Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: Literature

Pius Adesanmi – Guest BlogPost: For Whom is Africa Rising?

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Keynote lecture delivered at the 8th MSU Africanist Graduate Research Conference, Lansing, Michigan, October 17, 2014

(We just lost Professor Ali Mazrui. May we please observe a minute’s silence in his honour?)

The best of times and the worst of times. No, I have not come to Michigan State University to conduct an excursion into quotable quotes from Charles Dickens. I am just taking the liberty – presumptuously, some of you might say – to put into words what it must feel like to wear that enigmatic title, “Africanist scholar”, in these most paradoxical of times for and on the continent. One would ordinarily have assumed that being privileged to be called a producer of knowledge about a part of the world which is said to possess the distinction of being at once the cradle and future of humanity would come with the fringe benefit of permanent elation.

There is one additional reason why permanent elation ought to be the defining essence of my own interpellation as a producer of Africanist knowledge. In the complicated business of nationalism and national identities in Africa, we learnt a few years ago – from one of those studies frequently purporting to have discovered new truths about the African condition – that my own corner of the continent, Nigeria, is home to the happiest people on earth. All one hundred and seventy million of us provide one jolly canvass of carnival, revelry, and jouissance. Now, we are talking about the largest group of Africans in one national place – indeed, the world’s largest assembly of black people in a single nation-space – being uniformly happy in this trickle down neoliberal world of ours. If Nigeria’s happiness trickles down, chances are the remaining 1.1 billion less fortunate Africans will at least get reasonable drops of the happiness tonic.

A little over a billion happy Africans should be good enough reason for the intellectual whose job it is to make disciplinary meaning of their ways and their world to be permanently elated. The way I see it, happy subjects make happy scholarship and happy scholarship makes the world go round! Wishes, sadly, are not horses. So we know that elation of a permanent kind is a risky proposition in the business of engaging Africa, especially in terms of her chequered trajectory in the struggle for agency. Permanent torn-ness between the diametrically opposed sentiments of elation and depression, as evoked in the Dickensian conundrum, is a safer emotional and psychological refuge for the student of Africa.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uOkay, let’s get depressed before we get elated! As you already know, our renowned Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o did not win the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature after yet another nomination round. Beyond the intellectual terrain, indeed, 2014 has been a very bad year for African sports. Virtually all our teams performed woefully in Brazil, producing a cavalcade of images leading dangerously back to the familiar routes of African stereotyping. Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s headbutting of teammate, Benjamin Moukandjo; the emergency plane load of dollars from the troubled economy of Ghana to placate players in full rebellion in Brazil; the repeated hints of threat and rebellion in the Nigerian camp, are all texts underwritten by some unsayable ur-texts, constantly hinted at or whispered on social or traditional media: Africa’s corruption and institutional demission. Note that the misbehaviour of Luis Suarez remained the misbehaviour of bad boy Luiz Suarez and did not have transcendental or generic identity consequences for the American continent.

Let’s have some more depression. As I prepared to board the plane in Ottawa, I received an email from notable African scholar, Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Quinnipiac University. The crossover to Administration was never going to slow down the constant flow of books and essays from Professor Zeleza’s goatskin bag of wisdom. As it happens, some of us in his inner circle of friends do receive personal new essay alerts from him. The essay I received alerted Professor Zeleza’s “Dear Friends” to the publication in Africasacountry.com of his latest essay entitled: “Why I am Afraid of the African Disease of Ebola”.

It is true that the continent moved from the great depression of Brazil in July to the deadly depression of Ebola in August. But I am sure that you can already take a stab at the drift of Zeleza’s essay from the title. It’s a satirical tour de force on the politics of yet another gigantic “single story” (apologies to Adichie) about Africa. Of course I have been preoccupied with the emotional roller coaster that is Ebola. After all, the outbreak in Guinea and Liberia occurred just as I prepared to leave Accra after a one-year stint as a Carnegie-Diaspora Visiting Professor of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon. I’ve been part of a Nigerian social media community of mourning as precious lives were lost to Ebola. Beyond loss and trauma, Ebola is creating new economies of meaning, of contact, of cross-border figurations on the continent and of transnational calibrations of African identities across the Atlantic. I have been part of it all like everybody else.

What caught my attention in Zeleza’s essay, therefore, is that after almost four decades of “writing back” through such milestones as Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa”, Chinweizu’s The West and the Rest of Us, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind, Claude Ake’s Social Science as Imperialism, V.Y. Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa; after Fanon, after Cabral, after Rodney, the usual prosecution witnesses have dragged yet another icon of African Studies to the intellectual court to play the part of a defense lawyer and argue our case: that Africa is not Ebola and Ebola is not Africa. For I must say it unequivocally that Paul Tiyambe Zeleza speaks for me in that essay.

After every routine needless killing of a black male teenager by police in this country, I am sure you are familiar with the spectacle on cable television of black mothers lamenting the ritual of having to have “that talk” all over again with their black teenage sons over dinner: how to appear non-threatening when pulled over by cops. Not again, such mothers gasp in exasperation. And you notice the weariness of the soul seared into those voices. A hint of that sentiment creeps in on me whenever circumstances force any of us to pick up his keyboard and reaffirm what Africa is not. Africa is not Ebola, Zeleza laments. And I experience a weariness of the soul that the ritual of enunciative disavowal of stereotype is once again foisted on us. That talk that we are not Ebola; that talk that we are not HIV/AIDS; that talk that we are not famine, hunger, war, and want. Over and over we must do it again and again. Sisyphus and his boulder have far better luck than Africa and the knowledges we generate to engage her in the theatre of representation.

Still on depression, the 2014 Ibrahim Index of African Governance has been published as you all probably already know. The continent’s performance is assessed under such rubrics as safety and rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity, and human development. Whatever noticeable gains there are in the individual fortunes of particular countries is immediately dampened by the overall average result for the entire continent: 51.5%. That’s a “D-” in the North American grading system, one rung of the ladder above an outright F: how else can one express the uninspiring performance!

I am sure you will all agree with me that no portrait of depressing points about Africa would be valid in which our friends in Bretton Woods didn’t make an appearance. The last newsflash I read before I boarded the plane for the trip here announced that Ghana had started the final round of talks with the IMF on a bailout loan. The news came packaged in registers and diction which evoke the trauma of the 1980s when SAPs, conditionalities, market forces, market-driven shocks, economic downturn, devaluation, inflation, and austerity measures emptied the present of my generation across Africa and mortgaged our future. Three decades after the IMF laid the foundation of the realities which made our bosom friends in The Economist to declare Africa a hopeless continent, Ghana, one of the few countries so often placed in a glass display case as continental success stories, is back at Bretton Woods, beaten, battered, and broke.

My generation came of age in the 1980s, writing tests and exams on foolscap sheets. Jacques de Larosiere and his successor at the IMF, Michel Camdessus, sealed our fate with policies rammed down the throat of one military dictator after another across the continent. Today, the youth who make Africa tick are on Facebook and Twitter grumbling about the size of iPhone 6 even as Christine Lagarde declares enthusiastically that an appropriate “policy mix” will be worked out to ensure a “good bailout” for Ghana. I am of the 70s – 80s. A generation came of age in the 90s. Another came of age in the 2000s. Three generations of Africans, only one uniting factor: Bretton Woods’s policy “mixes”. With Christine Lagarde talking about Ghana in 2014 like Getafix the Druid in the Asterix comic series, a speaker not as optimistic as my humble self would say that we have come full circle in Africa.

Being an optimistic speaker means that I must hasten to conclude this part of our exercise on depression and pretend that the atavism of crisis and conflict is not part of the tableau of depression. I am therefore not going to say that Congo is still as Conradianly dark as ever; I am not going to mention Boko Haram and South Sudan. Throwing crises and conflict into the mix will only delay us from asking the inevitable question: is there anything about the condition of Africa and the disciplines through which we generate modes of hermeneutic inquiry into the said condition that allows us to map anything other than one gory trajectory from colonial trauma to postcolonial abjection – with ten steps backward making nonsense of every step forward in a linear course?

I am assuming we all know what the politically correct answer to this question is: Yes, there is much to celebrate in Africa and about Africa. It is not all doom and gloom. Luckily for us, logic and political correctness are in happy agreement here. It is logically untenable to stabilize doom and gloom as the permanent condition of any human society. Even in the most perilous of times which led to the tragic loss of their two most important dignitaries, one to death by suicide and the other to insanity, Umuofia and Umuaro had moments of triumph not arrested by the circumambient doom and gloom as articulated by the great novelist, Chinua Achebe.

However, beyond this happy marriage of logic and political correctness lies nuance. If we agree that elation and celebration have as much droit de cite in the African story as depression, gloom, and doom, we must ask the question: how exactly did elation come into this picture? What is its trajectory? What are its contents? How do we account for the politics of back and forth between depression and elation and what does it portend for disciplinary engagements of Africa? Consider these scenarios. Jean-Francois Bayart closed the 1980s on a note of gloom by announcing in 1989 that the state in Africa was doomed to a metaphysics of corruption. In Jean-Francois Bayart’s The State in Africa:the Politics of the Belly, the African state and her political practices were effectively placed under the conceptual control of Opapala, the Yoruba deity of hunger and gourmandizing in whose domain lies the stomach.

Ten years later, in 1999, Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz appeared to take a different tack in Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument. On the surface, it looked like we were finally getting a break from the depressing Afro-pessimism of the politics of the belly. We were approaching the uplifting territory of elation. But, wait a minute, Africa Works – differently? Isn’t rationalizing informal networks of human and political agency – with the attendant argument to exclude ethics and value judgements – another way of saying that the usual ways and practices of democracy and the social contract would never work because Africa is somehow not culturally and ontologically attuned to those structures and practices of modernity? Even with Africa Works, have we really moved beyond the paradigm of depression in 1999?

No, you haven’t, replied The Economist one year later, famously ushering the continent into a new millennium with the now famous or infamous caption: “the Hopeless Continent”. Things moved very quickly from here. You will observe that between 1994 and the early years of the 2000s, something was brewing beneath all this veneer of depression and pessimism. Something home-grown. A discourse of vision and hope anchored in cultural, economic, and political renewal, bearing the traceries of Negritude, cultural nationalism, and pan-Africanism. Welcome to the discourse of African Renaissance and its associated agendas. Thabo Mbeki and his associates screamed African Renaissance throughout the 1990s. They convened a conference in 1998, published a book, founded an African Renaissance Institute and went about organizing instead of agonizing. They gained little or no traction outside of South Africa. In the North, everybody was interested in depression and pessimism on account of Africa. Any talk of renaissance referred to that period from the 14th – 17th century in Europe and not whatever some upstarts thought it meant in 21st century Africa.

Then, just as Mbeki and all those on the African Renaissance train finally began to gain a solid hearing in academia and beyond, those who had crowded out their voices with depression and pessimism suddenly announced that they had had a road to Damascus moment. We were advised to move on to the other extreme of celebration and elation. They said that something much bigger than a renaissance was happening in Africa. They had no room for the semantic nuancing through which Chabal and Daloz were able to deodorize disorder and the informal as legitimate praxes of agency in Africa. We were no longer in for any back-door announcements of hope. Go tell it on the mountain that Africa is rising, has risen. The Economist tried to outdo Time Magazine. Africa Rising! Aspiring Africa! The Hopeful Continent! One glossy cover after the other screamed: Africa Rising!

I believe that an audience such as this should be sufficiently familiar with the content and career of this narrative of elation which brushed aside age-long narratives of depression like Achebe’s proverbial wildfire in the harmattan. Everything that was negative and depressing about the continent suddenly became positive and uplifting. Diction and registers changed: hopelessness became hopefulness, despondency became opportunity. Numbers and statistics rained torrentially from every imaginable source, bearing mouth-watering good news of “growth”, “sustainable development”, “governance”, “democracy”, “human rights”, “rural and infrastructural development”, “gender gap”, “poverty”, “education”, etc.

I am sure you can expand this list infinitely. After all, you know by rote what the talking points and the keywords are in those PowerPoint slides whenever men in black suits from the international capital and finance community, the international development community, the global NGO and activist community, world governance bodies and their continental appendages in Africa, as well as the institutional and disciplinary world of the social sciences, descend on any seminar room to talk about Africa Rising. To these keywords and faddish phrases we must add the fact that Africa Rising also comprises an ideological investment in the future. What used to be called a problematic youth bulge when we were in the era of depression and pessimism is now said to represent the continent’s greatest advantage. She has the greatest number of youths on earth and who says youth says innovation. Africa Rising is, therefore, African Innovation on the rise.

What could possibly be wrong with this picture, some of you may wonder. After all, there is enough going on in the continent to bear out the new narratives of elation. There was the Arab Spring; South Africa is in BRICS; Nigeria is MINT, democracy is spreading. This may be true but a lot is wrong with the politics and philosophy of elation. There is the question of the suspicious timing of the rise of the discourse of Africa Rising. One African scholar who has raised this question is the celebrated Nigerian political scientist, Professor Bayo Olukoshi. I was on a panel with him early this year in Pretoria and he wondered aloud why the narrative of Africa Rising emerged only when the narrative of African Renaissance had finally begun to gain global attention. “Why and how did Africa Rising outshine African Renaissance?”, Olukoshi asked the audience and enjoined them to think about it. President Thabo Mbeki was in the room…

It may be true that the suspicious timing of the rise of Africa Rising did have something to do with the growing fortunes of African Renaissance but I have since found other issues to worry about. One of these issues is the provenance of the discourse of Africa Rising. That this narrative appears to have been born here in the West is not a problem for me. After all, Negritude was born in Paris and Black Paris of the interwar years is a legitimate theoretical framework for me. The problem, for me, is precisely where in the West the loudest noise about Africa Rising is always coming from. Google is a good Ifa Oracle to consult in these matters. I am worried that a casual google search of this term almost always brings up the May 2014 Africa Rising conference of the IMF as the first and most important hit. You click on that link and you are welcomed by the inevitable face of Christine Lagarde welcoming you to the conceptual territory of Africa Rising in a podcast and speech. I have stated earlier that we know all the keywords by rote so it must be easy for you to imagine the content of Mrs. Lagarde’s speech without even reading it.

Other google hits will take you inevitably to The Economist and Time Magazine and all kinds of neoliberal Think Tank work on Africa Rising. If you are patient, you will finally encounter some African input midway scrolling down to the bottom of your screen. You’ll encounter the Africa Rising Foundation set up by Ndaba and Kweku Mandela and you’ll encounter, ironically, a podcast by a Deputy Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Kingsley Moghalu, claiming that Africa hasn’t risen yet. Now, I don’t know about you but whenever a new narrative about Africa seems to be domiciled mainly in the market-driven mansion of neoliberalism, I tend to develop severe allergies. My migraines tend to worsen whenever I encounter the IMF, the World Bank, The Economist, and Africa in the same sentence.

I am saying that it is a problem for me that every time I google Africa Rising, Christine Lagarde is always the first to appear on the scene to welcome me and conduct a guided tour of the concept. You google African Renaissance, Cheikh Anta Diop, Thabo Mbeki’s speech, and the African Renaissance monument in Senegal are likely to be your first hits. Then you google Africa Rising and the IMF and The Economist are your first hits. This brings back Bayo Olukoshi’s query and worry: why and how did the narrative of Africa Rising emerge to overshadow and supplant the narrative of African Renaissance?

This question could be framed differently: for whom is the Africa in African Renaissance being reborn? For whom is the Africa in Africa Rising rising? I do not want to address the first question here. At any rate, you probably can guess how I would answer the African Renaissance part of the question. My answer to the second part of this question may also seem obvious. You’d be right to conclude that I believe that Africa is not really rising for the African – at least not yet. You’d be right to conclude that I believe that Africa is rising mainly and predominantly for those screaming Africa Rising in Bretton Woods and their accomplices in the commanding heights of the continent’s politics and economics. This explains why the narrative of Africa Rising is always powered by an insidious thematic of rich pickings. Africa Rising would have no meaning beyond market orthodoxy and investment friendliness. Africa is rich pickings! Go ye hither and exploit all the opportunities before wily China laps up everything!

These obvious answers mask a deeper concern. Africa Rising invites us to take a closer look at the question of African agency. As one looks at the glass display cases of triumphalist and exultant neoliberalism, many African countries are on display: Ghana, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, etc. After every election meeting the minimal requirements of democracy, new countries are installed in new glass display cases and brandished to the world as the latest success stories from Africa. Yet, as you window-shop and look at these African countries glistening in display cases, your mind returns again and again to the question of agency. What was the African’s role in the construction of these glass show cases and what say did he have in the politics of inhabiting that glass display case?

Let me illustrate this point with an anecdote. I was discussing Ghana at the beginning of this talk. I was lamenting the fact that the country is now in the final phase of negotiations with the IMF for a bailout loan because of “market-driven” shocks. I was lamenting the fact that Madame Christine Lagarde was talking enthusiastically about a new “policy mix” for Ghana by the IMF. We all know that this is all a honey-coated way of saying that Ghana has failed and is now back in Washington, cap in hand, begging for the loans that will predictably ruin the future of the next three generations of Ghanaians. The African Union has been talking about the Africa 2063 Agenda. I was involved with the Diaspora Consultations on this agenda in New York last year. It seems to me that the question of what Africa ought to look like in 2063 is already being settled in the case of Ghana. The year 2063 will meet Ghana repaying loans and renegotiating the terms and conditionalities of the policy mix being conjured today by Getafix Lagarde.

Yet, this is the only country in West Africa that was placed in a glass display case by Africa Rising for more than a decade. Much to the envy and annoyance of Ghana’s eternal rival, Nigeria, the usual suspects in the choir of Africa Rising screamed from the rooftops that Ghana was the beacon of hope for the continent. All the usual ingredients of discourse flooded the global public sphere in relation to Ghana: political stability, growth, democracy, jobs, infrastructural expansion, etc. So, how did we get to being unable to pay salaries after ferrying three million dollars cash to football players in Brazil? How did we get to the perdition that are IMF loans and bailouts?

I spent a year in Ghana. I only just returned in the summer. On arrival in Ghana, I couldn’t believe the level of development that I saw. Stable electricity and stable water from the taps: these two alone are enough to make a Nigerian award the Nobel Prize in Infrastructure to any country because they have not been part of our national experience since the early 1980s. Add to that the gleaming and glistening infrastructure that I saw all over the place and you would forgive me for taking enthusiastically to social media to declare that it was criminally unfair to place Ghana in the same third world bracket as Nigeria and other less fortunate African countries where electricity and tap water are never regular. Yet, Ghana was not yet at the second world level of South Africa. I decided to hang her in a no man’s land between the second and third worlds.

However, something made me perpetually uneasy about the infrastructure and modernity that I saw all around me in Ghana. I was only able to identify the source of my unease five months into my stay. It was the jeeps! There were way too many jeeps on the roads of Accra for my liking. No, I am not talking about private jeeps belonging to individuals. I am talking about what I call postcolonial jeepology, a phenomenon in which jeeps bring the symbolism of foreign aid and dependency to the doorsteps of the postcolony. You should be able to visualize those UN Jeeps by now. I mean those white Toyota Prado jeeps that are so ubiquitous in Africa. They bear the insignia of every imaginable specialized agency of the United Nations: FAO, UNICEF, UNCHS, WHO, etc. The glut of white jeeps is not the singular making of the UN. The European Union, International Development Agencies, International Development Partners, all kinds of Foundations from Bill and Melinda Gates to Clinton, Christian missions and charity organizations – everybody is pumping jeeps and experts into Africa.

I was at the University of Ghana. The campus is crawling with the jeeps of postcolonial aid dependency. I visited ministries in town and other institutions of state – jeeps and jeeps everywhere. WHO-assisted this, IDRC-assisted that; European Union-assisted this; DANIDA-assisted that; German Government-assisted this; French Government-assisted that. Now, my own rule of thumb is that any African country crawling under the weight of the white jeeps of postcolonial dependency is in trouble. It means that the modernity you see all around you is contrived, fragile, and artificially propped by ways and means that do not belong to you. It means that somebody somewhere is desperate for a narrative, for a showpiece, and is pouring resources and symbols into a particular space to prop it up as that showpiece and produce a desired narrative.

These postcolonial white jeeps of dependency power a narrative of representation hoisted for the visual satisfaction of the giver. This is why President Obama went to Ghana and the mirror beamed an African success story at him and he sermonized to Africa from that location. This is Africa Rising, president Obama screamed. This is Ghana in which Washington is well pleased. We want y’all in the rest of the continent to be like her. Today, Obama’s showpiece is at the IMF begging for loans. The IMF spent the 80s and the 90s producing those children with countable ribs and mucus-drenched nostrils with policies designed to guarantee starvation across the continent so long as the market was growing. Evidence of failure only yielded more prescriptions of the same policies and lectures that Africa was not applying them properly. Things got so bad that Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz had to draw the line for the West. Somebody somewhere desperately needed a narrative of success. Ghana was just the sort of candidate needed and ready for the assignment.

What this means is that there is little or no African agency in the modernity of the white Toyota Prado jeeps of postcolonial aid dependency. What would happen if these jeeps were suddenly withdrawn, I kept wondering in Accra. I got a taste of what could potentially happen in my last two months in the country. Power cuts made a rude intrusion into my life; water supply followed suit and became erratic; salaries started to be delayed; everybody groaned on campus and in town; the Cedi plunged into a free fall. By the time I was leaving Accra in August, echoes of Ebola were rumbling in Guinea and Liberia and we prayed for that cup to pass over Ghana. When your Africa Rising narrative is unravelling, when you are only just discovering for whom your Africa was really rising all this time you thought she was rising for you, you do not want Ebola to be the coup de grace. Thankfully, Ebola spared Ghana.

What do these scenarios portend for you as graduate students and scholars of Africa? For starters, it means that the disciplinary space between elation and depression has not been fully probed in terms of our efforts to understand the dynamics of that continent. It means that we are yet to account for the elusiveness of agency and we do not even fully understand why it remains elusive and perpetually beyond grasp in Africa. If we do not understand why we lack agency, we will never find our way to it.

For instance, you’d think that almost four decades of writing back in and through the disciplines of the Social Sciences and Humanities; of telling and retelling our story as Africans and Africanists as we see in Paul Zeleza’s remarkable book, Manufacturing African Studies and Crises; of detailing and accounting for the significance of Africa to the disciplines as was done in the book, Africa and the Disciplines; you’d think that all these disciplinary gains and insights would have rendered us masters of our destiny in the field of representation. You’d think that we would have become more secure and stable owners of Africa’s story by now, owning your story and the means of its narrativization being a precondition for agency. Yet, somehow, we never owned the Joseph Kony story, never owned #BringBackOurGirls, and do presently not own the framing of the narrative of Ebola. If a continent cannot even own the means to perspectivize her failures and her tragedies, how can she possibly own the path to her successes and triumphs?

My own field, African literature, falls prey to this play of agency in interesting ways. Where is agency located and enabled in terms of literature as a canonized institution? The recent social media spat between my friends, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina and Nigerian thinker and literary ‘papa terrible’, Ikhide Ikheloa (he is too old to be called an enfant terrible), is a good case in point. Binyavanga has been a relentless critic of the Caine Prize in recent times. If you want to be unkind, you’ll say that our man Binya is kicking at the ladder he rode to literary stardom. He believes it is overrated and has acquired too much power in the canonization and validation of African literatures. He whines and whines and whines. It gets on Ikhide’s nerves. Ikhide is angry that the Nigeria Prize for Literature, a USD 100,000-Prize awarded annually is an annual ritual of literary powerlessness and oblivion.

A prize worth ₤15,000 pounds is awarded to an African short story and it comes with an international media buzz announcing instant canonization. One hundred thousand dollars is awarded to a writer in Nigeria and he’d be lucky to be interviewed grudgingly by two or three local newspapers. Ikhide is mad as hell about this development. So he dismisses Binyavanga’s endless whining about the Caine Prize. Stop complaining about the white man, he screams, go and develop and empower your own prizes and narratives in Africa! If you have no clue how to empower your own cultural and institutional modes of literary valuation in Africa, stop whining about the white man, Ikhide screams.

It should be obvious to those of you in literature that the interface between the Caine Prize and the Nigerian Prize for Literature offers grounds for interrogating agency, power, and modes of privileging in your field. If Africa is rising for the African, how does one account for the fact a literary Prize worth a hundred thousand dollars in Africa guarantees oblivion for an African writer and another prize worth less than half of that amount awarded in Europe guarantees instant superstardom, including paradoxically in Africa? How does one engage the seeming unwillingness to apply ourselves in Nigeria and in Africa to the task of empowering the Nigerian Prize for Literature?

One last area of disciplinary consequence I want to mention is the question of finding appropriate idioms for the persisting disjuncture and disconnect between reality and the etiquette of disciplinary narrativizing in the age of political correctness and anti-essentialism. This past year that I spent in Ghana came with the added advantage of extensive travels in the continent. Those who were loath to paying my way for lectures such as this because of the cost of flying me from Ottawa could suddenly afford to fly me from Accra. I crisscrossed the continent for lectures but I was also a keen observer of the life and pulse of Africa. I saw gains. I saw pains. I saw evidence of Africa Rising but not with or for the African. About the only thing I saw rising is the hard-earned income of the poverty-stricken African rising into the pocket of his pastor as prosperity Pentecostalism rages across the continent to fill the vacuum abandoned by the state and her institutions.

In too many cases, Africa is simply rising without or beyond the African. Africa cannot really be said to be rising if the state still mainly demissions from the social contract and her gleaming institutions rise to satisfy the empirical and statistical parametres of outsiders at the expense of the peoples of Africa. Do the disciplines have a language for these confounding dynamics beyond the patronizing depression of Afro-pessimism? Where the idiom is lacking, do we focus on the evidence of progress which abounds and veer into un-nuanced Afro-optimism?

Yesterday, Kofi Annan grumbled about the response of the international community to Ebola. Says Annan on BBC:

“If the crisis had hit some other region it probably would have been handled very differently. In fact when you look at the evolution of the crisis, the international community really woke up when the disease got to America and Europe.”

This is one of Africa’s most famous and illustrious sons telling us that Africa has not risen. Europe and America ought to have moved in faster with white Toyota Prado jeeps to tackle Ebola. The day that Africa would be able to take care of business such as this without waiting to condemn Euro-America for not playing the traditional role of the saviour quickly enough, Africa would truly have risen for the African.

I wish you successful deliberations in this conference.

The 2014 Caine Prize: Stories in the age of social media

As the world knows, the 2014 Caine Prize shortlist is out. The shortlisted stories are: Phosphorescence by Diane Awerbuck of South Africa; Chicken by Efemia Chela of Ghana/Zambia; The Intervention by Tendai Huchu of Zimbabwe; The Gorilla’s Apprentice by Billy Kahora of Kenya; and My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor of Kenya. No Nigerian made the shortlist. Which begs the question, is it an authentic Caine Prize if no Nigerian is on the shortlist? The answer is, YES. Nigerians, get over yourselves, abeg. There is a short biography of each of the five writers here. Reading the stories wasn’t a waste of my time, but compared to the fun I am having on social media, it was a collective near-yawn. I was not overly impressed by any of the stories, well that is not entirely correct, a couple of the stories held my interest quite a bit.

What are the stories about? The theme of this year’s shortlisted stories seems to be relationships. Even as the writers explore old and familiar themes, they still manage to experiment with the exploration of all sorts of relationships, sometimes inanimate objects and animals form bonds with human beings and I must say that in each instance, the relationships are convincing and even poignant. 2014_awerbuckThese new African writers are moving away in glacial installments from the single-story pejorative that has defined and limited the works of those before them. There are some admittedly timid experiments away from traditional notions of African literature. It is not enough to stem the allure of social media but we are making progress.

So what do I think of the stories? Diane Awerbuck’s Phosphorescence  explores a relationship between a woman and her troubled granddaughter. It is an intimate love story, well done, too well done, one that features a pool, an inanimate object as a living breathing major character. A girl takes a respite from her abusive demons to go visit her grandmother. Well written. Too well written. Reading it is like driving on a too-smooth road, the eyes glaze over; you fight deep sleep all the way. It reads like a piece written by an expert in the technical arcana of fiction writing. Everything is in its place, no sloppiness here. That is its major weakness. It is clinical, edited almost to a sterile standstill. It does not excite, it assures you only that the person who wrote it went to serious fiction school where they teach these things.

I would be pleasantly surprised if Awerbuck wins the Caine Prize. She should. There is a sense actually in which Awerbuck is over-qualified for the Caine Prize, her writing towers above the others in a way that makes her an outlier. Despite itself, Phosphorescence is perhaps the only one of the five that can lay claim to being serious literature. In design and substance, it is head and shoulders above every story on the shortlist. The story is not your typical image of Africa. If you are expecting “African literature” here, you will be disappointed. You will roll your eyes at the expressions of self-absorption by the (white) wealthy. Who would relate to the anxieties of a white African teenager born of privilege? Only a black African teenager born of privilege. We don’t write about those. There are wars, rapes, filth and distended stomachs to obsess about. SMH. Phosphorescence is also different from the other stories in one important aspect: Its characters are not wretched caricatures, somehow through the banality of their lives, they retain their dignity and humanity. Also, it is not mere social commentary pimping as fiction. This writer dares to write about the banal, about life. That is writing.

By the way, Phosphorescence is not all agnostic clinical aridity. There is good prose; sometimes it is exciting, like this:

Under Brittany’s dumb gaze Alice straightened her back in her black costume as much as she could, grateful for the coming dark. Still, her bones curved like forceps and there was only so much good posture could do. Her son Sidney, the plastic surgeon, always said that it was the skeleton you couldn’t change. Boob jobs, tummy tucks, facelifts were easy to execute, but when your patients hauled themselves up from their towels on the sand to hobble to the water, they hunched over like the old ladies they were. Plastic surgery was as much a mystery to Alice as the idea that in another century Sidney himself had emerged, smeared and screaming, from her body. She couldn’t imagine wilfully visiting radical change upon herself.

And this is really beautiful:

The two of them fell quiet. Above them the moon was swollen orange and fully risen, the rabbit scrabbling his paws to prevent his fall into mortality as the earth and sun lined up.

Efemia Chela’s Chicken starts out with the best opening lines I have read in a long time:

It was a departure of sorts, last time I saw them. Or maybe not at all. I had left sigh by sigh, breath by breath over the years. By the time my leaving party came, I was somewhere else entirely. From this place, I watched fairy lights being looped low over long tables and rose bushes being pruned. The matching china came out with the crystal glasses. The guards in our gated community were paid off to pre-empt noise complaints, as were the local police. Our racist neighbours were invited in time for them to book a night away. A credit card and a note on the fridge told me to go and buy a new dress (“At least knee-length, Kaba!!”).

But then Chicken is a story in three incoherent parts; the first part features nice disciplined sentences daring you to look away. You can’t. The other two parts are divorced from the first part. Weird. Chela should have ended the short story at Part I. She did not. Sadly. Part I is dark and beautiful. Hear Chela:

Uncle Samu, my mother’s brother had driven away his third wife with a steady rain of vomit and beatings. As the family’s best drunk he could play palm-wine sommelier. His bathtub brew was mockingly clear. Getting drunk on it felt like being mugged. And by midnight he and Mma Virginia, who according to family legend were kissing cousins in the literal and sordid sense, could always be counted on to break out ‘The Electric Slide’ to the entertainment of everyone watching.

2014_ChelaChela can sure put together sensuous pretty prose. Part I is a culinary experience, a food festival that reminds the alert reader of a certain passage in Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn. One learns quite a lot; Parson’s nose is chicken butt, a delicacy of my childhood. By the way, I absolutely love that these writers no longer italicize or go into apologetic explanations of “ethnic” words. Let the reader do the research; that is what Google is for, yes. Confidence has returned to our storytellers. When Chela described grasscutter meat, “slightly hairy with a bit of gristle dangling from it,” it was exactly as my exiled taste buds remembered them and they wept. Chela sure can write, you can imagine the scenery, touch the ambience even and almost eat the bushmeat:

A chitenge-covered desk beside the second buffet table was for the DJ. There was a stack of records and the glow of a MacBook illuminated my older brother’s face. He played eclectically, switched from computer to record player. Computer to Supermalt. Supermalt to record player. Mostly high life, with Earth, Wind and Fire, Glen Miller and Elton John. The musical liturgy of the family. Everything he knew would please. Near the bottom of the pile of records I saw a tiny snail that had escaped being stewed, creeping slowly upside down on the underside of a WITCH LP.

Chela’s story explores the familiar and the new – sexuality, alcoholism, relationships, boundaries, etc. It is the best use of prose by any of the shortlisted writers. By far. It reminded me of the joy of reading Petina Gappah’s delightful collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly. But then, it bears repeating; Parts II and III were unnecessary, a narcissistic appendage tacked on from the drawers of forgotten forgettable manuscripts, the writer obediently complying with a request for filler material to stretch a beautiful story into a vacuous stretch limo. They featured the usual sin of your stereotypical African writer, supercilious, needy, self-absorbed and obnoxious, cringe-worthy self-absorption glorifying clinical depression in lovely prose. Let’s just call it creative nonfiction. In sum Chela celebrates life joyfully in Part I and loses herself in a pity party in Part II and III. Even so, there are delicious pickings of tart, juicy prose to be plucked off from under Chela’s pity party canopy. Chela is a writer to watch. I can even see her winning the Caine Prize.

2014_huchuTendai Huchu’s The Intervention may be summed up in one word: Forgettable. It features the worst opening lines of all of the stories, actually of all the stories I have read in a long time. The first sentence begins with a grammatical misunderstanding: The first thing I did when we got to Leicester was ask Precious to use the bathroom. It was not Precious that used the bathroom. It is a silly tale that goes nowhere and in a bad way. It ignores all the rules of storytelling and writing and in a bad way. Huchu’s attempt to use humor as a vehicle ensures a fiery crash landing; his jokes fall flat – each time. The Intervention is a needy story too eager to please, dropping lame jokes off-key, like a bumbling drunk. Huchu does have the potential and skills of a good writer. If you are patient enough, you will find good prose sticking out of the weeds of cheesy impossible dialogue. But then one sneezes uncontrollably from the prose pollen. Huchu would be very good at creative nonfiction. Maybe the problem is we see African writing only through the lens of fiction. Do Africans write fiction poorly? Let’s examine their essays. Huchu is an unwitting visionary though. Hear him:

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Z apologised, “Simba is a poet.”

“A poet?” someone said.

“I’m a member of the Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights,” I said.

“What does that mean?” Precious asked. “Like, forgive my ignorance, but how can one be a poet for Human Rights. Does this mean that as a poet for Human Rights you’re not interested in love, landscapes, the stars, ordinary life?”

#GBAM

2014_kahoraBilly Kahora’s The Gorilla’s Apprentice was a nice surprise. I am not sure why it is fiction; it reads more like creative nonfiction. But I did enjoy reading it. It is about a relationship between man and ape with a lot of social issues thrown in to complete the script. I like how the gorilla is one of the main protagonists, pretty clever. Kahora employs good imagery to keep the reader connected to the story. It works:

Week after week, year after year, he listened to the screeching conversations of vervets devouring tangerines, peel and all; the responding calls of parrot, ibis, egret: the magenta, indigo and turquoise noises fluttering in their throats like angry telephones going off at the same time.

It took him away from real life. Real life was Evelyn’s College for Air Stewards and Stewardesses which he had attended for a year. Real life was the thin couch he slept on at home. Real life was his mother screaming that he needed to face Real Life. Waking up on Sunday morning and staring at the thin torn curtains of the sitting room, the stained ceiling that sagged and fell a few inches every week and smelt of rat urine, Jimmy often felt he needed to leave the house before his mother asked him to join her and her latest boyfriend for breakfast. Real life was the honey in her voice, the gospel singing in the kitchen as she played Happy Family for her new man.

It goes on and on and on like this, prose that is enthusiastic but does not overwhelm the senses. It is a dark story wrapped around an alcoholic mother, a gorilla and a man:

Jimmy had been born not far from State House where the President lived. The house he remembered smelled like the Animal Orphanage. It smelled of the giant pet tortoise that had disappeared when he was eight. After he had cried for a week his mother brought him Coxy, and the house came to smell of rotting cabbage and rabbit urine. Later, when he was older, Mum allowed him to keep pigeons, and they added to the damp animal smell of the house. It smelled of the bottom of the garden where he eventually strangled Coxy and the second rabbit, Baby, and drowned their children, overwhelmed by three squirming litters of rabbits; the piles of shit to clear. His mother found him crying at the foot of the garden and said in consolation, ‘What are rabbits anyway? Your father is a rabbit. Always up in some hole.’

 It is not exactly serious literature, but it is a nice piece, that effectively describes urban decay and squalor and kitsch. There is a certain confidence in Kahora’s language, an earned swagger.

 2014_oduorOkwiri Oduor’s My Father’s Head is a sleepy puzzling story about a father’s ghost or memory, an oedipal longing for an absent rejecting father, dark but not quite dark enough, a story that went on too long, no energy in the story, no zing. It is an experiment that fails ultimately because it is timid. Again, I do like how these writers now own their own words – with pride. New words are created everywhere every day, the English language is ours now, screw the dictionary, Google does not discriminate. Bodaboda na okada. Try it.

 Oduor speaks of dusty desolate places, of nameless faceless people who mostly lead lives puzzling only in their meaninglessness, pregnant only with the drudgery of subservience to man and his narcissistic God:

Let me tell you: one day you will renounce your exile, and you will go back home, and your mother will take out the finest china, and your father will slaughter a sprightly cockerel for you, and the neighbours will bring some potluck, and your sister will wear her navy blue PE wrapper, and your brother will eat with a spoon instead of squelching rice and soup through the spaces between his fingers.

There is prose poetry but it has little or nothing to do with the piece. It makes the piece even more incoherent and puzzling. The parts do not gel, all the ingredients revolt against the clay pot.  It does show that Oduor can write though.

Whatever the failings of these writers, the Caine Prize has little or nothing to do with it. Writers have to accept responsibility. A prize can only do so much. Ultimately, writers have to step up their game and take advantage of the incredible opportunities that these prizes offer. I have had my issues with the Caine Prize (here and here) but I have grown to really like and appreciate it. The Caine Prize is organic – it taps into the vast sea of stories online written by an army of young African writers. It is the only credible avenue I know that gives aspiring writers an opportunity at stature. And there is a long history of African writers of stature stepping out of the shadows thanks to the hard work of the organizers of the Caine Prize. I do not know of any other prize targeted at African writers that does it so effectively. And for that I salute the Caine Prize.

It bears repeating: African writers need to up their game significantly; their products are completing poorly with Twitter and Facebook. The world of traditional writers is still very 20th century. Most of them cannot fathom the world they live and breathe in; no wonder they are totally disconnected from the 21st century reader. How many young people under 30 would relate to these shortlisted stories? For them it would be a collective yawn that would send them sleepy into the arms of social media. Our writers can do better than this. Be bold. Create new frontiers. Wean yourselves off of orthodoxy and the stifling confines of the classroom. Contemporary African literature as is taught in classrooms is pathetically 20th century. The keepers of those gates tend to think of contemporary African literature in terms of the three As: Achebe, Adichie, and Abani. When pressed, they add Habila. It is pathetic, really. The bulk of our literature is on the Internet and ancient professors are still photocopying what Achebe wrote in 1958. This must stop.

Writers, I beg you, write, just write. Do not write to the test of any prize, write, just write. And experiment for heavens’ sake! These stories are neat paragraphs adorned by lame titles, same old model designed eons ago before the advent of contemporary tools. One reason these stories hardly engage is that they are too one-dimensional for the new world and the new generation. Dare to place hot links in your stories and listen to the laughter of readers as they click and travel the world through your stories. Hot links are the pictures of my childhood that took me to Hyde Park and to the bazaars of India, that connected me with the world out there. Many stories today that keep readers chuckling do not use paragraphs and stuff, they are called apps. Use today’s tools to tell today’s stories.

 And oh, I move that we simply call this prize the Caine Prize, NOT the Caine Prize for African writing. What is that? In the 21st century, it seems faintly offensive. What is “African Writing”? Please let’s call it the Caine Prize. Yes. I love the Caine Prize.

Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc.: Of moral absolutism and fallen gods

foreign godsIf I had words, I would tell you stories that would make the wind weep.

         – Foreign Gods, Inc. Okey Ndibe

There is a particularly farcical, definitely quixotic misadventure that Professor Wole Soyinka narrates in his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. In  the late seventies, convinced that the Ori Olokun, a bronze artifact needed to be rescued from Brazil and returned home to Nigeria, Soyinka set about the “rescue” with hilarious results. He goes to Brazil and manages to bring home what turns out to be a fake, clay replica of the real deal. The real Ori Olokun was cooling its heels, under lock and key, in an air-conditioned museum in London. The farce is entertainingly re-narrated by Matt Steinglass in this brutal but entertaining review of Soyinka’s memoir.

Foreign Gods, Inc., Okey Ndibe’s new thriller of a fiction relives the farce in reverse. This time, Ike Uzondu, the protagonist, a highly educated Nigerian immigrant living a life he detests as a near-bankrupt, somewhat alcoholic cab driver in New York decides to go to his ancestral home in Nigeria, steal the totem of the god Ngene, “that ancient god of war named after a moody mud-colored river” and return to America in triumph where presumably Mark Gruels an art dealer would willingly pay a huge sum of money for it.  Things do not end well, but you will have to read the book, you will enjoy this well-paced thriller. It is good writing and anyone that has followed Ndibe will not be disappointed. In Foreign Gods, Inc. Ndibe proves to be a master story-teller. Good for him. On the Internet, and everywhere the written word resides, Ndibe rules the waves of Nigerian social commentary. A superb writer with a keen social conscience, his scathing essays drive Nigeria’s thieving ruling class up the walls of their stolen mansions. Whenever he visits Nigeria, it is unusual that he is not accosted by the goons of  the ruling class du jour. Few know however that Ndibe is also a fiction writer who has one novel, Arrows of Rain under his belt. You should read Foreign Gods, Inc.; it is an important, engaging, and fun addition to literature.

There are many reasons to like Foreign Gods, Inc. From the first page, Ndibe employs many literary tricks to hold the reader’s fickle attention to the end. A great first chapter sprints confidently into the second and so on to create a well-paced book that managed to keep my attention away from the neediness of social media. Ndibe has a fine mind, and a social conscience; from Babylon to Africa, Ndibe’s voice rises to a roar of rage at his ancestors’ condition. Ndibe is Achebe’s Obierika, endlessly thinking about these things, he interrogates both the material and the spiritual, what some might call superstition. And he does it with the grace of someone imbued with enough self-confidence to defend his ancestors’ dignity and eroding way of life. Foreign Gods, Inc. functions as social commentary, and examines, in a counter-intuitive way, the role of the African intellectual in the mess that is today’s Africa. Think about it, Soyinka wanted to return the Ori Olokun from its air-conditioned vault to a life of certain destitution where museums can be filthy, empty rooms attended to by termites; Ike wanted to return home to steal an artifact and sell to the white man. To hell with moral absolutism. Man must wack. The farce lives.

For Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc., the subtext is greed, we are selling our gods, no, we have sold our gods. His rage is coolly turned on Nigeria. We see a Nigeria ravaged by rank consumerism and organized religion, especially the new Christianity of “prosperity” churches. Her people, poor and rich, are thus united by a crushing poverty – of spirit and ideas (see “healing mystery lake video”). Ndibe weeps over a dying world and seems helpless as alien gods and thieving pastors rifle through the remains of a yard sale from hell. The new religion teaches us to think only in black and white, light and darkness. Ndibe chronicles the devastation. The pastor is not a man of God but a man of fraud. 419 pastors have infected Nigeria. His analysis of the devastation wreaked on Nigeria by the new Christianity is worth the price of the book. He also riffs on the Babylon that is the protagonist’s America. Culture shocks peek out of the civil, unctuous airs of Manhattan. The high rises bow to greed. This is also a story about identity and belonging, a novel about our America, their America. “And then there was Derek Jeter pitching some credit card. Ike had dozed off. He startled awake as a sports reporter screeched about the Yankees’ tie-breaking home run in the second game of a split doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.” (Kindle Locations 263-264). Ndibe knows his America.

Foreign Gods, Inc. is about a duel between Africa (Ike Uzondu) and the West (Mark Gruels). The Vampire strike the Empire. Or not. Numerous confrontations in the book heightened a luscious, ever present tension. All through the myriad drama, the book manages not to be drowned by the prattle of too many characters. Also, Ndibe captures, perhaps unwittingly the trademark superciliousness of the self-absorbed African writer bereft of a moral filter. He addresses many conventional issues that preoccupy African writers; the indignity of destitution, corruption, misogyny, women and children as chattel, the ravages of drug trafficking, patriarchy, capitalism, consumerism, the banality of our dreams, etc. Still, for the most part, funny, well-crafted lines jostle with important history. He chronicles with a war-weary eye the corruption in the land. My favorite lines advertise the gentrification going on in Nigeria’s rural areas: “The house behind seemed to stand on heels and peer into his mother’s backyard. Zinc-roofed concrete houses stood where mud houses used to be. Several buildings sported satellite dishes or television antennas.” (Kindle Locations 1238-1239). Nice.

Yes, Ndibe pens beautiful prose; he writes memorable lines like this: “The last scene he remembered was the clarity of the dawn sky in Amsterdam, a wide blue dome with no cloud puffs in sight. As the plane ascended, he looked out the window at the immensity of the sky. Then, casting his eyes down, he saw the vast mat of the landscape, the streets of Amsterdam marked off by geometric patterns amid marshes and expanses of green. Seen from the heights, the rugged beauty of the unfurled scene seemed unbearable, and he shut his eyes.” (Kindle Locations 1005-1008) Nice.

The book is a touching tale told with uncommon dignity, coolly narrated with a matter-of-fact but engaging cadence. Ndibe writes about an era in America when folks still walked into a travel agency and bought an air ticket, a time of emails and whatnot. Ndibe knows America with all its grittiness. The dialogue is great, you want to eavesdrop on a deadly serious account of a journey that is gripping in parts. Even though, the trademark superciliousness of the African writer towards West colors the book, however this time it is turned inwards also. We are making progress.

okeygoodIt would be interesting to study Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc. side by side with Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah and reconcile their perspectives on race, America and relationships. The books do complement each other in the interesting conversations on African-American and African relationships. The marriage of convenience (for the coveted green card) between Ike and Bernita, the African American was the War of the Roses with lots of sex and drinking in the numerous intermissions. Like Americanah, Foreign Gods, Inc. is about class; touching is the class difference between Ike and Bernita, the marriage a perverse symbiotic relationship, each in the marriage for different reasons. Like Americanah, Foreign Gods, Inc. also examines the tensions between Nigerians in the Diaspora and Nigerians at home. To Ndibe’s credit, he does spare the reader another conversation on the politics of hair.

Ike’s world is grim and filled with the grit of despair, of “creditors… disconcerting mail: late-payment reminders, disconnection warnings, cancellation threats, repossession notices, eviction slips… an ever-present frowsy smell… a commingling of spilled liquor, urine, cigarette smoke, perfumes, and the rich, leafy scent of marijuana.” (Kindle Locations 577-585).  You can smell America.  You can also smell the eaves of Ndibe’s earth, “…memories of the nights during childhood when he could not sleep unless cuddled up against her body, which reeked of smoky wood, warm like sun-baked clay.” (Kindle Locations 662-663). Anxieties, identities, issues clashing in powerful paragraphs. Ike is living a life of seedy desperation, on the edge of a capitalist nightmare, sourcing for funds as hustlers would say in Nigeria, feeding twin monsters, American style capitalism, and that Nigerian scourge called the extended family system. Like Obi in No Longer at Ease, the end will be inglorious.

adichieAmericanah

Foreign Gods, Inc. is not a perfect book, of course, says the cliché. The editing is not the best. Ndibe is a master of words, however, in a few places, the editing clamps restraints on him, it is as if he is communicating in a different voice, you can barely recognize him. Thanks to the editing, with Nigerian words much is lost in translation. We need indigenous Nigerian editors in these Western publishing houses, they don’t quite get us. It can be irritating; Nigerian terms are italicized and eroticized, it is a wonder there is no glossary explaining Kalu Mazi.

Foreign Gods Inc. is burdened by a structural flaw; there is a confused timeline of events. In one instance, in Ike’s village, a group is watching a 1991 game NBA championship game between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. It seems unlikely that even in the remotest of Nigerian villages, this would be happening in 2006. One can only surmise that the manuscript was first conceived in the nineties, with the plots and characters and ambience evolving to meet a fast changing world (emails, cell phones etc.).  In another example, the pastor rides around in a Peugeot 504. In the late 2000’s it seems unlikely for a prosperity pastor to own that model, he would have had to search far and wide to locate one. Attempts to make the story more contemporary are thus subverted and ambushed by traces of (ancient) history. The world is moving too fast for our writers, it is not their fault. Books are struggling with the interactive and addictive nature of social media. And losing. A book is so 20th century: You cannot swipe, LOL, LIKE, CLICK, talk to a book. A book knows it all. A book lectures. Like a 20th century headmaster. In the 21st century, the book is a dying sage on the stage. Long live the Internet.

Finally, Ndibe will have to contend with many readers who will undoubtedly ask legitimate questions about the heavy presence of Chinua Achebe’s ghost between the sheets of Foreign Gods, Inc. Ndibe’s unpretentious prose highlights effectively, in my view, the utter banality of life for many immigrants in the West. But then there are transitions in the prose that offer strong whiffs of Achebe’s many works of fiction:

“Look at this,” his uncle had said, pulling up his undershirt to expose a gash in his belly. Osuakwu paused, running his fingers along the singed, darkened scar. “First, the white man forced me to go to Burma to fight in a war that had nothing to do with me. It was a quarrel between different white brothers. And then the white man gave me this as payment.” (Kindle Locations 1000-1003)

achebeChapter 10 has strong echoes of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Scholars may have a field day interpreting this. Again, the language reminds one eerily of Achebe. Characters like Unoka, Uchendu, Okonkwo, Obierika, etc. seem to make loud cameo appearances in the book’s characters. There is even an interpreter that is ridiculed by “a proud loquacious oaf.” Chapter 14 suffers immensely from Achebe’s spirit, it is as if one is reading passages knighted by a composite influence of Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, and A Man of the People;  here, Ndibe is Achebe with a cell phone. Like Achebe’s books, here, there is a surplus of parables and tales. It is as if you are reading Achebe, so many parallels. Osuakwu is Ike’s uncle. Uchendu was Okonkwo’s uncle. The beauty of spirituality of the Igbo is captured, but one hears Arrow of God. In the conversation between Ike and Big Ed, the Jamaican immigrant, one is reminded of Uchendu’s admonition of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart

What do I think? Foreign Gods, Inc. is a great outing that will be remembered and defined by its relationship with virtually all of Chinua Achebe’s works of fiction, and not always in a good way. Devotees of Achebe will see his spirit everywhere. Ndibe made a strategic decision, it seems, some would say, a strategic mistake to be heavily influenced by Achebe’s works. Achebe is everywhere, delete the cellphones and the emails and you almost find yourself chanting, “Kotma of the ashy buttocks.” And so, Foreign Gods, Inc. will be important for at least one reason that Ndibe probably never envisioned, its relationship with Achebe’s works. Scholars will spend countless hours debating at what point an influence gets acknowledged. There is no science to this; it is a matter of personal judgment. It should have been a simple fix, Ndibe should have openly acknowledged Achebe’s influence in the book and given him some credit – upfront. Achebe does get a nod in the “acknowledgments” section but only in a vague, “he was my mentor, and I love him so, sense.” An upfront acknowledgment would have been sufficient for me. Still it did not rob me of the fun of reading about “buttocks” in Foreign Gods Inc. and chuckling about the court messengers in Things Fall Apart being ridiculed by the prisoners:

 “Kotma of the ash buttocks,

He is fit to be a slave.

The white man has no sense,

He is fit to be a slave.”

Achebe, Chinua (2010-10-06). Things Fall Apart: (Kindle Locations 1903-1904).

I have said my own.

Molara Wood’s Indigo: Enchanting Seasons

He wore one of his special embroidered dashiki tops that must have been high fashion when I was a girl. Now it spoke only of longevity.

                                  – Wood, Molara (2013-07-11). Indigo (Kindle Locations 374-375).

There are many reasons why you should read Indigo, Molara Wood’s delightful and enchanting debut collection of short stories. First, Wood is a great story teller with a distinctly inimitable voice and it shows in this book. Second, Indigo is quite simply good writing, one that should be required reading in creative writing classes. As a writer, for Wood, the gift of beautiful writing is not enough, she models hard work. Wood is uncompromising when it comes to the written word; everything must be in place or the sentence won’t see the light of day.  Third, Wood ensures that in her stories, you will be entertained in the grand tradition of the oral storytellers of Africa, Wood proves masterfully that the short story lives and lives well. Nigeria is a land of storytellers; judging from this collection, Wood is a worthy ambassador of Nigeria. It helps that virtually all the stories in Indigo have been vetted externally and subjected to rigorous editorial reviews. Several are award-winning and previously published in reputable journals and books.

Seventeen stories make up Indigo. Using these engaging stories as robust, throaty vehicles of entertainment and enlightenment, Wood addresses a legion of topics expertly and in an orderly manner. The reader is not overwhelmed. These are not unctuous social commentaries pretending to be short stories. The stories are mostly narratives of triumph over adversity in the face of unconventional wars. Wood deftly avoids poverty porn and frees the reader to reflect, unsolicited, on the issues of contemporary Africa. What I really love about Indigo is this: Several stories are simply stories, like comfort food, you sit at Wood’s feet and just listen to a good story. This Wood does with her brainy, wry wit and signature tart prose; sentences are little daggers she throws at pressure points to get the desired reaction. The missiles, tightly wound, with Molara-esque attitude, fly off the pages and assault the senses in a gently seething riot of colors. As a luscious side benefit, I swooned over the stunning cover art, ‘Pensiveness by the legendary Muraina Oyelami embedded in Eazy Gbodiyan’s and Victor Ehikhamenor’s brilliant Indigo cloth themed cover designs.

Indigo CoverThe book takes off, guns blazing, starting with Indigo, the title story, a touching tale about childlessness, societal expectations and culture clashes. And so the feast of words, carefully spun together begins. There is an abundance of impish lines to keep the reader engaged in this feisty book:

‘Shhh!’ Bola’s aunt, in whose arms the baby nestled, placed a finger to lips that seemed to occupy half her face. Her baggy boubou attire did nothing to hide the tyre-like circumference of her midriff. A mole perched on top of her left earlobe like an audacious fly. (Kindle Locations 56-59).

Throughout the book, Wood mostly appropriates the English language as her own. There are so many stories to fall in love with here. Read Gani’s Fall, a sly conversation about patriarchy and polygamy – and a delightful fable about an impish alliance among wives in a polygamous home, and laugh your ribs out. The language soars on the wings of a vivid imagination; a lovelorn woman complains of longing for the husband and you sigh as she moans about his absence from her bed, “he hardly ever darkened my doorway.”

Here are my favorite lines:

The widow next door to him in the village does his laundry for him. Some whisper that she does more. (Kindle Locations 375-376).

And:

The family cat, ever sluggish, rediscovered speed and tore away. (Kindle Locations 320-321).

You must read Night Market. In this gorgeous story, all of Nigeria’s dysfunctions spill out into the streets with an African American spouse as a deeply disturbed witness to the mayhem – and, oh yes, there’s a little bit of magic realism thrown in:

‘Ah,’ piped up Chinyere, ‘people go to di night market to buy and sell. The road shrink, true. But the road between heaven and earth open wide at the night market . Animals turn into human beings to buy and sell, ghosts come to buy and sell. Dead children sef, even come to buy…’ (Kindle Locations 733-735)

Kelemo’s Woman reminds the reader of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. It is a play on gender relations slyly presented as a short story around a military coup. Some of the dialogue seem eerily prophetic given Nigeria’s current challenges:

This country is being run to the ground, and soldiers will only speed up the burial. You, me, and others like us, are going to have to fight – and sacrifice – to turn around the course of this nation! (Kindle Locations 992-993).

Night market

In A Small Miracle, Wood displays her gift for good dialogue and for arranging words on the palette like the diviner’s cowries. Beautiful Game is quite simply a beautiful story. England and soccer come alive in the hands of immigrants. In In Name Only, a story about a sham marriage to legalize residency in England is expertly used to showcase life as an immigrant in moody Babylon. In Leaving Oxford Street and The Last Bus Stop, the Nouveaux rich, social climbers and dreamers wallow in fashion statements, dreams of wealth, and the forced mediocrity of relocation. I was moved by In the Time of Job, a pretty story about immigration and an unlikely friendship among two people from opposite sides of the ocean.

The Scarcity of Common Goods is probably my most favorite story. I love how Wood weaves class issues, infidelity and societal expectations into a most unusual tale. But then Smoking Bamboo has to be the best love story I have read in a long time. Here, Wood’s imagination soars gently and rests firmly on the reader’s own imagination. It is a truly authentic and wondrous story swimming mostly in awesome prose-poetry. Still Wood manages to talk to us about the ravages of war and drug and alcohol addiction on communities.  It is also about migration – the endless restless quest for peace, prosperity and happiness. The character Amugbo reminds the reader of Unoka in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. You don’t want this story to end, this pretty but sad tale of a wind-swept, war-ravaged land filled with women and children only. And one drugged man. Smoking Bamboo alone is worth the price of the book. Hear Wood:

When Angelina stepped in her delicate manner on the moist earth her toenails crimson, I thought babies would fall from the sky. And I saw the fierceness with which Amugbo’s bloodshot eyes lit upon her. I had seen it coming days before when in my mind’s eye I saw a great bird whose wings swept the air up and down, beating sprays out of clouds that hung heavy in the late morning sky. The wings went still over our ravine , cosseted by an endless canopy of trees. Avian eyes observed water vapours rising in airy steams from the gorge to be sucked into ravenous clouds. (Kindle Locations 2127-2131).

And the song “Angelina, Angelina, o ti lọọ wa ju!” took me back many decades when High life music ruled Nigeria’s dance floors. Oh Nigeria!

There is one sense in which Indigo is an important book; Its treatment of gender relations, patriarchy, and polygamy.  I found myself thinking of similar themes in the books and essays of writers like Lola Shoneyin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Taiye Selasie, NoViolet Bulawayo, etc. It would make for an interesting and valuable scholarship to study the works of all these thinkers in in relation to patriarchy, gender tensions and related anxieties. I previously shared my views on Adichie’s approach (here). I would say, compared to Adichie, Wood’s approach is more subtle, more sophisticated and definitely more respectful. Unlike Adichie’s Americanah, Indigo deploys less of caricatures to describe patriarchy and make her points about gender issues.

The book is not without its flaws (yes, I know, no book is perfect): Sometimes the purpose of the English language is to remind us of how much we have lost in the translation of our lives into that of the other. Wood is mostly successful in appropriating the English language as if it is Nigerian but some translations of indigenous proverbs are awkwardly done, like: “The child does not recognise the enchanted herb; and so calls it a vegetable.” The reader yearns for a crisper version. Or blessed silence. Stories like Fear Hill and Trial by Water read like promising works in progress. Written in Stone is perhaps, the most ambitious – and the most flawed.  It is a bold attempt at historical fiction that is compromised by a certain looseness with historical facts and a disconnectedness that makes it read like two halves of two unrelated stories. It has the protagonist coming upon written communication in the caves of walls in 1879. In English. Historians would no doubt find that improbable in Nigeria, if not inaccurate. I would have loved a collaboration between Wood and a gifted illustrator like Victor Ehikhamenor to make the stories more alive and give them an additional dimension, it is just as well, the stories engaged me nonetheless.

The 21st century is reshaping the role of the book with spectacular muscle. Devotees of Wood will instantly recognize most of these stories; over the years she has been prolific on the Internet and social media, giving of her gifts pretty much freely. I easily found half of the stories on the Internet. I see profound opportunities on the Internet for thinkers like Wood whose gifts are hobbled by the lack of a robust publishing industry in Black Africa. However, worldwide, relying solely on the book to access the reading audience is becoming a problem. The book is fast becoming primarily an archive of sorts.

Molara Wood PHOTO by TY Bello (2)As a near-aside, Wood has a legion of followers in the literary world but many readers will not recognize her.  Well, she is arguably one of the most influential of what would probably be referred to as the fourth generation of writers – an enigmatic and elusive group of writers in their late thirties to early fifties range who have quietly redefined contemporary African literature as we know it today by moving it with brawn and brain into the digital world. Much is known about the older generation and the very young generation, but very little is known of this quiet but powerful group, on whose laps it fell to, in effect, digitize African literature. There are too many names to mention, but they are finally stepping out of the shadows and writing books. It’s a good thing.

Wood’s passion for African literature is legendary; courageous and visionary, in the early 2000s, she dropped everything in London and moved back to Nigeria to help found NEXT newspapers, one of the most exciting acts of journalism to ever come out of Africa. At NEXT, she nurtured many of us as our editor and kept us in line with her keen eye, passion for the word, and a punishing work ethic. When the NEXT experiment folded, she remained in Nigeria where she continues to be a mover and a shaker in literary circles.  For thinkers like Wood and her generation of writers, the book as a medium of communication is a wretched vehicle for their gifts, the Internet is their book, literally. You would have to go to the Internet to get a sense of Wood’s contribution to the literary arts. There, she and many literary leaders daily supervise the new literary genre that features the real-time collision and collusion of reader and writer. One day, it will be possible to make money of this emerging genre. And it would be because of the visionary work of Wood’s generation. Google her. But first you must read Indigo. Oh, and I learnt a new word. Rill. Google it. After you are through googling Molara Wood.

African Roar 2013: The hunt for the elusive African story

African Roar 2013, the fourth anthology of short stories by Africans, this time, edited by Emmanuel Sigauke, is out. Well, I would say, buy it and read it. It is on Amazon. This challenging and african roar2013ultimately frustrating collection is instructive in many ways, as in the previous editions, it asks more questions about literature and “African” stories than it seems equipped to answer. Sadly, it struggles with an identity crisis from the very first page, beginning with Sigauke’s “Introduction.” The decision to standardize the English of the stories, for instance, using the Queen’s English, is in my view, unfortunate, because it attempts to sanitize a key story of the journey of the story. American English is different from the Queen’s English in more substantive ways than the spelling of “color.”

Reading African Roar 2013 was a chore, for many reasons. These days, the book as a medium for telling the story struggles gamely against the Internet for the attention of the reader. Many readers are finding that the book is a mere distraction, folks want to bury their faces in the best book out there aka the Internet. It doesn’t help that many of the stories in this collection are just plain awful, and give the moniker, “short story” a bad name. There is no reason why they are even stories, they read like carefully typed dry memos issued by humorless civil servants. With a few exceptions, they were patterned along the true, tried and tired formula that has made the term “African writer” a near-pejorative. In these (non)tales there is a morbid fascination, an obsession with the seamy side. The alleged aridity of Africa is on full display here and this reader wonders, what is new? Not much. Many of the stories present like dirty chores, miserable dishes encrusted with stale food. African writers are an unhappy miserable lot, this collection simpers and whines ceaselessly about a wide range of tired issues. Sigauke says it best in his introduction,

Here we have stories dealing with a wide range of issues: street life in South Africa (Bauling), intercultural dating and the problems of exile (Erlwenger ), the past’s grip on family life and legacy (Muqutu), relationship and marital problems in contemporary urban Kenya (Matata), the works of a mysterious puppeteer whose powers bring both excitement and death to a community (Dila), a father’s moving account of how he met his daughter’s mother in the England of the 60s (Nubi), the joys and challenges of post-independent life in Zimbabwe (Mhangami)… African Roar 2013 (Kindle Locations 60-67). StoryTime. Kindle Edition.

In the 21st century, there is something about hard copy print that mummifies the creativity of the writer. It is all so frustrating really,because the writers showcased in this edition are all good writers. Many of them (Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, bwa Bwesigye, Mike Ekunno, Ola Nubi, etc.) are higly respected digital story tellers who make social media (Facebook and Twitter) rock and hum all day, with raw unfiltered luscious stories. I make bold to say that the best book of African literature today is the Internet, with Facebook and Twitter as star chapters. In this digital space, the writers and their stories are unfiltered and unhinged, and they tell the world about the sum total of the experience of the human being who happens to be an African. It is not always about certain social issues, sometimes, we get laid also. And enjoy the experience. Go to Twitter, it is all there, we love to share. Thank God. In the 21st century, the book is a chore, an annoying distraction. You just want to read something else. Thank heavens for the Internet.

So, what are these stories all about? Home by Alison S. Erlwanger seems to be a conversation about identity, a reminder that many who treat Africa as one monolithic country are themselves Africans. For Home, Africa is an ideology. Why are we drawn to see only a monolithic Africa? Is this our concept of unity or do we yearn for unity and as a result diminish the complexity that is Africa? Home features superfluous unnatural dialogue, a piece suffering from an acute identity crisis – one minute it is a cheesy romance story, the next, it is a shallow discourse wrapped around an unctuous morality tale. Good writing though.

Business as usual by Jayne Bauling is probably the most visionary short story I have read in a long time, using the anxieties and promise of the digital age to explore change and class. The laconic lazy pace of the story is endearing, I love that the writer does not italicize African words. Yup, google it, I like that. The story is a sumptuous feast of pretty writing:

You know these are difficult days because the timber trains have stopped coming along the railway through the old part of town. Grass and weeds cover the tracks. Before, you would hear the blare of a train, sometimes two, most weekdays. The traffic police still trap drivers for not stopping at the crossing. Fana was laid off from one of the sawmills. (Kindle Locations 414-417)

And:

The water in the pothole has dried up, but the bulbuls haven’t forgotten and keep coming back to see. Maybe they itch under their feathers the way my skin is itching in the winter dry. For us it’s cold, and Boo-man is full of snot, but the winter people say this place doesn’t bite your bones the way Jozi does. (Kindle Locations 467-469).

And this:

There’s nearly always someone ready to buy him something. He never asks. I think it’s because he has an interesting look, like a tree that has seen a lot of life, tall and thin and ancient. People talk to him, and he’ll tell his story different ways, with twists and turns to make it longer. I think he makes up some bits. (Kindle Locations 480-483).

Salvation in Odd Places by Aba Amissah Asibon unfortunately defines the stereotype of the African story. It is a dark story, full of promise, but one that lacks suspense. It drifts all over the place like the drifters in the story. But mostly not in a good way. You read pitiful whiny lines like, “He often dreams about his homecoming to a whole guinea fowl…” desolation and despair recorded in various stages of expertise, lice-ridden, dust-covered men and women of Africa carrying sacks of poverty all over the land, afflicted with the curse of aimlessness and a meaningful life. Where is the spirituality? Haven’t our writers said enough? What are we doing about these things other than hoping to be published in reputable/prestigious journals and spaces? What did this story tell me? Well, I know now that “Aba Amissah Asibon is a Ghanaian writer who has had fiction and poetry published in Guernica, The University of Chester’s Flash Magazine, The Sentinel Literary Quarterly and The Kalahari Review. She lives in New York, and is currently working on her debut novel.” It is pretty bad when the blurb about the writer is more interesting than the short story.

The Faces of Fate by Abdulghani Sheikh Hassan drones on and on until blessed sleep saves you from the prattle. This reader honestly has no idea what this story is all about. There is a lot of squalor in it. Makes sense. Hassan “is a humanitarian Aid worker in the biggest refugee camp in the world -Dadaab. Some of his poems are published online by The Kenyan Poets Lounge. He also runs a personal blog: My Voice, My Freedom where he posts poems on Contemporary political, socio-cultural and economic events…” An NGO monarch writes a manifesto on African poverty. The only interesting part of the stories is at the end – where the blurbs about the writers show that they mostly live interesting lives – overseas. These are interesting people who have very little to write about that is interesting.

In Bramble Bushes by Dipita Kwa continues the tales of woe. Inarticulately. Hear Kwa:

For the last one month, one of life’s well-hidden secrets that filled Yandes with anger every morning when he woke up from sleep, was the reminder that nobody knew how it felt like to be dead. How the afterlife felt or looked like, nobody could tell. He once heard that souls of dead men who had made several enemies in this life were chained by their dead enemies and dragged along streets covered with sharp, hot gravel. If that was true then he didn’t have to worry. His greatest enemy was himself. He had been an enemy to his own body and life had failed to restrain him from ruining himself. That was why he had made up his mind to spit on the very face of life. He wanted nothing more to do with living. He wanted to die. (Kindle Locations 987-992).

There is a God. This pity party, this macabre festival of gloom and doom is broken in the middle by an aptly named short story, Transitions, by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende. It is an affecting story about interracial friendship in the dying days of Rhodesia. You start reading and want to weep with joy, Finally! There is atmosphere; you can finally smell aromas and odors that do not belong to Mrs. Poverty. Roasted maize, goat meat, and green vegetables. Green vegetables! In Africa! What a concept. In this story, we learn how integration or assimilation into a white neighborhood heightens alienation, self-doubt and self-loathing. Mhangami can write. Still, this is writing as protest, a preachy editorial, not a short story. Eventually it ends in predictable despair; it is not so much a story, but an essay. If our writers continue like this, readers will never wean themselves of social media. I know I won’t.

A Yoke for Companionship by Andiswa Maqutu made me understand why my son hates reading books, many of them are awful, I would rebel too. Memo to African writers: God loves Africans too. And no, Africa is not a country. SMH.

The Puppets of Maramudhu an attempt at a detective thriller by Dilman Dila shows promise in attempting to showcase the coming of the digital age but it soon fizzles into nothingness. This story is a mess; every conceivable anxiety is thrown in, no suspense, just murder, blood and gore and witchcraft. It is dark and disturbing only because it is inarticulate.

Through the Same Gate by Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire is a faux quirky experiment gone awry; faux in the sense that is about the usual, if you like social commentary that prattles on about a child born out of wedlock and the ensuing marital tensions, AIDS, spouse abuse and whatnot. I am not sure why this piece made it into the collection. And I read it twice. This is a shame because on the Internet, Bwesigwe is one of the finest and most exciting writers I have never met. Evidently something happens to his creative muse when he needs to put his thoughts in a book.

A.B. Doh’s The Spaces In-between starts with a tantalizing promise – that this won’t be all about the usual. Nah. It is. The perils of arranged marriages. Childbirth, stillbirth, blah, blah, blah.  Here it is mildly comical how feminism links Buchi Emecheta and Nurudeen Farah and Ousmane Sembene – in the 21st century. Doh needs to read more contemporary writers. In this blighted story, the Elnathan effect (named after Elnathan John’s much copied literary style) lives. Hear Doh:

You inhale the medicinal smell that permeates the room. Sweat droplets glide down your nose, settling stubbornly in the crevice of the ‘M’ that defines your upper lip. Eyes flutter— unsure whether to hide in the darkness behind the lids or courageously face the altered world before them. Thin arms lie unmoving at each side . Heavy legs are splayed, reaching towards the metal ridge at the foot of the bed. It’s the way they’ve been the last four hours; the way they’ve been since you gave birth to breathless life. (Kindle Locations 2022-2025).

The pickings are slim but read Anti Natal by Mike Ekunno. It will still your ADHD. Finally, there is suspense, you can almost feel and taste the streets. This piece alone is worth the price of the collection. It demonstrates good writing techniques; Ekunno’s ability to get into the character of the female protagonist makes this reader jealous. Anti Natal is probably the most contemporary of the stories. And funny too.

I loved Green Eyes and an Old Photo by Ola Nubi, a mercifully short but nice tale about living in England in the sixties. There is racism and interracial marriage but then it goes nowhere like a promising work in progress.

Cut it off by Lydia Matata is mere reportage, with an advocate’s passion – and biases. There is the usual – marital rape, cheating, with a “Kill the bastards! Cut off their penises!” chant. End of Story.

The stories run into each other and you can hardly tell one story from the other. There is precious little attempt at experimentation, the writers seem genuinely allergic to taking risks with their work. All we are left with are carefully edited memos, making you cross-eyed like a jogger racing past miles of manicured lawns, boring yard after boring yard.  These writers would have been better off writing essays. I am being generous here, African Roar 2013 is a collection of writing by writers who happen to be African. The editors should perhaps stop calling the series African Roar. It is deceptive and presumptuous. These writers certainly do not speak for Africa.

So what do I really think of this book? Well, I must thank Ivor Hartmann and Emmanuel Sigauke for their work in relentlessly and proudly pushing the envelope in terms of African writing. When the history of this phase of our struggle is written, their names will be up there in blazing letters. They are visionaries especially in the digital medium, who are struggling to live with a legacy system – the book. I think the book as a medium of expression robustly sabotages the considerable talents of these writers. Our writers no longer know how to write for hard print. A writer friend of mine did not include an online poem of his in his forthcoming anthology – because it contains hot links and it would not make sense without the links. THAT is the problem with books. The book is dying a long slow death and we are in denial. Well, I liked the cover design by Ivor Hartman, using Charles Nkomo’s painting, Memories.”  Read AfroSF Science Fiction by African Writers edited by Ivor Hartmann. It is on Amazon.com Now, THAT is good writing, period.

science fiction

Afam Akeh: Letter Home & Biafran Nights – The poet as priest

For Ingrid, whoever you are…

London. April 2013. The days are wondrous and enchanting even under England’s moody skies, communing in a lazy haze, days with a friend, hands in my khaki pants, wondering the wondering. London was wonderful and words fail me each time I remember. I would like to write something – of days spent in the company of kindred souls, relishing the warm comfort of similarly vulnerable members of my writer-tribe. And I met the poet Afam Akeh. Akeh came from somewhere in England, Oxford I think it was, to grace the panel of writers honoring the works of our friends. He came, spoke, hung out with us for a little while, and disappeared into the gloomy English night. Just like that. I have pictures.

Afam Akeh? Who is Akeh? How do I explain Akeh? Well, Akeh is in my view, one of the finest writers, definitely one of the most important poets to come out of Africa in contemporary times. If he is relatively unknown, it is because he and many in that army of writers coming after Professor Niyi Osundare’s generation are notoriously reticent about the limelight. Akeh is elusive, perhaps reclusive, definitely enigmatic. I think of him and strangely each time, Christopher Okigbo comes to mind. Which is interesting, because as poets, they are very different – in attitude, temperament and perhaps vision. Where Okigbo’s verse is opaque and beautiful, Akeh’s is transparent and beautiful, heir verses united primarily by degrees of obliqueness.

Akeh is different from Okigbo in one important sense; his verses allow you to own them personally, and he is generous enough to e-smile indulgently when you claim them as your own. But I think of both Okigbo and Akeh as master wordsmiths, fastidious almost to a fault. I think of them as master gardeners, tending a postcard-perfect garden, each flower in its right place, a snip here, a touch there, nothing goes to the market until it is perfect. And because the master gardener is rarely satisfied, the market is starved of the genius of prodigy.

afam-akeh1959

One can never get enough of Akeh’s verse and his latest volume of poetry, Letter Home & Biafran Nights proves that beautifully. Letter Home & Biafran Nights was longlisted for the 2013 NLNG Prize in literature (poetry) First things first though: This reader must stop to congratulate the NLNG Prize folks for compiling a most thoughtful 2013 longlist: Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, G’ebinyo Egbewo, Iquo Eke, Obari Gamba, Tade Ipadeola, Okinba Launko (Femi Osofisan), Amu Nnadi, Obi Nwakanma, Promise Ogochukwu and Remi Raji.  It was a great list with pretty much everyone a strong contender. Although, Tade Ipadeola, Amu Nnadi and Promise Ogochukwu ended up on the shortlist, it is actually the case that many on the list deserve the prize and our eternal gratitude for a lifetime of meritorious work in the service of literature. Outside of the legendary Femi Osofisan, I am thinking of Afam Akeh, Remi Raji, Amatoritsero Ede, Tade Ipadeola, Obi Nwakanma, virtually all of them in the 35 to 50s age range who have distinguished themselves through consistent output and outstanding leadership in the digital age, an era when the book has come under fierce competition thanks to new and muscular digital tools that have democratized the reading and writing culture.

The 2013 NLNG longlist was an unintended gentle nod to that quiet group of folks, most of whom started out in the Krazitivity listserv in the early 2000s, and set out to fashion a way of telling our stories in the new dispensation. There are too many names to mention, but I am thinking of passionate digital literary warriors like Molara Wood, Olu Oguibe, Obiwu Iwuanyanwu, Lola Shoneyin, Toni Kan, Victor Ekpuk, Chika Unigwe, Victor Ehikhamenor, Obododimma Oha, Chuma Nwokolo, Sola Osofisan, Abdul Mahmud (Obemat), Nnorom Azuonye, Chuma Nwokolo, etc. In those days they hosted and participates in online poetry workshops and many listservs were fierce places to be in as a writer. If I had the money, I would give each one of them a $100,000 for their service, they are still here, quietly influential in the background, and still devoting hours daily to the written word and the visual arts. I don’t often agree with many of them, but they have all earned my respect. I salute every one of them.

So, yes, this group of writers came right after Niyi Osundare’s generation. They had to deal with the new dispensation called the Internet. They had to bring Nigerian literature into the new medium. Quietly, they fought (many times each other) brainstormed, dreamed, and built new houses for our stories. They labored quietly in the shadows, they did not have time to worry about writing books. Occasionally they would write their own, and it would be published in some obscure and often presitgious journal. But they were the new priests, working to give others succor and to build up the work of others. Many of them are aging now, and the world is just now coming around to give them their dues. It is awesome that this year, Nigeria’s increasingly prestigious NLNG Prize for literature unwittingly acknowledged their influence and industry by including several of them in the NLNG long-list. It bears repeating: Each of these writers and many more of their generation deserves the prize and more – not just for their books, but for a lifetime of selfless dedication to the cause of world literature. These are unsung giants toiling quietly and with great determination in the shadows of lesser – and noisier mortals. I salute them all.

So, Akeh was longlisted for his new work, Letter Home & Biafran Nights. I will say it again: Akeh’s generation will not be judged by their books, they will be judged by their immense contribution in harnessing the digital world and bringing the African writer to the reader, managing the morphing and blurring of roles between reader and writer and creating a new genre of literature in the call-and-response mode of our ancestors, bringing the reader to the writer, and the writer to the reader. Under their fearless leadership, the writer is gradually metamorphosing from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side of the reader. It is a beautiful new world, thanks to these visionaries.

afamka2Now, dear reader, you must read Letter Home & Biafran Nights. This is not your mother’s poetry; this is not postcolonial poetry as we remember it. Here is a journey – of man and movement, a restlessness even when one is still. The pages hum with energy, longing, alienation, and a certain triumph of spirit. There are warriors everywhere, not victims. All through one’s tribulations, even in the throes of the Sokugo’s suffocating grip, thoughts of home are never too far away.

Akeh walks around, as if in a trance, reminding us of the miracle, the pain, the wonder that is Babylon. But then is this not home also? Hear Akeh in the long poem, Letter Home:

Let it be told how the gecko
seeking warmth
behind shut doors
clambered
to its new perch,
dreaming of home
in another life.
That familiar dream
a constant lure,
many roads after
still distant
as at the beginning. (Letter Home, p 4)

Ah. When I am stressed, good poetry will comfort me. Akeh is great poetry. That is as it should be. In the 21st century, more than ever, the reader is not an expert on poetry, does not want to be, the reader simply wants to enjoy a good word or two. Letter Home & Biafran Nights does the job and more. You read Akeh’s profound words, and you own them, but still, it is not about you. It is about the movement called this life. And somehow Akeh manages to remind you of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, of Uchendu, Okonkwo’s maternal uncle comforting Okonkwo in the chilly winter of his exile (in this memorable passage).

In Akeh’s musings, the reticence of the traveller shows, haunts, hunts, hurts, and bleeds fiercely through the dirty curtains of memory – and the living. And the rhythm of the words, gently comforting, reminds the reader of the gentle rocking of a lorry enduring worn, broken roads with that sign that sighs and mutters, If Men Were God:

One thinks mostly
Of smells and touch,
Spring on treetops,
Radio voices from
A childhood of dream-
their broadcasts
through an uncivil war
assurance that peace
was English, life
English as they rhymes
One clung to beyond
The carnage, hugging
the promise
of an English day. (Letter Home, p 2)

 And the majesty of Akeh’s words and vision makes you gasp sometimes as your heart soars with the force of the pulsating mind of this owner of words:

The heart as a bird
In flight, wings spread
To every wind
Every flight in its search
finds a perch
some place of rest
or lasting jelp,
sometimes caravan,
sometimes nest, sometimes
a grave in the open earth.
Somewhere in time,
Someone digging in
or moving on,
between a reset
and delete button. (Letter Home, p 6)

The long poem, Letter Home, comprising four movements is the immigrant’s story. Any immigrant, especially of color, could title it ME and it would fit snuggly.

If some left familiar shores
And pulled down totems
To raise a new world
He thinks he can.
And they turned hostile lands.
Taming horses and cacti,
going as if their earth
never shifted, that frontiers faith
in all or  nothing. (Letter Home, p 11)

Akeh does portraits of friends, of cities, of continents roiling in the sweat of immigration and alienation. Exile wears a new face every day. Here is a portrait, and a portrait, and a portrait.  Movement. Africa is restless. The warriors of Africa are in Europe, turning tricks for Africa’s survival. Antwerp is on Akeh’s mind, the sisters on cold city streets turning tricks for hard men, whose dreams have gone flaccid. The puns are sly, oh so sly. And everything comes together in a brilliant collusion of pretty and vibrant colors dripping with sweet innuendoes and plump puns:

Antwerp of storied lives.
Rubens, son of the soil, had
a rogue eye on his muses,
painted them wanton, like
Venus and the Graces.
Helene, his delight, posed
Like a window woman.
The female nude
In Baroque contours
Andromeda, maid Susanna,
Leda and the Swan, art
making love not war,
Caravaggio’s rage
defused by desire. (Letter Home, p 17)

In the travels of Wole Soyinka and other writers unknown, Akeh plumbs the depths and anxieties of sojourn. Read Letter to Soyinka and marvel at Akeh’s profound mind.  Defiant, he politely but firmly speaks truth to Soyinka’s angst about a certain generation flung and scattered all over the globe as if lost. In Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known (2002), Soyinka muses ruefully:

The children of this land are old
Their eyes are fixed on maps in place of land
Their feet must learn to follow
Distant contours traced by alien minds
Their present sense had faded into past.

Akeh’s response is luscious, defiant and delightfully impish. And wintry rage meets thunder:

I am that brood of brats
you haunt in verse.
Some feet I know
may never walk home.
They are alien
to any land.
Memory is not their friend,
They have lived
many lives
away from childhood.

I am with my fellows
less convinced.
I have shit.
And I dump.

I dump in poems.
I dump on people.
I dream of home
and dump.
The world I walk
Is not your world.
It has neither clarity
nor empathy. (Letter to Soyinka, p 30)

Now, this is poetry: In general, each movement of Akeh’s poetry starts as a quiet spiritual chant, grows into a grumble and a rumble, and in the last gasp, it roars and fills the mind’s stadium with wonder – and longing.  In the poem, At the Common Room, you lay on pretty lines like this: Someone asleep/ with open eyes lets his bowels speak. And the sighs tumble out of your soul.

In Biafran Nights. Rage, controlled rage is a powerful undertow in this little volume of words that speak truth to hell:

There are nights that speak with clenched teeth.
A sense of depth comes with their dark,

 Awareness of things not present, and
to remember is to relive what is not redeemed… (Biafran Nights, p 67)

The book’s end signals the beginning of the loss of a certain innocence. Biafra. 1970. The poem. 1970. Ripe, bursting with hope and joy.

And you the child saw that change had come,
the adults like children bouncy with wellness,
hugging and shouting ‘Happy survival!
Happy survival!’ Folk, singing all the time.
What else could it be but that bread was back.
Life could eat without guilt, school as before
the convoys passed and everything changed,
Boom! Bang! Hunters saying it with guns,
saying yes to hope, nothing fired
in anger, no one bleeding. (1970, p 77)

 Finally, in Finale, Achebe’s Uchendu, strong voice, returns to console the weary traveler:

If in your way, you wake up in your puke, or feel
Raw and far from home, put your ears to the wind
And listen. You will hear colours and movement,
Birth and death colliding, waves of white noise.
Hearts beating, hearts breaking. (Finale, p 79)

I love Letter Home & Biafran Nights, even with all its imperfections. And there are several. First of all, it is unconscionable that the book is not available as an e-copy, how difficult can that be in the 21st century? African publishers have to understand that in the absence of physical distribution channels, their best bet is the Internet. Akeh struggles with his own spirituality, the church is on his mind and one suspects that sometimes his poetry is inspired – and compromised by his near-unquestioning allegiance to his Christian faith,  for example, Messiah, is quite simply proselytizing – and disappointing. (p 46) Akeh tries gamely to wrestle his faith from his work as a writer, he is not successful. In No More Elliot, She Said, great lines remind the reader of Okigbo’s deeply spiritual lines but then they wrestle with Afam’s own struggle with his Christian faith, awesome lines looking askance at sermons begging to be preached. (p 48) I don’t believe the poet should proselytize. Akeh’s demon’s sing lustily with his long poems; some of the short pieces (Portrait, Slug, etc.) read like warm-up acts for the long pieces, they feel to me like works in earnest progress, not quite ready for prime time. Billy Boy is quite literally for the dogs, and not in a good way (p 50). Silly Poem, is just that, silly (p 58). And I would have loved a publication that looked a lot better than it was merely stapled together. SPM Publications stapled Akeh’s pieces together and did a great job with the editing. However, this reader expected more, perhaps a collaboration with an artist to sketch in pencil, Akeh’s thoughts, and bring the words to life even more, if that is possible. The good news is that the power of Akeh’s words easily trumped these failings.

It is quaint. No one writes letters home anymore. Oddly intriguing, the choice of title. But that would be Akeh for you. Intensely private, the reader strains to read pieces of Akeh’s life in the pages. The evidence is scrawny, but you read Role Play (p 37) and you wonder about a little boy with a certain intelligence and just wonder, who is this boy? And Akeh’s indulgent e-smile returns. And my favorite poem? Ingrid. Don’t ask me, you must go find that poem. And read it. It is in the book. Buy the book and read Ingrid. Thank me later.

The NLNG Prize for literature: Honoring phantom books, laziness, and mediocrity

The final shortlist for the 2013 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature is out.  Sincere Congratulations to the lucky three:  Tade Ipadeola (The Sahara Testaments), Amu Nnadi (through the window of a sandcastle), and Promise Ogochukwu (Wild Letters). This year, the prize is for poetry and the purse remains a whopping $100,000 (US dollars, a Nigerian prize offered in US dollars, that is another story in itself).

Last month, eleven poets graced a thoughtful longlist: Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, G’ebinyo Egbewo, Iquo Eke, Obari Gamba, Tade Ipadeola, Okinba Launko (Femi Osofisan), Amu Nnadi,  Obi Nwakanma, Promise Ogochukwu and Remi Raji. I thought it was a great list with pretty much everyone a strong contender.  

But this is what struck me after the longlist was announced. I have great respect for the longlisted writers. However, of the eleven books, just TWO were available for sale online or anywhere – Afam Akeh’s Letter Home & Biafran Nights and Amatoritsero’s Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children. Shortly after Iquo Eke’s Symphony of Becoming joined the group online, followed by Tade Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments. I would like to own each of these eleven books.

Several of my friends are on the ground in Nigeria looking for the books in bookstores. My friends are either lying to me (possible, but highly unlikely) or these books are simply not available for sale. They are definitely available for prize sponsors. I own and have read Akeh’s Letter Home & Biafran Nights, Ede’s Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children and Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments. They are beautiful books deserving of the recognition that they have gotten from the NLNG folks. However, I cannot tell how many copies of these books have been sold at home, worldwide or even on Mars; it is not the fault of the NLNG folks, but it is the truth. We need a conversation about the (lack of a) distribution network of books in Nigeria.

Of the three shortlisted books, only Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments is available for sale or review anywhere I can think of. My friends are hunting for the other two books. I am sure the books exist, how else would the judges have judged them worthy of consideration for $100,000? As things currently stand, this is not a literary prize; this is a lottery, a jackpot for one lucky writer. Let me just say this: It is quite simply appalling, no, disgraceful, that the NLNG Prize is in danger of being given to a book that no one else but the judges has seen.

It is a mockery of literature and a huge farce that the NLNG will spend $850,000 annually to honor what amounts to laziness on the part of book publishers and writers. In the 21st century, it is not hard to sell a book on the Internet. There is absolutely no excuse for this farce. It is not too much to ask that between now and October 9th, 2013 when the winner will be announced, that Nnadi’s through the window of a sandcastle, and Ogochukwu’s Wild Letters be made available to the general public online and elsewhere. It would be nice if the publishers would go online to announce where these books may be bought by regular readers like me. We would like to buy the books; we would like to see with our own eyes, what the judges saw in the books. This is what obtains elsewhere with real prizes. When the shortlist is announced, there is usually a run on the books. And trust me, no prize sponsor worth its name would dare put on a shortlist a book that only the writer, his/her publisher and friends have seen or read. They definitely would not be getting $100,000. Nonsense. 

It bears repeating: It is hard to justify giving $100,000 to an author for a book that only 20 or fewer people have read. Again, the NLNG prize costs $850,000 to administer yearly. We really need to have a conversation about how best to use that money to honor our writers – and to support our literature. The publishing industry could use some of that money. What is wrong with us?

The press release announcing the shortlist says this of previous prize winners:

“The Nigeria Prize for Literature has since 2004 rewarded eminent writers such as Gabriel Okara for his volume of poetry The Dreamer, His Vision (co-winner 2004 – poetry); Professor Ezenwa Ohaeto, for his volume of poetry Chants of a Minstrel (co-winner 2004 poetry); Ahmed Yerima (2005 – drama) for his book Hard Ground;  Mabel Segun (co-winner 2007 – children’s literature) for her collection of short plays Reader’s Theatre; Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (co-winner 2007 – children’s literature) with her book, My Cousin Sammy; Kaine Agary (2008 – prose) for her novel Yellow Yellow; Esiaba Irobi (2010 – drama) who clinched the prize posthumously with his book Cemetery Road; Adeleke Adeyemi (2011 – children’s literature) with his book The Missing Clock and Chika Unigwe (2012 – prose), with her novel, On Black Sisters’ Street.”

And dear reader, just in case you think, I am picking on this year’s prize, try this game; please go to any bookstore online and try to find any of these books that won previously. If you are in Nigeria, go to as many bookstores as your energy can muster and look for the books. Come back and tell me how many you found. I know the answer but I am trying hard to make a point, that we have to find a way to use the NLNG funds wisely. The NLNG folks are wasting money that could be better utilized to help our ailing publishing industry for instance. Do not get me wrong, I have said this ad nauseam, many of these writers deserve to be honored and rewarded for a lifetime of work in the service of our literature, but that is not what the NLNG Prize is currently doing. It is honoring books that are remarkable mostly by their absence from the market. That is absurd. There has to be a structural way to ensure that our  writers are not hurriedly stapling things together just to meet the deadline of a jackpot er literary prize.

And I have another suggestion for the NLNG folks. I know Nigeria honors patriarchy and gerontocracy but the NLNG prize does not have to replicate such foolishness. There is nothing wrong with having one or two elderly professors on the judge’s panel but for heavens’ sake please include some young people who actually read contemporary literature, I am saying include someone really young and knowledgeable, who does not actually use bifocals to read stuff. I doubt that there is anyone on that judges’ list that knows what a blog is. Don’t get me wrong, I have grown fond of the NLNG Prize but I think that there has to be a concerted effort by readers, writers, and publishers to ensure that the money allocated to this laudable activity yearly is well spent. Right now, I believe it is shaping up to be an annual farce.

What do I really think of the shortlist? Well, Ipadeola’s book sings. The Sahara Testaments is quite simply drop-dead gorgeous poetry. I am sure that Nnadi’s and Ogochukwu’s are similarly drop-dead gorgeous, offering awesome writing and deeply profound vision. It is just that we have not seen them.*cycles away slowly*

Americanah: Through a looking glass glumly

For you. “Ceiling,” poor thing!

Americanah bookThere are many good reasons to buy Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s publisher should rise and take a bow. Americanah is an ode to editorial excellence. Not a word out of place. When the book is good, it is really good; defiance pops out of well-dug trenches, igniting wars that give the middle class and the poor in Nigeria and America the middle finger. Americanah confers on the reader a deep respect for Adichie’s industry and writing prowess. Many of the characters in Adichie’s Americanah live in my part of America. I do see my daughter in the book’s dingy apartments negotiating a hair weave. In this book of many opinions, Adichie handles the sensitive subject of child labor and house help abuse with mastery; this is what Adaobi Nwaubani should have done. The reader will swoon at her re-telling of America’s love affair with Barack Hussein Obama, of how millions of Americans held their breath on that night in 2008 as they waited for Obama to win the presidency.

Americanah is not a perfect book, but it is perhaps the best narrative on contemporary Nigerian life I have read in a long while. Campus life in Nigeria is expertly handled. Adichie captures the hustle – and the filthy bustle of campus life in Nigeria. The love-making between the two main protagonists, “Ceiling” Obinze and Ifemelu, may be cringe-worthy to some but felt authentically Nigerian. Adichie builds convincing characters in Aunty Uju and her son and the relationship between her and Ifemelu is moving. Adichie uses Nigerian lingo in convincing and refreshing ways. She captures the culture clash going into America comically; read Aunty Uju, the apologetic Nigerian, trying to be an American. As she channels Jhumpa Lahiri in the soulless tenements of her America, in the blandness of her America and her food garnished with tasteless spices and pretty words, the sadness weighs on you like a heavy winter coat three sizes too big for you:

In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat, and then in the afternoon a blue-grey dusk descended, and the Victorian buildings all wore a mournful air. In those first weeks, the cold startled Obinze with its weightless menace, drying his nostrils, deepening his anxieties, making him urinate too often. He would walk fast on the pavement, turned tightly into himself, hands deep in the coat his cousin had lent him, a grey wool coat whose sleeves nearly swallowed his fingers. Sometimes he would stop outside a tube station, often by a flower or a newspaper vendor, and watch the people brushing past him. They walked so quickly, these people, as though they had an urgent destination, a purpose to their lives, while he did not. His eyes would follow them, with a longing, and he would think: You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don’t even know how fortunate you are. (p 227)

Americanah is an ambitious but flawed chronicle, immensely readable, brilliant in parts, showing off some good writing. Tension snaps the pages. Adichie spares neither Nigeria nor America; she does have a soft spot for England. Her analysis of the politics of hair in the book is fascinating and engaging, even though there is hair everywhere, hair fascinates Adichie, and she shrinks from nothing, not even pubic hair. It is a near-fetish. In public interviews and comments, Adichie seems to regard growing natural hair as the next civil rights movement, and she comes across as evangelical and judgmental. Her treatment of the subject in the book however is actually entertaining and illuminating; not in-your-face judgmental. Yes, Americanah is an engaging book. Messy. Like life. Brilliant. Like life. Dumbass. Like life. Infuriating. Like life. Adorable. Like life. Bipolar. Like life. It is not hard to fall in love with a book that sighs like this:

For months, the air in their flat was like cracked glass. (p 41)

This is my favorite passage; it spoke to me in many ways:

And so she sent them invitation letters, bank statements, a copy of her green card. The American embassy was better now, the staff was still rude, her father said, but you no longer had to fight and shove outside to get in line. They were given six-month visas. They came for three weeks. They seemed like strangers. They looked the same, but the dignity she remembered was gone, and left instead something small, a provincial eagerness. Her father marveled at the industrial carpeting in the hallway of her apartment building; her mother hoarded faux-leather handbags at Kmart, paper napkins from the mall food court, even plastic shopping bags. They both posed for photos in front of JC Penney, asking Ifemelu to make sure she got the entire sign of the store. She watched them with a sneer, and for this she felt guilty; she had guarded their memories so preciously and yet, finally seeing them, she watched them with a sneer. p 301

What is the book about? It is several conversations about identity, race, immigration, class, exile, longing, and heartbreak, all of this drama carried out in Nigeria, England and America. And oh, it is about women’s hair, the politics of women’s hair, that is. Ifemelu, the protagonist, seemingly affected with the Sokugo wandering disease walks through life in a funk, draped in a supercilious daze, hating any and everything and every human in her tortured sights. It gets annoying really, well, until you meet “Ceiling” Obinze, the liberated, some would say, emasculated Nigerian man that is the only one good enough for Ifemelu. And boy, is he liberated. He chops greens in kitchens, cleans and cooks and does not grunt, fart and dig into his butt like most Nigerian men seem to do in the book with gleeful abandon. You almost expect to see him in the next page with a baby firmly tied to his feminist back with a woman’s wrapper loudly featuring the picture of a scowling fist pumping NGO feminist and the words I LUV MY STRONG BLACK WOMAN!  Many would say he Obinze is weak also; he deserts his long suffering wife who is not good enough for his eclectic and intellectual tastes (he did marry her, duh!) and ends up with Ifemelu, the love of his life. And they live happily after. End of discussion. Well, not really.

It must be said: Americanah is a work of intense industry, it is not easily dismissed. Adichie’s research skills are meticulous for the most part; you fall in love with her demons’ passions and obsessions. It features good, well-edited writing. Every writer should get a copy of the book. Part 3 houses my favorite passages. It is lucid and fluid. Adichie is on the saddle here. It is as if two different people wrote the book. Here, Obinze the male protagonist stars and shines and Adichie is at her best; tart prose and attitude strutting all over the place, stab, stab, stab with the mind. The book is more comfortable with England than with America and Obinze is a more believable and pleasant character than Ifemelu. He rescues the book somewhat from the carcinogen of Ifemelu’s intense neurosis.

What is there to dislike about Americanah? Plenty. For starters, the pseudo-intellectual over-analysis grates on the weary reader; it is is cloying and eye-roll inducing – Adichie’s mind reaches for intellectual complexity where the simple would do. Supercilious anecdote after patronizing condescending pat on the head and the reader is soon done with the book. Adichie, using Ifemelu as a proxy, analyzes everything and the analysis is not always the best. No wonder the book is hefty. Many African writers tend to deploy caricatures to analyze issues. It can be effective. In Americanah’s case it is simply overdone and it diminishes the book immensely. Also, sometimes, Americanah feels and tastes like sugary processed food. Top that with cheesy romance layered on social commentary, and the reader soon chants Halleluiah! as the book mercifully trots mechanically to a pre-determined end, like a mass-produced batch of cookies out of a Starbucks oven.

Americanah proudly shows off botched attempts at innovation. Ifemelu’s “blog posts” in the book would have made good provocative essays. However, they are not very good, filled with generalizations and specious arguments, prescriptive at best, never examining why things are the way they are. They are at best mildly thoughtful as if the blogger was too lazy or timid to fully flesh out the thoughts. There is no vision here which is fine if it is just for entertainment but then the book strains to be taken seriously. It tries too hard. And in there lies the possibility that like many African writers straining to write “fiction” true success may lie in simply writing good essays.

There is a formulaic feel to Americanah. There is no perfect novel but as fiction goes, Americanah plays it safe, straight off the orthodoxy of an MFA program. All the rules of “good writing” are checked. Meticulously. As a near-aside, I would hate to be an author today. In the age of social media, readers already burdened with ADHD issues have more reading options than in the halcyon, analog days of old. Today, a book must engage readers or they are back to typing “LOL” on inane luscious Facebook gossip. At almost 500 pages, Americanah is too fat for the 21st century. It is engaging but unless you are a hermit, reading it will take forever.

For many African writers, fiction provides a sense of security and a wide, comfortable palette to discuss social/political issues. It is fair however to question whether Adichie should have used the essay format instead of fiction to address all the social anxieties in the book. After Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe stopped using fiction to comment on social and political issues. He wrote brilliant essays as a result. I think Americanah should have been a book of essays. Even at that it would have needed considerable work.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In Americanah, Adichie handles the new Christianity, the new plague destroying much of Black Africa well, but there is nothing new here really; it has been covered ad nauseam by many contemporary African writers, most recently by the brilliant NoViolet Bulawayo in her stunning debut We Need New Names. Similarly, the analysis of exile and alienation comes across as dated. Example: In the 2000s Adichie’s characters are still writing letters and mailing them in place of email. This is a possibility, a quaint, remote plausibility though. Historical fiction is still as relevant as ever, however the writer has an obligation to be true to the times. A writer must understand and be in sync with the new culture of life today. Social media, cellphones, the Internet have reengineered how we live in spectacular ways and with muscle. Adichie proves convincingly that she does not much understand the culture of social media. She grafts their tools clumsily on the old and they sit in the book like congealed oil on water. Chat rooms! It is cringe-worthy reading about chat rooms today. Who goes to chat rooms anymore?

Where Adichie really loses it is in her analysis of race issues in the West. The book swims in cute anecdotes about race – in black and white, but it is complicated. Adichie’s world view on race relations in America misreads the huge demographic shifts sweeping America. America is browning. It is strange, for example, that a book on exile, immigration and race is virtually silent on Hispanics (there is a little paragraph in the book somewhere that seems to do no more than acknowledge the existence of Hispanics). America is browning and Hispanics and Asians have a lot to do with the phenomenon. In many parts of America whole swathes speak only Spanish. In the 21st century, America is not just black and white. There are other races and ethnicities. And there is the Internet.

The discussion on race in Americanah also seemed contrived. In order to cover the prism of race, Ifemelu, the protagonist dutifully dates a white man and then an African American man. Sadly, perhaps mercifully, the book clatters to a cheesy end before Ifemelu turns her jaundiced eyes on a Latino. Adichie touches on the tension between African Americans and Africans but it is a blurb. It could have been teased out more. Some of the dialogue on race is simply awful.  When Ifemelu snarls at VS Naipaul’s self-loathing, the retort might as well have been aimed at her – she reeks of self-loathing. (See my essay, The Naipaul in us). Ifemelu channels Naipaul in her despair and shows little compassion for the truly dispossessed immigrants who fled the black-on-black crime of their ancestral lands. An overly Westernized Ifemelu and Obinze are now the caricatures that Ifemelu despises.

How far is the book removed from Adichie’s life? We may never know but when Adichie riffs about Baltimore the book seems merely autobiographical and morphs into a book about terrifying personal anxieties. At Adichie’s book reading in London, to her chagrin the white moderator kept mistaking Ifemelu’s views for Adichie’s. That faux pas spoke volumes about how readers may perceive the book. The moderator may be on to something. In this video clip Adichie admits that a lot of the protagonist’s views are hers. Interestingly, at the book reading, Adichie also called Americanah a “Nigerian” book. Perhaps. It is certainly a book about Nigerian lives. If it is an authentically Nigerian book, she has a strange way of showing it. Americanah is a book struggling for identity. Nigerian words are meticulously italicized and neat tricks are deployed to explain them to a presumably Western audience. All the blurb writers are “posh white men” Adichie’s favorite phrase at the book reading. Surely there are Nigerian writers of stature who could have been coaxed to write a blurb for her book. Instead she trots out Dave Eggers and Colum McCann, “posh white” thinkers who proceed to be effusive in praise of a book allegedly about Nigeria.

Americanah is about a lot of issues, several of them handled rather poorly. In Adichie’s treatment of class issues, there is not much tension here, just a meandering exercise in upper middle-class narcissistic navel gazing, with reams of condescension and a certain lack of compassion shown to those ruined by Nigeria’s ruling and intellectual elite. One gets the sense that for Adichie and many African writers, fiction is a convenient proxy for airing societal dysfunction, preferably in self-absorbed prose. The reader is paying for someone else’s navel-gazing.

In Americanah, Adichie displays a knack for detail, nothing escapes her cynical eyes. Nigeria’s Jhumpa Lahiri, she is this fastidious house inspector groping for dirt in your bathroom. She takes superciliousness and patronizing condescension to chic heights. Americanah bears heavy echoes of Lahiri’s superciliousness. There is no joy here, just people waking up and doing what they have to do. Ifemelu will not be pleased. Nothing impresses her. Ifemelu is anal-retentive, indeed many Americans would call her an asshole. She has a huge chip on her cute shoulders. And it is ugly, bristling with impatience, a quickness to judge others using pseudo-intellectual psychobabble. And she overanalyzes everything. I mean everything. Even the peppersoup is overanalyzed. Just eat the damn thing. While Ifemelu’s preferred romantic relationships were with Western men, she hardly had any respectful conversation with anyone in the West. Everything is tinged with race. In Ifemelu’s world, America is a tired, smelly place clothed in a culture of despair. Many would disagree.

Americanah is pages of caricature perhaps because in the eyes of many writers, Nigeria is a caricature nation. I could see the white editors gleefully preparing the book for the market. Do you blame them? White folks come off easy compared to Africans. With Africans mimicry is chic. And then there is the misandry. The book sometimes reads like one long lament about misbehaving slovenly Nigerian men. It is as if Adichie is gathering evidence, doing a “discovery” for possible divorce from horrid Nigerian men.  In Americanah and I must observe, much of the fiction written today by female African writers, the subtext seems to be to portray African men as buffoons. One is struck by the rising tide of misandry, a surging contempt for African men. It manifests itself in many forms: African men as bumbling caricatures, relationship-averse, overweight butt-scratching, belching cave-men, usually absent (at least emotionally) from their kids, pathetic shadows of what they should be, as measured against an absurd asymptote – an idealized man drawn from Western feminist babble-speak.

While exaggeration is a useful tool for providing clarity in debates, much of what I am reading lately is over the top pompous nonsense, uncritical mimicry of the chic contempt Western feminist militants hold for the evil men that live rent-free in their red-wine addled heads. There is a crying need for a more original and nuanced analysis of the troubled relationship between men and women in Black Africa. The persistent negative depictions of African men in these books read like misandry. And it is. There are two separate issues here that are at risk of being conflated: Patriarchy and its attendant brutalization of women and children, and, the misrepresentation of men in these books, of African men as inarticulate bumbling idiots with the manners of unwashed cave men. We need original thinkers, looking at African lives out of the box of Western dysfunction.

There is no true fiction; there is the politics of fiction. We know what the word has done to the perception of African Americans. We know, thanks to Chinua Achebe, what Joseph Conrad’s words were signifying. Achebe in deconstructing Conrad and VS Naipaul was not attempting to censor them. Achebe was right to stand up for Africans; Africans are not the dolts that are represented in Conrad’s books. Similarly, much of what I am reading about men in contemporary writing by female African writers is arrant nonsense, borne perhaps out of self-loathing and an unconscious desire to measure everything against a White asymptote. It is pure mimicry, there is no intellectual depth to the conversations (Why are things the way they are?) The mimicry is of comic proportions and ultimately diminishes everyone, and the authors.

Here is a typical description of one of the men of Americanah:

“Bartholomew wore khaki trousers pulled up high on his belly, and spoke with an American accent filled with holes, mangling words until they were impossible to understand. Ifemelu sensed, from his demeanour a deprived rural upbringing that he tried to compensate for with his American affectation, his gonnas and wannas.” (p 115)

And there is more:

“Ifemelu should not have spoken, but there was something about Bartholomew that made silence impossible, the exaggerated caricature that he was, with his back-shaft haircut unchanged since he came to America thirty years ago and his false overheated moralities. He was one of those people who, in his village back home, would be called “lost.” He went to America and got lost, his people would say. He went to America and refused to come back. (p 116)

Ghana      Taiye Selasi

Adichie’s Americanah came out at at the same time as stunning debut works by NoViolet Bulawayo and  Taiye Selasi (We Need New Names and Ghana Must Go respectively), featuring fresh scintillating prose and new and mostly profound analysis of our world and the challenges of the new immigrant in the 21st century. Scholars would do well to study these three books and try to make sense of the differing visions of these three thinkers of color. The contrasting visions of these three writers signal many things; a paradigm shift in how we view exile, alienation and race relations – and an end to the domination by Adichie of contemporary African literature. It is a good thing. We need new and fresh voices. At the book reading in London, a fawning member of the audience called Adichie the mother of contemporary African literature. Adichie shot back in swift repudiation of the insincere title: “See me see trouble O!” Adichie is perceptive and astute. Who wan die?

Names

                                              bulawayo2

Guest Blog Post by Emmanuel Iduma: On Travelling…

emmanuel idumaUSE

Guest blogger Emmanuel Iduma was born in 1989 in Akure, Nigeria. He studied Law in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and has been called to the Nigerian Bar. He is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Saraba Magazine, and the Editor of 3bute, an online mashable anthology of African modernity. Iduma’s first book, a short novel, is titled Farad, and published by Parresia Books, Nigeria. He blogs for Black Looks, Mantle Thought, and KTravula. He is the Initiator of Gambit, a conversation series with emerging African writers, published on Mantle Thought.

On Travelling…

Travelling as I know it began as a failed experiment. As a young boy I was taken to the American Embassy to attend interviews for a visa. Till this day I have no idea why we were refused a visa – my mum, elder brother and younger sister, then a toddler. My father had begun his studies in an American theological seminary, and he had friends who had successfully moved their families from Nigeria. Our failure to travel, then, must have been like shame reaching out to him. He returned home.

In the last few years I have had successful trips. But I find the failure I now feel is of a certain kind – homesickness, that tendency to be abroad and yet keep thinking of home, keep wanting to be home.

This is not new. I know of artists who straddle the convenience of Nigeria and elsewhere. I am enviously drawn to their homeliness when they are here. Their accent isn’t changed, the pidgin English they speak retains its brilliant texture. They hop into buses when the need arises, commuting out of necessity, their gaze as windy as their presence.

mammywagon1

Windiness – I increasingly wonder if their homeliness isn’t rooted in their perpetual movement, and travelling. That they are Nigerian, but live in Amsterdam, or Paris, attend conferences in New York, California, that they are here-there, is perhaps the reason for their ease in dealing with Nigeria’s malfunction; whereas I find public transportation increasingly irritable, whereas I am becoming accustomed to ‘how things work’ in other ‘developed’ countries.

I might feel homely at home, but I am making extreme demands from home. I am demanding infrastructure, a stable life, a home. I am demanding that the gentrified chaos in Lagos, our emerging megacity, be pushed over the edge.

II

Pico Iyer made an enchanting claim that home isn’t ‘soil’ but ‘soul.’ When I listened to his talk at TEDGlobal, I was enchanted by the kinship I felt with his wonderings, this man whose ancestral homeland is India but adopted home is Japan. But the more I thought about it, the difficulty I had in understanding the simplicity of hisdisplacement. Why could he find so much allure in the multi-person he had become?

Waiting to catch a flight, I chit-chatted with a Chinese-Canadian lady who had been my travel companion during the preceding flight. Of course her English sounded more Western than Eastern. Yet her features were remarkably Chinese. It disturbed me that a passerby would think of her first as Chinese before anything else, just as anyone who looked at Iyer was more likely to think of him as Indian before Japanese.

In other words, I want to think of how my ethnicity is home. I can’t – or wouldn’t be able to – think this through because I feel unqualified about ethnicity. What do I understand about being Igbo? Friends say I should learn how to speak Igbo better, but I have too many things to learn; like playing chess, writing a novel, winning the heart of my lover. The buzz of everydayness is an ethnicity I equally have to master, especially an everyday like ours invaded by technology and its allied tendencies.

III

Says Abha Daweser: “Travel is liberating, but when it becomes incessant we become permanent exiles.”

No one wants permanent exile.

“As every Lagosian knows, both bounties and hardships impose on all-comers the need to prove loyalty to the city.  After you are lagosed, wherever else you travel, the city tags along.” – Odia Ofeimun

Essentially, we need a soul to return to after we travel. For Ofeimun, Lagos is that ‘soul’ and it is so because Lagos tags along when he travels everywhere else.

I understand this tagging. I’ve been up and about, but month after month I return to spend days in Ile-Ife, where I keep finding my soul.

IV

What do we see when we travel?

I was on the same flight as a group of deaf middle-aged Asian travellers. I suspected they were going on a vacation. One of them, a woman, sat beside me. When she smiled at me I wondered if the world without sound could be replaced by the world with sight. I imagined that travelling was really about seeing, not hearing.

 V

Ofeimun, again, in the last verse of “Lagoon” –

I let the Lagoon teach me
to forget street names
in order to gulp whole cities
like a glass of kola wine.

Will constant travel uproot us from our identities? How can we maintain the knowledge of the streets at homewhile gulping whole, global cities? Could it be that it is by travelling that we could know this?

airplane1

For NoViolet Bulawayo: We need new names

Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those in pain are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing – to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves. (p 145)

-        We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

In the 21st century, in the age of twitter and Facebook-induced ADHD, when a hard copy book is able to engage you nonstop for two days until you get to its end, all you can do is stand up at the end and give the author of such a miracle a rousing standing ovation. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut book, We Need New Names is such a book. Let’s just say the book did not make me cry but it certainly aggravated my allergies, something in the pages made a mess of my tear ducts. Bulawayo kicked this one way out of the ball park; dear writers, this is the book to beat. It is a beautiful book, in every sense; every sentence is pretty, you want to take each word home and cuddle up to it. The book may be dying, but Bulawayo is going to ensure that it doesn’t go down without a great fight. I have always thought that thanks to technology, the book at best would be relegated to an archival role, of dead history, etc. Nope, not with Bulawayo, this book is the most contemporary piece of literature I have read in a long time, it situates itself firmly in the 21st century, firmly in our sitting rooms, in our laptops, tablets and smartphones and connects communities, countries and continents with muscle – and Skype. Now, that is how to write a book. Yes.

NamesWe Need New Names punches gaping holes in Africa’s boundaries and oozes lovely echoes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. So, what is this book about? Defiantly starting with the winning short story that ticked me off during the 2011 Caine Prize competition (see How not to write about Africa), Bulawayo takes the reader through the enchanting, disturbing and amazing journeys of six urchins growing up in a place one suspects is in Zimbabwe. Six ten-year old urchins dressed in NGO castoffs – Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and the protagonist Darling, dream of escaping their hell, a place called, you wouldn’t guess it, Paradise. Paradise is hell, a desolate shanty town with a street pregnant with despair named Hope, a place where people simply wait to die, nothing but death and misery happens here. In this part of the world, children are born and they endure waves of war that they did not ask for. Example: Chipo is pregnant – with her grandfather’s baby – at age ten. They are always hungry and they raid the wealthy enclave of Budapest to steal guavas and fill their stomachs until they are too constipated to be hungry. I will never look at a guava the same way again, ever. You imagine six ten-year olds, dressed in the detritus of the West (used Google T-shirts, etc), one pregnant, feet dusty from constant trekking, exploring their devastation, dreaming and scheming of America, a world away where they think there is no hunger, and your heart stops, just stops, this is so wrong. Paradise. Hope. Despair. A deadly joke resides in there somewhere:

We all find places, and me, I squat behind a rock. This is the worst part about guavas; because of all those seeds, you get constipated once you eat too much. Nobody says it, but I know we are constipated again, all of us, because nobody is trying to talk, or get up and leave. We just eat a lot of guavas because it is the only way to kill our hunger, and when it comes to defecating, it becomes an almost impossible task, like you are trying to give birth to a country. (p 16)

We Need New Names is an unusual work of fiction – in a delightful sense. Every chapter has a name and the book reads like a collection of eighteen short stories, whose titles strung together collectively tell one delectable story: Hitting Budapest. Darling on the Mountain. Country-Game. Real Change. How They Appeared. We Need New Names. Shhhh. Blak Power. For Real. How They Left. Destroyedmychygen. Wedding. Angel. This Film Contains Some Disturbing Images. Hitting Crossroads. How They Lived. My America. Writing on the Wall.

And what a story. Each sentence throbs with understated passion. Bulawayo doesn’t use quotes; she employs a delicious neat trick – the dialogue melts into the prose. In effortless dialogue, remarkable since Bulawayo dispenses with the use of quotes, Bulawayo connects the West with Africa in the universality of wars and dysfunction. When the protagonist escapes the hell that was her Africa, she comes face to face with America and her issues, wars that are just as savage as the one she just left behind. And she wails about it in some of the best prose poetry I have ever read in my life. Paradise is hell, Budapest is hope and America, and the road that connects them is named Hope:

After crossing Mzilikazi we cut through another bush, zip right along Hope Street for a while before we cruise past the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on, and finally we hit Budapest. (p 2)

Budapest is the America that the children see on television:

Budapest is big, big houses with satellite dishes on the roofs and neat graveled roads or trimmed lawns, and the tall fences and the Durawalls and the flowers and the big trees heavy with fruit that’s waiting for us since nobody around here seems to know what to do with it. It’s the fruit that gives us courage, otherwise we wouldn’t dare be here. I keep expecting the clean streets to spit and tell us to go back where we came from. (p 4)

These are stories that tell of triumph over the basest of adversities. We Need News Names is unflinchingly disturbing and dark (there is an attempt at abortion by the ten year olds, and there is female genital mutilation). The old ways of Africa can no longer carry her burdens, and her proverbs and sayings are increasingly effete in a new world of twitter, unmanned drones and Wal-Mart. This is a very dark place, most of it a consequence of the rank incompetence of black rule, post-apartheid and independence, many thanks to the selfishness and self-absorption of the intellectual and ruling class. There is deep darkness in this book. Bulawayo’s mind draws intensely dark portraits; a dead woman hanging from a tree, for instance, and children stealing her shoes to go buy bread. Quietly the anger seethes and seethes and seethes in the pretty sentences.

There are daddy issues here, there are no real men here. There are strong whiffs of misandry; there are no real men here, Men are chief baboons in this zoo called Paradise, hapless men fleeing women and children to go to South Africa only to come home, not with bread but with AIDS, prosperity preachers, and men that impregnate their granddaughters and clueless men in the Diaspora shuffling about aimlessly. It is what it is. Here comes Virginia Woolf ululating out of the shadows, chasing men away from the playground:

Generally, the men always tried to appear strong; they walked tall, heads upright, arms steady at the sides, and feet firmly planted like trees. Solid Jericho walls of men. But when they went out in the bush to relieve themselves and nobody was looking, they fell apart like crumbling towers and wept with the wretched grief of forgotten concubines.

And when they returned to the presence of their women and children and everybody else, they stuck hands deep inside torn pockets until they felt their dry thighs, kicked little stones out of the way, and erected themselves like walls again, but then the women, who knew all the ways of weeping and all there was to know about falling apart, would both be deceived; they gently rose from the hearths, beat dust off their skirts, and planted themselves like rocks in front of their men and children and shacks, and only then did all appear almost tolerable. (p 77)

But then, with her enchanting way with words, she draws and paints harrowing pictures of a hell that strips men of their families and dignity with her evocative words. Hear her:

Two years ago, Makhosi went away to Madante mine to dig for diamonds, when they were first discovered and everybody was flocking there. When Makhosi came back, his hands were like decaying logs. He told us about Madante between bouts of raw, painful coughs, how when he was under the earth he forgot everything. He said all he knew inside that mine was the terrible pounding of the hammer around him, sometimes even inside him, like he had swallowed it. (p 23)

Bulawayo wrote this book with every ounce of her blood, the prose is so intense and personal, especially when she is writing about America, the protagonist’s adopted land. Bulawayo’s mind is a riot; it is as if she is a brainy lunatic. I love her quiet confidence, she does not italicize African terms and words, does not go all out to explain them either, reader do the research. I love that.

bulawayoIn We Need New Names, Bulawayo recreates the death of childhood innocence expertly. The details, seamy and dirty, seep out like shy determined children peeping at the world from behind walls of harried, abused mothers and at the end of the book, the portrait is complete – of human triumph over utter devastation. Rich complex imagery expertly folds into the reader’s consciousness in a manner that is just a wee bit more than matter-of-factly. The children’s studied indifference to pain is deliberate, as if to hunt, haunt and hurt the reader. It is what it is. Here are children raising themselves with the help of their mothers. In Bulawayo’s world, the fathers are absent, whenever they are around, they are no-good.

Bulawayo builds each character brick by brick like a master-builder and when she is done you are awed by the muscle of her gift. Bulawayo’s humor is quiet but insistent and once you think about it you burst out laughing in the darkness.  Here is a hilarious riff on the absurdity of imperial domination:

If you are stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do, stealing not just a tiny piece, but a whole country. (p 20)

And the entire book is exquisite prose-poetry; here are my two favorite lines:

Paradise is all tin and stretches out in the sun like a wet sheepskin nailed on the ground to dry; the shacks are the muddy color of dirty puddles after the rains. (p 34)

And:

It’s light rain, the kind that licks you. We sit in it and smell the delicious earth around us. (p 89)

Steely-eyed and square-jawed, this pretty book that snarls takes careful aim at NGOs, liberal do-gooders and displays Bono-charity devastation on everyone’s conscience with exquisite attention to detail. Here is the new church, the new Christianity run amok. And her eyes do not miss Black Africa’s share of the caricature, of charlatanry. In this book, the new Christianity and AIDS link arms to bulldoze communities and countries. With the awesome power of words, Bulawayo performs a rare feat of bringing AIDS into the reader’s living room:

We don’t speak. We just peer in the tired light at the bundle of bones, at the shrunken head, at the wavy hair, most of it fallen off, at the face that is all points and edges from bones jutting out, the pinkish-reddish lips, the ugly sores, the skin sticking to the bone like somebody ironed it on, the hands and feet like claws. I know then that what really makes a person’s face is the meat; once that melts away, you are left with something nobody can even recognize. (p 101)

We Need New Names seems to go nowhere and it is on purpose. Like a hungry, angry urchin, it sort of wanders around with a certain poetry, the reader follows these children of many wars, wandering, wondering, what manner of God would allow this perversion? Bulawayo is the master artist of grief. This is a complex book, just like life. Here she documents the coming of the Chinese to Africa – the new conquerors:

It’s just madness inside Shanghai; machines hoist things in their terrible jaws, machines maul the earth, machines grind rocks, machines belch clouds of smoke, machines iron the ground. Everywhere machines. The Chinese men are all over the place in orange uniforms and yellow helmets; there’s not that many of them but from the way they are running around, you’d think they are a field of corn. And then there are the black men, who are working in regular clothes – torn T-shirts, vests, shorts, trousers cut at the knees, overalls, flip-flops, tennis shoes. (p 42)

Dambudzo Marechera lives in this book, primly flicking ash off the cigarette he bummed off his white benefactors. Bulawayo is edgy, unflinching, eyes dead set on your conscience until you gasp and look away in shame and disgust. This book can “pinch a rock and make it wince”, so says the book. The book makes it clear: The poor have inherited a new burden after apartheid and post-colonialism – home grown tyranny. Africa’s leaders are in a hurry to build Paris out of the slums, on the backs of the dead poor. Bulawayo describes the bulldozing of a shanty town in a voice so clinical you hurt from the pain. Yes, much of black rule is black on black crime. Bulawayo is supercilious, kneading condescension into the reader’s consciousness. You learn to hate Africa’s benefactors, as poverty monkeys for the NGO cameras. Fuck Bono, her muse seems to mutter in rage. Bulawayo’s skeptical eyes see everything and point out all the adjectives, Africa is about pejoratives and isms: Commercialism, capitalism, consumerism, rampant consumption and materialism, the clutter. There is a looming devastation; Africa is the nuclear waste dump of the West’s offal and detritus, a hellhole where the West’s bad ideas and products go to die.

Exile awaits migrating sprits as Africa empties herself of her beautiful children. When Darling the protagonist escapes Paradise for America, she soon finds that suffering and despair are universal conditions of mankind, exile is not much better than the hell that was Paradise in Africa. The second half of this book about life in America is what the gifted writer and fellow Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava should have written instead of his Harare North. Here, Bulawayo’s prose fairly sings, breaks into a beautiful trot and belts out haunting truths about life in Babylon for many immigrants. Even the entry is jarring:

A few days before I left, Mother took me to Vodloza, who made me smoke from a gourd, and I sneezed and sneezed and he smiled and said, The ancestors are your angels, they will bear you to America. Then he spilled tobacco on the earth and said to someone I could not see: Open the way for your wandering calf, you, Vusamazulu, pave the skies, summon your fathers, Mpabanga and Nqabayezwe and Mahlathini, and draw your mighty spears to clear the paths and protect the child from dark spirits on her journey. Deliver her well to that strange land where you and those before you never dreamed of setting foot. (p 150)

Finally he tied a bone attached to a rainbow-colored string around my waist and said, This is your weapon, it will fight off all evil in that America, never ever take it off, you hear? But then when I got to America the airport dog barked and barked and sniffed me, and the woman in the uniform took me aside and waved the stick around me and the stick made a nting-nting sound and the woman said, Are you carrying any weapons? And I nodded and showed them my weapon from Vodloza, and Aunt Fostalina said, What is this crap? And took it off and threw it in a bin, Now I have no weapon to fight evil in America.

The transition from Africa to America is expertly handled. The cultural shifts are jarring and alarming even. Even in America Bulawayo’s muse only sees darkness; there is little joy here, as if childhood trauma conferred a certain form of depression on her characters. But still there is much to laugh about. Bulawayo offers an unintended but hilarious update on Wole Soyinka’s epic poem Telephone Conversation in which Bulawayo explores the cultural and linguistic conflicts between immigrants and Americans as they negotiate the new land. (p 197) There is a good section in the book where there is an intense confrontation between two erstwhile friends; the African in the Diaspora (Darling), and the African at home (Chipo). This is simply brilliant writing, period; the most brilliant conversation on the anxieties of 21st century immigration I have ever read, again, this section of the book is Chikwava’s Harare North with depth.

Here is coming of age in America:

We are cruising like that and I’m being forced to listen to this stupid Rihanna song that everybody at school used to play like it was an anthem or something. Well, maybe the song isn’t stupid, it’s only that I just got generally sick of that whole Rihanna business, the way she was on the news and everything, I know her crazy boyfriend beat her up but I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis, like it was the fucking Sudan. (p 218)

Here is alienation:

No matter how green the maize look in America, it is not real. They call it corn here, and it comes out all wrong, like small, sweet, too soft. I don’t even bother with it anymore because eating it is really a disappointing thing, it feels like I’m just insulting my teeth. (p 164)

Here is longing:

The uncles and aunts bring goat insides and cook ezangaphathi and sadza and mbhida and occasionally they will bring amacimbi, which is my number one favorite relish, umfushwa, and other foods from home, and people descend on the food like they haven’t eaten all their lives. They tear off the sthwala with their bare hands, hastily roll and dip it in relish and pause briefly to look at one another before shoving it in their mouths. Then they carefully chew, tilting their heads to the side as if the food speaks and they are listening to the taste, and then their faces light up. (p 161)

Here is culture clash:

When the microwave says nting, fat boy TK takes out a pizza and eats it. When the microwave says nting, he takes out the chicken wings. And then it’s the burritos and hot dogs. Eat, eat, eat. All that food TK eats in one day, me and Mother and Mother of Bones would eat in maybe two or three days back home. (pp. 156-157)

Now, that is brilliant, delectable writing. It gets better; you must read two chapters, How They Left and How They Lived. Bulawayo lapses into haunting, almost hallucinatory prose-poetry, the emotion and passion shake you to your core. She grieves and grieves and grieves and she will not be consoled, oh she grieves, this child that saw something awful. Read those chapters to the most stone-hearted immigration official in America and political asylum is yours. The words seep into your bones and slap you awake. Suddenly you just want to go home, except no one knows anymore where is home, the passages are so deeply emotive. America the hopeful morphs into America the prison. Illegal immigration is the lot of many immigrants and Bulawayo handles it beautifully.  It is the truth, for many immigrants, exile in America is a long lament and Bulawayo beats the drums for the living dead.

Let me just put it out there: This is probably the best book I have read in a very long time, perhaps in a decade, certainly the most poignant ode to identity, alienation and longing. You simply fall in love with the writing and the characters. Boundaries, communities and nations fascinate Bulawayo endlessly and she plumbs their depths and boundaries honestly and with conviction.  By the way, the characters text and IM – in an African novel, wow, what a concept. We Need New Names is the face of today’s fiction ported to yesterday’s media – the book.

There is not a whole lot to not like about the book. It is well designed and even though I had an advance review copy, there were precious few edits which I am sure would have been taken care of in the final copy. There is a sense though in which Bulawayo does not much depart from the protest art of post-colonialist literature. The book could fairly be called a political statement posing as fiction. But it is funny nonetheless even when Bulawayo is being supercilious:

I’m supposed to start teaching him my language because he says he and his brother are going to my country so he can shoot an elephant, something he has dreamed of doing ever since he was a boy. I don’t know where my language comes in – like does he want to ask the elephant if he wants to be killed or something? (p 268)

Bulawayo’s world-view is out there for all to see, she doesn’t pretend that this is just fiction and one must shy away from those things.

You should read this stunning book along with Chika Unigwe’s equally stunning essay in Aeon magazine, Losing my voice.  In this intensely personal and evocative essay Unigwe gives voice to the deep anxieties faced by many immigrants like her as they came face to face with the dislocation from home. Unigwe’s experience is immediately before the muscular bringing down of all walls by the Internet and social media, both works complement each other greatly, in style, outlook and vision. The difference is that while one senses that even beyond We Need New Names, the protagonists may be still immersed in despair, Unigwe’s story ends in hope and triumph, a warrior overcoming her fears and finding the light switch in the dark. But the pain in Unigwe’s journey is heartrending:

When I left Nigeria for Belgium, I made my husband’s home my own. But homesickness lodged like a stone inside me… When I began to write again, I discovered that I was not writing the kind of fiction I would have written back home. Certainly not at first. I wrote about displacement and sorrow. The voices of immigrants filled my head and spilled out on several pages of short stories and then a novel, The Phoenix. My characters were mostly melancholic women unable to return home but lacking the tools (or perhaps the temperament) to fit into their new home. They were victims browbeaten into silence by an alien culture and an alien climate. Perhaps it was me wanting to pass on what I had suffered to someone else. Maybe it is human nature to seek revenge even when there is none to be sought.”

The writer Taiye Selasi (of Ghana Must Go) has also forcefully fought against the pigeon-holing of “Africans” into predictable labels – and stereotypes. Under her fierce and passionate watch, the term Afropolitan has taken wings, as in, we are the sum of our life’s experience. Read her powerful and evocative essay, Bye-Bye Barber, and her powerful memoir-essay on being an African  and you will get the sense that a generation of Africans is breaking free from the literature of Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye. I don’t really care much for labels (Chimamanda Adichie has Nigerpolitans in her new book, Americanah) but I think it is a good thing that these writers are resisting pigeonholes.

We Need New Names is not a perfect book (but then, is there a perfect book?). Take this passage for instance:

When America put up the big reward for bin Laden, we made spears out of branches and went hunting for him. We had just appeared in Paradise and we needed new games while we waited for our parents to take us back to our real homes. At first we banged on the tin shacks yelling for bin Laden to come out, and when he didn’t we ran to the bushes at the end of the shanty, We looked in the thickets; climbed trees, looked under rocks, We searched everywhere. Then we went and climbed Fambeki, but by the time we got to the top, we were hot and bored. It was like looking for air; there was just no bin Laden. (pp. 288-289)

It is funny, but then if the book’s characters were about 14 years old in 2009 (when Rihanna was mauled by Chris Brown) they would probably have been too young in 2001 (when 9/11 happened),  to be that politically savvy. Who cares? I am smitten.

Finally, I must return to my anxieties about the single story, of despair, gore and war as I expressed in my essay, The Caine Prize: How not to write about Africa. This is what I said with regard to the shortlisted stories of the 2011 Caine Prize which Bulawayo eventually won, and I stand by it:

The Caine Prize for African Writing has been great for African literature by showcasing some truly good works by African writers. The good news is that the Caine Prize is here to stay. The bad news is that someone is going to win the Caine Prize this year. This is a shame; having read the stories on the short-list I conclude that a successful African writer must be clinically depressed, chronicling in excruciating detail, every open sore of Africa, apologies to Wole Soyinka. The creation of a Prize for “African writing” may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.

Of Bulawayo’s entry, I said this:

Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has a fly-ridden piece, Hitting Budapest, about a roaming band of urchins, one of them impregnated by her grandfather – at age ten… Bulawayo would be my pick for the prize. She sure can write, unfortunately her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers… The tragedy is that these are good writers showcasing good prose and great dialogue.  But to the extent that literature documents the lived life, they are stuck in the fog of stereotypes.

For too long, there has been a disturbing trend in African literature in which Africa’s history is being distorted by a powerful minority of mercenary Diaspora African writers. Postcolonial African literature has been grossly distorted and unduly influenced by the self-serving narrative-for-rent hawked by this contingent of writers. Using their access to good publishers, their mediocre thoughts hide behind pretty covers to assault Africa’s sensibilities. I remain deeply concerned about the reality that much of African literature is defined by a certain type of fiction, as articulated in books, much of it predictable poverty porn. I propose again that those who seek to catalogue the robust range of Africa’s stories must in addition to books, look to Twitter, Facebook, online journals and blogs for relief. The book alone is a wretched barometer for gauging Africa’s anxieties and triumphs. The sum total of those stories shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize stamped a pejorative on Black Africa and I had a huge problem with that. Apparently the Caine Prize organizers were concerned enough to declare a moratorium on submissions that smelt of poverty porn in 2012. I am happy that they listened to these concerns. Bulawayo’s debut novel in my view does not qualify as poverty porn. Everything depends on context, taken as a whole it tells a powerful story of hell, identity, alienation, longing and the restlessness of life’s journeys in both worlds – Black Africa and the West. Bulawayo proves with stunning literary muscle that there suffering and savagery are universal dysfunctions. Bulawayo will be back with more stories. This reader can’t wait.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,065 other followers