…

First published, March 16, 2011. Reproduced for archival purposes only.

I am enjoying several books at once. I just finished reading EC Osondu’s Voice of America. The title story alone is worth the price of the book. Osondu uses crisp language, shorn of gimmicky frills to tell engaging, funny stories. The stories spoke to me personally, and took me to an era I am intimately familiar with. Osondu wrote about the past and it seemed like it was here.

 Uche Nduka has just released a new volume of poetry with the enigmatic title eel on reef. I adore Nduka, I believe he is one of Africa’s most important poets, he writes with care, erudition, vision and affection, every word in place, almost fastidious, but still bold. Find that book and devour every luscious word, this is how to write poetry.

 The journal AGNI (72) has a portfolio of African Fiction edited by EC Osondu and William Pierce. Some of Africa’s best writers are assembled under that canopy, having a good time with their muses and demons. I read The Treasonable Parrot by Ogaga Ifowodo. It is pretty good, with an edgy hilarity.  Victor Ekpuk has some art pieces in there nicely breaking up the monotony of text. There is a harrowing piece in there by Chuma Nwokolo (Sentencing for Six). If you don’t know Nwokolo, please run, don’t walk to http://www.African-writing.com, he is addictive. Victor Ehikhamenor is up there cracking ribs with his patented njakiri. I shall be reading Igoni Barrett’s piece next. Barrett is darkly brilliant, enigmatic and eclectic, one of the younger literary Turks to watch.   Oh, please go to AGNI online and read Akin Adesokan’s affecting short story Knocking Tommy’s Hustle.

I am officially in love. With Abimbola Adunni Adelakun’s book, Under the Brown Rusted Roofs.  They say never judge a book by its cover. When I first got the book I took one look at it, spied some typos in the first few pages and tossed it into a corner of my bedroom where books that I don’t care for go to die.  This is one poorly produced book, the editor and the publisher should not be allowed to touch another manuscript again, ever.  I only went back to the book after reading an interview in which Professor Niyi Osundare  gushed over the book. I see now why Osundare loves this book. Adelakun studied Yoruba customs, folklore and mythology, apparently not in a classroom, but on the tough gritty streets of Yorubaland. There are strong shades of Ola Rotimi’s intimacy and proficiency with Yoruba folklore. And the dialogue is straight from the street’s pots, no pretense.  I am going to start a campaign to find a good editor and a real publisher that will take this book and Adelakun to the heights that they deserve.

Hear Adelakun: “Afusa never went to school, but always taught her children their homework. She taught her first son the alphabet by gazing into his alphabet book for long and mastering the letters… Afusa was worn out with the stress she had gone through in the day but while she waited for the herbs to boil , she made her son, Sikiru, who had just started school, read the alphabet. ‘A for APPLE,’ the boy read. ‘Hen-en. Go to the next one.’ The boy paused and asked  her what an apple was. ‘Why didn’t you ask your teachers?’ The boy shrugged. ‘See. It is the thing they drew on the page. Look at it. It is round like a ball.’” A for Apple! Oh Nigeria, what have you done? This book makes me sad, but I am deeply in love with it.

I am reading Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Potter’s Wheel again. Ike is one of Africa’s most unsung writers. Hear him describing a nine-year old spell a jawbreaker: “Obu spelt his name slowly and correctly. The teacher was satisfied. ‘Now, we shall see.’ He switched over to English. ‘Spell me em – em – tintinnabulation.’ The whole class shouted as the jaw breaker rolled out of the teacher’s mouth like bombs from the hatch of a bomber. No one in the class had heard a word so bombastic before. Obu rolled his big head from one side to the other and accepted the challenge. ‘We shall see’ was at the blackboard with a piece of chalk waiting to write the letters down as Obu spelt them. ‘T…i…n…’ The teacher wrote the letters down. ‘t …i… n … n …’ Obu bit his lips, held his chin with his left hand, looked at the seven letters on the board and saw the rest of the word dearly in his mind’s eye: ‘a…b…u…1…a… t… i…o…n’ The teacher dropped the chalk without writing the last letter on the board, and rushed to shake the small hand of his new-found genius. ‘Wonderful Terrifious! Marvellous! We shall see this year.’ Obu was the kind of boy every teacher wanted in his class – young, full of brain rather than brawn, the type who was destined to enter Government College, Umuahia if it reopened after the war.” Read what you enjoy. Toss the rest. Life is short.

The poet lives in us…

As someone who thoroughly enjoys reading Nigerian poetry, let me just observe that several of our new poets are timid holdovers from the Soyinka-Okigbo era; that era that Chinweizu famously derided as unreadable and obscurantist. Such an uncritical adherence to that era ignores the fact that even as oblique as their works were, Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo were truly relevant to the times in at least one sense. They spoke in decipherable code to their fellow intellectuals (some of them in uniform) and the intended audience listened closely. Soyinka has many seasons of incarceration to show for the effectiveness of his poetic rage. Okigbo died carrying his message.

An uncritical adherence to a Eurocentric approach has the unintended consequence of isolating our best voices, and assigning their songs to a pantheon of obscure mediocrity. On behalf of our long-suffering people, I would like to urge a return of voices to the true songs of our people. Africa cannot afford the consignment of her griots to the barracks of the unreadable. How does the poet become truly relevant to the yearnings and anxieties of our people?

Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, Okigbo, these poets spoke to the oppressors in the language they understood. Our new oppressors do not understand the complex nuance of the type of poetry that many of our poets seem to favor, that pass the smell test in the West. And if therefore they do not read our poetry, when will they hear the clanging of the chains around our people’s necks? Which begs the question again: What are our poets living for today? It is about seizing opportunities. Our lands lie devastated, enduring rape upon rape. Our poets stare stunned, in disbelief and in shame, because, this time, their voices have been drowned in shallow pools of self-absorption. Word to the poet: turn your poems into songs of freedom, and let your songs morph into weapons of war. We are at war, what are you doing stringing together incoherent sentences?

The poet lives, breathes in all of us. And as Soyinka would probably say it, the poet dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. Let us honestly divine the difference between poetry and unadulterated drivel. The consumer is the ultimate arbiter of what good poetry is and what is painful to the eyes. But I miss the haunting lyricism and imagery of poets like Okogbule Wonodi. Hear him sing to me: “But we have poured more wine/than the gods can drink/more than the soil can drink/and have become outcasts/dispersing the fishes/for which the baskets are laid/and the fisherman did not like us.” [Okogbule Wonodi, Icheke: IV]

Is Wonodi a bad poet? I would never know. I hope that there are many more bad poets where he came from. I come from a land of simple people who hide deep meanings inside simple words. One has to listen carefully to my people to get the insult or the accolade. I look for those kinds of poems to enjoy. Freed from the stifling confines of classrooms, I have taught myself to only pay for that which my heart seeks. If a poem turns out to be what the acerbic reviewer Randall Jarrell refers to as giving “the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter,” I will simply move on quietly to a more worthy pursuit. Our poetry is not dead; it just needs packaging.

Thriving societies of thinkers and doers look at their world and they see visions of possibilities and they say, why not? We have inherited a culture that celebrates customs as sacrosanct, and the past poses as the present tense. The great societies take their best thinkers and exhort them to think, no, dream of a better world, and worry about the constraints later. Every day, we lose our tenuous grip on our continent; I think we are going to drown in the syrupy fluid of Western customs and traditions.

In the beginning there were walls. And in the beginning walls defined every being and everything. The Berlin Wall is no more and poets lament the coming of the new dispensation. Except that the new dispensation is not new; it is here. Books are dying, poetry as we know it is limping on life support and prose is hawking her wares in obscure literary journals like a junkie in need of a fix.  But the world lives, life goes on and ideas continue to rock our foundations. In the seeming irrelevance of the written word, the poet lives. Poet, do not cripple your voice with silly little sentences that make sense only to the terminally drunk. I say, speak up, don’t stutter. Straighten up and lift our people’s dreams on the strong backs of your strong voices, and carry them through to the deaf myrmidons of darkness who live beyond the valley of darkness, past the hills of decadence. And sing it; sing it for a people long used to the silence of her priests. The poet lives. The poet lives in all of us.

Not in the Name of their God

The new evangelical Christianity is a pernicious force in the West dumbing down the populace in degrees every Sunday. The lack of spirituality here is heart breaking; it is like watching malnourished people. It is a mystery how people can subject themselves to such psychological abuse. People are addicted to worshiping a narcissist, they will do nothing else. I visit homes and there are absolutely no books in there other than the bible and vacuous tracts and of course the torrents of envelopes that come from thieving pastors exhorting the abused faithful to tithe, tithe, tithe or go to hell.

The real tragedy is that this dysfunction is being imported to Nigeria along with used cars and toothpicks. The West can probably afford this shallowness but we see the effect on a nation like Nigeria. Why are we mimic-people? The new church of dollars and euro has been part and parcel of the rape and plunder of Nigeria. Must we live like this? It comes down again to a rank failure of leadership. Our intellectual and political leaders have failed to manage the change that is necessary to move our nation forward.

The new Christianity has flourished like a plague under “democracy.”  What Christianity has done to black Africa is worse than the combination of AIDS and the worst wars. What kind of God will allow adults to brand children as witches and then maim and murder them? As we speak, there is genocide going on in Akwa Ibom orchestrated by the some adherents of the new Christianity, against children. I say, let’s sweep them off our land. And then maybe our children will smile again.

It breaks my heart to think that Nigerian pastors are doing this to our people. I say, get your heads and hearts out of those temples of doom. Build your own gods in your own likeness. Mimicry is killing our race.

I am deeply wary of organized religion, because, using Christianity as an example, it has been an instrument of subjugation and state-sanctioned terrorism. The so-called holy books are similar in one aspect – they are great works of fiction crafted by insecure men to subjugate and keep under control women, children and those that were born different from them (gays and lesbians). The bible actively endorses slavery and bigotry against homosexuals.

In the name of their God and bible in hand, they bound our ancestors with chains and threw them in the holds of massive ships to be slaves. Whenever I think of what it would have meant to cross the seas under those conditions, I want to find someone and exact my revenge. The expansion of Western civilization and the creation of mimic-fiefdoms (Nigeria, Haiti, Dubai, etc) have been built on the backs of the conquered. Let’s be frank, the yardstick today is the Eurocentric and we are the other. And what is this nonsense parroted by Dinesh D’Souza and others that Christianity brought Africa the great benefits of civilization? At what price? Did our civilization not have poets, musicians, art pieces, etc, etc, before the coming of the white man and his bible? Did they not loot, bible in hand, our people and artifacts? And what has happened to our people who are now told they must know Jesus before they enter a fairy tale? Is my grandfather going to hell because he was unfortunate to die before Jesus pamphlets came to our village? What has been the unintended consequence of this conquest?  We have lost everything and all we do is mimic the conqueror. The loss of a people’s language is the loss of self. Everything gets lost in the translation. They don’t eat fish eggs, they eat caviar, and they say my people eat termites. There is no word for termites in my dying language, and we don’t eat termites, we eat irikhun.

The movement of civilization has been at the expense of people of color. We have been hunted and haunted by the demons that inhabit their narcissistic God.  There is no excuse for what Christianity and other alien religions have done to Black Africa, none. When Dinesh D’Souza says that slavery and colonialism were the transmission belts that brought civilization to Africa and Asia, I shake my head.

In Nigeria, the new Christianity is the new alcoholism ravaging the already dispossessed daily. Watch this video and reflect upon the caricature nation that our people have created. Deeply upsetting. And deep. My initial thought is that thieving pastors have rushed whoosh into a yawning vacuum that was created by generations of failed leaders. These new thieves are now raking in millions from their own self-serving failure to lead. We are muttering to ourselves and our people are chanting themselves to lunacy and irrelevance.  In today’s Nigeria, the Christian God is a loud judgmental drama queen keeping the “unfaithful” up at night with unctuous tuneless songs. The weather is warming up here in America and thieving Nigerian pastors with their jheri curls and fake American accents will soon be jetting down here to buy designer crap with money stolen from the doubly dispossessed. Why anyone would tithe ten percent of money they do not have so that these pastors may live in sinful opulence is beyond me. What manner of God will allow this pillage? They are all thieves and I hope they all end up in heaven praising their drama queen. I wouldn’t want them in hell with me and Fela.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: These things around our necks

First published July 26, 2009 in Next Newspapers. Reproduced here for archival purposes only.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest work, The Thing Around Your Neck is a mostly delectable feast of twelve short stories. This is a good book, I heartily recommend it. Adichie has a great gift: she is the nettlesome sibling from hell, sitting there demurely and ever so sweetly, painstakingly pointing out all the pimples on your beautiful face. Subversion lurks every where in Adichie’s stories. The resentments, the rage, the anger, smooth like refined sugar bleed gleefully out of Adichie’s stories and we are all sweetly diminished. When the stories are good, they are like elegant buses, gently letting you off at the curb of Wonder and easing back into traffic carrying their mysterious burdens to somewhere. The reader is left behind wondering about these things around the neck.

Maybe I am suffering from Adichie overdose, but Adichie is becoming fairly predictable to me. I can now recognize her stories even in the dark. The thing wrapped tightly within Adichie starts slowly at the beginning of each story and rises with quiet, oh so quiet indignation and gently retches all over everyone. What do I think of the stories? The title story The Thing Around Your Neck is formulaic and improbable in parts. But it is okay, it is still a good story. The story The Arrangers of Marriage is about a woman joining the husband (a medical doctor) in America in an arranged marriage. I had previously read it somewhere. I enjoyed it again especially when I came to my favorite lines: “My husband woke me up by settling his heavy body on top of mine. His chest flattened my breasts.” After two readings, it is still a funny story. However, The Arrangers of Marriage risks being stereotypical and improbable. But it is the truth. The Shivering is an intimate dialogue with heartache and suffering in the shape of two gentle souls talking through their losses ease the reader into the mysteries of sexuality and religion. A couple of stories break new ground on gay and lesbian issues in Nigeria. Adichie’s stories remind us that we are still dipping our squeamish toes in the sum-pool of our sexuality.  Some of the stories in this book do come across as dated, especially the ones about immigrant life in America. In America no one gawks at my nappy hair anymore, few people ask me where I learned to speak English, I definitely do not remember anyone asking me lately if I had ever seen a car before I came to America. It is a good thing; America is browning and now we are the ones asking the silly questions.

Adichie is becoming afflicted with a keen sensitivity that she wears loudly on the skin. It is a double edged sword. In the story Jumping Monkey Hill about an encounter with a patronizing and condescending white professor, there is this aching over-awareness of the self and it unnecessarily politicizes Adichie’s stories. There is the over-analysis of people and their motives. Injustice sprays a mist on the writer’s skin, making the writer hyper-sensitive. Sometimes things happen. There are assholes in every culture. Adichie’s stories are populated by mostly male Nigerian jerks. Which begs the question: How much of our intolerance for our own assholes is really self-loathing? Self loathing is fast becoming an African obsession. Our lives are carefully and painstakingly measured against a lily-white otherness. We are always falling short and the neediness fuels our neurosis. The danger of this compilation of stories – is that it comes off as a narrow look at the lives of complex people. It may be the truth; Adichie may have drawn hasty conclusions. How much of this is Adichie’s fault? We will never know; exaggeration is a useful tool in storytelling. And Adichie wields this tool expertly.

 I hate to say this, but when it comes to short stories, Adichie is no Jhumpa Lahiri. Where Lahiri offers crisp freshly minted prose in every piece of her latest short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, Adichie is uneven, delivering stories that range from the stodgy (The American Embassy) to the truly inspiring (The Headstrong Historian). What emphasizes the unevenness of Adichie’s stories is that the book is actually a compilation of several past works, an archival of sorts. All in all, This Thing Around Your Neck is really about our shared injustice colluding to distort our history. This book is a humanized narrative that is deeply affective – for the most part. Enjoy the book; it is life staring at you.

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