Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Good night, Ginger…

Ginger is dead. Ginger died just before bedtime. We were devastated. Our children, they wailed and they wailed and they wailed, they would not be consoled. Our household poured ashes on herself and everywhere was cold as warmth fled in hot pursuit of Ginger’s beautiful spirit. We called our friends to come help us with yet another rite of passage. Our friends rushed by in the night to comfort us and to take the children away from our house, the pantheon of death. Heartbroken, our children piled into our friends’ minivan, the one with the DVD player mounted on its ceiling. Grief brings so much sadness out of children and they lean on creature comforts for succor.  Our son took his teddy bear, our other son took his PlayStation videogame, our daughter took her laptop and our other daughter took her pretty dresses to go play house over at our friends’ house. Our friends waved us goodbye and they said, don’t worry, the children will be alright, tomorrow they will have fun, they will go to the mall and they will go to the playground that comforts sad children. And the children’s smiles strolled past tear-stained cheeks; this is one promise that will be kept. And my wife and I, we stayed behind to prepare Ginger for the final journey. Children should never participate in the rituals of death. It is not nice. And it is taboo.

 Ginger is dead. Ginger looked nice in death, finally at peace from a restless, restless world. My wife and I, we slept the sleep of travelers carrying a ship of problems on our teeny chests. Come dawn, I slipped out of sleep and my lover’s arms and stepped out of the house to wait for the pall bearers. They will come for Ginger and I can only watch the beginning of the journey. I will not go with Ginger. We live in America but we are Nigerians and our customs die hard. Elders don’t go to the burial ground. The pall bearers will come for Ginger and I shall go back inside to my lover and the rest of our life’s challenges. Life goes on. The rumble of the truck’s engine announces the coming of the pall bearers, dispatch riders of the final journey. The truck rumbles to a stop at our house and wordlessly, two pall bearers step out, two princes of the age group that buries people and their garbage. They say not a word to me and as silently as they come they leave with Ginger. The darkness swallows my sighs. I have seen many deaths. I have seen many births. Been there, done that. But this one hurts because our children hurt. The seasons change and the seasons change and after a while you get used to the changing of the seasons. Been there, done that. But this one hurts because our children hurt. I step back in the house and I think I need a stiff drink but it is just dawn, who drinks in America at dawn? I shall miss Ginger. But old men don’t think about these things. What if your emotions betray your hurt and you cry who will pay the fines to greedy elders? I can’t afford a fine; hell, I haven’t paid my mortgage this month.

Ginger is dead. I step into our bedroom. My life’s companion is sitting up waiting for me. She is not happy. She should be sad. And she is sad. Because Ginger is gone. She asks: Did the trash truck come already, I was asleep. Yes, I say. Did you take out the trash? Yes, I say. Yes, the trash truck came. Did they take Ginger? Yes, they took Ginger. Listen to me, she says, this is the last time those children will have pets in this house, do you hear me? We are Africans, we are not white people! I am tired of burying rats! Ginger was not a rat, I wail, grief overwhelming my judgment, Ginger was a gerbil! Same difference, she counters, Ginger was a rat! I am tired of burying pets, she moans, America is hard enough without pets, no more fish, no more rats, no more gerbils, no more hamsters! And the day you bring a dog into this house, that day you have chosen between me and an animal!

Ginger is dead. In the darkness, I hold on to my lover hoping for the sound of Ginger rolling his wheel in his cage once my lover’s rage stops rumbling. I need a drink but it is too early in America for a drink.

 

 

 

Naijanet, Wole Soyinka, The Gang of Four, Goebbels and the Reprobate!

The Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, like many revered thinkers is rightly worried about the declining reading culture in the 21st century and is concerned that the Internet is contributing to this dysfunction.  Soyinka is worried that relying primarily on the Internet would spell doom for books.  He raises legitimate issues that deserve to be explored in great depth. However, Soyinka is famously reticent about the Internet and the communities it has spawned. The records show that these communities have not always been kind to him. He talks about his experience with individuals and groups, some of which spilled into online forums like Naijanet in his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (see my review here).

Naijanet? Well, Nigerians have formed online communities for a long time. In the early nineties, if you had any connection with an institution of higher learning or a multinational corporation, you had access to an email account. They were initially difficult to use but gradually email readers came along, as well as the precursors of the web. Naijanet, a mailing list or “list-serve”, founded in in the early 90’s was the premier online watering hole for Nigerians at the time. Out of Naijanet came other list-serves created to meet a real or perceived need absent in Naijanet.

Naijanet was a vibrant market among academicians and professionals in the Diaspora, and a hotbed of political activism – for and against Sani Abacha’s regime. Many activists were recruited on Naijanet by either side. It became a means of communication and of rallying the troops during the prodemocracy struggle in the 90’s as Nigerians sought to topple the dictator Sani Abacha. Those were heady days. When we needed to attend a rally, we used email. When we needed to raise money, we used email. When someone died we wrote some very heartfelt and (yes, pretty bad poetry) to manage our grief. My second daughter was born on July 4, 1995. We did an e-naming ceremony for her on Naijanet and we christened her Ominira (Yoruba for freedom). We raised quite a bit of money for the cause and for things like awareness campaigns to eradicate spinal meningitis. It is a big shame that these things have not been documented anywhere, however some of these activities are in the archives at Googlegroups.

soyinkaAs far as I know, Soyinka was never a member of Naijanet himself. He clearly monitored our activities as they pertained to the prodemocracy movement. A tidbit involving Soyinka and Naijanet: In 1994, there was a young doctoral student at the University of Connecticut, Storrs (UConn). His name was Ganiyu Jaiyeola. He had a rabid contempt for MKO Abiola and was wary of Soyinka’s prodemocracy credentials. That year, UConn decided to give an award to MKO Abiola. Ganiyu wrote to his university denouncing MKO and demanded that UConn withdraw the honor. When that news got to Naijanet, there was an unspeakable uproar. Most people wanted Ganiyu’s head (he was a Naijanetter). UConn was deluged by angry phone calls from netters. Many members of Naijanet signed a petition objecting to Ganiyu’s letter and requesting that MKO be honored by UConn.

Here is the petition to Uconn. The petition, circulated online and signed by exactly 50 people from many countries abroad, no mean feat in those days, was perhaps the first naija e-petition ever. In 1994. Many of us loathed Ganiyu but from the benefit of hindsight, he was not a bad guy; he simply believed that those of us who were against  the annulment of democracy (on June 12, 1993) were thieves, phonies, carpet baggers, interlopers, etc. (insert your favorite abusive term). Many of us did not particularly care for MKO; this starry-eyed idealist simply felt at the time that for me, June 12 was the end of the shifting of the goal posts by the military. The battle grew ferocious; both sides trying to do each other in terms of the degree of abuse hurled at opponents.

Enter Soyinka. Sometime in 1995, Ganiyu decided to compile a thick unflattering dossier on Soyinka and he proceeded to distribute this dossier to the US State Department and the civil rights activist Randall Robinson who was dead-set on ending Abacha’s reign of terror. Ganiyu was a temperamental and energetic fellow and fiercely independent; whatever he set his sights on, he went after. When Soyinka got wind of Ganiyu’s activities, he became incensed and wrote a long letter excoriating Ganiyu. People close to Soyinka managed to convince him not to  mention Ganiyu by name in his missive. Ganiyu Jaiyeola’s name was replaced with the term “Reprobate.” Ganiyu loved the attention and declared that indeed he was the one that the Laureate was referring to. From that day on, the term “Reprobate” stuck on Ganiyu.

The letter, written in May 1995, begins like this and shows the beginning of Soyinka’s enduring ambivalence about the Internet:

I am an intruder, not being a NAIJANET subscriber. I don’t even know how these networks operate and, from this first, albeit indirect, encounter with this discussion and information exchange, I think it is something over extended people like myself should avoid, if only to conserve precious time and necessary equilibrium for a positive contribution to real issues. My intervention (this once only, I hope) is quite fortuitous.

A thick dossier accompanying a letter to Mr. Randall Robinson, Director of TRANSAFRICA, has just provided my first contact with NAIJANET, to which reference was made in the letter, and of which I have heard some remarks in the past. It is apparently the product of a student which is what I find singularly shocking. From the mercenaries and propaganda machinery of General Sani Abacha, one would consider this as routine, but what has a serious minded student got to do with such venal proceeding ? Opinions, even where debatable, and analysis, even where faulty, are the legitimate province of the student, but what place has a deliberate concoction of falsehood got in a student’s mind ?

I read this tract with dismay, albeit, ironically, with some illumination. I had been encountering, in recent times, some sturdily held distortions of the truth of events in Nigeria in astute minds which would normally discountenance the predictable lies of government functionaries. Coming from supposed students or independent professionals, who are trained to respect facts, however, I begin to understand why such blatant lies actually obtain a hold in their thinking. NAIJANET obviously has some perverse entities in its midst and, considering the crisis of our times, I feel that I must use this instance to affirm their self exposure to members of NAIJANET and their correspondents.

You may read the rest of Soyinka’s letter here.

Enter Jude Uzonwanne, a 22- or so year old. Somehow Jude had gotten close to Soyinka. He is mentioned as one of the Gang of Four in Soyinka’s book, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Jude suffered immensely from his youth and he was not exactly the most principled of fellows. Things were getting decidedly dangerous online and on the ground and another netter Mukhtar Dan’Iyan, aka @MrAyeDee on Twitter  (mentioned in the book, please read this blog post in which in which I excerpted the pertinent passage) decided to stage a sting. He created a fake email address purporting to be trolling for recruits on behalf of the dictator General Sani Abacha. Jude fell for this bait and sent in a long resume of his and an equally long rambling essay on how General Abacha might use certain tools of propaganda to keep the masses down. His application started like this:

I would like to become a member of your organization. After carefully evaluating the current difficulties facing the Abacha Administration, I have decided that it… is in Nigeria’s National Security interest to cooperate with the current administration. After careful thought, I believe I should bring to bear, what my professors describe as my “prodigious intellect.” If accepted, I would bring to the organization my considerable talents; as an Honors Economics and History candidate, a World Bank Project research assistant, and a member of my university’s Board of Managers, I think I am well placed to understand the philosophical strains that propel behavior in the West. I think I can help the FGN reconstruct her rather battered image. It will be a tough task, but if certain tactical steps are taken, I believe we can achieve the same level of respectability that General Pinochet of Chile achieved between 1979 – 88. Also, if we are more respectful to the incisive powers of economic rationalization of human behavior, I think General Abacha’s Government can be in power as long as it wishes. But there are certain steps that need to be taken in the next few weeks. I hope you would carefully weigh my words; I look forward to joining the team of the Best and the Brightest.

From that day on, Jude was miserable, exposed as a Goebbels. Jude’s “application” to Abacha was circulated among a tight-knit group of Naijanetters. At some point, Jude wrote a long piece that was published in Nigeria that basically accused the pro-democracy movement and Soyinka specifically of violence (bombs, etc.).To cut a long story short, Kongi erupted in rage once more. Kongi faxed me at home a letter (dated December 24, 1996 on Emory University letterhead) excoriating Jude with the subject title “Jude “Goebbels” Uzonwanne.” He asked me to type it verbatim on to Naijanet:

Dear Dr. Onabanjo,

Re: Jude ‘Goebbels” Uzonwanne

Thank you very much for sending me the latest splurge from our young Goebbels. I agree with you that his pronouncements have now exceeded a mere “nuisance factor” and should be addressed in some form or the other. It is tempting to dismiss him as a poor man’s Walter Mitty, given the elaborate fantasy world he inhabits. I have good reasons to conclude that we are dealing here with a mimic Goebbels, one who has been given a distinctive mission and is resolved to execute it without the slightest scruple. The poor boy is a failed agent provocateur.

I have therefore passed the documents on to the F.B.I. with which, as you know, I am obliged to keep in touch over intelligence reports on the threats to my life. Uzonwanne’s statements are likely to provide crucial pieces in the diabolical jigsaw being constructed from Aso Rock to tie me to the bombings at home, and thus justify plans to try me ‘in absentia” and pass a formal death sentence. We are kept informed about these moves, I assure you. In the meantime, Uzonwanne should be encouraged to spew, in any medium he chooses, all the “dark secrets” that he claims to have about my activities. I am insisting to the FBI that they investigate every single one of them, then deal appropriately with whoever has been spreading dangerous falsehood, or whose activities transgress the laws of this nation.

In the meantime, let me assure you and others who have expressed concern that I have not yet reached dotage. To pick out just one among this plethora of concoctions – if I wished to set up an army, I would not pick as my “Chief of Staff” a twenty-two year old college boy who has never even attended a cadet course, is woefully short-sighted, and weaves fantasies around himself such as being in control of seven million dollars, a sum allegedly donated by rival oil companies that wished to end Shell’s domination in Nigeria and carve up its empire among themselves. There is of course a lot more, but I think I should let the FBI take over from there.

Happy Christmas to you and your family
Wole Soyinka
Copy: UDFN membership

I was not close to Soyinka, where he was a revered god, I was merely a foot soldier, however, I decided without telling him so that I was not going to post it on Naijanet, certainly not right away. It was brimming with rage against a young man and I didn’t see someone of Soyinka’s stature tangling with a kid. I figured he would sleep over it and call me back to not post it. Shortly after, the letter appeared on Naijanet. Kongi had gotten another netter to post it since I was dawdling! One thing you can say for Soyinka, he is connected.

As for that petition to the University of Connecticut, I am taken by the idealism of our youth at the time, the prose fairly sings of our passion, dreams and naiveté:

We believe it is appropriate to view Chief Abiola as a universal symbol of the Nigerian people’s yearning to join the league of those nations that have established a culture of respect and reverence for individual freedom, dignity and the collective views of the people. The Nigerian people have spoken loudly and clearly; this struggle is not about one individual. It is about the immediate and long-term survival of a nation that is greater than any one individual. Your action is an endorsement of the legitimate cry of our people for freedom.

In this light, we applaud your university’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate degree on Chief M.K.O. Abiola. Your gracious and courageous decision is an affirmation of your belief in the just struggle for democracy by the Nigerian people. As we write, the dictatorship continues to shut down all voices of reason and progress within Nigeria’s walls. As we write a once vibrant nation is being throttled economically by the intransigence of a few that have elevated their personal agenda above the dreams and aspirations of an overwhelming majority. Your action is a rallying bugle call to the international community. It says to all of us: this disgraceful display of despotism and intolerance must stop.

Today, fifteen years after democracy was installed in Nigeria, very few would disagree with Ganiyu’s admonition at the time. Not much has changed. Ganiyu was right. We were fooled by wolves.

Life in America: How to be a man!

Today did not go well. I woke up in America where civil servants do not have house help, gatemen, cooks, big fat SUVs to bring big fat sautéed escargot (em snail!) to you in bed, etc! I don’t like it! I miss Nigeria! Where is my cook? I want my coffee! The other day I had to take my sons myself (!) to their football practice! No driver! Lawd have mercy, I can’t live like this! I want to go back to Nigeria! I don’t like being a man in America! Waah! Wail! Sniff!! I would like to be a man. In Nigeria. Yeah, I just got back from Nigeria where real men are treated like real men!

Allah, I swear, I am moving back to Nigeria because they know how to treat men with respect over here unlike in America where men are glorified houseboys. I really loved and enjoyed being a man in Nigeria. People brought the food to me, gave me water to wash my hands and then someone came to take away the plates after I was done and then someone thanked me for eating the food! Wow!

In America, things are back asswards, the children eat first and because things are expensive I have to wait for them to finish eating after which I polish off their leftovers. So it will not go to waste. For this, my children call me Father Dustbin! So after being treated like a king in Nigeria, I must say that readjusting to life in America has been a big problem. My family has a different view of the crisis; they think I brought a big bad attitude from Nigeria and they don’t like it.

When I was in Nigeria, I loved the way the women treated the men over there. With major ‪#‎RESPECT. The men hang around places drinking Guinness Stout and chomping nkwobi and complaining about Nigeria (“Goodluck na badluck!, no road, no water, problem has changed name again, whine, whine, whine!”) The women would bring the food to us. If they were too big to serve us (eg Madam Minister), they hired servants who chased us all over the house offering to do anything for and to us.

Yes! I was a man in Nigeria, hell, I even looked down there and my blokos was there! We would belch and they would thank us for eating the food! Then Safuratu the house help would come take away the dishes! Wow!

My first night in Nigeria, when I saw the food was ready, I rushed to the kitchen with a bowl and spoon ready to get my own by myself. The women didn’t like that. They ordered me back to the parlor to wait to be treated right, like a man. All the men in the parlor gave me a big speech about how I should be a man and stay away from the kitchen and not do womanly things!

I apologized and I was referred to my chair where I proceeded to join the men and complain about Nigeria while waiting to be served like the man I had become. After the meal, before I could get up to take the plates to the sink to wash them I was tackled by several house help (“Tank sah! Tank sah! You want tooth pick? You want Gulder?”). They would not allow me do the dishes.

 At this point I was beginning to really, really, really like Nigeria. I mean, this is how to live if you are a real man! Why, someone even polished my shoes! Hell if I dare ask Ominira to go get my shoes she would go “where did u put them daddy?”) I really really, really love Nigeria.

 The first time I saw a Nigerian friend of mine eat his food, leave the plate where he sat and walk away with his toothpick in his mouth, I panicked. I thought the wife would be upset, run after him and give him an upper cut for leaving his manners on the table!

I ran after him and I said “Ol’boy I am sure you forgot and I don’t blame you for forgetting because the ofensala was good but you need to do the dishes or madam will be angry!” He didn’t understand wetin be “do the dishes” and I explained it to him, you know, washing your plate, blah, blah, blah. He thought it was funny, he started laughing and he stopped laughing after he realized he would have a heart attack from laughing and there was a shortage of helicopters to rush him to a hospital in Saudi Arabia! He said America has made me crazy!

When the wife found out he had left the table, she grabbed a bottle of Gulder and chased after him and said, “My lord you forgot this. Drink it before it gets warm!” He belched in gratitude. I love Nigeria! When I went home, Africa gave me my blokos back and said, “nna men, you are a man! Act like a man!” That was fun! When I landed back in America, Customs took my blokos away, called it contraband, shook my hand and said, “Welcome to America, man!”

J. M. G. Le Clézio: Onitsha, their Onitsha

The novel Onitsha written by French author and 2008 Nobel laureate J. M. G. Le Clézio is a beautiful piece of fiction. Originally written in French and translated into English in 1997, it bears prose that steals your heart. Le Clézio can sustain quiet tension in a book and build up suspense. It does get silly in places where it succumbs to a puzzlingly mythical babble in which case it deteriorates from haunting prose to malarial hallucinations about the deities of Egypt and Ethiopia. As for the content and what it says about how the West sees Africans, it is an ugly book for it reveals the insidious patronizing attitudes of white liberals.

According to the blurb, “Onitsha tells the story of Fintan, a youth who travels to Africa in 1948 with his Italian mother to join the English father he has never met. Initially enchanted by the exotic world he discovers in Onitsha, a bustling city prominently situated on the eastern bank of the River Niger, Fintan gradually comes to recognise the intolerance and brutality of the colonial system and gives the novel a notably direct, horrified perspective on racism and colonialism.”  I agree with the blurb for different reasons. I think Onitsha is a racist book. You can smell Africa in Le Clézio’s Onitsha. Unfortunately, Africa reeks in his imagination: “Fintan breathed in the odour. It entered him, soaked into his body. Odour of this dusty earth, odour of the very blue sky, the gleaming palm trees, the white houses. Odour of women and children dressed in rags. Odour which possesses the town” (p20)

onitsha

Hear Fintan’s surprise as he comes in contact with Africans, when their ship lands in Africa from Europe: “Fintan discovered the source of the sound: the entire foredeck of the Surabaya was crowded with blacks! They crouched down and were beating with hammers on the hatches, the hull and the frames to remove the rust.” Blacks! You almost hear ‘Vermin!’ The first time he saw us, we were immediately labeled the other, apart from whites, human-like but not quite. In 1948. And once the book encounters our humanity, everything starts to get wretched, dark and savage. Europe is light; Africa is darkness. In 1948, the visiting white expatriate sees Africa as exotica and the otherness of the African reeks of savagery. We are talking of a time when our folks were returning home from England, armed with the Golden Fleece. In 1948, Nigeria’s premier university, The University of Ibadan was founded. This was after the era that inspired Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood, that wholesome memoir of childhood and family values. This is not the same Nigeria of Nnamdi Azikiwe’s epic autobiography, My Odyssey that so wonderfully captured the intellectual passion of 1930’s Africa.

In this semi-autobiographical tale, Le Clézio exposes the racism of the colonialists in the era in copious detail. Fintan and his mother Maou are saddened by the verbal and physical abuse that blacks endure in the hands of insensitive whites and the experience is quite gruesome. Black prisoners work in chains digging swimming pools for the pleasure of whites, getting injured as the walls collapse on them. In the process, though, Le Clézio seems to unmask his own prejudices as he describes Africans in the patronizing lingo invented and perfected by white liberals: “She has never cared for anyone as much as she cared for these people. They were so gentle, their eyes so luminous, their gestures so pure and elegant.  When she walked through the different neighbourhoods to reach the wharf, children came up to her, not shy, and caressed her arms; women took her by the hand, spoke to her, in the gentle language which hummed like music” (p118)

The research is sloppy and it shows. There is no excuse for what passes for Pidgin English in the book. What Le Clézio calls Pidgin English does not exist in West Africa, it was clearly contrived: “Big black fellow box spose white man fight him, he cry too mus!” p40. Go figure.  Le Clézio is at pains to showcase his knowledge of African gods, mythologies and history; unfortunately the result is error-prone. He places Benjamin Adekunle, the “Black Scorpion” on the Biafran side of the Nigerian Civil war (p193).  Sigh. Don’t ask me how Le Clézio got to Biafra from 1948.

In Le Clézio’s Africa, everything is pristine, filled with a contrived innocence. It is truly fiction so he could be forgiven for liberal applications of poetic license. Africa is storm buckets of thunder and rain and mud and more thunder. Everything is dark. Africans are subhuman and primitive. And sweetly angelic in a childlike way. The book is populated by black people with distended exaggerated features. The title of the book should be The Great White Hope Comes to Save Africa Again. Joseph Conrad, meet Le Clézio. This is history liberally distorted, romanticised to fit a liberal orthodoxy. How can a book written in the nineties be so bigoted? The real question is this: Why do many Western writers who write about Africa persist in seeing us as hapless sub-humans?

The many joys of fatherhood

When I was a little boy, I looked forward to being a father. We did not call them dads in those days, we called them ‘father’ or ‘papa’. Any other term of endearment was liable to get us in big trouble which usually meant an adult fist or something more malevolent colliding with a sensitive area of a child’s head. It just seemed at the time that my dad did not have much responsibility. Our main connection with Papalolo was extracting money from him. In retrospect, he was a generous giver, but at the time I remember us going to him for stuff with great trepidation. There was always drama accompanying any request. There would be the history lesson on how children of nowadays do not value money, blah, blah, blah. There would be the interrogation; “What do you need money for, do you think money grows on trees?”

Dad was the breadwinner and he made sure we knew it. He went to work in clothes that we had starched and ironed and in shoes that we polished so well we could see our teeth in their shine. He would return from the day’s job loudly protesting the stress of work, blah, blah, blah. One of us would be deployed to grab his briefcase (we don’t remember ever seeing the inside of that briefcase, maybe it was for show), one of us would take the shoes off him once he had sat down to continue his tale of woe about work and one would hand him a glass of cold water from the pot (we did not have a fridge at the time, we heard rumors that some families had it). Then my mother would, with great drama, produce his dinner. It just seemed like a great life, this patriarch that got his way without as much as snapping his fingers.

I am a father now and I can only say that I should sue my father; he cleverly hid all the indignities that fathers are subjected to in the household. The good news is that unlike the male praying mantis, our heads are not decapitated after sex. In my generation, men have lost the perks of patriarchy and added other responsibilities to the weighty ones that my father hid so well from us. For one thing, the children seem to be in charge around here, and heaven help you if you complain. They may call the police and social services on your black behind. The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer, perhaps inspired by a tall glass of cognac (VSOP, straight, no ice cubes), blurted out the other day that today’s children are “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.” This truth told under the influence inspired hundreds of angry essays in support of her great words like this one called, well, Why Parents Hate Parenting. We are about to #Occupy our kids’ bedrooms. Kids have gone from being our cheap labour to being our bosses.

Why, the other day, our teenager Ominira’s phone broke. I remember the day quite vividly, when she came to me very calmly and assured me that her phone was broken and we would need to go to the store right away to get a replacement. In Ominira’s world, breaking a phone is like breaking an arm, and our daughter’s pain threshold is pretty low, more like zero. We had to go to the phone store right away. Ominira goes everywhere with her friends, all 5,000 of them. They tweet, they Facebook, they instagram, they snapchat, they rarely see each other in person, in fact like every other member of her generation, she has only physically met five of her 5,000 friends.

So, we went to the phone store with the offending phone. Ominira was not happy with the phone; the stupid phone had made the mistake of falling into water all by itself. This is one stupid bumbling phone; I don’t understand why they call it a smartphone. Why would you drop inside water all by yourself? Ominira was in the car fuming at the world. She had commandeered her little brother’s phone because she needed to do some really important stuff with her friends on Facebook. Her little brother was unimpressed with the urgency of the moment and insisted on accompanying his own smartphone with Ominira to the store in case Ominira attempted to drop the phone in the water like she did her own phone by accident. This unnecessary move was not appreciated by Ominira and a huge fight broke out in the car with all 5,000 Ominira’s Facebook friends witnessing. This she accomplished by posting on her status the kinds of gory things she would do to her “doofus stoopid” brother once there were no parental witnesses. Little brother Lion Cub did not take kindly to these Facebook threats and blamed me for not allowing him to have a Facebook account, otherwise the whole world would know that Ominira has a boyfriend! Until that moment, I had not known this very important distressing news. Sigh! I want my mommy!

Of poetry, dead white men, and all that Jazz

A few years ago, the writer Bruce Wexler rose, apparently from a drunken slumber and declared poetry dead. [Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care? Newsweek, May 5, 2003]. The reaction to Wexler’s heresy was swift and furious. His dignity was assaulted by a million fatwas issued by the self-identified worshippers of poetry, proving Wexler’s point – that poetry is the only art form where the population of those who write it overwhelms the population of those who actually consume it. I disagree with Wexler. Poetry is not dead. And I think a more careful reading of Wexler would strongly suggest that he would agree with me. I do agree with Wexler on one point. Anyone can write a bad poem. That is the beauty of its art. But first we have to agree on what constitutes a bad poem.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the purists who would dismiss any poem that does not meet established standards of literary expression, and then at the other end, you have those who say, to hell with rules. There ought to be a happy medium. So, who is a poet in today’s world? I propose that the poets who live on in our hearts and minds are those who have, using the tricks of the ancients, adapted their medium to effectively communicate the word.  This last point is extremely important. Poets are indeed priests. As buglers of joy and of doom, they have to fashion out crisp messages to the people in the language that the people understand. In Africa, today’s poets stand the risk of closing the barn door after the flight of doom, because they are too busy waxing their messages into the rigor mortis of what Chinweizu would call obscurantism.

Our poets and thinkers must seek to use their gifts to make a difference in our societies. Our poetry should offer perspectives that are rooted deep in the fragrance of the land of our ancestors. We go back to the earth when we are stressed; we look back to the past for succor, when our present condition does not carry us back to the warmth of our mother’s hearth. But there is a danger in imagining that this is reality. For the average consumer does not understand these details. The average reader does not understand why there must be a formula; why there must be a set way to write poetry. Who makes these decisions? One sees a lot of insightful critiques that echo the works of Western writers but one is constrained to ask” Why would Western values be necessarily relevant to the way we tell our stories, the way we sing our songs? Has anyone ever attempted to create our own rules of engagement using the robust body of work that is out there? And how do we know that Western writers like TS Eliot were thinking of us as they wove complex thoughts into elaborate structures that were obviously bound to their own ancestral lands?

We are back to divining the difference between poetry and unadulterated drivel. I propose that the consumer is the ultimate arbiter of what is good poetry and what is painful to the eyes. But I miss the haunting lyricism and imagery of poets like the late great Okogbule Wonodi. Hear him sing to me:

But we have poured more wine
than the gods can drink
more than the soil can drink
and have become outcasts
dispersing the fishes
for which the baskets are laid
and the fisherman did not like us.

[Okogbule Wonodi, Icheke: IV]

Was Wonodi a bad poet? I would never know. Who cares? I hope that there are many more “bad poets” where he came from. Freed from the stifling confines of classrooms, I have taught myself to only pay for that which my heart seeks. I read the new poets and I am comforted by the kind of chants that used to make me jump on a coffee table and dance to the courage of my ancestor’s spirits. We come from a land of simple people who hide deep meanings inside simple words. One has to listen carefully to our people to get the insult or the accolade. I look for those kinds of poems to enjoy. The critic must not breathe on every piece that calls itself “poetry.” Some things are best left alone. If a poem turns out to be what the acerbic reviewer Randall Jarrell once referred to as giving “the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter,” I will simply move on quietly to a more worthy pursuit. Life is too short to be miserable. Poetry is not dead; it just needs re-packaging.

[Guest BlogPost] Stanley Onjezani Kenani: Waiting for departure in Port Harcourt

‘I am going to Nigeria!’ I said when the Africa39 list was announced.

 Online newspapers in Malawi did not know what to make of the news. ‘Malawian writers Stanley Onjezani Kenani and Shadreck Chikoti have been named  among 39 under 40,’ one paper wrote. In the comments section, an anonymous reader rightly asked: ‘What does that mean?’

 Another paper probably understood too much about what the news meant, because it wrote: ‘Kenani and Chikoti have been selected among 39 best African writers under the age of 40.’ They put a photo of a smiling me at the centre of the article. I weigh slightly over a hundred kilos, and my stomach looks like I am seven months pregnant.

First comment: ‘Is the man in the photo really under 40? Please, let us not be like African footballers, always understating their age.’ Farther down the comments section, a former classmate in college jumped to my defence. ‘I was in the same class with him,’ he wrote. ‘He was tiny before he started working for a hotel.’ But the news had by that time ceased to be about what the Africa39 list meant.

I wrote the editor of the online outfit to clarify that we were not 39 ‘best African writers under the age of 40.’ There were finer writers out there who were not on the list. I mentioned NoViolet Bulawayo as an obvious example. We were, instead, ‘39 of the most promising African writers under the age of 40’. Ignoring my point, he wrote back: ‘How much money have they given you for making the list?’

 I gave up.

But the way the news was received showed that Africa39 meant different things to different people. To me, it meant going to Nigeria to eat jollof rice. My work as an accountant gives me few opportunities to interact with like-minded individuals. In Geneva, Switzerland, where I live, there is hardly any friend I could meet and discuss writing with.

So I looked forward to interacting with all those wonderful people, colleagues I had known for a while like Rotimi Babatunde and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, and lots of others I would be meeting for the first time, among them the brilliant Kenyan poet Clifton Gachagua, whose poetry collection, Mad man at Kilifi, I was reading alongside Kei Miller’s awesome The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion.

I was curious about the format the Port Harcourt gathering was going to take. I hoped it would be like Macedonia’s Struga Poetry Evenings where, after reading our poems back in 2007, we poets would gather at the balcony of the Hotel Drim to drink free wine or beer or coffee while talking about Ezra Pound or any of the greats. Or Poetry Africa in Durban where I had the chance to sit down for dinner with Dennis Brutus two years before his death. In short, I hoped for a collegial atmosphere that would make it possible for me to build new friendships.

Port Harcourt, however, turned out to be a disappointment in some way – and I am speaking for myself. The only time the writers got to meet as one group was when they sat on the bus to go to the University of Port Harcourt, or to the Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre, or to the Alliance française.

Africa39  1There was an attempt at organizing a cocktail on the festival’s opening day. The only drink featured was fruit juice. It was a colossal failure.

But not all was lost. Those who knew each other before Port Harcourt gathered in smaller groups in the evenings to chat. They sat next to the swimming pool at the foot of the ten-storey Presidential Hotel where those who could afford ordered drinks from the hotel’s expensive poolside bar.

I got to know Eghosa Imasuen this way. Desperate to shake off boredom one evening, I wandered to join a group of people I was not familiar with. And there was Eghosa. And Lola Shoneyin. And Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. And Chibundu Onuzo. And a few other wonderful people.

Eghosa is the type of person that makes you feel as though the two of you have already met before. He started off with imitating my voice in a way that made everyone laugh. He had heard me earlier speaking on behalf of the other writers at the opening ceremony, and it was the delivery of that speech he imitated with admirable exaggeration. Great guy, Eghosa. I looked for a copy of his book, Fine Boys, but by the time I got it, he had already left the festival, depriving me of the chance for his autograph.

Ad hoc gatherings like these are what rescued the book festival from becoming too boring for me.  Organizers, friendly and helpful whenever you accosted them for help, gave me the overall impression of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment.

Africa39 2Days were long and empty, especially since there was only one event per day. Some of those once-a-day outings were not as satisfactory as I would have wanted them to be, because it mostly meant mentioning your name, which the audience were probably hearing for the first time, and in all likelihood forgot it as soon as you finished introducing yourself. You could also probably say a sentence or two about your work, and that was all. We were, after all, 22 of us, and moderating such a crowd was far from easy. Perhaps if it were any person other than the brilliant Ellah Allfrey as moderator, the events could have been without life.

I tried to enjoy the Nigeria I had come to see. I tasted the food and ventured into the streets. I saw excellent buildings of a city on the rise. I saw churches of various names and sizes. Cars seemed to be in a perpetual ‘go-slow’ or ‘hold-up,’ terms meant to classify various types of traffic jam. If Port Harcourt is like this, I wondered, what about Lagos?

On our way to the University of Port Harcourt, I saw a giant billboard touting the Rivers State development agenda. At the foot of that billboard a man was passing urine, and for a moment I wondered whether that was a kind of protest, that he was deliberately pissing on his state’s development agenda.

At the Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre, a poster on a building across the street said, ‘We must try our best to make the next governor of Rivers State an Ijaw man or woman.’

Horrified by such blatant tribalism, I said to the man standing next to me, ‘In Malawi, where I come from, that would be illegal.’ The man, probably Nigerian, said that maybe Nigerians were right to drop the pretences. ‘In Kenya, for instance,’ he said, ‘I hear such a poster would also be illegal. But, believe it or not, privately Kikuyus would in general say they want the next president to be a Kikuyu; and Luos would say they want a Luo.’

I ventured back into the Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre. I found that writers had quickly organized themselves for an impromptu show. Ricaredo Boturu from Equatorial Guinea read us a beautiful poem in Spanish; Chibundu Onuzo sang, Nana Brew-Hammond and others read from the Africa39 anthology or recited poems of their own. Glaydah Namukasa presented an interesting piece in Luganda.

But aside from such flashes of interesting outings, the entire event, on my part, passed with me lying on bed and yawning, waiting for departure.

Finally, we left. At the airport, the security guard nearly blocked me from proceeding to the departure gate. Apparently, he did not understand French and German – the only languages written on my Swiss residency permit.

About five people inside the airport asked me for money: the police who searched my bag, immigration officials who stamped my passport and security guards who screened my hand luggage. But it was the sixth person who impressed me, because he asked for a book. I gave him José Saramago’s The year of the death of Ricardo Reis.

We were three hours early for the flight, but an interesting chat with Tope Folarin made those hours fly by unnoticed. Tope’s work ethic left me so inspired that I boarded the plane looking forward to a lot of writing back home.

As my plane shot into the dark skies of the Port Harcourt night, I told myself that it had certainly been worth my while to come, to see the Nigeria I had always wanted to visit. I wished, however, that the event had been shorter and more compact.

­­­­

stanleyStanley Onjezani Kenani is a writer from Malawi. Shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2008 and 2012, he was named as one of the Africa39. His short story, The Old Man and the Pub, is part of the Africa39 anthology edited by Ellah Allfrey and published by Bloomsbury in October 2014. An accountant, he currently lives and works in Switzerland.

Ikhide Ikheloa: Analog Origins, Digital Destinations

The Internet for me has been invaluable in networking, propagating and sharing ideas all over the world. There is no way I would have reached so many people in an analog world. I do find it frustrating on one level: One’s works are scattered all over the place and it is virtually impossible to gather them under one roof if one is prolific or garrulous. I am garrulous. Take interviews, I have granted quite a few of those but it is hard to remember where and to whom. I would like to start the difficult procees of collecting my documented thoughts under one umbrella, perhaps using this blog. Here is an interview I did with Sola Osofisan. It is one of my favorites. Here is how I introduce him in the interview:

Sola Osofisan: Chief Ikhide…I still think of you as Nnamdi, that faceless guy shooting out those occasional musings on our varied experiences in America. We published a whole chain of essays from you on Nigeriansinamerica.com as far back as 2002. But I never asked you why you had to publish under a pseudonym back then. Is it time to share the story of how and why you came up with Nnamdi? And when did you realize it was time to retire him and let Ikheloa roar?

Ikhide Ikheloa: Sola, so, I don’t know that many people know about you, certainly not about your pioneering work in the field of African literature, in introducing an entire generation of writers and thinkers to that huge canvas in the sky that we call the Internet. I am thinking of your work with your websites Nigerians in America and africanwriter.com. I am also thinking of your leadership on the listserve Krazitivity, the first real digital watering hole for Nigerian writers, artists and thinkers, from Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie to Helon Habila, folks like Afam Akeh, E.C. Osondu, Toni Kan Onwordi, Remi Raji, Chika Okeke, Wumi Raji, Unoma Azuah, Jahman Anikulapo, Victor Ekpuk, Chika Unigwe, Olu Oguibe, Nnorom Azuonye, Obi Nwakanma, Obemata (Abdul Mahmud), Molara Wood, Victor Ehikhamenor, Lola Shoneyin, Amatoritsero Ede, Pius Adesanmi, Tade Ipadeola, Tolu Ogunlesi, etc. etc. In those days, if you were not on Krazitivity, you had not arrived, as a writer. We should hold a reunion. This is my long rambling way of saluting you for your quiet, purposeful work as a digital visionary, helping to shape, without fanfare, the trajectory of literature. The world may not know you, but I hope history shines a light on you as that mysterious near-mythic force that helped nurture African literature on the digital space in the 21st century. I salute you. You are famously reclusive, and so unlike many of your peers, you are not an e-household name, but you do have a cult following (me included) who adore you for your mind and awesome prose poetry. For those who do not know you, I would recommend your latest book, Blood Will Call of which E.E. Sule did a wonderful review (here).

I love this interview because it is as comprehensive as you would get into my ideas about literature and the Internet. It also compiles at the end other interviews I have done.

Now read the rest of the interview here…

A. Igoni Barrett, love, power, stories, living books, and all that jazz

“There are other human experiences and emotions to write about beside anger. Poems are not only for gunning, for other people, no matter how pernicious they may be. Anger is a tiny bit of human existence and should never be over-orchestrated. I am very suspicious of ‘Protest Poetry’. Poetry can be redemptive without being a banal protest; without exuding forced righteousness. Shrillness cheapens poems. A nation that demands that the entirety of its poetry should only address socio-political ills must be delusional, hysterical, and uninhabitable. A poet should not only be wracked with the meanness of history.”

– Uche Nduka in an interview with Uche Peter Umez

Igoni Barrett’s Love is Power, or Something Like That is a good, albeit frustrating read, those who love good writing will enjoy the power, intellect and industry that Barrett brings to this collection of nine tales. The Kindle copy is published by Graywolf Press, and the hard copy by Farafina Publishers. You should read the stories, if you’ve not already read them elsewhere online; Barrett displays great range in the writing. He is a powerful writer, and it shows in the stories, well it mostly does, for even with his immense talents and skills, this is a frustrating book. If the stories look familiar to some readers, it is because the book is really an archive of works previously published online. This is becoming a pattern with new writing – it portends the future of the book. The lot of the artist in the 21st century is to endure the book as a museum. Indeed it is the case that a frugal and enterprising reader could probably cobble these stories together free off of the Internet by simply trolling the Internet. I loved that the stories were well edited, some would say over-edited, perhaps to broaden the buying market to the West where the money is. Still I found a few editing issues. I wouldn’t give the publishers much credit for the editing quality since they were previously published by online journals that pride themselves on high publishing standards.

It is interesting, reading through the numerous blurbs in the book by many writers (Teju Cole, Binyavanga Wainaina, Doreen Baingana, Helon Habila, Michela Wrong, etc.) they speak mostly of Barrett as a writer of great talent and skills, rather than to the contents of the book. This is appropriate; they are on to something. As I often argue, it is unfair to judge today’s African writers solely on the output of their books. Chinua Achebe’s generation had only the book as the canvas for their literary output. Today’s generation is suffering an embarrassment of riches and a cruel paradox: They are doing great work in the new frontier – the Internet, that publisher of choice for young African writers – struggling with the reality and notion – that to be taken seriously as a writer one must have published a book – any book. For writers in Africa faced with a publishing industry that is at best mediocre, this is a tragedy. They are being judged by circumstances beyond their control. Love is Power or Something Like That is a good collection of stories but it does not even begin to light a candle to Barrett’s brilliance, innovation and leadership in telling the stories of Africa on the Internet. That is a shame, for when the history of online writing is told, at least with respect to African writing, Barrett’s name deserves to be up there with all the other digital warriors too numerous to mention that have ensured that Africa is undergoing a renaissance in literature.

So, let’s talk about the book. I have said it is an uneven book in terms of the quality of the stories, stories that stay with me because they are unrelenting in their sadness and despair. The stories bathe the reader with detailed vivid, disturbing imagination. Desolation, despair and mind-numbing suffering are everywhere. You get used to reading stuff like this:

The bathroom was small, low-ceilinged, and stank of mildew. A colony of chitinous creatures thrived in the wet earth underneath the metal bathtub. She glanced around out of habit to see if any cockroaches had ignored the daylight signal to return to their hiding places, but in the dim lighting, her eyesight failed her.

Barrett, A. Igoni (2013-05-07). Love Is Power, or Something Like That: Stories (Kindle Locations 73-75). Graywolf Press. Kindle Edition.

What strikes the reader is how Barrett expertly documents the intellectual and spiritual emptiness of life in contemporary Nigeria. Nigeria comes across as one vast farce, filled with suffering, incompetence and mediocre thinking. When the reader comes across signs of deep introspection in the characters one gasps with relief. The writer is challenged to entertain the reader with more than vacuous pablum. Nigeria hasn’t changed much; it is the same old stuff, the usual anxieties that seem to preoccupy African writers: immigration or the movement to other climes, the many vices of relationships (betrayal, infidelity), state sanctioned brigandage in the Nigerian Police Force. The new Christianity and prosperity churches, corruption, alcoholism, patriarchy, rape, you name it, all of Black Africa’s dysfunctions are collected like drunken deadbeats and made to stand at attention. It is discomfiting. In Barrett’s world, people live like lower animals. That is where his muse inhabits. There are all these asymptotes everywhere; Barrett is always questioning one injustice or the other, smirking at one dysfunction or the other. In unsparing detail. Many of these stories are beyond dark and disturbing. The darkness rushes and rises into a raging crescendo. And you are stunned by the casualness of evil. The Nigeria here is another planet. Dark. These are sad stories. Sometimes though, the love still shines through the savagery. Somehow you are reminded that these are human beings. There is humor, of the wry variety, not enough of it, alas. Barnett takes himself very seriously. Which reminds me, graphic illustrations would have broken the monotony of text.

About the stories, for my money, the piece, The Worst Thing That Happened is probably the most sophisticated short story I have read in recent times. This story alone is worth the price of the book. And yes, it debuted in Guernica (here). It contains some of Barrett’s most poignant prose. This is a deeply rich and brilliant conversation about immigration, relationships, the extended family, and fraying ties in a global world. This is brilliant, muscular writing strutting about with quiet dignity. The reader will enjoy cool lines like this one:

A FanYogo carton lay on the road, and strawberry yogurt had leaked out and pooled on her paved frontage, a lurid pink surface dive-bombed by flies. (Kindle Locations 103-104)

In a clever twist, Barrett ties it to another story in the book, Perpetua and GodSpeed, another lovely story marked by disciplined, tightly woven sentences that pounce into a beautiful trot. Here there is a tender reflection on fatherhood and one grows to admire Barrett’s eclectic eye.

Dream Chaser comes across as a dated story about 90’s style Internet scams. I am not sure I would call this a short story, whatever it is, I enjoyed it a bit. It needed more work and sounded somewhat contrived.

The Shape of a Full Circle is is a dizzying goulash of dysfunctions thrown together like empty bottles of alcohol enduring a drunk’s leer. In this story, a son’s love for the mother is unbroken by the hurtful dysfunction the ravages of his mother’s inner darkness. Every dysfunction is here, checked meticulously – alcoholism, an absent father, child abuse, theft, rampaging thugs, a society in decline. It is grossly overdone. And here, the prose comes alive and dies, comes alive and dies, as a beautiful writer is restrained by over-eager editors pulled apart by competing visions – a memorandum versus straight luscious writing. By the way, rats are everywhere in Barrett’s stories. Barett can paint the savagery, brutality, despair and helplessness from the incompetence that sometimes passes for life. These are disturbing tales of alcoholism and child neglect and abuse. The stories occasionally redeem themselves with lines like this:

Late into the night, while she nibbled the food and sucked the bottle, Daoju Anabraba apologized to her son, over and over again , for the life they were living, for her failure as a mother, for killing his grandfather. Dimié Abrakasa, a veteran of these episodes, kept his silence. Her speech grew slurred and slid farther into her throat; her eyelids sank, struggled, fell. She cried in sleep, the bottle clutched to her chest. She farted, loud and continuous. When her sobs became snores, Dimié Abrakasa rose from his seat at the foot of the bed. He freed the bottle from her grasp and placed it by the wall, where her hand, in the morning, would reach for it. Then he covered her up and blew out the light. (Kindle Locations 856-861)

This story houses some pretty prose poetry. It is as if Barrett is in a trance. Hear him:

The world turned gray, the temperature plummeted, and gusts of wind sprang up. The wind grew stronger and flung dust into the air. A lightning flash split the gloom and a rumble of cascading boulders burst from the skies. Another flash, sulphuric in its intensity— the thunderclap was like a shredding of the heavens. Birds crawled across the sky with panicked cries. There was a lull, everything froze in that instant; and then, with a sound like burning grass, rain fell. The raindrops had not made landfall when a bolt of blue-white lightning, like a forked tongue, streaked the sky, and one of its prongs struck a fleeing swallow. The bird stalled in midflight, then began to tumble earthward as the rain hit the ground. Through sheets of crashing water, pedestrians sprinted for cover. Puddles formed on the sidewalks, then flowed together and rushed for the drains, which brimmed over and poured water onto the road. The road became a river. Car engines drank water, coughed out steam, and died. Both sides of the road— and the sidewalks, too— got jammed. The horn blares of motorists became one long, unbroken blast. (Kindle Locations 536-539)

Beautiful. You wish he would produce prose like this from beginning to end. Hunting for delicacies like this was a perverse hunt, alas. And here he is channeling Ben Okri’s malarial, febrile brilliance. He writes: “The road became a river.” And you remember Ben Okri’s famous opening lines in The Famished Road:

“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.”

In Love is Power, or Something Like That, a troubled policeman tries hard to hold on to his sanity and his family. It is violent and bloody. A man is flogged mercilessly – with a cow’s leg snatched from a butcher’s stall. Still through the nightmarish story, pretty lines peek out of the undergrowth to gawk at the traumatized reader.

He spoke English like one who thought in it. (Kindle Locations 1152-1153)

From the bushes night sounds came: scrabbling noises in the undergrowth, predatory screeches and distressed squeals, the sheesh of breeze in the treetops. (Kindle Locations 1120-1121)

He felt how the warmth of the liquor would spread through his throat, his chest; but his imagination couldn’t replicate the solid weight of good alcohol hitting the belly. He’d made a pledge: no more, not when he was in uniform. Not after the time he broke his wife’s arm in two places and had to accept her judgment when she blamed the reek of his breath. She had laid down her ultimatum from the safety of Mama Adaobi’s doorway, and he, kneeling before her in his underwear, hungover and full of remorse, had given his word. (Kindle Locations 1111-1115)

My Smelling Mouth Problem is a riff on halitosis which turns into social commentary. It was a creative experiment gleefully ambushed by the red ink of editors.

Trophy is a lovely story that plumbs the mystery of the bonds of friendship. Still the sadness seeps through; Nigerians are aliens with “skin the color of rotted wood.” It is a story that rides several dysfunctions – sleepy dead end towns with teachers having sex with their teen wards, teen sex and promiscuity. Wretched lives in various degrees of disarray are examined ad nauseam until the reader screams, “STOP!”

The Little Girl with Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh is a tale of love and forbidden sex. Two young cousins fall in love. A little girl suffers the teen blues. I must say it is at once disturbing and affecting. A disturbing love story. There are nice lines:

The air smelled like rain. (Kindle Location 1583).

Okay, he said, and dug his elbow into the bed, braced his jaw against his fisted hand, stared at her with widened eyes and pouted lips, a playful face that fell away as he continued— since you’re forcing me. I like your eyes. I like the way they light up when you’re happy. I like your legs. I like the way you walk, especially when you’re hurrying, the way you throw your feet, like a child who’s about to fall. I like your nose, and your mouth, and your breath. I like the way your breath smells. Like melted ice cream. Wow, she said in a hushed, wondering voice; and then she adjusted her legs. His hand slid between her thighs. (Kindle Locations 1757-1762)

In A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings racism confronts prejudice and one is left stunned and confused by Barrett’s brilliant but disconcerting literary sleight of hand. The snarkiness is delightful actually, a welcome release from the over-editing of most of the stories. If you want to confirm that Igoni can write, start here:

The engine of Nairobi is fired by cash-crop farming, oiled by tourism, and steered by NGO money. Everywhere you turn in the city you find NGO people, camouflaged by straw hats and safari boots and the skin color of the tourist, white. In the supermarkets (Indian-run), the swanky restaurants (white Kenyan– run), the bus parks, souvenir bazaars, immigration offices (black Kenyan– run), luxurious hotels and safari lodges (British-run), AIDS patients’ wards and spoken-word poetry slams (American-funded), and, in small sightseeing groups, in Kibera, the largest zoo in Africa. (Kindle Locations 2495-2499).

barrett picBarrett is relentless in his message, and one reflects on the fate of women and children in Nigeria and Africa. Men are the aggressors on these pages – and in real life. Women have no chance, their saviors are too busy writing books and setting up NGOs. These are violent, abusive male authority figures accountable to no one. The unfortunate subtext: The real humans are women, children and white folks. The men of Nigeria are savage beasts, sub-humans. It is what it is. Or not. Barrett is the writer as effete judge looking into a troubled society with focused supercilious concentration, many good lines wasted on stereotype and jaded cynicism. Many times the stories gasp for air and energy. Sometimes, the passion rises, and then falls flat, bored lion too lazy to pursue prey. Sometimes Barrett makes a great deal of paying attention to detail, but for what purpose? Barrett’s facility with pidgin English is sadly under-used; where he does, it is compromised by over-editing presumably for a broader audience. The paying readership is in the West. I don’t blame Barrett, but this hurts.

Let me share some random thoughts and use Barrett’s book to annoy my readers with my soapbox rants. We must define the narrative and the terms of engagement with the world more boldly. These books expose us as timid and beholden to a conservative establishment of ancient gatekeepers. When Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in 1986, VS Naipaul in his typical bluster asked: “Has he written anything?” Naipaul was being silly and myopic, Soyinka deserved the prize, not just based on the quality and quantity of his works as evidenced by his books, but based on the sum total of his life as an intellectual and an activist. Today, almost three decades later, it is even more important that African writers be judged on the sum total of their works, not just by their books. In the 21st century, the book as a medium of expression serves brilliant young writers. Barrett is one of the victims. They think as if they are on social media and they are forced to write on paper to get stature. In the process, they are losing readers by the millions. Writers, African writers especially have an opportunity to re-capture the love of good reading and storytelling by going to meet readers where they now congregate, and speaking to them in the language and cadence they understand, cherish and relish – in the call-and-response 3-D world they live in – that community of communities we call the Internet.

We live in a world full of innovative practices in literature, many pioneered by young Africans. The question becomes: Why do brilliant young writers and thinkers feel incomplete until they have stapled their thoughts into books few will read?  In addition to writing books, African writers must actively search for and nurture innovative initiatives, like the Bride Price app, three dimensional e-books, journals and conversations that deploy hot links, illustrations, and the call and response interactions of the reader and the writer. Nothing for me is sadder and more frustrating than visiting writers’ conferences and other meeting places where digital pioneers and leaders spend their time talking about and furtively hawking poorly produced books to a handful of attendees. At these meeting places, discussions about literature online are limited and usually come across as an afterthought. It is clear to me also that prizes like the NLNG Prize are an expensive exercise in mimicry. We don’t need prizes as much as we need supports to build innovative architectures for 21st century African literature.

This is my beef with books: In the 21st century, our creativity is still centered around the book. That paradigm shifted a long time ago. We should be having literary NOT book fairs and festivals. The young should elbow out gerontocracy from scarce resources. In terms of African literature as it exists online, the world is sitting on a goldmine. The answer is not to ignore the youth behind these new forms of storytelling, but to support them. They are the new storytellers. I will say this until I am blue in the face: social media is the publisher of choice for young African writers. Online, the writer does not have to worry about being edited to bland death by over-eager Western editors. The Internet does not ask them to italicize egusi, it laughs at their jokes and doesn’t call them “ethnic.”  In the villages of social media, writers write of sorrows and despair and heartbreak, they also write of musicians who sing pretty songs, about recharge cards, bank alerts and ATMs. When you add their stories to what obtains in books like Love is Power or Something Like That, the reader gets a well rounded  trajectory of African narrative. There are all these opportunities; alas a timid generation of writers bows to laziness, orthodoxy, patriarchy and western literary imperialism.

To be fair, there are several constraints. The Internet is wild untamed territory; poaching and disorder are at an all-time high and writers and publishers are struggling to be heard and make money at the same time. It doesn’t help that there is a dearth of innovation – traditional publishing houses have invested billions of dollars in 20th century publishing architecture. It is tough for them to turn things around on a dime. In a perverse sense, Africa on the other hand has few such constraints, the architecture is not there; however many new publishers hamstring themselves daily by investing in ancient methods. I say to them, look around you, the Internet is the publisher of choice for young African writers. Build an architecture from scratch – and they will flock to you as they flock to Linda Ikeji’s blog and as they flocked to the Bride Price app. The bride price app is perhaps the most brilliant short story ever written by an African in the past decade. The data is there to prove it; there were 12million hits, 7million unique users, and 18million unique social conversations. And one suspects that the author has made money off the app’s global reach. Ask Editi Effiong. He is African. He is not waiting for the West to help him out.

Finally, for me, the most haunting and evocative line in Barrett’s book is in the story A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings: “I got my things and left.” And then the reader remembers why it spoke to him. Dambudzo Marechera. Helon Habila considers “I got my things and left, the first line in Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, the coolest opening line in African literature I agree. Barrett loves famous opening lines.

For our son, Fearless Fang: The gift of you…

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
― Albert Einstein

I have this essay in my head I would love to write, inspired by Fearless Fang and Lion Cub, our teenage sons. It is about multiple intelligences. Fearless Fang is almost indifferent to books, but he is built in the oral tradition of my ancestors. He is a smart kid, he loves to play, he could be on the football field for hours and that is just fine with him. He’ll spout off ”stats” about different kinds of football plays (he literally sleeps with his football “playbook”) but tell him that he is reeling statistics, and he shuts down. I don’t think he likes to read books, but he loves the iPad. I can tell when he is on it; the sound of his liquid laughter carries the house away from its foundation as he travels the world through its glowing monitor. America’s schools prefer his brother Lion Cub, the geek who loves books and can stand the rigid sage on the stage 19th century style of instruction that still holds the world’s classrooms hostage.

FearlessFangTodaYyI once watched Fearless Fang during “Black History Month” recite a Langston Hughes poem to the accompaniment of riffs from his guitar and I understood something – it is not about the book, it is about the ideas in the person. I wish the classroom would understand Fearless Fang. I am not knocking books, I would not be here without them, I am only saying that in the 21st century, we should consider the heresy – which is that the book is dying a long slow death. I think also that the digital world offers creative opportunities for thinkers and teachers to reach all children, especially brown children. Our son is fine. The iPad may have saved him from state sanctioned academic ethnic cleansing.

The book is powerful. It can open doors. It can slam doors shut. In the 21st century, the “book” threatens to be the most stifling word ever written. In the 21st century, in the digital age, the thinker cannot think outside the confines of the book. The thinker insists on being a writer – of books. The book will not go down without a fight. I say, read, read, read, read everything, not just books. Write, write, write, write everywhere, not just in books.

Our sons and I go to this barbershop that is owned by this dude with a college degree. The degree hangs on his wall; he is a great barber though. I imagine he took thousands of dollars in college loans simply for the privilege of hanging a certificate on the wall. Somehow one feels complete with a degree. Which is a shame. The other day the locksmith came to the house to install an electronic Bluetooth enabled lock. $125 he said it would cost us, for a basic installation. We would have to get a computer technician to program the lock with Bluetooth. We laughed harder than Unoka and sent him away, too expensive. Lion Cub took down the old lock, and with a video he found on YouTube he installed the new lock and programmed all our smartphones to open and lock the door. My Lover (ML) and I have the manual keys in case the app fails – or Lion Cub locks us out of the house. He is also our network administrator, which gives him incredible control over our lives in the house. It is a new world; patriarchy is under attack by the forces of technology. Lion Cub is going to college. If he simply knocked on doors and installed locks, in four years he would be wealthy. He is going to college. In four years we will owe what he would have earned if he had been a locksmith. It doesn’t sound right. But America is weird like that.And yes, Fearless Fang is going to college, even if it kills me. I hope he gets a football scholarship. It is what it is.

At the barbershop the dudes yell at each other about ideas. They don’t read books. I have this feeling that they hate books. All their lives they have been shepherded from stifling classroom to patronizing teachers to prison. You should see the tattoos on these guys. They don’t read books, they hate books, but they are intellectuals, they just don’t know it. I go in there for a haircut, me and my book and my iPad. Their eyes point at me and laugh, and go, “The intellectual is here!” I think they are mocking me.

the boys

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 12,814 other followers